Sunday, September 16, 2001

"In Search of... Healing"
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, September 16, 2001
Text: John 5:1-15

It was an idyllic New England day. The night before there had been some slight rains and the mist of the early morning was hovering at the foot of the beautiful, Vermont, Green Mountains. As the sun began to rise and burn off the mist, the emerald green mountains of Vermont seemed brighter than any jewelry I had ever seen in my life. It was a glorious morning.

Marial and I were driving on Route 30 from Manchester Center to Brattleboro, one of the most serene and peaceful and gorgeous parts of that free and fair land. The air had a chill to it and, as the sun warmed it, we thoroughly enjoyed the freedom of America.

After a while, having driven along that beautiful route, we switched on the radio to find out what the weather would be for the rest of the day and we heard the most ridiculous thing that we had ever heard in our lives: that planes had flown into the World Trade Center: that the Pentagon might have been bombed. It sounded like one of those silly hoaxes the that morning shows often air in the United States. There was only one difference: the voice delivering the news was familiar. It was a Canadian voice. It was Peter Jennings, and it was real.

In a state of shock, we continued to drive through the mountains, although their beauty seemed to have lost its hue and its glow. I pulled over into a gas station just outside of the town of Keene. When I was there, the woman who was to take my money was weeping uncontrollably. The mechanics had put down their tools and their greasy hands were grasping their cups of coffee like they had never clasped their cups of coffee before. There was an eerie silence and I realized the world would never be the same.

We drove on quietly to our final destination of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. As we got near the port city, there were police cars around the road. The place had been cordoned off and we were forced to go down a side road. We just drove and drove, we knew not where, in an area that was normally beautiful but now, because of what had happened in New York and Washington, everything had changed. It no longer seemed beautiful. We pulled into our hotel and on the faces of all the people that we saw, there was shock, disbelief.

I thought of the words of Winston Churchill on October 5th, 1938, after a peace accord had been signed with Hitler. He said this: "We have sustained defeat without a war."

Indeed, a defeat had permeated the whole land. It would never be the same.

In the editorial in the New York Times the next morning, the editor wrote these words, and they summed up how I was feeling on that morning: "We look back at sunrise yesterday through pillars of smoke and dust, down streets snowed under with the atomized debris of the skyline, and we understand that everything has changed."

But it had not only changed the United States of America. It had not only changed the southern part of Manhattan. It had not only changed Washington, D.C. In fact, what happened last Tuesday had changed the whole world.

That very Tuesday, a panic beset my heart. I realized that a very good friend of mine who had been in church the very week before, here at Eaton Memorial, was attending a conference of international bankers at the World Trade Center and I realized that he must have been there; a friend whom I had known for 15 years, who wrote the foreword of my second book - that's how close a friend he is. I tried all day and all evening to phone his wife. Finally I got through and found out that he had been in the building, that he had been evacuated minutes before the second plane crashed, but that he had stood at the bottom of the building and saw people jump from 30 and 40 stories high.

I realized the world would never be the same. I echo the words of our Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, who in his magnificent speech on Friday said that it is not only just our neighbours who have suffered this but our family, our family. And not only our family, I would go even further. I would agree with those who say that what happened at the World Trade Center was a crime against the whole of humanity. Indeed, humanity as a whole will never be the same because of what happened on that fateful day, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

But one thing that is not changing is the word of God. As I sat on Tuesday night and thought, "What on earth am I going to say on Sunday morning - Should I change my text? Should I pick something else?" - I began to read the passage of the story of the healing of the man at Bethesda and realized that what the world needs more than anything at this very moment is healing; and that the encounter between the man at the pool at Bethesda and Jesus of Nazareth has lessons for us and for the whole world about the nature and the power of God's healing. For in that encounter, there is a word for the whole of humanity which we need to carry in our hearts at this time in which our world has changed.

The first thing that we find in this encounter between Jesus and the man at Bethesda was a challenge. The man had been a paralytic and he had sat by that pool for a very long time. Jesus says to this man a very strange phrase. He says: "Do you want to be healed? Do you want it?" In other words: Are you willing to believe the things that will bring about your healing?

Now, on the surface, that might seem ridiculous; but it is not. For indeed, in being healed, this man's whole life would have to change. For years, he had sat by the pool with his friends. No longer would he do so. For years, he depended on the sympathy and the kindness of others to help him into the pool, but that would never be the same. For years, he depended on others, but now, he would have to take responsibility for himself. Everything would change. For years he had been passive and simply waited. Now he would be transformed and would have to act. His life would change. Jesus says to him then, clearly: "Do you really want to be healed?"

I think that the world in which we live asks itself that very same question - Do we really want to be healed? - because in many ways, our lives have been shattered by what has occurred. We will always be different because of this week.

