Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Passion Week Day 3

 Read: Matthew 26:6-13


On Wednesday of Passion Week, Jesus was anointed in Bethany.

Culture plays a huge part in how we view things, what we see, and what we don’t see. In China, people blow their noses right onto the ground. Most westerners think that is disgusting, but the Chinese see the ground as the place where you dispose of things you don’t want. When westerners blow their noses into a handkerchief or a tissue, people from China would think that is disgusting. They would wonder, “why would they want to keep that?”

Our cultural lenses are just as powerful when we read the Bible.

If you were a first-century Jew, and you were either present and watching what was happening or reading the account Matthew wrote, there would be nothing in this story that played by the rules, that would be considered acceptable by social norms. Nobody experiencing this or reading about it would be comfortable. Even the disciples, who by now probably thought they had Jesus and his priorities figured out, were thrown a curve. The only one comfortable here is Jesus, and he is turning everything upside down on everyone else.

Jesus was eating at Simon the Lepers' house. Lepers were considered unclean. To be in the same room as one was unacceptable; to accept hospitality from one was scandalous.

Next, a woman comes and pours expensive Nard over Jesus’ head. An adult Jewish woman would never talk to a man who wasn’t her husband or brother or father, much less touch one. Either of these two things would have had most self-respecting Jews heading for the exits.

But wait, there’s more.

Pouring expensive oil over the head was symbolic of anointing someone to be king. That act was the responsibility of a priest—a male priest—yet Jesus accepts this anointing from a common, unnamed woman.

The disciples begin to critique the extravagance saying the money should have been spent on the poor, after all Jesus always advocated for the poor. But Jesus even rebukes them.

You see, taking care of the poor falls under the 2nd most important commandment (love you neighbor as yourself) and Jesus wants them to understand that you can’t fully fulfill the 2nd most important commandment until you’ve fulfilled the most important commandment (love the Lord your God with all your heart).

Lest you think the woman got away without her actions being turned upside down, Jesus accepted her anointing him as king, but he described it as anointing him for burial. After all, that’s how his kingdom would come, through death and resurrection, not through might and conquest.

That is always how his kingdom always comes.

Jesus started out this week by turning the tables on the Roman authorities when he rode into Jerusalem. On Monday he turned over tables in the temple. 

Passion week is all about Jesus turning over tables.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Passion Week Tuesday

 Read: Luke 21:1-4


Have you noticed that Jesus noticed?

The gospels are full of Jesus paying attention to things that nobody else noticed. He noticed that the woman with the issue of blood had touched him as he was walking through a crowd, he noticed Zacchaeus watching him from a tree when no one else saw him, he noticed the man sitting by the pool of Bethesda waiting for the waters to be stirred when no one else cared.

On this particular day of Passion Week, when each successive day is marching Jesus closer to his encounter with the cross, Jesus noticed a poor widow drop a couple of pennies into the temple offering. The woman wasn’t wealthy, and she wasn’t what the rest of society would consider important, so I suspect it had been a while since anyone had noticed her at all.

I don’t think Jesus commented on her because he wanted to have a teaching moment with his disciples, I think he pointed her actions out to his disciples because he was truly touched by her faithfulness and selflessness.

The day before this Jesus had passed judgment on the temple system by throwing out the money changers, immediately after this Jesus prophesies about the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. But Jesus doesn’t critique her gift because of who she gave it to. What Jesus saw was the sincerity and sacrifice of her gift and it touched him. I wonder if it was one of the highlights of his week.

It is easy to think of Jesus watching our actions and categorizing them as good or bad, right or wrong, and putting a checkmark in the appropriate column on our ledger. But this story makes me think that Jesus is paying attention, but he’s looking for something different. I think he might by scanning back and forth looking for people who are doing something sincere, loving, and selfless, but so small no one else notices.

I think he looks for those things because those are the things that touch him.

