Sixth Sunday of Easter
St George’s Chapel Windsor
5th May 2013 Mattins
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids – blind, lame, and paralysed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.
On Thursday and Friday of last week we engaged in a rigorous set of interviews for the discernment of the appointment of a new Director of Music. I was particularly interested to sit in on a morning of observing the candidates rehearse the boys, the gentlemen of our choir and then the whole choir. I was looking and listening and one thing caught my eye. During the singing of a piece I noticed a few boys put up their hand they sang and followed instructions. I thought this curious but gave it no more time until I watched the men rehearse and saw Mr Brittain and I think Mr Thompson put their hand up. I then saw Mr Heighway briefly raise his hand and knew that something might be happening! I asked what this was about and discovered that it was a physical gesture that a member made to acknowledge that they had made a mistake in the performance of the music. Seeing, hearing, acknowledging with a brief raise of the hand a mistake.
The pool at Bath-zatha was famous for its healing powers. It was a fascinating place: the marginalised and outcasts of society sitting within the shadow of the Temple, hoping and praying for a miracle so they could be made whole again. Jesus seeks out those in need, he sees the man and realises that he has been there a long time. So Jesus says to him ‘Do you want to be made well?’ We hear his need in the reply ‘I have been here for 38 years. I have no-one to put me in the waters when they are stirred up.’ Jesus says to the man, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk’ and the man picks up his mat and begins to walk.
In this story we see that grace is not mechanical but it does depend, in part on our acknowledging our need and even our mistakes! John tells us happened next, verse 14: ‘Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.’
The man repents, he acknowledges his mistakes, and he changes his ways. We see in the embrace of Grace that our human condition and our weakness is a path to strength. In our culture weakness is anathema; it’s to be discouraged —being a weakling is to be avoided at all cost. We don’t like to focus on our weakness; we prefer to talk about our strengths. In our culture we have a fixation with being strong.
When you go for a job interview, employers want to hear about your
strengths, not your weaknesses. I think that many of us might advise our friends to keep their weaknesses under wraps. Dismiss them, minimize them, try to make them go away. But weakness is standard equipment on every model of human being or society. A friend of mine who is in charge of clergy development builds into appraisal the opportunity for clergy to identify areas of ministry where they need to change their practice and what action they will take to enable this development. Professional expertise is a process of continual growth and not about defending an idea of flawless perfection.
Our weakness, our needs may be the key to our growth and well being.This is a paradox of faith expressed by St Paul and reflected in the man by the pool.: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” He began to see his weakness as a pathway to God’s grace. Power is made perfect in weakness, the Scripture says. We find our inner authority, our spiritual centre, only when we face our weaknesses. Likewise, faith means daring to be human, to be honest and to be open, to give power away. That’s why Jesus was engaging with powerless people those who were hurting and oppressed. His mission was to invite weak and wounded people, ordinary people, to enter the Kingdom, the Beloved Community of love, forgiveness, justice, and restored life. But his starting point was weakness.
By the grace of God we can transform our weaknesses into God’s strength. Or to pursue the musical analogy, the random notes of the score of our lives into a harmony. Our weaknesses and mistakes can become a source of healing; and as Hemingway wrote “some of us grow strong at the broken places,”. We can allow our mistakes to widen our sensitivity to others; we can allow our humanity to connect us to the needs of others and to activate our compassion.
So I thank God this morning for the lessons I learnt from the boys and men of our choir. As we listen to the encounter of the man by the pool with Jesus we prayer for grace, for strength made perfect in weakness, for a stronger love that embraces our human condition with realism and care.