A Sermon based upon Mark 2:1-12
The first time I preached on this text, I talked about the “Roof that was Unroofed” and the “Crowd that was Concerned”. You see, out in California, where the possibility of earthquake damage is very real, I imagined what it might have been like to be seated in the house when the ceiling started coming down! (!) The second time I preached on this text, I titled my sermon “Making an Opening from Above” and I focused on the faith that was shown by the four friends who had “made a way where there was no way” and (with significant effort!) found a way to get the paralyzed man to Jesus for healing.
The third time I preached on this text, I focused on the fact that people were “healed and forgiven” when they brought themselves to Jesus. People flocked to Jesus -- drawn by his reputation as a miracle-working healer, reminiscent of contemporary “faith healers” on TV like Oral Roberts and Benny Hinn, who can fill an auditorium with Evangelical Protestants -- or like crowds of devout Roman Catholic faithful are drawn by images of the Blessed Virgin (of Lourdes, France, Our Lady of Fatima, or Guadalupe in Mexico).
By the time I came to Alpena (six years ago), I had begun to focus on the controversy and opposition that Jesus aroused when he told the paralyzed man that “his sins were forgiven.” It is as though Jesus’ power to heal (whether it was the leper he met on the road, or the paralyzed man let down through the roof) was not in dispute. Instead, it was the “teaching” that he attached to it!
My sermon from Feb. 7, 2017 (two years ago) is available on our website and on YouTube, so I’ll not have to preach it again. (!) But let me just make a couple points (for those of us who may have been absent that Sunday):
Imagine if -- in the middle of a Bible Study (or a worship service) -- the roof overhead started to come off -- I’d be frightened for the people gathered beneath it! I would want to get y’all out, safe and sound. So, if I were Jesus in today’s story -- I’d (first) be startled by what was happening, and then (second) I’d be a bit offended that these guys unroofed my house. Who’s gonna make good on the damage!? (The Property Committee would certainly have a fit! Right Edith, Ron?) Furthermore, who do they think they are to be so demanding of our time and attention? Can’t those guys up there see that we’re busy down here!?? It was a full house (we are told); Jesus was teaching. How rude for them to interrupt!
Fortunately for them (and for you & me, as well) I am not Jesus. (Make no mistake about it!) Fortunately for them, Jesus is not me -- prone to be startled by unexpected intrusion, and to be afraid; quick to take offense and to be angry. No, Jesus responds very differently than how I would have if my house were being ripped open. Jesus sees in the persistent effort of those four friends of the paralyzed man an affirmation of their “faith” (their “pistis” in Greek): their confident, believing “trust.” Here’s how Mark (2:5) puts it: When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic: “My son, your sins are forgiven.”
Calling the paralyzed man “Son” when Jesus was not his father -- and then telling him that his sins were forgiven -- this response from Jesus to the disruption of his class was not expected … and it caused eyebrows to be raised! In particular, among the scribes (the Bible teachers) who were present, who would never have thought to speak with such warmth & intimacy to a stranger -- let alone to a sick one, who was busting into their space uninvited, unannounced!
Now, some of the scribes were sitting there, says Mark, questioning in their hearts: “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy. Who can forgive sins, but God alone?”
These traditional Bible teachers wrinkle their foreheads in consternation -- for they firmly believe that only God can forgive sins... not human beings. And what is Jesus, if not a son of man like every other mortal ! ? Who does he think he is, a Son of God!? That’s blasphemy! God is the ultimate judge, not any of us.
They may have forgotten that the opening words of the Tablets of the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai proclaim: the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, & abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin... (Exodus 34:6-7a)… ya-da, ya-da, ya-da… “yet… (they would be quick to point out) by no means clearing the guilty.” (Ex. 34:7b)
You see, what the scribes thought that passage meant was very simple: forgiveness of sin is a trait of God! And because it is a characteristic of the divine, it is not expected from human beings! In fact (in their opinion) it is not allowed! According to their interpretation of the Bible, forgiveness is reserved to God alone. In the same way that “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; I will repay...” so, too (according to them), the decision to forgive sin (or not!) was considered God’s exclusive domain. In other words, we “mortals” (the sons and daughters of “man”) have no business doing on earth what only God is said to be able to do in heaven. Jesus -- as a mortal, a son of man -- has no authority to forgive sins... even though he does (apparently) have the power to heal.
The therapeutic possibility that becomes open to us all when the "pardoning" power of God is made real between human beings -- which is represented in the story by the cleansing of the paralyzed man (& his friends) of their sense of sin -- might also correct the prejudice that the scribes and the crowd held against the disabled -- assumptions that the disabled are somehow less than human, seeing them as unclean sinners, assuming that they are somehow at fault for their own physical disability.
We should keep in mind that the prevailing view of “sick-ness” (in Jesus’ day) linked it with “sin.” So, every broken and hurting person needed to know first of all that the problem of their presumed “sin” was eliminated! They needed to know that God held nothing against them. Period! Once they knew that they were loved by God, and affirmed publicly as OK... the rest of their healing could follow. The paralysis of spirit was loosened for good.
Jesus knew what the scribes taught, and he also knew that his tenderness toward the man -- showing (1) no anger for the destroyed roof, (2) using "intimate" language of love, & (3) assuring him that his sins were forgiven -- went against everything the Bible teachers assumed about God. I think Jesus knew what he was doing! And Jesus could see their raised eyebrows and their wrinkled foreheads; he could hear their murmurs... Mark tells us:
At once, Jesus perceived in his spirit that they questioned within themselves; and he said to them: “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? ... But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins... I say to you [the paralytic], ‘Rise, take up your npallet, and go to your home.’” The man stood up, immediately took the mat and went out before them, so that they were all amazed and glorified God saying: “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:6-12)
When the lame man got up and walked, the good news of his healing (and the underlying forgiveness!) made the people say: “We’ve never seen anything like this!”
