August 20th – Steve Jungkeit – with audio
Texts: John 5: 1-9;
I Corinthians 13: 1-13
“Take Up Your Mat and Walk”
“Take up your mat and walk.” Those are the words that Jesus says to a paralyzed man that he encounters in the Gospel of John. Recall the scene. There’s a pool of water, with healing properties. There are hordes of people desperate to bathe in that healing water, where an angel is said to dip his finger. There’s a man who longs to immerse himself in those waters, to feel himself restored, but he’s stuck. His body rebels against him, and we can imagine that after a while, perhaps his spirit turns upon him as well, sinking into a form of spiritual paralysis. And there’s Jesus, intervening in what, to my eyes, looks like a desperate moment. “Take up your mat, and walk,” he says to the man. “Be free. Put a lilt in your step. Skip, run, lope, teeter, limp, strut, do it however you must, but take up your mat. And walk.”
It’s a word, and a parable, that I’ve returned to again and again this past week. It’s a word that’s reached me in my depths as day by day I’ve struggled to fathom what’s going on in our country and in the world. And it’s a word, and a parable, that I believe can provide hope, and healing, and courage for each of us here in this community. “Take up your mat, and walk,” Jesus says. But more about that in just a little bit.
What I’d like to do first is to recap a few of the important things that have taken place while I’ve been away, paying attention to a few of the restorative waters that I’ve encountered on the way. Some of this I shared by email, but if you’re anything like me, emails arrive in your inbox in such cascading waves that it can be hard to keep track of it all. Others of you may not be on our email list yet, and so I want to use this as an opportunity to bring all of you up to speed on some of the events that have taken place this summer.
The first segment of summer was the journey to Green Grass, which I was grateful to share with a number of you. Later in September, we’ll have a service organized around that theme, but as ever, it felt powerfully significant simply to be with our Lakota friends, and to hear what’s happened in their community over the past year. Of course, the subject of nearly every conversation, sooner or later, was the Standing Rock Encampment. And I think it’s hard to overstate how significant that experience was for everyone out there. While there was a wistfulness about losing the camp, and about losing in the struggle over water and land rights, there was still a palpable energy about the empowerment and the friendship and the solidarity between tribes that hadn’t been on speaking terms, and between other allies. For many, it seemed to be a powerful reminder of how vital our spiritual traditions are when we confront various threats. For others, I think it was a reminder that their culture hasn’t simply been forgotten, and that they’re not alone in their struggle. The worship service that we conducted at Green Grass was organized around the theme of water and water protectors, and it made me proud to know that even here in Old Lyme, we had played a small part to support the efforts of our Lakota friends. It’s a partnership that this congregation has nurtured for 32 years now, and I know that it might be easy to take those relationships for granted at this point. But I hope you know how special, and how rare, that sort of friendship is. If you can, if you’re able, I hope that everyone in our congregation can somehow make an effort to be a part of that incredible partnership. To be invited to a Sun Dance, to participate in a sweat lodge, and to hear songs and rhythms that might be ten years old or a thousand, is truly to be a part of something capable of shaking one out of a moral or spiritual paralysis. It’s a way of bathing in restorative waters. And so let me remind you what a gift our friends offer us in their generosity and welcome every year.
Let me also say this. Next weekend there’s an opportunity for any who wish to attend a Pow Wow being held up at the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation, about 35 minutes from Old Lyme. Tribal Crafts will be there representing our community, and it’s a chance to witness the incredible aesthetic and ritual traditions of a variety of tribes who converge on that space. Our family went last year and I thought it was an amazing thing to be a part of. After the week we’ve just had, I believe it’s another opportunity to bathe in restorative and healing waters.