One of the things that will make us different is that our complacency is gone. We have just assumed that we who live in North America, this continent of freedom, will not be touched by the evil vicissitudes of this world; that we will be protected by our military power; that we will be protected by our wealth and affluence: that we will be protected by our form of law and order. In many ways, there has been an arrogance about that protection and that freedom.

When others have died in Kosovo or in Rwanda, when buildings have been blown up in Ireland or in my hometown of Manchester, when people have been killed on the streets of Sierra Leone, when people have been attacked in Kenya, it has seemed a remote thing.

But now it is no longer remote. We cannot be passive anymore. We cannot hide behind a veneer of our own protection as if somehow we are invulnerable, for our lives are now forever changed.

Derrick Jackson, writing on the Op Ed page of the Boston Globe on Wednesday, put it so prophetically:

It is the most bewildering moment because we have the world's mightiest army, yet the Pentagon was bombed. It is bewildering because America is the world's richest nation, yet its greatest twin symbols of capitalism no longer stand. It is bewildering because the President says terrorism will not stand, yet he knows not where the enemy stands. ...

It is bewildering because in a nation so numb to celluloid violence, gun violence, and even genocide abroad, no-one can now be detached from the effects of violence.

How right Derrick Jackson is. The shock that was felt around the world is that we are indeed all vulnerable. There is nothing that we can create that can protect us completely and utterly and totally and even eternally.

Many people throughout this period of complacency and peace that we have enjoyed for so long have turned their backs often on religion, or on God, or on faith, or on helping others, or on caring for the world, in the thought that somehow their world is safe. But it is no longer safe. The world is forever changed.

The questions, therefore, that reside in our hearts are: "Are we willing to accept that? Are we willing to be healed?"

The second thing that happens in the encounter between Jesus and the man at the pool of Bethesda is a conflict. When Jesus healed the man at Bethesda, there were those who took exception to Jesus' healing. There were those who said: "You can't do this. You are asking him to pick up his bed and walk on the Sabbath. This is an affront."

There were those who said: "You can't do this. Jesus of Nazareth, who are you? What right do you have to bring healing?"

And so often, my friends, when there is healing, when God does act, when God does try and save, there is conflict. Oh, there have been those who have said over the last few days that God is responsible for this; that God maybe is the one who is, as I mentioned last week, a pernicious God who is out to get them.

But I agree with something that John said this morning to the children as he ministered to them here on the steps of this church. He said: "No, God is there bringing healing. God is there with those who climbed the stairs to try and save. God is there with those who gave their lives."

But the problem is, the religious traditions of people often seem to supercede the divine healing of God, because we place our traditions above the revelation of the God who is the God of Life. And it doesn't matter what religion it is. We all do it and we all create our traditions. And out of those traditions, we deny the power and the life-giving spirit of God, because we think that the religion that we mould is more important. Sometimes we deny healing and we have conflict because of our superstitions.

One of the things that made the pool of Bethesda so great was that there were people who felt that if they went into this pool they were automatically healed by its waters. They believed that the divine, little gods that were there around that pool, that were local to that pool, would bring healing and salvation. These people did not have faith in God. They had superstitions. Superstitions that they had built up and had clouded their hearts and their minds to the truth of Jesus of Nazareth who was in their midst on God's behalf to bring healing.

One of the things that astounds me the most is that some of the people who have perpetrated this violence have done so out of superstition, not faith. They believed that they would receive divine glory in Paradise if they enter into a holy war and kill innocent men and women and children. They believed that they would be blessed by God by taking human life. This is superstition. It is not the heart of true religion. It is not the heart of true Islam. It is not the heart of true Judaism and it certainly isn't the heart of true Christianity. In fact, that kind of superstition is evil.

Three times, George Bush in his speech to the nation on Tuesday night, described what happened as evil. Let's be under absolutely no misapprehension. What happened in New York and in Washington was an act of unmitigated evil. It was not the work of the God who, as Jesus said, comes to bring life. It is the thief who comes to kill and to steal and to destroy, but Jesus says: "I have come that you might have life and might have it abundantly."

In secret places, men and women plot their evil. Men and women are in conflict with the healing and life-giving and sustaining power of God. The ultimate idolatry is to take human life and to do it in God's name. That was the idolatry of the Nazis. That is what many of them said. That is the idolatry that I have seen over the years in many different places, that in the name of God, human life is taken - innocent. That is not faith. That is not trust in the God of the Universe. That is superstition and it kills.

Jesus saw it eye to eye when he brought healing to that man at Bethesda and even though he was healed, there were those who wanted to criticize the Lord of Life.

But there is also in this passage a great command. Jesus said to the man at Bethesda: [paraphrase] "I want you now to get off your bed and I want you to walk. I want you, as an act of faith, not just to sit here by this pool. I want you to get up on your feet and I want you to get out there. I want you to show that you believe. I want you to demonstrate that you have been healed."

