The First Lesson: Acts (16:9-15)
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
The Response: Psalm 67
1 May God be merciful to us and bless us, *
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
2 Let your ways be known upon earth, *
your saving health among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.
4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, *
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide all the nations upon earth.
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.
6 The earth has brought forth her increase; *
may God, our own God, give us his blessing.
7 May God give us his blessing, *
and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.
The Epistle: Revelation (21:10, 22-22:5)
In the spirit [the angel] carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
The Gospel: John (5:1-9)
There was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
This past week, I had the honor of writing letters on your behalf to the members of two of the Twelve-Step groups that meet every week in our Community Building. The Tuesday evening NA Group, also known as “Narcotics Anonymous” or “New Alive”, was celebrating their 33rd anniversary. And this month, the Saturday Night AA group is marking 68 years of meeting at St. Mark’s. I took the occasion to congratulate both of them, to thank them for the wonderful work that they have done and continue to do, and to assure them of our continued prayers for them in their helping and healing ministries.
Their celebrations of these milestones coincide well with the first reading and gospel reading that we heard this morning, because both of them remind us of our mutual dependence on one another and of the need that we all have to help and receive help from one another.
Our first reading marks a major turning-point in the missionary work of St. Paul. Up until this time, his efforts had been confined to the lands that now comprise Israel, Syria and Turkey. But in today’s reading, the author of the Acts of the Apostles describes a dream that he had. A man of Macedonia appeared to him, pleading, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” It was a call that would lead to Paul’s first mission in Europe: a decisive moment in the life of the early church
But the next sentence in the account is just as significant. It reads: “When he had seen the vision, we [emphasis added] immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” This passage marks a shift in Acts from a third-person narrator to a first-person plural, personal account. Whoever is telling the story had now become part of the mission along with Paul, because Paul realized that he could not do the work alone. The unnamed man of Macedonia, and those whom he represented, needed help from Paul; but Paul needed help from others. If Paul had not realized it before, he was now beginning to comprehend their mutual dependence on one another.
But that realization didn’t stop there. When the apostle and his companions had crossed over and had brought the good news to a group of women at ”a place of prayer” by the river in Philippi, all those who were part of that encounter quickly recognized their dependence on one another. The women needed Paul and his companions to bring them the message and life of the gospel; but Paul and his companions needed Lydia and her hospitality in order to continue their work. They discovered that they were mutually dependent on one another.
In our relatively brief gospel reading, we find another example of someone needing just a small amount of help from somebody else, but help that could dramatically change his life. John tells us about an unnamed man who had been ill for 38 years. He had come to a place of healing; but, because of his physical limitations, he could not make the final steps in time to be cured. He could see the place where he could be healed; it was only a few feet away; but he could only watch painfully, longingly, realizing that he could never reach it in time without someone to help him. But then along came Jesus, a total stranger, who took time to help him: to help him in a way that he could never have imagined. And that help changed his life.
Our culture is often one that prizes and celebrates individuality and complete independence from one another. We hold to the illusion of the so-called “self-made man” or woman as an ideal. In reality, that image of autonomy is only an illusion. We are all dependent on many other people for whatever we have and whatever we accomplish in life; and we are all mutually dependent on one another.
David Brooks has written about the way that we can delude ourselves, giving ourselves the credit for everything that we have and for whatever we have accomplished in life, convinced of our own autonomy. He calls that tendency “The Credit Illusion.” Writing to a fictitious inquirer who has asked about how much credit he actually deserves for everything that he has accomplished in his life and for everything that he now owns, David Brooks writes: “You… are right to preserve your pride in your accomplishments. Great companies, charities and nations were built by groups of individuals who each vastly overestimated their own autonomy. As an ambitious executive, it’s important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it’s important for you to know that’s nonsense.”
Eventually in life, we all discover how indebted we are to those who have gone before us: our parents and grandparents, our teachers, our mentors, fellow members of our church, those who went out of their way to take a chance on us, those who saw something special in us that we may not have seen ourselves. If we are wise, like some of those whom we encounter in our scripture readings, we know that we have all been helped in many ways by many other people. And we recognize that we have a responsibility to help others as well: to enable them to have those things that they need, to enable them to succeed, in the many different meanings of that word.
The help that we receive and the help that we give need not be anything grand or dramatic. People rarely need things that are grand and dramatic. Sometimes they – and sometimes we – just need somebody to stop to talk with and listen to them, to do something simple like providing them with a ride to church or to the grocery, to offer them a word of encouragement or support, to provide for them some of those intangible but tremendously important, simple things that other people have provided for us.
As Paul and his co-workers found, as Lydia and her friends found, as the man at the Pool of Beth-zatha found, as those who attend our weekly 12-Step groups have found, as all of us find at some stage in life, we all have benefitted from and still need the help and support of others; and we all need to offer our generous help and support to others. As George Washington Carver once insisted, “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong; because some day in life you will have been all of these.”
We are all in this life together. We are all dependent on one another. And together, we are all dependent on God. That’s one of the reasons that we are here today and on other Sundays all year long. As the late William Sloane Coffin once pointedly asked: “It is often said that the church is a crutch. Of course it’s a crutch. What makes you think you don’t limp?”