(It reminds me of the Leslie Bricusse song in the original musical “Dr. Dolittle” when the circus owner says to Rex Harrison: “You know that I’ve seen the world. I’ve been around. I could tell you stories that would quite astound you... But there’s never been anything like this! No, I’ve never seen anything like this in my life!”) How exciting it must have been!
Jesus has demonstrated that the first step toward changing someone’s life could be to reclaim the healing power of those simple words: “Your sins are forgiven!” You are forgiven. The slate is wiped clean. You’re free.
To this day, there are Bible-believers who, like those scribes sitting there, question in their hearts: “Who can forgive sins, but God alone!?” The answer is, very simply and clearly: every son and daughter of the human race has that “pardoning power!” Not just God, and not just Jesus: we all can! All y’all can! That’s the radical Good News of Jesus’ Gospel. Even the scribes could’ve forgiven, if they would’ve! You can. I can.
In today’s text, we see that Jesus not only freed up that one man’s paralysis, he opened the power of forgiveness for all of us! And the Church as an institution (as the Body of Christ in the world) must try to do as Jesus did.
That was the gist of my sermon two years ago, and it probably deserves being heard again. (!) But this morning we have an additional perspective to consider. In Chapter 26 of “We Make the Road by Walking”, Brian McLaren says:
Let’s imagine ourselves visitors in that small village in Galilee, just at the time Jesus was there…
A crowd has completely filled the house. An even bigger crowd surrounds the house, with people crammed around every open window and door. We approach, but can hear only a word or two. We ask a woman on the edge of the crowd about what’s going on inside.
She whispers that inside the house is a rabbi everyone wants to hear. We ask her who he is. She motions for us to follow her, and whispers, “I am Mary. I come from Magdala, a town not far from here. I don’t want to disturb those who are trying to listen, but I will be glad to tell you what I know.”
When we get a stone’s throw from the house, Mary explains that the rabbi inside is the son of a carpenter from Nazareth. He has no credentials [to teach], or status [in the community], no army or weapons, no nobility or wealth. [None of the social marks people use to gauge success or power.] He simply travels from village to village with a dozen of his friends, and a substantial number of supportive women, teaching deep truths [about life and about God] to the peasants of Galilee.
“Look around at us,” she says. “We are poor. Many of us are unemployed, and some are homeless. See how many of us are disabled, and how many are, like me, women. Few of us can afford an education. … but we are hungry to learn! And wherever this rabbi [Jesus] goes, it is like a free school for everyone.
“Do you think he is starting a new religion?”, we ask.
She thinks for a moment and whispers, “He says he is announcing a new kingdom.”
We continue, “So, he is a rebel?”
“His kingdom is not like the regimes of this world,” says Mary, “who take up daggers, swords, and spears […who make laws and who demand taxes]. (!) [No.] He heals the sick, teaches the un-schooled, and inspires the down-trodden with hope. So, no, I would not say that [Jesus] is a rebel. Nor would I say that this is a ‘revolution’. I would call it an ‘uprising’! An uprising of learning and hope.”
We look curious, so she continues:
“According to Rabbi Jesus, you cannot point to this land or that region and say, ‘The kingdom of God is located here’, because it exists in us, among us. It does not come crashing in like an Army, he says. It grows slowly, quietly, under the surface, like the roots of a tree, like yeast rising in dough, like seeds in soil. Our faith waters the seed and makes it grow [over time]. Do you see this? (!) When people trust [what he is saying] is true, they act upon it, and it becomes true. Our faith [as we follow his way] unlocks its potential. Our faith makes it real!”
We wait for her to continue: “Most of [us] are just trying to survive. Some people are dreaming about a Holy War against Rome and their puppets in Jerusalem. Even little boys are sharpening their knives and talking of war! But I think that is foolish. My father was killed in the rebellion in Sepphoris [said Mary Magdalene], so I know. There must be another way. Another kind of uprising. An uprising of Peace! If Rabbi Jesus can lead that kind of uprising, I will join it gladly.”
Brian McLaren says: For Jesus, the call to trust him was closely linked to the call to “follow” him. If we truly trust Jesus, we will follow him on the road, imitate him, learn from his example, live by his Way. Because Jesus’ message was (and is!) so radical on so many levels, believing and following can’t be treated lightly. They are costly. They require us to “re-think” everything. They change the course of our lives.
He has us go back to imagining the conversation with Mary…
She leans toward us and whispers: “Often, when he heals some-one, Jesus says, ‘Your faith has made you well.’ So there it is again. With him, faith is where it all begins. When you believe, you make it real. (!) You change this (she points to her head) and this (she points to her heart), and you change all this…” (!) She gestures to indicate the whole world.
We hear in her words a summons… a challenge… a life-changing invitation. Do we dare to step out and follow Jesus – to make the road by walking – to risk everything in an uprising of peace, an uprising of generosity, an uprising of forgiveness, an uprising of love?
If we believe, we will care.
And if we truly care, we will have to do something about it!
For to believe is to care, and to care is to do. If we believe, and act on it, we will make the Kingdom of God real in Alpena. (!) So help us God to do do… for Christ’s sake, in Jesus’ name.
 McLaren, Brian D., “We Make the Road by Walking”, Jericho Books, Hatchette Book Group: New York, NY, © 2014, pages 121 - 124