Mark 2:1-12, Mark 2:13-22, Narrative Lectionary, Sermons

Jesus Will Mess You Up

Just imagine it. You are an ordinary person, a resident of Capernaum, a little town on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. It’s the hometown of Simon, later known as Peter, and his brother, Andrew. It’s the hometown of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. It’s probably the hometown of lots of fishermen, salt of the Earth kind of people far away from the political dramas of Jerusalem. The center of your religious life is not the far-off Temple, but the local synagogue, which recently became more a flashpoint than a reliable place in the community, when a man from Nazareth, far to the west and away from the Sea, arrived at a service and spoke with more authority than the local scribes. Not only that, he had an encounter with a man everyone recognized but nobody wanted around, a man possessed by an evil spirit. Somehow, he healed that man.

You are an ordinary person, perhaps a woman, not known for anything much except keeping a welcoming home for your family and friends and any other stranger who might pass through and need a meal or a cup of cool water. You were too sick to be at the synagogue, but you heard the stories later. Your first glimpse of the man came from your sickbed. He reached a hand out to you and lifted you right up, when honestly, you had given up on yourself and your healthy and your life, and you are pretty sure everyone else had, too. By the end of the day, you were serving more people than you could have dreamed, all crowding around to see the one who healed you.

Jesus.

He wandered off again, giving your son-in-law, Simon, a bit of a fit, but now he’s back, and the crowds of people trying to get to him are even bigger than the last time. They heard he was “at home,” by which they meant at your house, since it’s the first place they met him, and they are standing outside your door, straining to hear what he is saying. They are looking in at the windows. They are pressed against each other until it seems there is no more room in the world.

You wonder how you can ever feed them all?

And then you hear it, the noise on the roof, and the shocking sound of digging through the thatching. You rush to the main room of the house, or to the door, anyway, because it is too full for you to come in all the way, and you see faces peering down into the room from the roof, and the next thing you know, a man on a sort of pallet is being lowered down, right onto the table where you have served Jesus his dinner.

Jesus is going to mess you up.

If you let him in, he is going to mess up your home and invade your personal space, with unexpected rearrangements and a passion for helping people who need it the most.

Are you ready?

Jesus heals paralytic

You’re an ordinary person in Capernaum, maybe a neighbor who happened by early enough to get a seat at the table that night the man suffering from paralysis got up and walked out of the house carrying his own mat. Jesus had healed him. Not only that, Jesus forgave his sins. It made the scribes furious. They were already annoyed with him. Everyone knew, they were the ones who had an education, the ones who could read the holy words and – at least in theory – explain them. They felt pretty confident about being the most knowledgeable people in town, until the day Jesus came to the synagogue and spoke, and people thought – you thought – he had more smarts than they did. He spoke with authority, people said! The scribes and Pharisees didn’t like it. Could they tell you did?

Jesus is going to mess you up.

If you go along for a talk or a meal, and you pay attention to what he’s doing, you’re going to find out that he knows what you’re thinking. And you’re going to find out that even though he does these tricks with healing, he imagines himself to be more powerful than that. He’s claiming he can forgive sins.

Are you ready for that?

You’re an ordinary person in Capernaum, maybe Levi, son of Alphaeus, a toll collector. When people bring goods into town, they have to pay a fee to the government. You are admittedly pretty low in the organization, but you’re out there in public every day, collecting money from the neighbors that goes back to the Romans. People don’t like that very much. Still, it’s a living.

That day Jesus went to the seashore, you heard about that from the people passing by. He taught, and as he was walking back he stopped by the toll booth, and the next thing you knew you were inviting him home for dinner. And since everybody was paying attention to his comings and goings, maybe it shouldn’t surprise you that people found out where Jesus was eating, and showed up to see what was going on. They wanted to know:

“Why are you sitting down with tax collectors and sinners?”

“I didn’t come for the righteous,” you hear Jesus say. “I came to call the sinners.”

(If you ask him a question, he may not give the answer you want. Now he’s saying it’s the sick who need doctors. Obviously. He’s making the religious leaders furious.)

Jesus is going to mess you up, sitting down to eat with all the wrong people, making the whole town wonder what’s next.

He picked you right up, right where you work.

Were you ready for the conversation?

