by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
May 26, 2019
I’m blessed and I’m lucky and I know it.
When I arrived at Andover Newton Theological School in the fall of 1985, I met the other first year students and we began our journey through seminary together. Most of us were white, but Andover Newton had done a good job of attracting a more diverse student body than most seminaries had at that time and I learned so much from my minority classmates. Also, by the mid-1980’s the number of women entering Andover Newton had equalled the number men, even if they weren’t yet being accepted as pastors of churches at the same rate.
When I started to get to know the other students and we exchanged life stories, I was horrified. Many of my African American and Latino classmates were older than I was at that time, not because they were indecisive about the ministry, but because they had struggled to pay for undergraduate school and had had to take longer than I did to get through. All because of a lack of financial resources and support.
And the women I met, almost to a person, told me stories of how their parents and pastors and others in their churches had discouraged them from pursuing the ministry — or at best were neutral about it. Because they were women. In the eyes of most of their elders, their gender was a disqualifying trait.
In those days, I remember both men and women in churches (very much like HCC) telling me that they didn’t want a female pastor because women’s voices were too high and that women were too bitchy to be pastors.
This was just a few years ago. OK, it was 33 years ago! Anyway, I was appalled. I’m glad things have changed.
I’m blessed, I’m lucky, and I know it.
As a young adult, I had nothing but encouragement to enter the ministry. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I had enough, because of the generosity of my home church and my family and my school, and because I was constantly given opportunities to make money to put myself through seminary.
I was empowered. And that’s not true for everyone. And that’s what I want to talk about this morning. What can we learn about empowerment from our reading from John?
Did some of you grow up in families where the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth was perpetuated? I grew up in one of those families, and quickly realized that it was a bunch of… you know what. No one makes it on his or her own.
Yes, my parents and grandparents and great grandparents worked incredibly hard, but they were given opportunities. People opened doors for them. They were empowered.
Not everyone experiences that. And I don’t just mean just economic empowerment, but intellectual and social and emotional and spiritual empowerment. Empowerment and opportunity come in many forms.
This morning, the Gospel of John gives us a story of empowerment. There was a pool in Jerusalem. The word was that the waters had healing powers. People with physical infirmities lay in and around the pool every day, hoping that it would help.
The Gospel author doesn’t say what his exact issue is, but one man had been hanging around this pool for 38 years! Can you imagine? 38 years of trying to receive some help from these supposed healing waters and… and nothing. He was beyond stuck.
And it didn’t help that other suffering people had shoved him out of the way, blocked his passage, moved in ahead of him so he couldn’t get into the pool at the supposed right time to receive the healing.
There is something about this story that reminds me of an internet hoax or a conspiracy theory or one of those emails from a Nigerian prince offering you millions of dollars if you would just give him your social security number and the pin number for your checking account. We’ve all been given else promises. This thing will make your life better. This water will heal you. This treatment will cure you.
38 years. Way too long to wait for some good news. Some payoff. Some way out. It reminds me of the story of the woman who bled for twelve years until Jesus came along. The doctors couldn’t help her.
The great thing, the best thing about that story and this one is that Jesus doesn’t do any magic. He doesn’t perform some elaborate healing ceremony. He doesn’t take credit. In both instances — with the woman who is bleeding and the man by the pool, Jesus empowers them. To Jesus it’s not about him; it’s about them.
To the woman, he says, Your faith has made you well. To the man by the pool, he says, Get up and walk.
He reminds them — or maybe helps them to understand for the first time ever — that healing and happiness come from within. And in that way, I believe he is telling them that God is within them as well. Not that they are God, but that God’s healing, empowering Spirit is within them and can lift them up and help them to move forward.
I know, many of you, and many of your loved ones, are facing uphill battles, incredible challenges, lifelong struggles. Some physical. Some mental and emotional. Some self-imposed. Some because of bad luck. Some because of the cruelty of others. Some because of broken and bigoted systems.
And just saying Jesus will make it all better doesn’t really help.
But I believe that this little story from the Gospel of John can give us great hope. Jesus approaches a man who needs something — anything, to lift him — and Jesus gives it to him. It isn’t dramatic. It’s just loving. It’s empowerment.
Get up and walk.
The Christian gospel isn’t a set of static truths; it’s a dynamic message that is intended to get us moving — whether walking or running or limping… or clacking along with a cane… or clunking along with a walker… or rolling along with a wheelchair. The message of our faith is intended — I believe with all of my heart — to move us.
So, let’s move!
Let’s move out of whatever is holding us back or keeping us down. If it’s mental or physical illness or addiction, that’s not easy, but there are pathways forward.
If it’s racial prejudice or sexism or classism, let’s get up and walk together and challenge the systems that perpetuate those realities, even if one of them is the church.
A number of years ago, I met a church choral director who insisted that there was no such thing as tone deafness. I know, some of you don’t think you can sing, but this woman, it seemed, could teach anyone to sing. Her private lesson schedule was full of people who had been told by previous teachers that they couldn’t sing and would never be able to. But she enabled them to hear their own voices for the very first time and also how to listen to those around them. I will always remember how much joy and confidence she kindled in her students. Such a powerful gift.
As a spiritual community, we have power. A lot of power, actually.
Together, we can lift up those of us with questions, those in grief, those who are hurting, those who are lost, those who are looking for something, those who need a new vision for their lives, those who just need something to look forward to on Sunday mornings, those who are feeling awesome and want to change the world.
I know that we can’t fix everything for each other, but we can at least be there for each other. Let’s follow Jesus’ lead and help one another to stop the bleeding. Let’s encourage each other to get up and away from whatever it is that’s holding us down, holding us back, including false promises. As a community, let’s embody Christ and call each other toward a life that really is life.