Immediately after our group disbanded in Green Grass, I hopped a flight to Baltimore, where the UCC General Synod was taking place. You may remember that our congregation was the lead sponsor of a resolution concerning the treatment of children in the occupied territories of Palestine, a topic that became especially poignant to me after journeying to Palestine and Israel with one of my own children. At first, I confess that I felt a little whiplash, trading the open sky of the Reservation for the cavernous space of the Baltimore Convention Center, and trading the intimacy of our Green Grass group for a conference of several thousand members of the UCC. But a strange, and kind of wonderful thing happened along the way. As I prepared for, and then presented the resolution in committee, it felt clear that our community’s relationships at Green Grass, and our work in Palestine, fit together seamlessly. While I spent most of my time attending workshops and sessions related to our resolution, and strategizing with others who worked on the resolution to insure its passage, I took stock of the other workshops and sessions being held. There was one on Standing Rock and on environmental activism. There were several on the importance of Black Lives Matter, and on racial justice. There were some concerning immigration, and refugees. There were workshops on economic inequality, and on becoming a more welcoming church to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks. It indicated to me that our community here in Old Lyme is exactly where we need to be. We have work to do in all of those areas, but it was gratifying to know that, far from being way out there in the blue yonder, as I hear around here from time to time, we’re right in the thick of it with so many other communities around the country and indeed, around the world. We can and should be proud to be a part of the United Church of Christ.
As for the resolution, it passed overwhelmingly, with nearly 80% voting for it, with 13% against it, and with about 7% abstaining. Immediately after the UCC voted, the Mennonites had their national gathering, and they too voted on a similar resolution concerning the treatment of children in Palestine. Right after that, the Disciples of Christ, a sister denomination to the UCC, did the same. And so let me say how proud I was to present that resolution in the name of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. Let me say how proud I was that all of you have participated in and supported our efforts to raise awareness about the injustices taking place in Palestine and Israel. Our resolution was one small operation in a wider theater of struggle on this issue. Taken on its own, it doesn’t amount to much. But joined to so many other efforts, among so many other people of faith and conscience, it takes on a much wider significance. I’ll say in addition that being a part of the group of friends and allies working to pass the resolution was another way of bathing in restorative waters.
Here’s a mixed metaphor if ever there was one: restorative waters or not, by the time Synod ended, on July 4th, I was feeling as cooked as the burgers I hoped to enjoy later in the day. The previous weeks had been good, but also intense, and so our family took some time just to gather ourselves for a bit. We spent a little time with Rachael’s family, a little time with mine, and then we retreated to New Orleans. And for a few blessed weeks we had the opportunity to exist without juggling competing schedules or demands. It felt like grace. We found donuts and po-boys, sno-balls and beignets, and salads when our arteries screamed “Enough!” Rachael and I found tiki drinks (not to be confused with those now infamous torches found at Costco). We found pools around the city, and the zoo, and a little amusement park. We found museums and we walked through parks and neighborhoods at dusk. We found music. We found sites important to the history of jazz, r&b, and funk music. We found Louis Armstrong. And here and there, I think, we found each other. Not that every moment was easy. Not that we didn’t have moments of frustration. There was rain, there was heat, there were the two floods, but no matter. It was good to be with one another, even when our jagged humanity sometimes broke through.
So OK, probably my favorite memory of the entire summer took place in New Orleans. It was inspired by that movie Sing, which came out last Christmas. It’s a kid’s movie about a bunch of animals auditioning for a talent show, and they sing Katy Perry and Lady Gaga and classic rock songs. And there’s this clip in the commercial, which we heard a dozen times in our car, where a huge purple bull is trying to look suave while performing a hip hop song that goes: “Come my lady, come, come my lady, you’re my butterfly, sugar, baby” – just those lines. Watch it sometime. It’s pretty hilarious. But then what was awesome was that every now and again we would catch five year old Augie in an unselfconscious moment, walking down some street in New Orleans with his light up sneakers and his Paw Patrol hat, going, “Come my lady, come come my lady, you’re my butterfly, sugar, baby.” For me, there’s such a grace that comes from witnessing that. It’s the grace of seeing a child that unguarded. It’s the grace of having the time and attention as a parent to actually see and relish such a moment. It was another way of entering those restorative waters, stirred by the hand of something divine.