Dominus tecum

Monday, March 29, 2021

 Read Matthew 21: 12-17 


On Monday of Passion week, Jesus cleared the temple.


 I can just imagine how the disciples might have felt when they woke up that morning. Just the day before, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem to shouts of hosanna.


Earlier that week the Roman Consul, Pontius Pilate, would have ridden into Jerusalem from His Headquarters in Caesarea. Pilate would have made it a point to be in the City for the Passover because of the crowds that would be there. It would be a potentially volatile time.


Pilate would have ridden into the city on a warhorse with a full military escort so everyone would know who was in charge. When Jesus rode in on Sunday, he humbly came into the city from the opposite direction on the colt of a donkey--everything he did was the opposite. What he did would be seen as mocking the Romans and their military authority.


The crowd loved it and loved him.


Jesus was at the zenith of his popularity. The disciples may well have been anticipating what might be coming next. Maybe they were wondering if Jesus was finally going to be taking his throne and push the Romans out. I suspect they couldn’t believe what he did next.


One of the acts the Messiah was expected to do was to take authority over the temple. Jesus did it in a way no one expected and few appreciated. He grabbed a whip of cords and began turning over tables. While he was running out the money changers he was shouting, “My house will be called a house of prayer, ’but you are making it 'a den of robbers.’” That’s the same thing the prophet Jeremiah said in Jeremiah 7 when he was prophesying about the destruction of the first temple twenty years after that.


The religious leaders couldn’t have missed that or misinterpreted that. And that’s when they committed to killing Jesus.


Now Jesus had alienated the Roman leaders, and the Jewish leaders both. I can just see the disciples burying their faces in their hands thinking, “and just when things were going so well.”

Friday, May 8, 2020

The Word Became Flesh and Fed a Crowd

Read John 6:1-15

After Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem where he heals the man at the pool of Bethesda, Jesus rejoins his disciples in Galilee. You might remember when he was there before, he was a bit perturbed at the people because they were clamoring after him to perform some kind of sign or miracle. It seems that things hadn’t changed much. Word had gotten out about him healing people, so instead of asking to see a miracle people just followed him around hoping to catch him in the act. This wasn’t a small entourage, John says it was a “huge crowd.”

When I was in Middle School, they called it Junior High back then, I had a friend from church, Lonnie, whose mother had some kind of breakdown and had to be institutionalized for a summer. Lonnie’s dad was a long haul truck driver and would be gone as long as a week or so at a time. When Lonnie’s dad was gone, Lonnie and his brother Lance would stay with us.

Lonnie was the same age as me, thirteen, and Lance was 3 or 4 years younger. When you’re 9 or 10 years old, you don’t realize that a middle school boy is probably the most confused, unpredictable, bi-polar creature on the planet. All you know is they are older than you which automatically makes them mysterious, worldly and godlike. 
Lance stuck to Lonnie and me like glue; he followed us everywhere.

Looking back, I can’t blame the kid; there was no one around his age to play with. Even my kid sister was older than him, and she was, well, a girl. But I remember how annoying it was to have someone following me everywhere I went and watching every move I made. It was particularly frustrating when some of my other friends would come over. We would go to great lengths to ditch Lance every chance we got.

One time we ditched him so well we actually got him lost—after all, it was an unfamiliar neighborhood for him. When he didn’t follow us home, we were ecstatic. My Mother, however, did not share our excitement. She wasn’t sympathetic to our pleas that he was annoying and embarrassed us in front of our friends. Neither did she think Lance’s dad would be enthusiastic about us permanently misplacing his son, even if he was annoying and embarrassing. Mom made us go find him and bring him home.

