Monday, February 20

Sermon 7th Sunday After Epiphany

Isaiah 43:18-25
Psalm 41
2 Corinthians 1:18-22
Mark 2:1-12

What does i t mean to be whole? Do we want to be whole, truly whole? These are the questions Isaiah and the Gosple ask of us this evening. Healing and forgiveness are about being whole because they are about confronting evil and sin in ourselves and the world. Yet, while asserting this I also want to honestly face the difficulty of stories of physical healing for us in our skeptical, pluralistic and questioning time. I at least am unsure how to appropriate these stories for myself let alone sure how to preach from our Gospel today. My suspicion is that our encounter with this Gospel is haunted by many questions. Some question maybe around scientific knowledge and its definitions of what is possible. Other questions may center around the seeming arbitrariness or infrequency of divine and miraculous healing. These questions may be very personal and gut wrenching: Why was I not healed? Why wasn't so and so whom I prayed for healed? The questions may also surround the source or technique of healing: What of Rake or Eastern medicine? Our questions may also stem from issues of where does prayer and scientific medicine meet. A question I regularly faced as a chaplain: what place does prayer have in the midst of the hospital? I do not know if these questions help of hinder our hearing the Word of God?
Perhaps I should just focus on forgiveness and psychological healing. Maybe I should just talk about ways in which we can help people be freed form oppression that cripples them? Yet is this route really free of problems and questions? Are we able to embrace forgiveness? Do we understand sin and forgiveness of sins any better than we understand physical healing? Do we as often as not evade talk of Sin? We speak of needing to forgive ourselves and failing to do so. We also speak of never forgiving someone or of unforgivable acts. We can be deeply self critical and equally judgmental of those around us. In movies the symbol of forgiveness, the confessional, become a place of intreague hypocrisy and entrapment. I doubt our culture embraces true forgiveness any better than it embraces physical healing.
Isaiah and Mark come to us in the midst of all these struggles and questions calling us Beyond the presupostions of our culture and our cultural Christianities, what ever lable they wear: conservative, liberal, charismatic, etc. Gods Word to us confronts us with our weekness, our sin, our ailments and offers us healing and wholeness. God's word comes to us and does not allow us to limit the effects and reach of the Kingdom of God. The story of the paralytic should grab us viscerally for it is the Gospel at its most raw, confronting us with the limits of our understanding.
This is what makes Mark's story of the paralytic such good drama. Jesus has returns to Capernum where he began his public ministry and word has spread that Jesus is back in town. Some friends of a paralyzed man hearing this news rush to their friends house and carry him out. Maybe with some protestation on the part of the paralytic: "You don't need to make such a fuss. Just let me be?!" But the friends are going to bring him to Jesus, and they together carry him through the dusty streets to the house where Jesus is staying. Word has spread so rapidly that when they arrive at the house it is packed full. They could barely squeeze through the crowd one at a time let alone four men carrying a fifth on a mat.
They put their friend down, a little discouraged. The paralytic says, "See take me home, it's obviously not God's will for me to be healed, at least not today. Maybe another time." His friends tell him to hush and let them think. They look all around the house for another possible way in but there is no other way. Suddenly one of them is jumping up and down at the door trying to get a good look at where Jesus is. "What are you doing Thadeus?" say the other three. He motions for them to wait. He then turns around and says, "I've got it, the roof" "You've got to be kidding, that's crazy." another says "Thad that's crazy enough it might work!" Their friend on the mat says "No, no, no, people will stare, their already starring, look! I hate it when people stare. Plus, isn't enough that I am paralyzed you have to kill me as well." "Oh stop your winning you'll be fine. It's the only way will get you to Jesus." And so they climb the stairs to the roof. Thadeus paces off where he thinks Jesus should be and the four take off their outer cloaks and tie them to the ends of the mat. They begin to dig.
Meanwhile Jesus is teaching. Some scribes the religious teachers are nearby. Listening carefully testing what Jesus says in their minds. Dust at first and then plaster begins to fall from the ceiling. Some plaster falls on Jesus' head and he brushes it away, suddenly more dirt and plaster fall to the ground in front of Jesus people begin to back up. Jesus has stopped speaking and with everyone looks up as daylight streams in to the dark room and hands and faces appear and disappear. Soon there is a large somewhat rectangular opening in the roof and four faces peer over the edge. Jesus smiles. People begin to whisper and mutter as the four men lower the paralytic on his matt. Those gathered are watching Jesus: what will he do, surely he will speak against this wanton destruction of property, surely he will heal this man. The scribes watch carefully poised ready to pounce.
