By The Rev. J.C. Austin

Last summer I flew on an airplane for the first time in two years, since the pandemic began, and there were a lot of things that had changed. Everyone was wearing a mask, for starters, but there were also face shields on top of that, and even three people who were wearing honest-to-God hazmat suits: you know those head-to-toe plastic suits where only your face is exposed, and even that is covered with goggles and a respirator? Yeah, I mean, I’m a huge believer in protocols and prevention in this pandemic, but even so, that still seemed a bit much to me.

When I got on the plane, the flight attendant handed me a sanitary wipe to use on my seatbelt and tray table, which I thought was a good development regardless, having seen more than a few pre-pandemic exposés on what lives on airplane tray tables. And there was no alcohol available for purchase in flight, because there has been an alarming and significant rise in passenger violence on airplanes in the last year or so, and alcohol can only make such incidents worse.

But there were also things that were the same as always. People tried to cram suitcases too large for the overhead bins into them, delaying takeoff while the flight attendants convinced them that they would have to check a bag. The person in front of me, in particular, was an adamant seat-recliner, slamming their seat back into my lap as soon as they could and leaving it there for the duration of the flight.

And, as always, there was an almost total disregard for one of the most basic rules of our society: standing in line. I don’t know what it is about airports, but people who are otherwise decent, law-abiding citizens turn into characters from a movie who are fleeing a zombie horde, pushing others aside and doing whatever it takes to get to the gate attendant first. I don’t know why the airlines even keep up the charade of boarding in groups anymore, because once you get beyond first class and the airline’s elite rewards members, it becomes a battle royale for whoever can make their way to gate first.

I was in group five (out of five) myself, and I was actually worried that I was going to be left at the airport because almost everyone else in my group had boarded long before our actual number was called. I almost prefer the way some other countries do it where it’s a rugby scrum from the very beginning; there’s no charade about order or organization, just a Darwinian struggle for overhead compartment space worthy of narration by David Attenborough in a nature documentary.

That’s more or less what it happening here with this man at the pool in Jerusalem. The pool of Beth-zatha, also called Bethesda, was believed to have healing properties from the activity of an angel who would descend from time to time and stir up the water; Bethesda Fountain, in the heart of Central Park in New York City, is a famous depiction of this story. The catch was, only the first person into the water after it had been stirred up would be healed.

And so the porticoes around the pool served as waiting rooms that were filled with people suffering from all kinds of illnesses, all waiting for the water to bubble up.  But when it began bubbling, there would be no line; whoever could walk, crawl, roll, or be tossed in first got healed.  That was it.

Can you imagine the sight of such an event?  Someone notices the water start to move and starts sneaking toward the water first.  But others notice before he gets there and a shout goes up.  Suddenly everyone is moving, shoving, falling, clawing, doing whatever it takes to get into that water.  One person triumphs, while the others moan in pain and disappointment and move back to their waiting positions for the whole thing to start over again.

It’s not fair, it’s not efficient, and it certainly doesn’t generate much general goodwill, but it is a system of sorts. And nobody here questions it or challenges it until, of course, Jesus shows up.  Jesus happens upon one of the many sick people lying in the portico, a man who knows all about waiting.  He has spent thirty-eight years of his life waiting to be seen, waiting to be helped, waiting to be healed of this ailment; waiting so long that when he is seen by Jesus, Jesus has to ask him, “do you want to be made well?”

The man responds with his standard explanation of how he can’t get into the pool; there’s nothing that can be done, he says.  Except that there is.  Jesus didn’t ask him if he wanted to get into the pool; Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well.  Without even waiting for another answer, Jesus decides that there will be no more waiting; he tells him to stand up, take his mat, and walk.  And suddenly, without any further ado, the man is able to do exactly that.

There’s no pool to bathe in, no ritual to follow, no magic to receive; there’s no preparation to undertake, no quest to complete, no wisdom to obtain.  There’s not even any faith to prove; the man’s faith or lack thereof never comes into play.  Even his obedience is incidental; he is only able to obey because Jesus enables him to do so.

All he has to do is actually respond to Jesus’ command to stand up, take his mat, and walk. But that’s a lot harder than it sounds; it requires not simply trust in Jesus, but an ability to see a possibility that not only seems impossible, but would not even have occurred to most people to consider.

The Marvel Universe superhero films are best-known for their sprawling epic plots and stunning special effects, but within that they often contain powerful themes and surprisingly insightful scenes. One of my favorites is in the first Captain America movie; if you haven’t seen it, all you really need to know is that the superhero Captain America started off life as a young man named Steve Rogers who was distinguished not only by his patriotism, moral strength, and determination, but also for being particularly short, scrawny, and physically weak.