If it was that disturbing having one nine-year-old kid following me around, I can only imagine what it might have been like for Jesus. He couldn’t get away for his quiet time in the morning. He couldn’t get time alone with his friends. Imagine what it must have been like sitting around the campfire at night reviewing the day with his disciples and seeing the firelight reflect off of dozens of pairs of beady eyes in the dark and knowing that the eyes didn’t belong to owls or coyotes or raccoons but to people watching to see if you’ll conjure up hotdogs or s’mores out of thin air. Or, imagine visiting a friend’s house for dinner and trying to recline at the table and have a conversation while a crowd of people clamored to watch you through the window—and remember windows didn’t have glass panes in them then.

This was Jesus’ life when this story opens.

In an attempt to get away with his disciples Jesus takes them up on a mountain. It didn’t work; the crowd followed him up the mountain. Instead of getting upset and chasing the crowd away, or lecturing the people about personal space or rights of privacy, Jesus had compassion on them. He decided to feed them.

John tells us the Passover was near. That is important for a couple of reasons. Most Jews who were physically capable and could afford it would travel to Jerusalem for the Passover. After all, it was the major event of the Jewish calendar so this crowd probably did not represent the cream of society. Chances are these people were too poor, too weak, too sick, or maybe considered themselves too sinful to be able to, or want to, travel to Jerusalem for Israel’s most sacred religious observance.

There is another reason John wants us to know the Passover is near. This is the second of three different Passovers recorded in John’s gospel. During the first Passover mentioned, Jesus clears the temple. John means for us to connect that with the first deliverance of God’s people, the Exodus. During the Exodus, initiated by the first Passover, Israel received the Law through Moses. When Jesus cleansed the temple, he was passing judgement on the laws, and particularly the temple worship and sacrifice system’s inability to deliver God’s people—to truly set them free. John wanted his readers to realize that Jesus was taking on that role himself.

During the third Passover in John, Jesus is crucified. That again connects Jesus to the first Passover, particularly the Passover lamb which delivered God’s people from death. Again, John is showing how Jesus is taking over that role.

In this second Passover John tells us about, Jesus again is connected to the original Exodus story, this time the manna in the wilderness.

In the gospels, Jesus is often compared to Moses. Moses was the first deliverer; Jesus is the new deliverer, Moses wrote down the law; Jesus fulfills the law. As we read last week, Moses even wrote about Jesus. John goes beyond comparison here; he ups the ante.

In the Exodus story God’s people were hungry and began complaining. God heard their complaints and gave Moses instructions for the people. Moses was merely a messenger who passed along information then sat and watched while God provided bread and quail for the people.

As John shows us, Jesus sees the need, and he himself is the one who breaks and multiplies the bread and fish and feeds the people. He is not a bystander or messenger. He provides the bread that feeds them, and later in the chapter we see that Jesus himself takes on the role of “the bread of life.”

One of the things I love about the Gospel of John is its many layers. While John gives us the big picture by highlighting the signs that point to Jesus as Messiah and focusing on stories and events that teach us about the kingdom he came to initiate, he is also careful to show how Jesus interacted with people in their everyday lives, in everyday situations, with everyday problems, and everyday fears.

I know there is no real everyday problems or fears. Every person’s situations, problems and fears are unique. As the saying goes, “there is no such thing as minor surgery when you are the patient.” The point I am trying to make is that everything in John is not prophetic or big picture, most of it is real life situations—except that maybe the way Jesus related to people in their everyday life is the big picture. Anyway, that everyday, person to person, picture of Jesus is what I want to focus on here.

Jesus looks out over the crowd and has compassion on them. Instead of taking charge and barking out instructions, Jesus turns to Philip and asks, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?”

Philip was most likely the youngest of the disciples, so chances are he was on the bottom of the disciple pecking order. When a task came along that no one else wanted to do, I suspect the other disciples passed the job off to Philip. He would have been the last disciple to think that anyone would be interested in his opinion.

Put yourself in Philip’s shoes for a moment.  When Jesus asked Philip that question it must have been exhilarated and terrified for him all at the same time. Here you are the youngest, least experienced and least qualified of the disciples yet this man who you suspect might actually be the Messiah (although you’re not sure yet whose version of the Messiah he will turn out to be) is asking your advice on how to accomplish a task. The problem was, the task was impossible.

