St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

At the Pool of Bethesda

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, April 29, 2007

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Christ is Risen!

The paralytic at the pool experienced a moment of groundlessness. Groundlessness is when you reach the point at which nothing seems familiar. It is what we sometimes call the “edge”. It can be a frightening place. One more step and off you go into only God knows what or where. We have all been there. Marriage is such a jumping off place, the birth of a child, the first semester at college, the first days in a new job. I can think of many such jumping off places.

But there are moments of groundlessness that meet us much more often and regularly. How about times of disappointment or moments of embarrassment when there is no way we can get what we want and no way to make ourselves look good? Situations like those that are beyond our ability to manipulate are times when it feels like the ground is shifting under our feet. We feel helpless and afraid. In truth these are priceless moments, the richest spiritual soil. The Holy Fathers and Mothers of our Church recommend that we rejoice when such moments arrive and even that we should actively seek them!

When we reach the edge our natural tendency is to run away and look for shelter in a familiar place. But real growth is only possible at the edge, when we are challenged to go beyond what is comfortable, to ask questions we have not dared to ask, to move into territory we have avoided or never knew existed.

The edge, the place of groundlessness, is where we meet our match and, if we are wise, we admit that it is foolish to resist. We need to surrender and grow. God meets us at the groundless edge and invites us not to resist. The pain we feel at such moments is (as one wise spiritual teacher calls it) “the piercing (or breaking) of the heart”. It calls to mind three verses from Holy Scripture.

The first is “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, a very substantial change in us needs to occur before we can enter the kingdom of heaven. “Flesh and blood” here is not to be taken literally. “Flesh and blood” means life as we have come to live it, as self-centered, egotistical individuals who may not intellectually deny the existence of God, but whose lives demonstrate incipient atheism. Change and growth are often painful, but always necessary.

The second verse is, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” verifying that fear and trembling is an appropriate response when faced with the opportunity for transformation. Every time we reach the edge it means that we are on the verge of a little death. Something in us, an attitude, a belief, a way of living, perhaps an emotional attachment is threatened with death. It is natural to be afraid at such times. The ego does not want to die, but die it must. The presence of God reveals the ego’s fundamental emptiness.

The third verse is one of my favorites. “Fear not, before I am done with you I will have broken both your heart and your bones.” St. Teresa of Avila was being carried on a stretcher in the rain when one of the bearers let go and she fell into the mud beneath. She is reported to have said, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder you have so few of them.” God is wholly committed to using every opportunity that arises in life as fertilizer for our spiritual lives. St. Teresa got a mouthful of humility in the form of a puddle of mud.

In fact, it becomes evident when reading the New Testament that the presence of Jesus was often an irritant because he made a nasty habit of challenging the common view of reality. Religion was the subject of most of his criticism. Over and over again he caused religious authorities to go nuts because he made it abundantly clear that He had no use for their formalistic and legalistic approach to God.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is faced with a decision. Is the paralytic more important than the law? But remember that Jesus is the one who taught that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” and “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” So, naturally, He decided to break the law. In fact, He broke religious laws and social mores with stunning regularity for the sake of compassion, justice and truth. Jesus reveals to us that the law of love supersedes all others. Love, in truth, is the only law.

The paralytic also found himself faced with a decision. Do I want to be healed? Replying to Jesus he rehearsed his history, but he did not answer the question.
Faced with the unknown he retreated into the familiar. Telling stories is a grand way to avoid reality. When we are faced with something painful or unusual we often attempt to escape into fantasy. What we really need to do is stop talking (that is, stop struggling and resisting) and just look deeply into what is really going on in front of our eyes. The paralytic could have chosen not to get up when Jesus instructed him, but he made the wise and courageous decision to accept his healing. “Do you want to be healed?” is the question each of us is asked every moment of our lives.

Every moment is a moment of decision. Will I take the path of life or death? Will I choose to nurture goodness, compassion, mercy and love in my life or choose to nurture anger, complaining, judgment, narrow-mindedness, criticism and rigidity?
The choice is ours. Each choice we make has consequences. The question really is, “Do I want to be healed?” Choosing the path of life is the way of healing, peace, happiness and joy. The path of death leads to misery.

We must be willing to change or we will not find the door to the kingdom. The spiritual life means constantly moving forward beyond what we know into what we do not yet understand. It is fearful and wonderful at the same time and it never ends. When we meet our match, when we feel that the ground beneath our feet is shifting, when we find ourselves staring off the edge of a cliff it is most likely that God is in the lead. Embracing the moment is the narrow gate.

A Cherokee sage told his young disciple that there are two wolves fighting inside of us. One is good and the other evil. The young boy asked, “Which one wins?” The sage replied, “The one you feed.”