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Scripture is interesting, isn’t it? It almost seems like a cliché to talk about how the meaning can change each time we pick up the Bible and read a passage of Scripture – but, it’s really true, isn’t it? Have you had that experience? Where you read a passage one day and possibly a year later, you read it again and the meaning might be very different than what you thought it was the year before. Sometimes, our latest interpretations eclipse previous ones. Other times we are able to hold onto multiple interpretations of a passage, appreciating the complexity of the passage as if it has layers like an onion. I realize I could go on and on about the revelations of Scripture on any given Sunday but, this Sunday, I have to tell you – the passage we are getting into today is one of those passages whose complexity I have sought to embrace.
When I was in college, just at the beginning of my junior year, I was in a car accident. Some of you may have known this about me. But, the car accident left me with a pretty serious spinal cord injury. You see, there was a cyst inside of my spinal cord that had been there since birth, the doctors suspected, and the trauma of the car accident caused the cyst to balloon up. It ended up expanding to block 80% of the width of my spinal cord – blocking my nerves and slowly paralyzing my body. It was painful. It was terrifying. It was frustrating. It was angering. It took doctors a long time to figure out the source of the problem and when they finally did, the initial plan of action was simply to wait and see – pretty frustrating to my very active and athletic 20 year-old self. Eventually, two years later, my deterioration got to the point where the risk of surgery was worth it. Five days after I graduated college, I underwent a major spinal cord operation and, thankfully, I made a full recovery. During this time – I was also discerning a call into ministry…of all things.
Reading today’s text back then, I heard it differently than I do today. Our text this morning tells the story of a paralytic man made to walk again – another story of miraculous healing at the hand of Jesus. Back then, I so longed for this story to be literal. For those two years of struggling with such pain and deterioration, I ached for Jesus to see my faith and see the faith of my friends. Surely that would be enough for Jesus to just command me to walk easily and pain free again. But since that didn’t happen, this particular passage was placed in pile of texts to deal with later – texts that made it hard for me to be confident in the love of God. I had to put this passage away for a while. And today, I’m grateful to say, I hear this text differently. I haven’t forgotten my previous experiences with this text, but I am grateful that more layers of understanding have been added. And, I hope that as you hear this text again today, you hear it with new ears too – and together, we might hear a new Word from God through it. So, let’s get into it.
Let us pray, Good and Gracious God – startle us. Startle us with your love and inspires us anew. Sew these, Your, words upon our hearts and help us to see the new ways your Gospel lives in the world. Amen.
Mark 2: 1-22
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’
Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Mark’s Gospel starts off somewhat like the running of the bulls. Everything happens immediately immediately immediately for Mark. And, from the beginning, the arc of the story of the Gospel begins to take shape as the author describes scenes in quick succession – in this passage alone, 3 different scenes are described. As a whole, the story of the Gospel of Mark “seeks to shatter the readers’ way of seeing the world and invites them to embrace another, thus impelling them to action” because the kingdom of God is drawing near. And, ultimately, the aim of the Gospel is to invite “people to put faith in the Good News about the arrival of the rule of God and the way of life that the rule of God entailed. In doing so, [the author of the Gospel of Mark] leads us to become followers of Christ” (Rhoads).
So, rather than start with the birth narrative, we jump right in with Jesus as an adult. After Jesus has been baptized, tempted, and started his ministry of calling disciples, exorcizing demons and healing the sick and infirm, Jesus heads home for a little bit of rest – or so he thinks. When he arrives home, practically everyone in the village is at his house – so many packed into his house that the door is blocked! And, this is where our story picks up for us this morning.
Jesus is in his own home, flooded with the people from his hometown, and he continues to teach. Among the crowd, there is a group of five friends – four able-bodied and one paralyzed, unable to walk. They realize the door is blocked with people and there was no way they could all fit – not when they have to carry their paralyzed friend on a mat. Persevering and believing it is more important to get close to Jesus than to be polite, this group of friends boldly hops up on his roof, digs a hole through it and then lowers one of them, the paralyzed one, down into Jesus’ house.
You can almost picture Jesus looking up and seeing this hole begin to appear above him. As the hole grows bigger, he sees four friends, working together on creating an opening and then their attention moves from digging to a fifth friend – a friend lying on a mat, not moving much but wide-eyed. Without a pulley system—perhaps with the help of others inside the house to lower him down safely—they work together to get their friend on the mat down into the room where Jesus is teaching. Jesus looks at the man on the mat and then back at the friends on the roof. Recognizing the faith of this group of friends, he says to the man on the mat, “your sins are forgiven.”
And, you can almost hear the muttering in the background of the skeptics in the group. Every crowd has their peanut gallery, and you can imagine them trying to work out in their minds what is happening. Where does Jesus get off telling a man that his sins are forgiven? Who is he to make a judgment on the sins of others?! And, what in the world would possess him to say that first? Jesus can sense there are skeptics in the room and rather than answer passive aggressiveness with passive aggressiveness, he responds to them directly. And he asks the question, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”?” Answering his own question, he turns back to the man paralyzed on the mat and he commands him to stand up, take his mat and walk. How’s that for a mic drop?!
