Deep Change or Slow Death

Take Up Your MatOne of the most confronting realities about the world in which we live is that on a global scale we have all of the resources necessary to bring about the changes that we pretty much all agree we need, and yet we never quite get around to achieving them.  No right thinking person would stand up and argue for the continuation of poverty that leads to starvation and death across whole regions of the world, when we know that we do have enough food for everyone to share.  I have never heard anyone seriously assert that it is good news for children to be dying from the effects of drinking dirty water when we have the technology to provide a regular supply of clean drinking water everywhere.  Only the most ardent extremists would put forward the case that the continuation of war and violence and terror is a good thing when we have the mechanisms for bringing about global peace.  And yet the reality is that although – on a global scale – we know what needs to be done, and we have all of the resources that need to be harnessed to make that possible – we don’t ever seem to be able to actually make what needs to happen happen.

The truth is that we have the resources to bring about the changes that we want to see, but given the complexities of it all, and the competing demands and self-interests that are placed on our national and international leaders (and those who advise them), we have never got to a point where our global structures have been organised to put it all into practice.  Stock piles of food are destroyed in one place, whilst people go hungry in another.  The technology to ensure quality drinking water provides the purest of water for us to wash our dirty clothes with here in Australia, whilst in other places unclean water is still used for drinking.  The skilled know-how to bring about reconciliation and peace is deployed to action the merger of big businesses rather than focused upon communities in which the vulnerable live and die because of the ravages of war.  And of course, as painful as it is to speak about these quandaries in the abstract – in theory – referring to other people who should make things happen in distant places; it is even more painful to recognise that what is true globally is true locally as well.  Any of us who have lived alongside a loved one who is caught in an irresistible cycle of addiction, or who sees the world through the lenses of paranoia, for example, will know the pain of watching at a very personal level what it is like to see someone who is increasingly destroyed by their own lack of will or resolve to bring about personal change; and that (in some lesser ways) is probably true for each of us in our own lives too.  The simple fact is that what is true writ large across the whole world, is also true for you and me.  By and large we know the changes that we need to bring to effect in our own lives, and we have the tools to make it happen, but we never quite get around to it.

The man in our Gospel reading today could well be described as being in this situation himself.  It is possible to visit the probable site of the place where this encounter with Jesus took place, (the remains of the pool with the five porticoes) in Jerusalem today.  Certainly a place that matches its description was excavated to the North East of the Temple in the city of Jerusalem in the 1960s.  It is clear from the account that we are given by the Gospel writers, that in the time of Jesus, this pool was a place where people with all kinds of physical issues gathered with the hope of being healed.  The editing out of one of the verses in the story in our modern translation of the Bible does not help us to understand why they were there.  A note of commentary, which is probably not in the earliest Gospel manuscripts, hence its removal from our current translation, says that people gathered around the pool waiting for the waters to be stirred by an angel, with the belief that the first person who entered the water when they stirred was restored to health.  We cannot know whether anyone was actually healed by the waters in that way.  It is probable that the source of the hope that drew people there was an intermittent spring that bubbled with life every now and again and stirred the waters, and that over time people who saw his phenomenon came to attribute it to the work of an angel, even though it did not seem to be particularly successful.  But whatever it was that drew people there in hope of healing, the man that we hear about in our Gospel story had been there for a very long time.

We are not told what the man’s ailment was, we assume lameness or paralysis because of his inability to walk.  It is extraordinary that he had waited there around the pool for 38 years, fruitlessly attempting to be the first person to enter the water when it bubbled to life for all of that time, and we gain a sense from the dialogue between him and Jesus, that this man understood deep down the futility of what he had been trying to do.  When Jesus asks him the clinching question, “do you want to be made well, or are you really quite happy living out the existence around the pool which you have become so used to over all of these years?” the man never actually gets around to saying yes.  Instead he tells Jesus the reasons why his healing has not happened so far.  Its because of the water and because of other people, but it has nothing to do with him.  Jesus’ question is captivating: and we should not simply pass over it too quickly.  Imagine the scene.  This man has been waiting around for 38 years for a miracle, and as Jesus looks into his eyes, he simply asks, “do you want to made well?”  It is certainly a question that could challenge any one of us as we look at the issues in our own lives and in our world: do we really want to do what is necessary, to bring about the changes that we need?

One of the great gifts that Bishop Farran, our former Bishop brought to us when he arrived here in the Diocese in 2005 was the slogan, ‘deep change or slow death’.  In one of his addresses to the Synod of the Diocese, Bishop Farran quoted the psychologist Ellen Toronto, who made this observation,  “Every time a client comes to me with a problem, what I find is that the person is experiencing slow death.  What I try to help such persons see is that they have a choice.  They can continue to experience slow death, or they can make deep change.  Most do not have the courage to engage the process of deep change, and so most are not cured.  The challenge is to provide them with enough encouragement, help and support that they dare to try.”  (Presidential Address to Synod, 27th October 2012).

‘Deep Change, or slow death’.  That motif has been well used around the parishes over the last seven years as people have come face to face with the reality that things cannot simply go on in the same way that they have in the past – in our parishes, and in our lives.  The great monastic leader St Benedict, many centuries ago, called those who followed his rule of living to a deep conversion of life – an ongoing process of being transformed into the likeness of Christ.  In today’s Gospel story Jesus is able to do, in a moment, what the pool has been unable to do all these years.  He says to the man, “stand up, take your mat and walk” and at once the man is made well.  But the point is that this man is now catapulted into a much more challenging way of living, where he will have to take responsibility for his own actions, rather than seeing his life and situation through the prism of what the water of the pool has not done for him.  That phrase “stand up” could also be translated as, “resurrect” – this is an Easter story.  A resurrection story of change and hope.

Through this Gospel encounter we are asked the most profound of questions today, “do we want to be made well?  Do we want our Church to be made well?  Do we want our world to be made well?” If so, in Jesus name and in his resurrection joy, we need a new resolve to believe that change is possible, and to live out the change that we want to see.