Whole—A Sermon on Mark 2:1-12

This sermon is from Cedar Lane (Tullahoma, TN) on January 29, 2017. It’s a sermon about the healing of the paralyzed man, (“the Paralytic”, as the old translations say). It’s part of a sermon series on Mark. The video below is essentially the audio of the sermon with the slides. The manuscript below has been revised by evaluating the transcript of the recording. 

How did you get here?

How did you get here?

I want us to stop and reflect on that question for a moment, despite all you smart-alecks who just said to yourselves, “In the car.” You know who you are.

I want you to think for a second about how you got here, to think about the story that led to you coming to Jesus. What led you to come into this community of faith, or to come to this place in your life? Everybody’s got a story.

There’s an old story in our family a about my great-great-grandfather who when he was a little boy had a head to parents who were ahead Ted serious respiratory illnesses were common back in those generations and they lived over on the east coast and they made the decision, under medical advice to make for their respiratory problems they would make these trips over to over to Texas and they made this journey several times. On one of these my great-great-great-grandmother fell so ill that she did not recover from her sickness and she died and her husband was so struck with grief and his own illness that on the journey back east he just laid in the back of this carriage that was pulled by the two horses.My my great-great-grandfather and his brother, even though they were young boys, were in charge of getting them back home, while their father just laid in the back of the carriage. They asked, “How will we get home? We don’t know the way.” And he said, “The horses know the way. Let them guide you back.” Well, the horses didn’t know the way, and so the next five generations of our family lived in North Alabama.

Everybody’s got a story about how you ended up where you are—that brought you to this moment. The text in Mark that we’re looking at opens with a crazy story about how a man came to Jesus. Jesus had been preaching around in the communities around Galilee but he comes back home to Capernaum. When he’s there people begin to gather. The house fills up, and there’s such a crowd there that it’s standing room only all the way out to the door, to the edge of the house.

Our story says that there was a man who was paralyzed. We don’t get a lot of details about how he came to be like that. Certainly would not have been unusual back in this time for somebody in normal work to suffer terrible injuries. Beyond that, people that have sicknesses and illnesses or birth defects, or for whatever reason their body’s broken. The text doesn’t really tell us how the man came to be like this, but we know his situation is such that he is paralyzed. He can’t walk.

Mark says that a group of people bring this paralyzed man to Jesus. Four of them each get a corner of the mat, but it’s actually a larger crowd with them. They want to get to the house where Jesus is they can’t get inside because it’s so crowded in there. They can’t find a place among all the people who are already there with Jesus—which is a sad little note in this story.

They don’t give up, so they climb up on the roof.The carve a little hole in the roof there, and they lower this man down through the roof. Can you imagine it? Jesus is there and all of a sudden the tiles of the ceiling or the thatching or whatever, it starts spreading apart, and you hear the ruckus. Then, all of a sudden, you see some light, and this man is lowered down right there in front of Jesus. What a story about how somebody got to Jesus!

Think about the things that brought this man to Jesus. Sicknesses, or injury or whatever it was that caused his paralysis. There’s also the the crowd of people. There were the determined friends who were carrying him. Often, that’s what it takes, right? How many of you came to Jesus because of the determination of a group of friends, a determined community of people who said, “We’re not going to rest until this person gets to Jesus.” Sometimes that’s what it takes.

Some of you came here by way of your own great-great-great grandfather who made a decision about a church, five generations back. Some of you got here because the church served you and your family in some way. Some of you are here because a coworker just kept getting into your ear. That’s just the surface of the story—there are all sorts of things at work to bring you to Jesus, to bring you to the place where you could be healed. To the place where you could be whole.

Unexpected

We might imagine the story going on from here something like this: Jesus sees them and he would say say to them “Be healed!”, but this story takes a turn that is unexpected. It is a moment that we would not predict. Jesus doesn’t look at the man and just give him the healing which he and certainly his friends have sought. Instead, Jesus looks at the man it says that Jesus sees the faith of the ones who have brought him. His faith, too, I’m sure, but Jesus notes “their faith”, in the plural. Then, Jesus says to the paralyzed man, “Son your sins are forgiven.” He seems pretty content to leave it at that. So what do we have now? We’ve got a man, still paralyzed, who has received forgiveness—not really the thing that he came for.

You know when I think about this story, I think that Mark wants to make it clear that Jesus knows more than we do. Jesus knows more about how the things that are broken got broken.He knows more about what’s really wrong, and he sees what really needs to be fixed. Jesus knows more about what it means to be whole for me than I could ever imagine. Jesus knows more about what it means for me to be whole then all those other people who were part of bringing me to Jesus might even imagine.