Now, before we move on, I want to take a few moments to reflect on this incredible scene. I want to take a moment to reflect on the complexity and dynamism of this text. So much is happening here. From the friends, to what paralysis and sin mean, to what it means to be healed and commanded to walk – there is deeply rich allegory here and I don’t want to breeze over this.
First, let’s look at the group of friends, the dynamics at play and the decisions they made. Can you imagine being in this group? Can you imagine being one of the five of them? You hear that Jesus is back in town and you wonder aloud together if the paralysis in their midst could be made to move again. Just going and seeing doesn’t seem to take much risk. So, together, as a group, you decide to head out. On the way to Jesus, anticipation swells. Hope grows within for this miraculous change. Inspiration stirs within as Jesus draws nearer. And can you imagine being a part of this group when you arrive and see that the traditional way to get closer to Jesus is not an option? Propelled by hope and compelled towards healing, this group of friends boldly come up with a new plan, a big plan, a wild plan – a plan in which faith in God’s presence and God’s power among all people is made real and visible – visible to all, including the doubters and the naysayers, including Jesus.
This group of friends – they hop up on the roof and their faith is revealed as they dig until they see Jesus.
I can’t help but marvel at the hope and faith those five friends possessed to have taken such a bold action. I try to put myself in that position and I wonder on whose roof would we, as a community, want to dig through and for what purpose. I wonder what paralysis experienced among us would motivate us to act so boldly, would compel us to think so creatively, would make us so anxious for change that together we would seek out healing so aggressively? Would that be like accompanying gay and lesbian couples all across this country digging a hole through the ceiling of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s home to drop denied marriage certificates and two-parent adoption papers down in hopes that she can make all families safer? Or, would it be like the joining in the #blacklivesmatter movement digging a hole through the roof of justice and dropping our privilege and broken, racist systems down below, expectant of the miraculous healing? What would it look like for us, church?
Fingernails full of dirt and straw, clay and stone, those five friends had faith in the power of God’s healing. At most, they thought Jesus would make the one walk again. But, what happened was even more miraculous than they could have imagined. Rather than simply meet their expectations, Jesus broke through the conventions of healing as the crowd knew it and declared forgiveness as the vehicle for movement again.
You see, the leading edge of the Gospel of Mark is that we are forgiven – not just of the bad things we have done, but that we are no longer paralyzed by sin and darkness. We are free to accept God’s abundant forgiveness, free to get up and walk and live accordingly. We are free to take up our responsibility as children of God and walk in the ways of justice and mercy. The Gospel of Mark helps us to understand the love of God through Jesus, who does not operate according to the dichotomies of our making. To Jesus, it is not either forgiveness or getting up and walking. With Jesus, our healing, our wholeness, our ability to get up and walk is wrapped up in our acceptance of God’s forgiveness. With Jesus, the old ways of either/or no longer apply – there is a new way of being through grace.
And, this brings us to the rest of the passage. From here on out, Jesus’ journey in the Gospel of Mark continues down the path of eating, drinking, living, breathing the grace of God for all of God’s people. Nearby his home, Jesus goes out for a walk by the lake and he finds Levi, a tax collector. Calling him to be a disciple, Jesus goes to Levi’s house to share in a meal. Sinners and saints alike gathered around the meal table – the only commonality among them being that they were all beginning to claim the identity of ‘follower of Christ.’ And, the religious leaders with their Books of Order in hand, peered in the window and wondered if Jesus and his followers were falling under the definition of impropriety or blasphemy. Jesus sees them and explains – ‘God’s love isn’t just for those who love God according to the rules. God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s compassion is for all of God’s children. Your faithfulness is important – obviously, all souls matter – but, since these precious ones have been made to feel so left out, so left behind, so used and abused, battered and frayed, I’m making sure they understand most clearly that I’m here for them too – not just the polite and privileged.’ And, when they questioned Jesus about the differences between the practices of his followers and the followers of others, he explained, “It’s time to make room for something new.”
You see, the Gospel of Mark, in every scene, at every turn, reveals the ways in which the love of God has permeated our world through Jesus so intimately that we can no longer live as we have lived before. Through Jesus, we are a forgiven people. And, we are called to walk as forgiven people in the world. The Sin that bound us and kept us from moving is no longer a barrier. We no longer need to live as paralyzed people. Rather, we are forgiven and we are called, as followers of Christ, to be bold, to think creatively and to have faith that even as we dig and dig, the opening will widen and the love of God will transform and redeem us in ways we could not have imagined.
It was the faith of the four friends that Jesus could see. It was the faith of Levi to stand up and follow Jesus. It was the faith of the tax collectors and sinners who took their seat at the dinner table. He didn’t have to see into their souls. He didn’t perceive it in their hearts in some telepathic way – like he does in other scenes. Jesus looked up and he saw their faith. Their willingness to take a risk, to get dirty, to try a different way when the first attempt didn’t work; their willingness not to hold back, not to wear their faith out on their metaphorical sleeve; their willingness to act boldly in the hope of Jesus’ healing touch to break the bonds of paralyzing sin; their willingness to accept the forgiveness which was not asked for nor deserved – this is the faith that cannot be contained in old wineskins and cannot be sewn into old ways of being. God is doing a new thing through Christ – and as God’s beloved children, may we live boldly, with full mobility, with confidence in our identity as followers of Christ, called out to live as forgiven people in the world. Amen.