One question that is helpful for us to ask when interpreting Scripture is “Where do I see myself in the story?” In other words, “Who do I identify with? What challenges me? What comforts me?” We may feel drawn to a particular character who speaks to what we’re dealing with at any given moment in life.
The beauty of Scripture is that we keep coming back to it, and we keep seeing something new. Our place in the story changes constantly. A detail we never noticed before jumps out at us like a giant neon sign. A new insight emerges from a story we’ve heard many times before.
Such is the case of the story of Jesus healing a paralytic man. This week I find myself identifying with several different characters in the story. But mostly, I feel paralyzed. I’m lying on the mat with our poor, unfortunate brother. Two mass shootings in less than 24 hours in El Paso and Dayton. The living conditions of those seeking asylum on our Southern border have not improved. Our country is more divided than ever. All we seem capable of doing is hurling insults at each other from the Left and from the Right. Our climate is changing more rapidly than scientists first predicted. 2018’s summer nighttime temperature, when averaged nationwide for June, July and August, was the hottest ever on record. We will probably break that record when the statistics for 2019 are compiled.
Locally, people are having a hard time finding affordable housing, while we build yet another boutique hotel. I have friends who are working more than one job and they can barely keep their heads above water, financially. My prayer list is pretty long these days with friends facing various diseases and losses of cherished loved ones.
So, yeah, I feel paralyzed. I’m lying on the mat with our poor, unfortunate brother. There are so many things blocking my way that I find it difficult to get close to Jesus. Perhaps you can relate to what I’m saying. Perhaps you, too, are feeling paralyzed these days. If this is the case, then our gospel lesson is going to give you some hope.
As the story begins, Jesus is teaching. Mark’s version of the story says the location is Peter’s house in Capernaum. That’s as good a location as any.
Guess who has all the good seats in the house? The pastors and deacons, the Sunday School teachers, people of position and power in the Church. Luke says “they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea, and from Jerusalem.” That’s a lot of church-going folk. It’s a bit like the ELCA Churchwide Assembly that happened last week in Milwaukee. The only way you’re getting in the door is with credentials, or at least a visitors pass.
So the church-going folk have all the good seats in the house. They’re owning their own pew, because no one’s going to sit in “their seat.” There are so many of them that they’ve blocked all the doors and windows as well!
Friends, this is a sad state of affairs! It begs us to ask ourselves how the Church has been guilty of keeping others from getting close to Jesus. Perhaps you’re one of those people who has experienced this exclusion firsthand. The sign on the front door may have said “All Are Welcome.” But, later, you learned that what this REALLY meant is that “All Are Tolerated” but not truly welcome.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Sometimes it’s done in the name of “religious liberty” where we insist on being the gatekeepers of who Jesus would or would not welcome. [By the way, that’s NOT our job description!] Sometimes it’s because we use the Bible to justify our own prejudices and make us feel morally superior to others. Sometimes it’s because we want Church to be comfortable, and if we allow “those people” in the door, our level of comfort will be greatly diminished.
There are a lot of reasons why we keep others from getting close to Jesus. But that’s a sermon for another day. Today, we focus on the paralyzed man who is the victim of this exclusion. He’s the one person in this crowd who really needs to get close to Jesus, and he cannot even get in the back door let alone the front door.
If we’ve been feeling that way lately. If we feel like the cares of the world, or well-intentioned Christians, are keeping us from getting close to Jesus, I have some good news. This good news comes in the form of faithful friends who will not take “no” for an answer, who ignore the gatekeepers and bouncers at the front door, who find another way to get their friend to the place where he needed to be!
First of all, let’s take a look at these friends. Luke says the paralyzed man was on his bed, which of course does not mean he was lying on a Sealy Posturepedic mattress. He was on a mat, a cot, which consisted of two poles and a piece of fabric between them. If this is the case, then it would take four friends to get the paralyzed man where he needed to be. They were “working their corner,” as Rev. Otis Moss III observed. Each was doing their part, and coordinating their efforts, so that their paralyzed friend could get closer to Jesus.