Jesus has a more of a perception about what our brokenness really looks like than we do. We have some understanding of it, but Jesus sees the full scope of it. Jesus gives the man a greater and deeper healing than he even realized he needed.

But you just know, it wasn’t just about the paralyzed man. Jesus also perceives some other level of brokenness in the crowd as well. I don’t really know how that man reacted to Jesus’s forgiveness, but the text does tell us how the other people in the crowd reacted. It says that they start muttering to each other, saying things like “Who does this guy think he is? We know that it is only God who can forgive sins so what is this guy saying? That’s blasphemy, for him to take on the authority that belongs to God alone—Who does this guy think he is?”

When they challenge each other in that way it says “Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these things among themselves.” See, it’s not just the man that has some kind of hidden unseen bit of brokenness that needs to be healed. Jesus perceived the brokenness in the community too. He sees that these people are more concerned about their standards about the way that people should talk about God than they are about whether this man actually receive forgiveness or not. He perceives that their religious sensibilities are more important to them than the man on the mat. And so, just like he offered the man the forgiveness that he didn’t understand he needed, he’s also going to offer to this community a word that they didn’t come to hear, either. He looks at them and he says

“Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is 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 said to the paralytic—“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:8-12, NRSV)

You see, there is a multiple healing taking place in this story. There is the man who is paralyzed, made whole by his body. The thing that he actually came for in the first place finally gets done. But it’s also the community’s perception of God and God’s work in the world that’s healed as well. Jesus takes their grumbling, stubborn religiosity and he shows them something new. He offers them a way towards something that’s a little bit more whole as well. Jesus, who knows more, is able to perceive exactly what it is that I need and what we need as a community. Jesus gives us what we need on the way to being made whole—very rarely according to our time frame or our expectations about the way it should happen—but Jesus does bring us along towards the journey of being made whole.

There is so much of what it means to be a follower of Jesus tucked inside of this story. This is a story about what it means to be laid open by Jesus and for Jesus in his own authoritative way brings us towards a complete and full wholeness, beyond what we could have even imagined. This man that comes in the story, he had people in his life that loves him so much that they were willing to do whatever they could to make his body whole again. He had an amazing group of people who were willing to do something outlandish, foolish for his sake. But in Jesus, he meets the one whose expectation about what it means for him to be whole blows their expectations out of the water. Jesus loves us deeper and has a greater vision for the wholeness and fullness of our lives in our humanity than even the people we know in our lives who love us the most. This man comes to Jesus broken in ways that he doesn’t even understand, and Jesus makes him whole in a way that he never could have imagined.

He comes to Jesus broken in ways he can't understand. He's made whole in ways he never imagined. Click To Tweet

A Taste of Grace

This story also shows us that sometimes grace comes to us in stages. A little forgiveness here, a bit of reconciliation there. Until the last day, Jesus is making us whole step by step. None of us have been made fully whole yet, and yet we can say that many of us have already tasted the grace of God. We’ve received things like having relationships restored back to us that we thought we lost. We’ve received forgiveness and the relief that it brings. We’ve received that taste of God’s grace that shows us that we are loved. We’ve received a part of it, but don’t we also all carry with us some bit of brokenness left? It’s easy for us to believe that all those things define us for who we are. What was the man’s name in the story in mark? “Paralyzed man.” The only way we know him is by his brokenness. If that sounds harsh, I’d suggest that for many of us that’s how we know ourselves, too.

“I am guy with an anger problem…”
“I am the woman with chronic pain issues…”
“I am the man who can’t get along with my brother…”
“I am the woman who carries a deep grudge against my father who’s long ago dead…”
“I am the person whose marriage is falling apart…”
“I am the person who doesn’t seem to be able to hold down a job…”

I am broken and for many of us that’s how we know ourselves. Jesus perceives us to be something more. Jesus perceives in us our value, our dignity, our life as the children of God—that we are images of the Divine. Jesus sees in us what we are, what we will be when we are whole—he does not know us only by our brokenness. Our brokenness maybe part of our story, it may be part of the way that we come to Jesus. It is not the whole of our identity.

Our brokenness may be part of the journey but it is never our destination. Click To Tweet 

Part of what i want you to hear in this story is Jesus’s vision for you as a whole person—in this story this man he has no idea what it means for him to coast or thick to go see Jesus but he comes to find out it comes to claim it comes to own it and then he at the end of the story walk away whole in body, whole in soul, in spirit. When the crowd sees it they see the man and they can’t help but say alright that’s amazing and we’ve never seen anything like it. The man who was at the beginning of the story just “the paralyzed man” becomes a living, walking, witness to the power of God at work in Jesus—and so are we.