The matt drops the last few inches to the floor with a sudden thud, and all is quiet. Jesus looks up again at the four friends and turns with a smile to the man on the mat and says "Your sins are forgiven." At this the the crowd erupts again with surprised whisper. The scribes are shocked. Everyone wonders what can this mean? Is there a connection between the paralysis and this man's sin? Is he not going to heal this man like he has so many others?
Isn't this surprising? Maybe not to us. I don't know if this surprises you but it was not surprising to most of the commentators and preachers I read in preparation for this sermon. The consensus seems to be even among those that believe Jesus did miraculously heal people that this makes perfect sense, after all it is really for our spiritual and psychological healing that Jesus came. Following this line of thought the paralysis of the this man becomes a metaphor . While I agree that certainly to be forgiven is healing and healing is certainly used in this figurative sense in Scripture, I think that to simply read this passage figuratively is to miss part of what the passage has to say to us.
Now back to our story. The Scribes were not only surprised but offended. After all only God can forgive sins, and they were also probably thinking only after sacrifices have been made and some payment of the sin and sign of repentance. After all even the passage of Isaiah shows God offering forgiveness after he has punished Israel for their sin by sending them into exile. Jesus is too cavalier, not only placing himself in the place of God but forgiving freely without any strings: To simply declare sins forgiven is an affront to God and God's Law, the Scriptures.
Jesus knows their thoughts. The crowd has seen the scribes agitation and forceful whispering. The air is thick with tension. Will the Scribes say anything? Instead it is Jesus who speaks again. "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is it 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 says to the paralytic "I say to you stand up, take your mat and go to your home." And the man gets up, picks up his cot and walked out the way he could not get in through the crowd. What just happened? All are amazed some dumbfounded. What is the meaning of all this?
Jesus makes a number of connections we are perhaps uncomfortable with: between sin and physical disorder, between faith and healing. Yet, Jesus' connections are not about cause and effect but relation. Forgiveness of sin and physical healing parallel each other, neither is more or less difficult. Each is equallly significant for the Gospel and the manisfestation of the Kingdom in this man's life. Mark also tells us that Jesus forgives and heals the paralytic on the basis not the paralytics faith but the faith of his friends. Mark to underscore this point makes no reference to the paralytics faith or doubt, unlike I did in my retelling. Mark emphasizes that the paralytic receives forgiveness and healing without reference to his faith or his doubt. He is simply forgiven and healed on the basis of the faith of his community. So this is a story of faith, but we should not loose sight of how this story unfolds in the midst of questions, doubts and uncertainty. Jesus is unphased by these things. The Gospel , the work of Jesus and the manifestation of the kingdom functions in this matrix while being center all on Jesus and the Church.
Yes, the church. According to commentators when Mark talks about Jesus being at home or in the house this is an allusion to the Church. Mark then is contextualizing Jesus' work and that of the Kingdom of God in the midst of community specifically the body of Christ, the Church. This story of healing and forgiveness is not about an individual encounter between a person and Jesus, but occurs in the midst of those gathered around Jesus. The man is forgiven in the midst of his community and the community of God, the body of Christ. This emphasis on community and church here in this story should not surprise us since the Church has always had two rites which parallel each other just as fogiveness and healing parallel each other in this story: confession/reconciliation and anointing with oil for healing. James 5:13-18 makes this same connection of anointing for healing and confession and forgiveness of sin. Mark calls us to come, James calls us to come to Jesus, to come with the community of faith and be healed and made whole.
The world in all its manifestation, in obvious and subtle ways, can wear us down, tempt us. We who are gathered together as the body of Christ still live in the world marked by sin and death. A world that can leave it mark on us through physical ailment personal sin and complicity with societal sin. Through Christ in Christ in the midst of his body the Church we come to be renewed and made whole. We come so that we may witness to the Kingdom of God in the world. This is why we together confess our sin and why each Sundnay before we come to the table we offer the opportunity for any and all to come to Jesus, whether for the first time or again, offering anointing for healing. We are here to be made whole by Christ and so we pray together and for one another. We confess our sins together. We are anointed for healing. If you hesitate to come, if you are uncertain and plagued with doubt or question come anyway, lay yourself down in the faith of this community, the faith of the Church, which invites you to come to Jesus in confession and holy anointing. Come to Jesus and be made whole. Continue to come again and again, so that we as the body of Christ may witness to the healing (personal and corporate) offered by God in Christ. Come with your questions uncertainty and doubts and Christ will make us whole.