A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 5, 2013 (Easter 6, Year C)
I was down in Copley Square earlier this week for the first time since the marathon bombings. The place was still crawling with news trucks and reporters and police on a beautiful Tuesday morning. I saw the impromptu memorials made up of running shoes and t-shirts and flowers and teddy bears and hand-made signs — if you haven’t been down there you’ve surely seen the pictures on TV.
There was a hushed tone quality in the memorial area even as the bustle of downtown Boston swirled all around it. People were writing notes of prayer and support and simply milling around trying to take in the whole scene. Some looked stunned, some resigned, some were quietly wiping away tears; there were gawkers, of course, angling to get in the background of one of CNN’s live shots, but I think everyone was in some way seeking to come to grips with what happened on marathon Monday.
After I said a few quiet prayers, I started thinking about the Boston Strong slogan that’s been on t-shirts and stickers and hats and, more importantly, in the hearts of so many in this area. I agree with the sentiment that in times of trial and distress, it’s important for a community to band together and seek strength in its own unity. We take pride in this community and our ties to it and there is great strength of spirit and character here. Anyone who witnessed or participated in the singing of the National Anthem at the Garden before the Bruins played in the first public event after the bombing couldn’t help but get chills.
But I think focusing exclusively on the image of strength has potential pitfalls. When we wrap ourselves in the mantra of Boston Strong, we face the possibility of denying our vulnerability both as individuals and as a community. Clinging to the notion of strength in the midst of uncertainty and fear, does make us feel better and safer in the short-term. But it also has a shadow side of desperation — if we only say we’re strong over and over again, it will magically become true.
Now I realize no one would buy a hat that said Boston Vulnerable. That’s not a slogan anyone would rally around or start chanting at a Red Sox game. But from a faith perspective we’re challenged to think beyond popular slogans to get to the heart of things. People being blown up in a public place on a sacred day at an iconic event makes us feel anything but strong. If we’re honest with ourselves, it taps into our deepest anxieties and fears; and feelings of vulnerability and helplessness can’t help but be stirred up.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, we hear Jesus tell St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words strength and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive. It is because of our vulnerability as human beings that we’re able to trust in the strength of God. It’s not our own strength that will see us through — no matter how many t-shirts get sold. It is the strength of God alone that allows us to endure and persevere in the midst of profound tragedy and grief and to find comfort and strength and solace in the context of community.
In light of this Paul goes on to say, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Not because God will fix it and make it all better like a mother who kisses a skinned knee. But because through Jesus we know that God is present even in our darkest hours, even in those moments we feel most vulnerable or alone of forsaken.
There’s an interesting contrast between strength and weakness in this brief gospel passage from John. The man Jesus approaches outside the gate in Jerusalem is the epitome of weakness. For 38 years he’s been ill. We’re not sure what this illness is; I’ve always assumed it was some sort of paralysis though the text doesn’t actually say that. But he must have been a pretty pathetic sight lying in front of the gate. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”
And the man never actually answers the question. It’s pretty simple really and the answer seems obvious. If you had strep throat or a broken leg and someone asked you, “Do you want to be made well?” you’d likely answer, “Of course I do.” Instead the man starts explaining why he can’t get into the nearby pool: there’s no one to put me in, people keep pushing ahead of me. At one level he sounds pretty whiny but the reality is that he’s probably given up all hope. 38 years is a long time, a lifetime really, to be ignored or vilified or pitied or used as a stepping stone. At a certain point you just fade into the background and become invisible to those who pass by.
But despite this non-answer Jesus heals him anyway and a man who has been an invalid for many years picks up his mat and walks. I know this passage will be difficult to hear for those injured in the marathon blast or any other act of violence. Some of them will never walk again. Others will need to re-learn how to walk on prosthetic limbs. But we could all use some spiritual healing — which is really what Jesus offers to this man. He restores his hope and faith. He gives him strength and empowers his humanity.
In the face of this particular tragedy that hit so close to home for us, Jesus asks whether we, as a community, want to be made well? That questions hangs out there for us. If so, we first must admit our vulnerability. We must admit that we cannot do everything by ourselves; that we are not as strong as we try to tell ourselves. It’s easy to pretend we’re in charge when things are going well. When things are not, however, the vulnerability of the human condition that hovers just below the surface becomes visible.
When I was a priest in New York, a parishioner asked me if I’d go say last rites for his Russian grandmother who had raised him. The catch was I had to go to some huge hospital in the middle of the Bronx, which I was happy to do even if it meant getting lost a few times on the way. It turned out her roommate had just died and one of the hospital chaplains was with the family as I arrived. He kept saying over and over again, “Be strong. You gotta be strong.” And I wanted to say, “No! That’s not what they need right now. This is precisely the time they need to cast their burdens upon the Lord.” They don’t have to be strong, just faithful. And if they can’t do that right now they can just be, and let God hold them in the palm of his hand. There’s a time to be strong but there’s also a time to admit our weakness, to admit our powerlessness in a situation and let God take the lead. And in that we find true strength.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013