Philip’s answer sounds like someone who has no idea how to proceed, but wants to sound smart at the same time. He knew he was the disciple of an itinerant rabbi, and he knew that whatever funds they did have were gifts of generous benefactors. They didn’t have the means to be so extravagant. “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.” A denarius was equivalent to a day’s wage. So in essence 200 denarii was nearly a year’s wage (considering festivals, sabbaths, etc.) “A year’s salary couldn’t buy enough to feed this crowd” Philip was implying.

Pause the story here. Notice how Philip doesn’t answer Jesus’ question? Kind of reminds me of the man at Bethesda.

“Do you want to be healed?”

“It’s not my fault, someone always gets into the pool ahead of me.”

“Where can we buy bread to feed this crowd?”

“It’s not our fault we don’t have money to feed them.”

I think Philip avoided Jesus' question because he thought it would make him look foolish. Maybe he thought if he answered Jesus’ question directly Jesus would laugh at him and say something like, “do you think we have the money to buy food for all these people?” Perhaps Philip was uncomfortable with the question Jesus asked so he answered a question that he felt comfortable answering.

When I first arrived on the Submarine and was working on my qualification, I had to go to specific qualified members of the crew and get oral checkouts in order to qualify to stand watches.

To qualify for the Auxiliary Election watch (AE for short), I had to be checked out by the Electrical Division Chief Petty Officer. He was the one who made out the watch bill and assigned all of the tasks for our division right down to field day assignments—he decided who had to do the bilge diving—and he even determined who slept where. What I’m trying to communicate here is that whether my life on the Submarine was miserable or relatively pleasant depended largely on his opinion of me.

I know my main motivation going into that oral exam should have been to qualify so I could be a productive member of the crew. But I confess that my main goal was to not look stupid.

For a couple of weeks I had tailed the AEs around, and I knew where all the readings were that I had to monitor and log. The normal range for every reading was engraved on my memory and could be recited without thought. I had studied all of the electrical systems in the boat and understood how they worked. I was confident; I was ready—I thought.

I sat down on the stool facing the Chief and waited. I kind of hoped he would ask me a complex question right off so I could dazzle him. He slowly lit a cigarette and leaned back against the bulkhead. “What is the first thing the AE does when seawater gets into the ships battery?” That took care of my confidence instantly.

Three things flashed through my mind. First, when the sulfuric acid in the battery mixes with seawater it causes a reaction that releases chlorine gas. In the confined spaces of a submerged submarine chlorine gas makes people start dying quickly. 

Whatever it was I was supposed to do had to be done fast.
The second thing I thought was that the battery compartment was located in one of the hardest parts of the ship for seawater to get to. If seawater had made it to the battery compartment, a bunch of other really bad things had to have already happened. 

Mentally I could envision seawater gushing out of burst valves and feel the Sub beginning to nose down and accelerate as it sank.

I knew I had to do something, but so much was happening so fast. It was overwhelming.

The third thing that went through my mind was, “I don’t know the answer.”

I wasn’t about to say that to the Chief, so I grabbed for something I did know. I launched into a detailed explanation on how the battery worked and how it connected to the other electrical systems on the boat .

The Chief let me go on for several minutes.

When I finished, he just sat and looked at me for a moment. “That was a fine answer, Stef, but you must have been answering your own question because you sure didn’t answer mine. He looked at me for a moment more as if he was waiting.

“You don’t know, do you?”

That was it; I was toast. I came in determined to not look stupid but it only took one question to expose me as exactly that. At least I was smart enough to realize that anything I said to try and recover would only make things worse.

“No, Chief.”

He sat for a moment, “Tell me, where does the AE stand his watch?”

“All over the boat. It’s a roving watch,” I answered.

“So, where would he be if seawater got into the battery?” he continued.