They also had to get a little bit inventive with their strategy. They could not use a “front door” ministry. You know what I mean? One of those ministries that is “officially sanctioned” by the Church and approved by a committee. One of those ministries that is well respected and well thought of by the community at large.
From what Luke is telling us, they could not even use a “back door” ministry. Instead, they had to tear the roof off the place! You heard what I said. They had to tear the roof off the place! They had to get creative and inventive! They had to cause a bit of a disturbance!
And don’t think for a second that ELCA Lutherans cannot tear the roof off the place This past week, at Churchwide Assembly approximately 700 delegates and pastors held a prayer vigil and sang hymns in front of the ICE Office in Milwaukee. They posted 9.5 theses that call for just and compassionate treatment of those who are seeking asylum in our country, including an end to separating children from their parents. So, we CAN tear the roof off the place!
As our gospel story continues, the four friends hoisted their friend onto the roof of the house, and began tearing the tiles off, one by one. Then they lowered their friend through the hole in the roof until his mat touched the ground right in front of where Jesus was sitting.
Now, that’s some good news! That’s where the church-going folk need to be! Instead of blocking the doors and windows and keeping others from getting close to Jesus, we need to be the ones who won’t take “no” for an answer. We need to be the ones who are creative and inventive, who are willing to tear the roof off the Church and do things differently so that everyone can get closer to Jesus. Amen? That’s another sermon for another day. Our focus is the paralyzed man.
As the dust from the roof tiles is falling on the heads of the church-going folk, we can imagine them loosing their minds over what is happening. I’m sure those on the property committee were yelling, “Who’s going to clean up this mess?” I’m certain there was at least one person who uttered those immortal words “We’ve never done it this way before!”
But the good news of the story is that we didn’t hear these words from Jesus! Instead, Luke says that when Jesus saw the faith and creativity and determination of these four friends, he turned to the paralyzed man and said “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” He offered the paralyzed man a taste of that “grace upon grace” others were keeping him from receiving.
When this happened, the church-going folks began to loose their minds. “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone? This is not the way Jesus should act. We keep him in a nice little box over in the corner. That’s where he supposed to stay.”
But we know, my dear friends, that Jesus is unboxable. Jesus will do what Jesus will do in spite of our attempts to control him. Just to prove the point, he told the church-going folk who were losing their minds, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to this paralyzed man, ‘Stand up, take your mat, and go home.” Immediately the paralyzed man stood up, took what he had been lying on, and went home, glorifying God.”
What I hear the Spirit saying to God’s people is that Jesus not only desires to offer us forgiveness. He desires that we stand up, moving beyond whatever is paralyzing us. He desires that we take up our mat, carrying with us the story of our journey from paralysis to new life. He desires that we go home, glorifying God and sharing with others what Jesus has done for us.
This story reminds me that in times when I feel paralyzed, I need to rely on my friends to help me get closer to Jesus. I need to refuse to listen to the church-going folk who are blocking my access to him. This story also reminds me that sometimes I need to be the friend who will not take no for an answer; who will do whatever it takes to help those who are paralyzed by life, or marginalized by others, to get closer to Jesus. I definitely do not need to be the person who is blocking all the doors and windows of the Church.
What gives me real hope for the church-going folk in this story, is the way they reacted to what Jesus said and did. Luke says, “Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today.'”
I love the ending of this story. “We have seen strange things today.” Because it tells me the church-going folk eventually got it. They pushed beyond their comfort zone. They let Jesus out of the box. They allowed him to do something different than they had ever seen him do before. It might have been strange to them. But they could not deny that it worked!
This may be the most hopeful part of the story. because we are those church-going folk. We need to make sure we’re not standing in the way of others getting closer to Jesus. We need to be inventive and creative in the ways we share the good news, so that all people, and I mean all people, may stand up, take their mat, and go home. AMEN
Copyright ©2019 by David Eck
[I am indebted to Rev. Otis moss III who preached a sermon on this gospel story at the 2019 Wild Goose Festival. I took his basic idea and put my spin on it!)