Take up your mat

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio

I grew up as the youngest in our family – the last, the smallest, the slowest. Not much of an athlete, I also tended to be the last picked for team games at school. I might have been an A-student, but I was no Alpha; no, I was way down the pecking order. So when I came across a story like this, in which Jesus approaches the too-slow, unpopular, loner loser at the Sheep Gate and tells this person, in effect, that in that moment, his life, his wholeness is Jesus’ priority; that no one can come between him and the healing mercies that Christ can offer; that he is first in line when it comes to God’s grace, I fell hard. It was a life-changing, life-saving encounter.

I was lucky to have found Jesus at such a young age. The man at the Sheep Gate had been unwell for thirty-eight years when Jesus passed by.

Now, let me say that I do not appreciate the biblical use of language here. To call a person “an invalid” is dangerously close to calling them “invalid.” Or “illegal.” “Illegitimate.” I have feelings around such language, and I do not think that it is terribly respectful of the dignity of the human beings lying around the poolside at the Sheep Gate.

If you have never been called by a name that labelled you as less than fully human, or less than fully recognized or welcome in society, you may think it a small point. But it isn’t.

One might preach that the label is useful in helping us to recognize the obstacles that people with disabilities of body, mind, birth, or accident encountered in Jesus’ day, as though we are so much more civilized now. As though no one begs for help any more by the side of the road. As though we do not discriminate between those we deem legitimate and those we delegitimize; as though we do not call anyone’s existence among us illegal; as though we do not differentiate between those we commend as valid, and those we write off as invalid.

Such excuses are not worth the paper they’re written on. Not valid for travel.

The man at the Sheep Gate had been ill, and had been ill-used, for thirty-eight years. When Jesus asked him whether he wanted to be healed, he was so weary of hope and its invalidation that instead of answering yes, or even no, he simply described his situation. “No one will help me, and if I try to help myself, everyone pushes in front of me.” The man is stuck in his present as though in the revolving door of a nightmare, unable to get free.

No one will help me, and if I try to help myself, they push in front of me, push me aside.

Jesus does not help the man to get to the water. Jesus does not need to buy into the system that has kept this man down for thirty-eight years. Jesus is the living water, and he has power to heal the man, and he does that; but he does more. He tells the man to take up his mat, and walk home.

Now this was about to get the man, and Jesus, into hot water (see what I did there?); into some troubled waters. This was the Sabbath, and the carrying of furniture or bedding from one location to another was forbidden work that distracted from the intention of the day, which was to focus intently on the providence and creative mercy of God. Jesus knew all about that. So did the man, but when someone sets you back on your feet after thirty-eight years being trodden under the feet of others, if that someone tells you to pick up your mat and walk, you might just be inclined to obey him.

It isn’t long after we stop reading from the gospel this morning that the man encounters the authorities, who ask him, “Why are you carrying your mat on the Sabbath?”

Or, to translate it into terms we might recognize, “Why are you out of line? Why are you behaving suspiciously?”

We thought you were invalid/invalid. Who gave you permission to be here, to work here?

What is in your hands? What’s a man like you doing driving a nice mat like that?

The man tells them, in so many words, that it was Jesus who healed him, and Jesus who gave him permission and authority to carry himself and his mat. Jesus, defiantly, declared the invalid to be valid.

I told you last week that you would be hearing a lot more from the Festival of Homiletics as the weeks go on, and today is no exception. Commenting on another, a different healing miracle, the Reverend Otis Moss, III, said that the reason that Jesus told one healed man not only to get up, but to take up his bed, and carry it home, was that his mattress, on which he had spent so much of his life, bore witness to all that God had done for him. That it was a reminder of how much mercy God had shown him, and from what pain God had freed him.* This is the work of the Sabbath, Jesus might argue.

We do not walk away from our lives unscathed. Even in resurrection, Jesus bore the scars of the cross. When he raises us to new life, in baptism, in the everyday miracles of renewal, after the long seasons of bleak winter, when the night is long gone and the day draws near – even so, we carry the remnants of sorrow in our souls. We bear the scars of our deepest pain.

Some of you have used your recovery from health situations and addictions to turn around and offer yourselves and your scars as an example to those still on the road to recovery of the healing that is possible, the hope that is to come.

Jesus would have us carry our mats, the marks of our past pain, not as a penance, but as a sign of the healing and hope that can be found with Jesus. Because there are too many people who suffer without the hope that we have at our hands.

We carry the reminders of each time someone called us illegal, illegitimate, invalid, not because we want to hold on to the pain, but so that we can bear witness, when someone asks, to how much Jesus has done for us.

But for this man, I think that the mattress served another purpose. Jesus knew that it would attract attention. It was, I think, a witness against the system that served to keep invalids in line. It was an indictment against arrangements that kept healthcare out of the reach of those most in need. It was a placard protesting the hypocrisy of those who threw charity at the feet of the beggars at the gate, but did nothing to change the dynamic which kept them in poverty. The man’s mattress, carried through the temple crowd at shoulder height, was a slap in the face to anyone who claims to do the will of God, to follow the Law of righteousness whilst smothering God’s undying mercy; whilst denying God’s universal justice, which says that no one is invalid.

This, too, is the work of the Sabbath: to proclaim God’s reign, in which there will be no more sinful systems, and no more closed gates, but only the clear cleansing light of the justice of God, and rivers of living water, “for the healing of the nations,” as it says in the Revelation.

This is the word of God for us today, for whoever has need of it: Stand up, take up your mat, and walk.

* Post updated to provide: The Reverend Otis Moss, III, “By any means necessary:” an address on Luke 5:17-21 at the Festival of Homiletics, Minneapolis, 2019

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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