This story challenges us on a lot of fronts, but one of the most profound challenges is that it invites us to think about which crowd we are. There’s at least three options. There’s the first crowd that is willing to do whatever it takes to get a person to Jesus. There is the other crowd that is so stuck on their religious knowledge that they resent Jesus’s healing of the man. Then, there is the crowd at the end— which I guess was partly made up of parts of both of the first two— the crowd that seea what Jesus is doing, is amazed, and then is more ready to experience it themselves.

If you permit me just a little bit of imagination, I think we can make up an epilogue to this story. The story leaves off with everybody amazed, but I bet we can trace it out a little further. How would you react if you had seen it? How would you react if you had seen it, and knew somebody else who was sick, who was broken? I bet everybody in that crowd that knew somebody at their home who was laying on a mat—I bet they went and found somebody else to help carry them to Jesus.
Amen.

Joseph and Jacob’s Story

Your story is not just your storyA few years ago we were getting ready to have VBS and we asked Dr. John Fortner to come and help prep our adults with a theological understanding of the story we were going to work on—the Joseph narrative. One of the best insights for me that came out of that story was how the Joseph story really fits into the larger narrative of the patriarchs, and particularly into the story of Jacob.

For most of Jacob’s life, he is an absolute control freak, scheming for control over virtually everyone in his life. He lies cheats and steals his way to the top. Even though God appears to him, and promises to be with him, he seems to believe that life would be much better if he (Jacob) were in control, and he consistently resists God’s initiative.

Now, I think most people would see and agree with that. Unfortunately, we tend to atomize the text—we separate out the stories of the Bible into individual tales, and lose the intergenerational narrative that Genesis (and the rest of scripture) is telling.  When we do that we lose some insights—for instance, the significance of the Joseph saga.

The Joseph saga is not just about how things worked out for Joseph. It’s about how things worked out for Jacob. It’s about how things worked out for God’s people.  See, the Joseph story is really just a long stretch within the story of Jacob—it’s the definitive blow to Jacob’s mentality that he is in charge. He can’t manipulate God. He can’t micromanage the promise of God. It seems like he’s in control until Joseph (he thinks) dies. That concept completely rocks Jacob’s world, and since he’s not in control, he basically gives up on life and waits to die. He seems to think God has abandoned him.

However, after he learns Joseph is alive, Jacob has another theophany, where God appears to him, reassures him that he is still with him, after all this time. Jacob turns loose of all the control, and it seems to me like he actually reinterprets his life through that insight.  Now he can (for the first time!) tell Joseph about the promise of God. (Joseph will later tell the rest of the brothers.) Now he can refer to God as the one who “has been my shepherd all my life to this day.” Jacob can finally affirm the promise of God and the continual working of God, even in light of his own impending death! Reading Genesis 48 with this insight has been a powerful adjustment to the way I’ve read the Joseph saga before, and indeed the way I see my own life.

Think about the deeper lesson here about reading the scriptures: Anytime we read a text, we need to remember to pull back and see it from a perspective of the broader story of the mission of God. Each story is unique and important on its own terms, but becomes even more incredible when viewed in terms of a longer context. Reading a text like the Joseph saga with a missional perspective allows us to pick up different layers of what’s happening in the moment of the text as well as how that text contributes to (or complicates) the larger story of God and the world.

It’s not just Joseph’s story. It’s not even Jacob’s story. It certainly isn’t simply my story. These are all moments in God’s story.

It's not just Joseph's story. It's not even Jacob's story. It isn't my story. These are moments in God's story. Click To Tweet

 

 

Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice

Over
The Bible’s story hinges on what God wants to do and what God can do with Abraham’s descendants—and neither is particularly clear in the early chapters of the saga. God and Abraham seem to both be feeling their way through the new relationship, and I’m beginning to take more seriously the language of Abraham as God’s friend—it’s kind of easy to read the story almost like Abram and God are pals, traveling around together just for the sake of it.

There are of course moments when something else shines through all of the odd episodes of Abraham’s story. The narrative reaches outside of itself and shows itself to be more than a story about one man’s weird relationship with God. In these moments, the Abraham saga becomes a critical piece in the story of God and Creation. One such moment takes place in Genesis 18.

