Tom Long, the professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, mourns a trend that he has seen in preaching. We are given a Bible, inherit a faith full of stories in which the blind are given sight, in which slaves are freed from captivity, in which a world is created when a word is spoken. They are stories given life by the tangible presence of God--right here, right now. Yet, so often, Long observes: ...sermons preached in broad mainline denominations have the hollow sound of an old oak whose living center has died and rotted away. Yes, yes, there are sincere words about God and "the power of faith," that sort of thing...there is plenty of morality and good counsel, but no desert bush bursting into flame.
Even in the sermon, sometimes, we act as if God isn't there. So what Long is hoping is that we approach the sermon, approach the pulpit with "a profound awareness that something powerful and holy is about to happen."
Now I won't let us preachers off the hook. But I do think that some of the same claims can be made about the Church, more broadly. Maybe I'm wrong. But sometimes it seems that we gather because we think that it will "make us better people," or because we will learn some moral truth, or even because the church is a good place to meet people, to network. And, honestly, all of these things are true. But when we gather, do we expect to encounter the presence of God? Do we expect something powerful and holy to happen?
Well, in our story today, the crowd gathered expecting something holy to happen. They didn't know who he was, but they had heard some things:
"Grew up down the street."
"Fine preacher! Lovely voice. Speaks with authority!"
"They say he spoke one time, and a man was healed."
"I heard he healed a few people."
That's what they had heard. And the crowd gathered around, listening, expecting. Jesus was speaking the word to them, probably riffing on his major theme: The kingdom of God has come near. Repent! And believe the good news (1:15).
But something happened. As the words fell from his mouth, little flecks of dust began to fall from the ceiling. Then some tiles here and there. Long splinters of wood and big, slate shingles...until, finally, a gaping hole. Part of the roof had crumbled into rubble around them. Now that's an interruption!
Imagine if that happened in our churches one Sunday. And if that weren't enough, they looked up and saw that there were people with picks and hammers digging around up there. Then the people on the roof began to lower a paralyzed man, slowly, slowly, slowly, right into the middle of the room for all to see.
It's interesting to me the way that Jesus responded. Jesus, I think, had a good gift for improvisation. I heard a story about Wynton Marsalis once, the great jazz trumpeter. He was playing a gig one night; and in the middle of one of the songs, someone's cell phone started to ring, which could have been disastrous. But Wynton didn't stop, didn't miss a beat. He started playing the ring tone on his trumpet and finally resolved back into the original melody. He made it part of the song.
Well, that's what Jesus did. He turned this interruption into part of the message. Remember he's preaching about the kingdom of God. And in the kingdom of God it is often the last ones you'd expect who get counted among the faithful. In that parable of the laborers in the vineyard, who is it who gets paid first? The ones who showed up late to work--and they get paid the same amount as everyone else.
In the parable of the prodigal, who is it that gets the banquet in the end? The son who stayed home and worked and did all the things he was supposed to do? No...the one who ran off and squandered the inheritance.
Well, here...the ones who put the hole in the roof. They're the faithful ones. In response, when he saw their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." I wonder what that paralyzed man thought about this at first.
I assume that if that man and his friends went through the trouble of climbing and dropping in through the roof, then what they were expecting was for the man to be healed. But instead the words he receives are "Son, your sins are forgiven." They expected healing, but they got forgiveness.
Here's what I mean. One of the great joys of ministry is to be able to enter into the lives of people during a time of need. I've often visited at times when people have experienced a loss, and I've found that these can be holy moments. Yet, you never quite know what to expect when you enter the home or room of someone who is grieving. For every now and then people describe the frustration they are feeling, because on the one hand they are grateful for the people who have surrounded them with love and well-wishes. But on the other hand, they are angry because people keep bombarding them with words of sympathy and condolence, when what they really want is for the person they've lost to come back, to fill the void, to take away the grief. In the absence of someone you love, words about God's footprints in the sand don't always measure up.
I wonder, then, what it was like for the paralytic, wanting, needing a physical healing, but getting something entirely different: forgiveness. Why forgiveness? It is well-documented throughout the Bible that certain physical conditions were considered to be the result of sinfulness. But it's not always clear that that's what Jesus thinks. In John, for instance, when Jesus and his disciples encountered a blind man, the disciples asked him, "Teacher, who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus said, "Neither this man, nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that the glory of God might be revealed in him."
I bet some in the crowd were asking the same question about the paralytic--who sinned? I'm sure there were some who viewed this man as some mysterious "other," someone to be overlooked, whose condition was so deplorable that he was worthy of rejection. And Jesus seemed to confirm their suspicions. It is possible that Jesus really believed that this man's condition was the result of his own sinfulness.
