The location for both Scripture lessons this morning is the city of Jerusalem. The first is a story of a healing inside the gate of Jerusalem at the five porticoed pool of Beth-zatha. The second is a vision of what Jerusalem will become: a beautiful city where there will be no beggars, no sickness, no tears.
It is interesting to me that our Bible begins in the garden – the pristine beauty of the peaceable kingdom – but ends in the city. It is an urban transformation that the Scriptures foresee. Of course, the urban transformation does not jeopardize a green culture; when we are building good cities, rural environments are helped too. In fact, in Revelation there is a clean river providing water for the city. The Cuyahoga perhaps? There are urban gardens, trees bearing fruit for each month. No worries about coal or nuclear powered energy – the new city doesn’t even need solar and wind – for the glory of God is its light.
I am also intrigued that the final vision of the Bible is NOT one of Christians being removed from the earth in a rapturous reunion in the clouds but a city coming DOWN from heaven. After all the tribulation, after all the stress and suffering, it is IN history, it is ON earth that God comes and dwells with his people. Other nations will be drawn to this city.
The city is the happening place. It is great to read that Cleveland is filling its townhouses and apartments. It is less great to confess that it is in Cleveland where the most heinous concentrations of urban blight, poverty, crime, poor schools, racial segregation, high unemployment, violence, gun crimes, and staggeringly low birth survival rates exist.
It is in the cities where beggars lie in wait. In Rome there were gypsies; you had to be careful. I saw a legless man on a cart in Washington, D.C. I steered clear. When I left the baseball game on Friday night, there was that guy in the cobblestone alleyway next to the cemetery with cup in hand. I dropped a quarter in.
In Biblical times as today, the average citizen’s first reaction is to move away from the beggar, to not make eye contact, and to make excuses for not offering any gift (“It will do no good,” “They’ll only use it to buy alcohol,” “If they would only spend as much time looking for a job as they do hanging out”).
But Jesus is different. He sees this man lying there who has been ill for thirty-eight years. We do not know if he was born this way of if in some irresponsible drunken stagger he fell off a wall and paralyzed himself.
Jesus starts a conversation. Jesus always cuts to the chase: “Do you want to be made well?”
I don’t know about you, but I admit that for all these years I have read this story with the lens of judgment against the beggar. Jesus asks him a question and the beggar gives an excuse: “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.”
I have even preached sermons on the excuses we make NOT to be healed. I have preached sermons judging the beggar for actually wanting to stay in a dependent state.
But then I think about the woman who is working three minimum wage jobs (McDonalds, Wal-Mart and a convenience store) and has no health care. She is stuck. She has no car and so can’t easily get to the jobs in the suburbs. “Don’t you want to advance and be middle class?” “Don’t you want a better life for your children?”
“Well, yes, but I don’t have time to pursue something more because I am getting to jobs on the bus, and have to get my kids to school, and they aren’t doing very well – I am scared for them.”
At our pantry breakfast there was a man who has been out of work for three years, not quite educated enough. That day he was hoping that is interview at the Cleveland Clinic would go well. Later I learned it went to someone else.
Maybe the beggar in the Bible was NOT making an excuse. After all, he has no mobility. He can’t get to where he needs to go in time. Just like the young woman who has to take three buses and is late to an interview.
Maybe the people who use food stamps REALLY need them and the child who is no longer in Head Start because of cuts really needs it.
“I don’t have enough food.”
“I get sick and don’t have a doctor.”
“I don’t have money for my rent.”
THIS is real life in the city for too many.
And I always thought that Jesus’ tone was judgmental; rolling his eyes “tsk, tsk, tsk.” “I will heal you anyway – but really, stop with the excuses.”
But Jesus only saved that response for the powerful, for those in charge, for those who HAVE. Jesus loves us all, of that I am sure. But, there is no doubt that Jesus had a special concern for the marginalized, for the left out and looked over in country and in city.
I begin to see these passage in a new way. God’s will is for wholeness. God’s will is for healing. The systems and the processes that slow people down are the things being judged. The cuts to aid the poor is being judged. The excuses of those who have access and power are in question, not the excuses of those who do not have access and power.
Jesus cuts through it all and brings heaven down to earth; the future “new Jerusalem” is present. Jesus shows “God’s will [being] done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus even breaks the law to witness to the higher truth of God.
It is not the excuse of the beggar that is at issue here, but ours – collectively, institutionally, politically, socially, theologically.
“But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” This includes those who push sub-prime loans, and flip houses. This includes politicians and us, who elect them, who ignore the poor in the cities and forget the people living there and then blame them for their plight.
Just last week there was a meeting in Bodwell Hall for those who might be interested in joining Greater Cleveland Congregations; 40 congregations – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, black, white, suburban, urban, rich and poor – coming together to bring a new vision for Cleveland; seeking systemic change, and building power so that people of faith will be at the table when decisions are made about schools and health care and sustainability.
There are a lot of good excuses not to join. It is a time commitment. It will cost us $6,500 a year. Can we find 6 to 10 people to form a core team and engage in the issues chosen? Does something have to be cut from our mission before we add something else? Do I have enough time?
I don’t know any of these answers – but our city waits and those who reside there; beggars await, people slowed down by all sorts of impediments – who can’t get to where they need to go.
God is in the midst, waiting, I think, for us to help dry tears, and lift up, and preach good news, and proclaim the year of God’s jubilee and act as if the future is now, and the kingdom has come.
I don’t know, but it sure checks my excuses.