Maybe you’re an ordinary person, a little better-educated than most, a scribe even, but still, normal. Maybe you think you know all the rules, and you have calculated the most effective ways to follow them, and you believe it’s clear that fasting is what good and righteous people do, while having fun and enjoying dinner is something only sinners do. So you ask him about it. At least John the Baptist’s disciples, annoying as they can be with their threats of condemnation, at least they are keeping the faith and fasting like regular mystics and hermits. This guy – you just don’t know what to think. So you ask him. You ask him.

And then he talks to you in riddles. It always gets there eventually, these phrases and stories that sound like everyday tales, but there is a message hidden in them. What’s his excuse for partying like it’s A.D. 29? The bridegroom is here. Well, okay. A wedding is an important thing, for a family and for all the neighbors, and you always do everything you can to celebrate the right way. It’s the kind of special occasion when even you, admittedly, eat and drink more than on some normal day.

But how is this day a special day? He behaves this way all the time.His disciples don’t fast. Neither does he. Somehow he’s making the things you know to be true seem less clear, less obvious, less certain.

Jesus is going to mess you up, make you wonder if you should ever have believed any of the things you felt sure of before.

If you take him on in a debate, you’d better not give him a chance to get the upper hand.

Are you ready to answer *his* questions about what you believe and how you behave and what you think is most important?

Suddenly he’s saying stranger things, something about sewing, and something about wine, what was that?

“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” (Mark 2:21-22)

Hold on, hold on. He’s right about these things. You’re not sure what that has to do with eating dinner at Levi’s house, but it’s true about the cloth, and it’s true about the wineskins. He says he came to call the sinners – to repentance, right? But he seems to like them. He’s choosing to hang around with them. What does the man mean?

He means he’s going to mess you up.

He’s going to turn around all the things you thought before and leave you wondering and wanting to make room for what is new to you. He’s going to mess with who you know you are until you want to follow him. He’s going to mess with your spirit and make you want the new wine he is offering. Ha! It’s a joke, a play on words, yes? We can’t just patch him in somewhere on the old cloak; we need a new self! We can’t pour him into the shape we used to be; this spirit demands a person who is born anew.

It happened to him, too, you start to see it now, to see the connections between the stories. He went to the river to be baptized, and when he came up out of the water, like a newborn coming out of his mother’s womb, people say they heard a voice from heaven, calling him Son —

Hold on, hold on! This is a lot to believe! This man, this Jesus, is he really the one we’ve been waiting for?

All you know is the things you’ve seen and heard, some right on your own doorstep: demons banished, a dying woman cured and entertaining guests, a leper cleansed, the roof taken off a house, a paralyzed man walking, and a mess of sinners celebrating with him.

Are you ready to join them? He’s calling you.

Mark 2:1-12, Sermons

That’s What Friends Are For

I’m terrible at artsy-craftsy things. Terrible. But I understand why we do crafts in Sunday School, because making the image of a story has the power to imprint it on us in different ways. There are some stories I remember because of the pictures in a book or a children’s Bible, but there are others that became part of my life through folding paper or coloring or gluing things together or twisting pipe cleaners or some combination of the above plus or minus popsicle sticks and string (although I prefer yarn).

It must have been a group project. I want to think it was, because it’s hard to imagine I constructed the three-dimensional paper house with the removable roof and the man on the stretcher alone. I also hate to think of the poor teachers who might have been supervising a classroom full of kids all working individually, with scissors (I forgot to mention those before) and crayons and string and all that paper.

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:1-4, NRSV)

I remember the house, and I remember how fragile it seemed, and I can see the flat little man on the paper stretcher. I think the edges of the paper folded around a string on each side, the long ends used by the friends to lower the paper man into the house.

We children, of course, lowered him ourselves.

We were the friends who removed the roof.

Now I tend to identify with the man who was paralyzed. I have lived through times when I was stuck, and unable to help myself, and only a friend’s love and care made a difference. I can feel the story from the perspective of a person lying down, carried through town on a mat, hearing the sounds of other people’s voices on either side and wondering how your friends were going to get you into the place where they expected to find help and healing.