I was puzzled at where this was going, “he could be anywhere.”

“So, do you think we would assign a specific action for a battery casualty to someone who might be anywhere in the boat?”

“No, I guess not.”

“What is the first thing everyone on the boat is supposed to do when seawater gets in the battery?”

“Put on their Oxygen Breathing Apparatus so they don’t die.”

“So what is the first thing the AE does when seawater gets in the battery?

“Put on his OBA so he doesn’t die.”

He nodded almost imperceptibly. The compartment suddenly felt really hot.

He crushed out his cigarette, “Let’s take a break. Go play some cards or something and clear your mind. Come back tomorrow and we’ll try again.”

I was devastated, but there was nothing I could do. “Okay, Chief.”

As I stood and turned to leave he said, “A couple of things for tomorrow.”

I turned back toward him, “yeah?”

“Don’t try to solve the whole problem by yourself. Trust your shipmates to do their job; you worry about your job.”


“And the second thing--answer the question you’re asked.”

Maybe Jesus was just setting Philip up to state the obvious so the eventual miracle would be understood as the miracle it was. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Philip had actually answered Jesus’ question. What if he had said, “Gennesaret is a couple miles away,” and then waited to see what Jesus would do next. I think Philip was trying to figure out the whole problem himself instead of just answering the question he was asked.

Jesus never responds to Philip’s answer. I wonder if he just looked at Philip for a moment the way the Chief looked at me.

Just then Andrew walked up followed by a boy carrying 5 loaves and 2 fishes.  “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?”

I think this is the heart of the story. Andrew’s offer seemed ridiculous, even to him. He offers Jesus the loaves and fishes but acknowledges that they are not nearly enough. That may look like a lack of faith, or even sarcasm, on the surface, but the exchange between Jesus and Andrew is very different than the one between Jesus and Philip.

This whole story is about not having enough. The crowd didn’t have enough to eat, Philip didn’t have enough money, Andrew only had a boy with a lunch to offer—which wasn’t enough—and the boy only had 5 loaves and 2 fishes—which wasn’t enough. None of them had enough, and, in fact, if they had all pooled their resources they wouldn’t have had enough.

Philip came to Jesus and essentially said, “I don’t have what you need.”

Andrew and the boy came to Jesus and said, “this is what we have. It isn’t enough but you can have it.” See how different that is? Jesus took what was offered to him and made it enough. In fact, he made it extravagant.

What if Philip had answered the question and left it up to Jesus? Would Jesus have multiplied their coins so Philip could have purchased enough bread? We’ll never know. Philip didn’t offer, so Jesus had nothing to work with. Andrew offered and Jesus took it from there.

This is an important lesson. It must be because this is the only miracle recorded in all 4 gospels. It also must be important because there are 12 baskets full of bread left over. Coincidence—12 baskets, 12 disciples? I suspect not.

I’m not a painter, but if I was, I would love to paint a portrait of what each disciple might have looked like later in life as they carried the gospel to the rest of the world. I would paint each one carrying a basket on his back, a basket that had once been full of leftover bread and fish, a basket that served as a reminder that when something insurmountable faced him and he didn’t have enough, his job was to give whatever he had to Jesus. Jesus’ job was to take it from there.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020


When Isaac and I were married almost 17 years ago the song we chose for our wedding was
 When The Rain Comes by Third Day. 

Looking back it was a kind of strange choice for a wedding.
Here we were at the very start of our lives together. 
What most people would call the happiest day of your life and we are singing about the inevitable storm,
pain and chaos that would be in our lives. But for us (especially me) who has always struggled to
not worry about the future it was a perfect choice.
The words promise that the rain will be there but so will Love. 

