Scripture passage: Mark 2:1-12
This incident, involving Jesus, a house, a crowd, and a determined group of friends, not only left a literal hole in somebody’s roof, it also blew the lid off the common understanding of how God works and who gets privileges. Jesus’ forgiveness of the paralyzed man made the scribes and pharisees go “through the roof” with anger. The transformation of the man with the mat, from paralyzed to walking caused the crowds to go “through the roof” with excitement and amazement. In the midst of all the chaos, the four friends who went to such lengths to bring a man to Jesus are recognized by him for their faith. The healing stories of the Bible need to be handled with care. In the gospels, the stories are used to reveal Jesus’ power for life and his identity as a manifestation of God. They lead to both excitement and conflict, because some people are made hopeful, and others are threatened, by what Jesus offers and accomplishes. The danger for us today, in telling and exploring and celebrating these stories, is that we might inadvertently imply that people who live with challenging physical conditions (whether temporary or permanent) have somehow missed out on something that God is willing to give to others, but not to them. The danger is that we might damage someone’s faith, rather than recognize it, and nurture it, and help it to grow. Biblical healing stories celebrate faith. But it is important to emphasize that the miracle in these stories is not so much in the dramatic ultimate outcome, as in the trust, and the longing, and the seeking after God. Such trust and seeking is always rewarded, but it is not necessarily rewarded on the physical plane. In fact, in this story, Jesus is primarily interested responding to a spiritual need. He wants the paralyzed man to know that he belongs to God’s family. To Jesus, forgiveness/ acceptance/ drawing near to God is the interaction that really matters. He only tells the man to walk as a way of trying to convince his critics that he really does have the authority to extend God’s love and acceptance — even to people whose bodies don’t match an arbitrary standard of perfection. The good news here is that Jesus is happy to see the paralyzed man. He is not offended or scandalized by him. He is not afraid of being contaminated by being in the same room with him, or speaking with him. He does not interpret the man’s physical condition as a sign of God’s displeasure. Instead, right away, he says, “You are forgiven. You are in good standing with God.” The reason this statement is such a big problem for the scribes is that usually, in order to be in good standing with God(to have their sins forgiven), people have to come to the temple, pay a fee, sacrifice the correct (unblemished) animal, and receive a certificate of acceptability from the priests, which the scribes themselves are in the business of providing. Ordinarily, forgiveness from God can only be obtained by going through proscribed and highly controlled steps. But here’s Jesus, acting like forgiveness from God can just be given away, if a person has the faith to ask for it! The scribes’ power position, even perhaps their livelihood, is going to disappear fast, if Jesus intends to give away what they have been making people earn. Even worse, if he’s going to offer forgiveness to absolutely anybody, including those who would never ordinarily pass inspection. Right here is where those in power start to see that Jesus is going to create problems for them, so they begin to murmur the worst insinuation they know of: blasphemy! For Jesus, physical condition is not necessarily indicative of spiritual state… but if others want to play that game, at least in this situation, he is willing to give them the evidence they need. “You doubt that I can grant forgiveness? Here, maybe if the man who came through the roof on a mat walks out on his own two feet, you will be convinced.” The crowd liked this transformation a lot. The scribes did not like it one bit. Those who, like Jesus, seem willing to distribute God’s gifts to everybody and anybody, are rarely popular with those in power. Ask Shane Claiborne. He found out how little “the systems of the world” are inclined to grant to those it defines as “undeserving” when the city of Philadelphia passed an ordinance making it illegal to lie down, or even sit for very long, on public sidewalks. In response, Shane and some other members of a group called “the simple way” decided to join their homeless friends and sleep with them for a night or two on the streets. The group was soon arrested. Things looked bleak for Shane and his colleagues, but then, in a bit of a miracle not unlike encountering Jesus in an ordinary house in Capernaum, when they came to trial it turned out that the judge agreed with them. He, too, felt that the “Sidewalk Behavior Ordinance” was unconstitutional and should be challenged. “Your honor,” protested the prosecuting attorney, “the constitutionality of the law is not before this court.” “On the contrary,” insisted the judge, “the constitutionality of the law is before every court. If it weren’t for people who broke the unjust laws, we wouldn’t have the freedoms we do. That’s the story of this country from the Boston Tea Party to the civil rights movement. These