At the onset of World War II, he is desperate to enlist and fight the Nazis, but is rejected because of his health and physical limitations. Despondent, he is overheard lamenting his unfulfilled desire to fight for his country by a government scientist, who recruits him for a secret project looking for suitable candidates to receive an experimental serum designed to turn one of them into the first “super-soldier” with superhuman strength, speed, and reflexes. The candidates are put through a grueling training and evaluation program in which Rogers consistently lags behind the other candidates in every physical activity.

One day, the candidates are on a long training run when their drill instructor directs them to a flagpole on the side of the road. He tells them that they have only reached the halfway point of their run, but that the first man to bring him the flag from the top of the flagpole will get a ride in a jeep for the rest of the way back to the barracks.

All the men except Rogers rush the flagpole, struggling with each other to mount the flagpole and shimmy up it, but without success because of its unusually slick surface. Amused by the display, the drill instructor finally says that nobody has gotten that flag in seventeen years and it was time to get back on the run. They return to the road, which is when Rogers approaches the flagpole. Ignoring the drill instructor’s command to fall in line with the other candidates, Rogers approaches the flagpole but doesn’t attempt to climb it; instead, he bends down to release a catch and pull out an iron bolt at the base of it.

When he does so, the flagpole collapses to its side with the flag still attached, now only 20 inches off the ground instead of 20 feet. Rogers then simply walks over, unhooks the flag from the top of the pole, and folds it up. Wordlessly, he hands it to the instructor and then walks over to the jeep, climbing in the back and breaking into a smile as the jeep drives off, leaving both the drill instructor and the other candidates staring dumbfounded after him, the first person in seventeen years to realize that you don’t have to climb a flagpole to get to the top of it.

Similarly, after thirty-eight years and an exchange with Jesus, this man realizes that he doesn’t have to get put in the pool in order to be healed. When Jesus gives him the improbable, even ridiculous command to stand up, take his mat, and walk, he does so, but with Jesus’ pivotal question still hanging in the air, as yet unanswered: “do you want to be made well?”

When Jesus asked it, his response was basically, “it can’t be done,” because there was nobody to put him in the pool first to receive its healing powers. He never considered there might be another way than simply following the way people had always been healed there, and he knew he couldn’t climb that flagpole and claim the prize by himself. So Jesus essentially drops the flagpole on its side so that the top comes down and hits him on the head.

All he has to do to claim the flag is to actually try and follow Jesus’ command: “stand up, take your mat, and walk.” When he does, his entire world, his entire identity, changes: it goes from familiar paralysis, literally and figuratively, to wide open possibilities, if as yet unknown, stretching out on the road ahead of him.

I believe that’s where we are as a congregation right now. Most of us had hoped that the end of the pandemic would have a familiar, predictable conclusion to it: vaccination would become widely available, people would embrace it as the obvious means of ending the threat of the virus, and infections would fade away into statistically insignificant risk levels if not outright eradication, not unlike the polio epidemic in the 1950s.

For all kinds of reasons that you all know very well, that has not been the case, and the prolonged length and impact of the pandemic have caused all kinds of problems in every corner of our society, from health care to children’s education to the economy to church life.

Churches all over the country, regardless of size or style or theology or location, are seeing notably fewer people involved in worship and other activities, and the ones who come are coming less regularly than before. And the temptation then, when considering how we might recover or “be made well,” is to echo the words of the man lying beside the pool, despairing that there is no one who can help heal us.

But as understandable as that is, it is also no more likely to succeed than the man was likely to be healed by trying to get into that pool. The good news is that we don’t have to find a way to get ourselves into the pool or up the flagpole; all we have to do is actually try and follow Jesus’ command: “stand up, take your mat, and walk,” and the promise is that when we do so, we find wide open possibilities stretching out on the road ahead of us.

And what’s really encouraging is that those possibilities are far from all unknown. This congregation has done a truly remarkable and moving job of not falling victim to paralysis during the pandemic. We shifted our worship online and gathered there when we could not safely do so in person. We reached out with compassion and care to those in our congregation and community who were hungry, isolated, sick, or grieving.

We partnered with others to provide masks for first responders and medical caregivers when they were in short supply. And we found all kinds of ways to continue worshipping God, exploring our faith, and deepening community with one another and our neighbors; standing up and walking when it would have been easy to say, “there is no one” to help us do things the way we had always done them, the way that it would have been easy to assume they had to be done.

And so as Advent and Christmas and a new year stretch before us, we can walk forward into them with confidence and strength because we know that when we follow Jesus’ command to stand up and walk, he goes with us and before us on the way, not back to what we’ve always known, but forward into great new possibilities to love God and our neighbors.

So as we take the first steps on that way in a few moments when we stand up and walk forward for our stewardship dedication, come knowing that you are not simply dedicating a financial pledge to support the mission and work of this congregation; no you are dedicating yourself to walking on the way to the future to which God is calling us, a future in which we are certain of the most important things: that there is healing for us to both receive and offer; that the way holds extraordinary promise and opportunity; and that Christ walks with us every step of the way.