I’ve only been in an ambulance once, but I remember the feeling of helplessness and disorientation. I had an attack of vertigo during a middle school poetry reading – my son Peter was a 7th-grader – and a teacher who was also a friend from church called 911. It was scary to be so dizzy — the room actually appeared to be spinning around me, but the more frightening time began as paramedics loaded me onto a gurney and into the ambulance. The ride was rough. They were taking my vital signs, and on the radio I heard a blood pressure number that sounded high. Was that mine, I asked? I had no idea what was happening, maybe I was having a stroke! No, no, they reassured me. But when they finished taking mine, it was even higher; it was going through the roof!

Even after we got to the hospital, where I knew help would come, it was hard to get my bearings.

Imagine the care with which the four friends carried the paralyzed man up the stairs outside the house. That’s how those houses were built, with a roof you could use as outdoor space, and a staircase along the side of the building. Imagine the confusion of lying there, paralyzed, your safety in the hands of people you trust, but not knowing quite what they will do next.

You may remember the song, “That’s What Friends are For” –

Keep smilin’ keep shinin’
Knowing you can always count on me for sure
That’s what friends are for
For good times and bad times
I’ll be on your side forever more
That’s what friends are for

It was written for a movie, but it became better-known when Dionne Warwick recorded a cover with her friends Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight. The record was a fundraiser for AMFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. It was the mid-1980s. Awareness of AIDS and HiV began to spread, but before many people understood how the *disease* was spread, there was an enormous amount of fear and misinformation in the world. It may be hard to remember that now, thirty years later, but it’s the truth.

Warwick told the Washington Post, “You have to be granite not to want to help people with AIDS, because the devastation that it causes is so painful to see. I was so hurt to see my friend die with such agony. I am tired of hurting and it does hurt.”

Those four friends raised over $3 million for AMFAR, but they did more; they helped remove the roof of closed minds, digging through misconceptions to bring about healing.

That’s what friends are for.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  

I don’t remember that part from when I was a little girl. I only remember it was his friends who made sure he got to see Jesus.

They removed the roof of a house. Listen to that! Don’t just pass it by. Read it out loud.

They removed the roof!!!

“And after having dug through it”…dig that!

I have an unsurprising tendency, as a liberal Christian who also majored in English, to suck the reality out of Bible stories and teach them as metaphor. And there are surely many metaphors to be explored. But we need to hear this story literally.

(Make a note of the date. I asked you to read something from the Bible literally. This won’t happen often.)

We need to hear this story literally.

They carried their friend on a stretcher, their paralyzed friend, and because the crowds were so enormous, they took him to the roof of the house and REMOVED THE ROOF and DUG THROUGH IT and lowered him into the middle of the room where Jesus was.

A group of friends helped me through another time of difficulty, of emotional paralysis. I had a postpartum depression so severe that I spent almost a week in the hospital. When I got home, I was flat and sad, and not sure how I would manage to take care of my three little children. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to figure out what exactly. Then the women in my Bible study group decided that in addition to bringing my family dinner for several weeks, they would pay for someone I knew to come and clean my house.

When one of them called to tell me, I cried. This was such a kind gesture, but the house was a wreck. And I am well-trained. You pick up the house before you let someone else clean it! I didn’t see how I could do that myself. The task was beyond me.

My friend on the phone said, “Don’t worry. I’ll come pick up the house with you.”

With each toy we put away, each stray sock we placed in a hamper, each piece of clean laundry folded and placed in a dresser drawer, I felt a little better; I moved a little more easily.

We have the power to do this for each other,

to do this for our friends,

to do this by being friends to one another.

That’s what friends are for.

They carried their friend on a stretcher, their paralyzed friend, and because the crowds were so enormous, they took him to the roof of the house and REMOVED THE ROOF and DUG THROUGH IT and lowered him into the middle of the room where Jesus was.

Remember what the scripture said:

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

This is when Jesus forgave the man.

Jesus Mafa - the friends who removed the roof
Jesus Mafa – the friends who removed the roof

This is when Jesus healed him:

when Jesus saw the faith of his friends,

a faith that gave them courage to take the roof off a neighbor’s house,

a faith that gave them courage to put him down right in front of God.

We have the power to do this for our friends. Maybe someone has done it for you.

That’s what friends are for.

In the name of the One who heals and forgives, Jesus Christ. Amen.

(This is week #2 in a series on Favorite Bible Stories; the story is one of my particular favorites. This sermon is drawn in part from a blog post I wrote in 2012, when this text was not in the lectionary. It only appears in years when Easter is late.)