Today on what feels like the 100,000 day of quarantine it is a rainy day.
After several weeks of sunny beautiful weather it was a bit of a shock to the system.
My smallest and I had gone to run a quick errand which included printing him pictures of Pokemon.
Now you need to know that his love of Pokemon runs deep, like an Oregonian loves coffee or fish
needs water. As we exited the car he carefully tucks his pictures under his arm.
He takes a runner's stance, left knee bent on the balls of his feet, arms primed to pump.
He leans forward and sprints forward through the rain onto the porch.
The Spirit prompts my memory and my wonderings.
Does running through the rain protect your valuables?
Will it keep safe the things we hold most dear?
As I walked through the rain to my porch the words rumble around in my head:

 “ When the rain comes it seems that everyone has
gone away
When the night falls you wonder if you shouldn't
find someplace
To run and hide
Escape the pain
But hiding's such lonely thing to do
When the rain comes you blame it on the things that
you have done”

Maybe you feel like you are trying, like my little, to sprint through this rain storm of Covid-19,
trying to protect all the things you hold dear. Maybe you are hiding.
Maybe you are looking for someone or something to blame. 
Are you counting the days until the rain stops? No matter what this storm and your response looks
like, the next part of the song encompasses a promise that we can all embrace. 
The words of the song echo Jesus' promise to us in John 16:33 And everything I’ve taught you is so
that the peace which is in me will be in you and will give you great confidence as you rest in me.
For in this unbelieving world you will experience trouble and sorrows, but you must be courageous,
for I have conquered the world!” 

“So Rest awhile
It'll be alright
No one loves you like I do
When the rain comes
I will hold you!”

Today, remember God is with you. He loves you and is holding you.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Healing at Bethesda

Read John 5:1-18

Jesus just asked him straight out, “Do you want to be healed?” At first that seems like a ridiculous question. Maybe the man thought so too. After all, he had been disabled for 38 years. Of course he wants to be healed, doesn’t he?

I love this story. There is a lot of things going on here if you’re paying attention, and the story is unique in a lot of ways. I think we may be seeing Jesus, the real Jesus—the Jesus that surfaced when the crowd wasn’t pressing in on him. I know Jesus wasn’t disingenuous; he wasn’t a different person in public than he was when he was by himself or with just his friends. Jesus was Jesus all the time.

Most of the time, though, we see him surrounded by crowds demanding his time and attention, or by people trying to trip him up or question him or arrest him. Once in awhile, though, we’re given a glimpse of Jesus when he is alone with one another person, like the woman at the well, and we see this Jesus who is engaging, freely gives his time to the other person, and is attentive to the other person’s story. I think this was probably the Jesus that Jesus wanted to be all the time, but the crowds and the persistence of the religious leaders made this a rare pleasure for him.

I see this as one of those times because Jesus, the healer, is here at the pool of Bethesda, surrounded by a bunch of ill and disabled people who are waiting for the water in the pool to be stirred so they can be the first one in and be healed, yet none of them are clamoring around him asking to be healed. I think Jesus is somehow incognito—I don’t think anyone recognizes him.

It could be that Jesus was there without his disciples and that’s partially why nobody recognized him. The disciples aren’t mentioned once in the story, in fact, they aren’t mentioned again until the next chapter when he returns to Galilee. And, later in this story we’re told Jesus disappears into the crowd. It is kind of hard to melt into a crowd when you’ve got a dozen guys following you everywhere you go.

Jesus being incognito also makes sense because of the way the man responds to him. I think if the man knew who Jesus was, and Jesus asked if he wanted to be healed, he would have answered differently. If Bill Gates walked up to you on the street, and you knew it was Bill Gates, and he asked, “do you want a million dollars?” your response might be different than if just a regular old person asked you in conversation if you wanted a million dollars. To Bill Gates you might say, “you bet, and I’ll take it in twenties.” To the other person you might just say, “where would I get a million bucks?”

I think option 2, from the man’s point of view, is what is happening here. Some stranger strikes up a conversation with this guy and was listening to his story. John tells us, “When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” Jesus “learned” what was going on with the man. As the man relates his story, he tells Jesus he’s been disabled for 38 years. And Jesus, the stranger, asks, “do you want to be healed?”