Which brings me back to Old Lyme, back to our community, back to that parable that I began with. The last thing I saw in New Orleans as we gassed up the car before hitting the road was the empty pedestal where the statue of Robert E. Lee had long stood. Removing it felt like a significant step toward addressing our country’s terrible racial history, and I felt glad to see it gone. Little did I know as we drove away that just a few days later the streets would erupt in Charlottesville around a similar statue. I don’t know what this past week has been like for each of you. But if the conversations I’ve had with some of you are representative, there’s a mixture of alarm and disbelief, even after all the warning signs for the past year, that such naked forms of hatred and racism could be emerging. There’s a gnawing anxiety about what it all portends for our country. There’s pain that our highest elected official seems incapable of moral leadership. And there’s the very real awareness that stoking that sort of racist and xenophobic hatred has sent other parts of the world spiraling into decades of violence. It’s all chilling to contemplate. There are moments when that stunned disbelief can yield to a kind of paralysis, where we wind up lying on our mats, staring at the world, knowing that there exists a wider, larger, and deeper restorative pool than any I have so far envisioned or mentioned, where our infirmities and prejudices and divisions are healed, while also feeling a sense of frustration that while the angel may somewhere be stirring those waters, we just can’t get there. I don’t know about you, but there are moments I’m tempted by such thoughts.
Thankfully, the voice of Jesus intercedes. “Take up your mat, and walk! Don’t succumb to paralysis or despair. Don’t succumb to cynicism or fear. Take up your mat and walk. I think I heard Jesus speaking those words all around me this week. I heard Jesus’s voice when I thought about Heather Heyer and all the other ordinary folks who left their homes last week to stand against hatred, knowing they were at risk. I heard Jesus’s voice when I read an account of Charlottesville from a fellow UCC minister who described storefronts that stayed open even after violence erupted, to provide water and shelter to those who needed it, who described anti-fascists who surrounded clergy members to protect them from violence, who described selfless acts of generosity after that speeding car unleashed chaos upon the scene. I heard the voice of Jesus when that same minister reminded people of faith and conscience to take heart, because we’ve been preparing for this all our lives. I heard the voice of Jesus as CEOs and business leaders and governors and mayors and artists and ordinary folks everywhere found their moral voices. I heard the voice of Jesus in each of those moments, saying, “take up your mat, and walk.” There’s immense work that needs to be done – in our world, in our towns, in our own hearts. There’s immense blindness and paralysis around us and within us, but in one form or another, I believe Jesus intercedes, saying to each and every one of us, “Take up your mat, and walk.” I promise that we’ll walk together, in search of that deep and restorative pool, where an angel dips his finger, where we’re given eyes to see what we hadn’t seen before, where we’re given the strength to move in ways we hadn’t before, and where our collective moral infirmities might be healed. The voice of Jesus comes to us all, urging us to walk.
But let me end with something smaller, something simpler. Since returning, I’ve spent time visiting with a good many of you. And I know that among us, there are concerns that are far more immediate than what’s happening in the news. Some among us are dealing with the aftermath of surgeries, or wrestling with illnesses. Some among us are feeling the loss of someone precious, or feeling displacement after a move, coping with depression, or feeling overwhelmed by the burdens of aging. Those concerns can take a profound toll on anybody’s ability to stay sane or positive throughout the day. They can leave us not only physically and emotionally drained, but spiritually exhausted as well. It can leave us in a kind of torpor, lacking the will to move. If you happen to reside upon such a mat right now, I believe that Jesus’s words are meant for you too. It’s not an exhortation to do what you can no longer do. It’s not an admonishment to change. It’s the promise that there do exist moments, and people, and communities, and places, that work like restorative waters upon us. It’s a reminder that there is yet something beyond the mat upon which we sit, moments of grace in which the divine dips its finger, offering wholeness. It’s a reminder of the great love that surrounds us and holds us together, even if, as Paul puts it, we only see and feel it dimly. Jesus’s words, take up your mat, and walk, are a reminder that we can yet move toward that which restores and heals us. What’s the restorative pool for you? Where and when and with whom does it exist?
The word I have for us all, challenged as we are in so many ways, is to pick up our mats, and to walk, confident of the restorative waters that truly are before us and around us and within us. Take up your mat. And walk.