But maybe this moment represents a different approach on the part of Jesus. For instead of treating him, simply, as a man who needed to be healed, he treats him like all of us--a person at once embraced by, yet distant from God. So here Christ begins the healing by changing the relationship between God and the paralytic, with words that seem to answer the plea of the psalmist:
Let me hear joy and gladness;
Let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquities.
If you want to know healing, if you want to know what it's like to be made whole, you must know forgiveness. True healing will only come when you know that you are in right relationship with God and with the world around you: Son, your sins are forgiven.
Well, the scribes were sitting over there, listening. And, you know, they made a really good point. They asked, "Why does this fellow speak in this way...Who can forgive sins but God alone?" The scribes are often the object of our scorn and ridicule. Whenever they speak and we hear comments like these, you can bet they're trying to trip Jesus up. But today I think their questions are sincere. It's true, isn't it, that God alone can forgive sins? So there's something important at stake here. Jesus' comment has implications for who God is, for God's presence in the world.
The way they understood it, God was out there or, rather, up there. And this distance between God and the world was represented by the Holy of Holies, a place in the Temple where the presence of God was curtained off, kept separate from the lives of the people. The only person who had access to that part of the temple was the high priest, and he would only enter it once a year to atone for the sins of the people. So forgiveness, they thought, was a matter of sending our sins away to be addressed out there or up there by God.
That's what was at stake--their understanding of the way God related to the people on earth. They thought God was removed from the world. But on that day when the roof crumbled, Jesus showed them that God was right there in their midst. No longer was there a separation between God and God's people. No longer did the people need to rely on a mediator to intervene on their behalf. They no longer had to be separated from God by a wall of sin. God was right there in their midst, working to bring them into right relationship with their Creator and with one another.
Jesus said, "The Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth." And as the proof, he performed the very earthy miracle of a physical healing. "Stand up," he said to the paralytic, "take your mat, and go to your home." It was an interruption. But when that roof crumbled, a man was healed.
But why did the roof have to crumble in the first place? Well, the text says that the crowd that had gathered was so great that there was no room for anyone else, not even in front of the door. So that paralyzed man and his friends had been physically crowded out, which is surprising to me. I assume they tried to enter through the main passageways, and I was taught that when you see someone who might need a little extra time to get in, then you clear out a little space, even help them if you can. But, apparently in this passage, the people inside did not or would not make room for him.
Now we might look around and say, "Well, we don't have that problem here. If someone wants to come, there is a place for them here." And depending on how many or how few people we see in worship on Sunday, you might say, "They can have a whole pew if they want to." But empty seats don't mean that we have made room for them. Because there are other ways of crowding people out.
We can crowd people out by developing cultures of complaint in congregations, where we always lament, "Well, we could be more effective, if we only had more people," but then silence the voices and the fresh ideas of the new people who walk through our doors. We can crowd people out by spending more time and energy and money on in-house conversations about the paint scheme, more time designing ways to preserve our precious structures, than we do discerning what the gospel needs to look like on the street.
I wonder, then, if Mark isn't just demonstrating Jesus' power to heal, but warning us that if the structures we build are so narrow that they do not allow people access to the grace and the healing that God has to offer, but allow us to hoard it for ourselves, then those structures must be altered.
Sometimes the roof has to crumble before we can see what the Church is supposed to be. Like the friends of the paralytic, sometimes it is our job to carry one another with the strength of our own faith. In one of the congregations I served, there was an elderly woman named Margaret. When I was there, Margaret was 97 or 99 years old, depending on when you asked her. Mind was sharp as a tack, a very lively, energetic spirit. Her body, as you might imagine, wasn't always able to keep up. She suffered from severe arthritis in her legs and back. Her spine was twisted. She was blind in one eye...barely able to see in the other...hard of hearing. Yet, every week--if she was able--she insisted on being at worship. And there was a group of two or three people who would go by each week, pick her up, walk down the aisle with her, sit with her during the service. More often than not, she'd fall asleep halfway through the sermon. But every Sunday when we'd get to the affirmation of faith, whoever it was with her would lean over and whisper the words into her ear:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord....
And Margaret would perk up and remember and continue the rest. She couldn't have done these things on her own. So it is our job to empower others to experience and participate in the work of God's people in the world, through the example of our own witness. And if that sounds presumptuous, as if you and I are so great, well there are times when each of us will be the paralytic, in need of healing, finally able to stand on our own through the grace of others, hearing in Christ's words an affirmation, "My son, my daughter, my child, the kingdom of God is near...."
We might expect the Sistine Chapel, with a pristine image of God reaching down from above. Instead, we get a hole in the roof and the presence of God with us.