Faith is not some passive thought that somehow everything is just going to work out nicely. Faith is fiducia. It is trust. It is an act of faith. It is stepping out and doing something in God's name in the knowledge that Jesus Christ our Lord goes with us.

My friends, this world that as of this week has forever changed must now do something. I would suggest it needs to do four things:

The first is, it needs to carry out its act of justice. Let us not be under any misapprehension. The people who carried out this deed did so willingly, and they did so knowingly, and they did so wantonly. Any sense of justice would suggest that those people must be held accountable. Those people who did this, if they were to murder a man or a woman on the street, would have to be brought to justice.

But justice demands that evidence must always be able to substantiate the charge. Justice suggests that it must always be carried out, not in a spirit of anger, or revenge, but in a spirit of righteousness and truth; that the punishment must fit the crime; that there is no point in the wanton taking of innocent lives to appease our own consciences, for in so doing, those who died in that building and who lie in the rubble will only have had their misery compounded as we bring it on others who are innocent, who will also lie in rubble.

Having said that, to do nothing, to not go after the perpetrators is unjust. In the name of the God of Justice, they must be brought to trial, they must be called to account. Just as Milosevic was in Yugoslavia, so, too, the people who did this must be brought to justice.

The second thing that the world must do is act together. This is not a time for any form of unilateralism on the part of the United States or, indeed, on the part of Canada and the United States. This has been an affront to the whole world and the whole world must act.

Anthony Lewis in the Op Ed page of the New York Times on Wednesday wrote these words (I have always liked Anthony - his wife, I know, is a South African - good lady):

It is essential, too, that our foreign policy from here on forward eschew any impression of unilateralism. Even our allies have seen an administration uninterested in what others think, ready to impose its views. President Bush would do well to adopt a tone recognizing that America cannot assure security by itself. …
We, and the world, are looking for words that can bring us together against evil.

Anthony Lewis is right. What happened at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon is an affront to the whole of humanity and all the nations of the world should be indignant, and all of the world together should oppose this act of terror. This is no time for us to build walls around ourselves, but to build alliances for the sake of a safer world.

The third thing that is needed is a spirit of religious tolerance. More wars have been fought in the history of the world on the basis of religion than on almost anything else. God's name has been invoked by the sword and the shield too many times and the retribution that we bring against people of faith is something that really must stop for the sake of the world.

I am a Christian. I believe in the unique claims of Jesus Christ. I believe him to be God incarnate, the Word made flesh, the Life and the Truth and the Way. And because I believe him to be that, and because I believe that his way is a way of peace: because I believe that the cross is the ultimate symbol of God's acceptance of humanity as well as God's rejection of sin, I believe that that cross is magnanimous and those arms are open.

I believe, therefore, that we have to work with people of other faiths. I believe that God speaks in many ways through Islam and of course through Judaism. I believe that as people of faith in one God, we have a common responsibility to act together.

Every morning you may not know this, I go to a coffee shop and in that coffee shop there are people from all over the world. I sit shoulder by shoulder with Hindus from India, and Muslims from Lebanon, and Armenians from Lebanon, and the Orthodox from Greece. When I go in in the morning with my clerical collar on, there is a universal Good Morning, Fahder, Good Morning Father, and we talk about many things. My sitting down with them at a table and having coffee does not compromise my faith in Jesus Christ.

But when I see people pointing the finger at other faiths, then I see my faith challenged. As this world gets smaller, the need for us to get along is greater. I believe Jesus wants that and we bear witness to it.

I think the fourth thing that we must do is to ask ourselves why people hate. What conditions exist in the world that cause people in their heart of hearts to want to take the life of another?

Oh, there will always be madmen. There will always be the insane, the fanatics, the irrational. There will always be crazy people who will do things for no reason at all. But there are also people who do things out of a sense of indignation. Those who have much, I believe, need to ask those who have little: "How might we help, in the name of Jesus Christ?"

When that man was healed, Jesus said something very strange to him. He said: "I want to make sure that you don't keep on sinning, lest this happen again." My friends, I think we need to ask ourselves deep in our hearts: "Let us not sin in trying to resolve this problem."

On that first night in my hotel room in Portsmouth, I realized that I had done a silly thing. I had left my Bible at home and so I opened the night table drawer next to my bed and there, in a bright red cover, was the Gideons' Bible. God bless them!

I didn't know what to read. I thought: "What on earth, Lord, can I say? I am so filled with anger. I want revenge. I want those who have taken those innocent lives to suffer." I think we all felt that way, did we not? But in the light of day, and in the light of God, I want those who are the perpetrators to be called to justice.

But I want what the Word of God wants. I read from the Book of Romans:
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Give preference to one another in honour, not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you. Bless and not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men and if possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.

This is the Word of God. Amen.