people (who sleep on the sidewalk out of solidarity with the homeless) are not criminals; they are freedom fighters. I find them not guilty on every charge.” An encouraging outcome for Shane and his friends, but not enough to provoke a more helpful approach on the part of city governments, who understandably continue to be disturbed by the large numbers of homeless people surviving in their streets, alleyways, and parks. In 1998, Shane was arrested again, this time in New York, for once more sleeping among the homeless. This time he sued, claiming illegal arrest. Once again, representatives of justice agreed with him. He was awarded ten thousand dollars. Shane decided to, in his words, “redistribute the money back to the homeless citizens of New York.” Last October, members of “the simple way” hand-delivered hundreds of invitations, asking homeless people to come to Wall Street on a given day, an hour before the stock exchange opened. The ten thousand dollars was brought to the site in the form of one and two dollar bills, with the word “Love” written on each. Someone blew a ram’s horn, and announced that the year of Jubilee had begun. Volunteers began to empty bags of money, letting everyone take some who would, or letting in blow away with the wind. “Another world is necessary,” says Shane. “We cannot go on with 20 percent of the people in the world owning 80 percent of the resources, while the poorest 20 percent own only 1.5 percent. We must find a way for all to live.” Maybe that story makes you roll your eyes to the roof. Maybe Shane, and his vision, are “over the top.” Then again, maybe he has something in common with those four people who were determined that their friend not get left behind – determined that a paralyzed man should still get a chance to see and listen to Jesus, just like everybody else. Digging a hole in the roof… Sleeping on sidewalks to make a point… Handing out ten thousand dollars in small change… it’s all pretty extreme, isn’t it? But when those four people lowered their friend through the roof, he received, in short order, a deepened connection to God, an infusion of hope, and restoration in body. I doubt the friends had any regrets about what they had done. Think of it this way, suggests Barbara Crafton, “Jesus could not have healed the paralytic if the man’s friends had not been part of the project. Jesus wouldn’t even have had the chance to meet him. Climbing onto the roof, pulling up sticks and mud, awkwardly trying to lift and lower a guy on a mat without hurting him, might have looked foolish, but they didn’t care how they looked. They loved their friend a lot. They wanted fullness of life for him. They would do whatever it took so that he could be included.” This, actually, is a picture of our calling as Christians, says Juanita Campbell. “It is not enough that we routinely gather with Jesus and receive from him words of hope and encouragement. We must become gatherers as well.” We must become willing to do whatever it takes to bring others into God’s presence, whether that means extending a specific personal invitation, providing a ramp or a lift, working to reform economic, political, and social systems, accompanying a person on the road that they are walking, or otherwise creating an opening so that our friends and neighbors (whatever their condition or situation) can have their own encounter with Christ. No matter how limited or powerless or overwhelmed we might feel, there is something that we can do for someone else. It might take some creative thinking… it might require considerable persistence… it might involve an unusual approach… but when we are able to give someone the chance to meet Jesus and discover their true identity as children of God, our faith will be noticed, and we will know ourselves to be partners in God’s miracles of welcoming grace. Of course, the paralyzed man deserves a lot of credit in this story, too. No doubt, it would have been a lot easier to stay home. Going out, being carried through the streets, being lowered through the roof (for heaven’s sake!) risked ridicule, exhaustion, further injury, and disappointment. But the paralyzed man agreed to go. He let himself be carried. He received what Jesus had to say to him and what Jesus had to give him. He said “yes” to life in spite of all the difficulties he faced. All of this is extremely commendable and not to be taken for granted. I know a person, and some of you do too, who has successfully resisted every offer of medical attention, social intervention, or friendship that might get her off her bed and out the door of her dark little room. She focuses all of her limited energy on acquiring drugs or medication that will dampen her pain, and she has been laying in bed for years now, with one excuse after another about how there is absolutely nothing she can do. It’s very sad to watch her stay stuck in her misery. So, I celebrate the paralyzed man and his courage, his willingness to “get up and go,” when his friends suggested it and when Jesus suggested it. I celebrate the four friends and their love and creative determination. I give thanks to God, who welcomes everyone and knows just exactly what each of us need. And I hear the invitation to go through the roof, if necessary, in pursuit of God’s abundant life for all.