I know I said earlier that the man might have answered differently if he had known who Jesus was and that Jesus could heal him. But I find it interesting here that the man never really answers Jesus’ question at all. Maybe, had he known who Jesus was, he might have felt some pressure to answer yes. After all, it would likely have been taken as an offer that demanded a yes or no answer. But in a casual conversation there was no such pressure. Under those circumstances the man chose to skirt the question.
Perhaps the man was taken aback because the question does seem silly. Maybe under his breath the man said, “really?” But, instead of answering yes or no, the man starts relating to Jesus all the reasons why he hasn’t been healed and why none of them were his fault. That sounds a lot like a person who is more concerned for being blamed for where he is than a person who wants to change where he is.

I’m not meaning to imply the man didn’t want to be healed, maybe he just thought the situation was hopeless, but I do think there is a good chance that the man didn’t know if he wanted to be healed.

Before you write that theory off as preposterous, hear me out.

A couple of things we know about human beings. One, is that we are creatures of habit—we each have a comfort zone and most of us cling to it pretty tightly. This man had been an invalid for 38 years. He knew how to do that. He had a routine--probably family members or friends would take him to the pool every day before they started their workday. He may have had a regular gang that hung out in the same spot by the pool, and they solved the world’s problems together each day. This had been his life for 38 years and he may have felt sorry for himself, but it was his comfort zone.

The second thing to consider about humans is that psychologists tell us many people are afraid of success. There are many talented and aspiring musicians, athletes, writers, artists, actors, architects, cooks, doctors, engineers (you name the area of human endeavor)…who dream but never really work toward their goals. Some never really pursue their dreams because they are afraid to fail. But there are also many who never pursue their dreams because they are afraid to succeed.

Why would a person fear success?

One reason might be expectations. If you’ve never accomplished anything no one expects much of you. Success attracts responsibility and responsibility inhibits freedom.

In 2010, when I was interim pastor at Holladay Park Church of God in Portland, there was a homeless man and woman who slept on one of the church’s porches. They were very considerate of the church’s routine. They would set up after the office closed in the evening and were gone by the time it opened in the morning. They never left a mess, and on those occasions when I would come in during off times, they were very friendly and conversant.

Debi and I invited them to our Thanksgiving dinner. Paul (I’m not sure why I remember his name after 10 years) a man who appeared to be in his 50s, didn’t really fit the stereotype most people would have of a person who lived on the street. His hair was kept neatly groomed and he sported a well-trimmed Van Dyke—I know it was a Van Dyke and not a goatee because when I complimented him on his goatee he explained the difference to me. He also was very intelligent, articulate and a college graduate.

When I found that out, I asked him if he had a plan to get himself off the streets. He looked at me like I was crazy. “Why would I want to do that?” he asked, “Why would I want a house payment and a car payment? Why would I want people to expect me to show up at a particular place at a particular time to do a particular thing every day? No one expects anything of me right now. I’m free. I can go where I want and do what I want. Why would I want to change that?”

Expectations can be intimidating. Perhaps the disabled man had grown accustomed to no one having expectations of him after 38 years. Also, after 38 years of laying by the pool, he would have no saleable skills. What if he couldn’t get a job? What if he still had to live off his family? It was bad enough to be an invalid, but to be perfectly healthy and still be dependent on others—that had to be immeasurably worse.
Another reason many fear success is that they feel they don’t deserve it. It is kind of like having that million dollars show up in your bank account without reason or warning. You see it there, but you know it’s a mistake so you don’t spend it in case the goof is discovered and you have to pay it back.

When I was growing up I was constantly told by my mother that I took after her. I loved reading and stories and music. That was all very true. But I was also told that my brothers had taken after my Dad and had oil in their veins instead of blood. They were handy, and mechanical, and could make things and fix things, and I just wasn’t born with those skills.

When I joined the Navy I was given the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery). The test results showed that I had the aptitude to do any job in the Navy including the most technical field they had—the nuclear power program. The recruiters put on a full court press to convince me to choose that program and I did.

I was trained as an electrician in a Nuclear plant. I graduated pretty high in my Electrical schools and in Nuclear Power School. I did well enough in my prototype training that they picked me up as a staff instructor without any sea experience. A couple years later, when I finally got to sea on the submarine, I became the division leading petty officer and qualified as Engineering Watch Supervisor, the highest watch an enlisted man could stand in the engineering plant.

When I got out of the Navy, I told people I had left because I had been at sea for my son’s first step and first word, and I didn’t want to miss anything like that again. That was very true, but even if I hadn’t missed any of those things I would have left. Deep inside me there was this gnawing sense that I really wasn’t any good at those kinds of things. I was convinced that all the success I had over those 8 years was a fluke and that I was a fake. Somehow, I had fooled the system and eventually something would happen that would uncover my ineptitude. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Looking back, I realize that the Navy is not cavalier about who they allow to operate complex and sensitive million-dollar equipment or stand watches that might jeopardize the lives of an entire submarine crew. But back then none of those facts cluttered my reasoning. I just believed I didn’t deserve to be where I was.

In Jesus’ day, physical impairment was usually viewed as some form of God’s judgement for sins committed. If the man was disabled from birth the belief would have been that the man’s parents committed some form of sin which caused him to be born disabled. Chances are this man wasn’t born disabled. In a few chapters Jesus will heal a blind man and John is careful to tell us that the man was born blind. John doesn’t include that detail here, instead he merely tells us that the man had been paralyzed for 38 years. That leads me to believe this man was born perfectly mobile and experienced some form of accident at a young age that disabled him. If that was the case, whatever sin was believed to have caused the accident would have been the man’s, not his parent’s.

What if the man believed he deserved the condition he was in? What if the man thought that he couldn’t walk, and had been unable, for 38 years, to get in the water and be healed because God had passed some kind of judgement on him? What if he didn’t tell Jesus he wanted to be healed because he was afraid if Jesus healed him something worse might happen to him because he didn’t deserve to be whole?

In fact, Jesus finds the man later on and does tell him to quit sinning or something worse might happen. I don’t think Jesus did this to reinforce his fear that God was mad at him and was going to find him take away his healing. Perhaps Jesus was sensing his fear and was addressing it. I think he was freeing the man from his past and letting him know he had the power to choose the condition of his life from here forward.

Fear has a significant effect on what we do and don’t do, what we choose and don’t choose, what we believe about ourselves and what we don’t believe. Looking at this story through the eyes of the disabled man leads me to wonder what people might be accepting in their lives because they feel they deserve it? How many people stay in abusive situations, or choose directions in their lives that God never intended for them, or live with an image of an angry and vengeful God because they think that is all they deserve? I wonder how many people don’t develop their gifts and talents, or don’t pursue their passions because they don’t believe they deserve that kind of joy, fulfillment and success?

I think Jesus sat next to this man at Bethesda and asked him about his life. When he heard the man’s story his heart broke for the man. It was obvious that Jesus didn’t heal the man because of his great faith, or piety. The story doesn’t paint the picture of a man who had either of those. John shows us that Jesus turned the tables. The man wasn’t disabled because he had done something to deserve being disabled; neither was he healed because he had done something to deserve healing. Jesus healed the man because he wanted to heal the man.

I think when Jesus spoke to the man at the end of the story, he was completing the healing he had begun when he fixed the man’s legs. I believe Jesus longed for the man to be free, not only of his physical limitations, but maybe even more from all the fears and misconceptions that held him more captive than his physical limitations did. I think Jesus wants that for all of us. I think Jesus’ heart breaks for all of us when he sees the things that hold us captive.

I think Jesus wants to see us all take up our beds and walk.