Here is a well-worn story of Abraham bargaining with God, negotiating on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, or at least on behalf of his kin who live there. I won’t retrace the story here, because I want to focus in on one particular facet of the episode—the terms of the negotiation. We’ll pick up with God’s internal monologue (dialogue?) regarding whether or not he’ll let Abraham in on what’s about to happen:

 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

Here God opens up, just a smidge, about the long-term plan for Abraham and his descendants. They are to become a great nation which will bless the world, (just as God promised Abram in Genesis 12. But also, catch the important added note here:  What kind of nation will they be? What does God want to become the characteristic mark of Abraham’s children?  They are to be a people who keep the way of the Lord by “doing righteousness and justice”. Continue reading “Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice”

The Broken Earth in Genesis 1-6

Tonight, in my class on the Torah, we wrapped up by observing the tight connection between the moral responsibility of humanity, the human descent into wickedness, and the effect on the earth itself in chapters 3-6. Hearing the church’s common conversations, you could get the impression that the problem with the “fall” is simply the rift human sin and pride creates between people and God.  In reality though, the consequences of humanity’s fall is multifaceted. For instance, as demonstrated in the Cain and Abel story (and the Lamech one that follows), relationships between humans break down due to sin and violence, and we may easily observe the conflict that arises between the sexes on the heels of the tragic episode in the garden.

One of the too often ignored facets of the human fall is the curse that it brings on the earth itself. Although God’s initial directives to humanity were to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it”, as the story plays out, it’s as if the earth itself suffers the sin of humanity in the early chapters of Genesis. Read chapters 3-6 with a ready eye, and you’ll see the motif show up repeatedly. It’s in the original garden fallout scene, and the language that contains the motif in the Cain and Abel saga is some of the richest in the Old Testament:

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.”[b] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so![c] Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod,[d] east of Eden. (Gen 4:8-16, NRSV)

See how the motif functions here? It begins simply enough, with “the field” being the site for the murder. But as the story develops, the ground or soil is almost a character in the story, bearing testimony against Cain, even cursing Cain. Cain’s punishment involves being hidden from the face of God, and social exclusion as well, but note that this layer of being driven away from the soil itself seems to be Cain’s most agonizing consequence.

The motif continues to develop in the early chapters of Genesis, perhaps culminating in the flood saga. In the build up to the Flood story, Noah is introduced by a reference to the curse upon the land: “[Lamech] named him Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.”(Gen 5:29, NRSV)  In the next chapter, God’s actions in the Flood are repeatedly attributed to God’s observation of how the wickedness and violence of humanity has corrupted the earth:

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.                             (Gen 6:11-13, NRSV)

On the other side of the Flood, the focus shifts a bit, returning to the original command to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…”. God returns to the project of filling the earth with rich human life, scattering humanity across the world. This eventually leads to the strategy of blessing the scattered peoples of the world through the people of Abraham, but that’s a subject for another day. For today, it is enough to not how tightly God’s purposes for the earth were connected with God’s purposes for humanity. Perhaps this shouldn’t be that surprising, unless we have forgotten that God indeed made the man (hebrew ‘Adam’) from the dust of the ground (hebrew ‘Adamah’), and that we are connected to the earth through our work until the moment that we are returned to the ground. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19, NRSV). given this, how could our sin result in anything but estrangement from the very earth which is our perpetual context?

Not Native—A Meditation on Matthew 1:1-17

This week, I was thinking about how the book of Matthew starts, and meditating on what it means for me and my neighbors to read that text. I’ve talked and written about the passage before, but it became clear to me that I’ve often glossed over what may be the most significant feature of the text for me, and for many readers like me, a feature which seriously affects our experience of reading the text: the names are weird.

Of course, “weird” isn’t an objective term, but names something important, even if subjective, that we experience in reading the Bible, particularly in texts like the genealogies. These texts are just chock full of names that are weird to me, that would be weird in our culture. By my count, of the 48 names in the genealogy, only about 10, a fifth, are regularly used by people in our culture. For every Jacob in the list that sounds familiar, there is a Zadok, a Jotham, an Abiud, a Nashon, and a Salathiel. My wife are in the process of picking baby names, and there is no way on God’s green earth she would let me use about eighty percent of these.

The fact of this unfamiliarity becomes abundantly clear in any type of group reading setting. Almost any reader will struggle through pronouncing all the names on the list, which makes sense given that nobody in our churches knows anybody named Jeconiah or Zerubbabel.

So what does that unfamiliarity do to us? I think it reinforces to us that we are non-natives when it comes to the world of the Bible. Even those of us who grew up hearing the names in Sunday School have to admit that for all our time as visitors to the Bible, or even as immigrants who have lived in its world, we are still a bit out of our own water.

It strikes me that this has long been true of Christian readers of the Bible, at least since Cornelius, the first non-Jewish convert. After all, I suppose many of these Semitic names would have sounded strange to the Gentile Christians of Rome, Ephesus, and Athens, just as they do to me. Even in those cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean world, the gospel message was cross-cultural, wrapped in strange and foreign garb. Quickly translated into greek, these Hebrew names signaled to our early brothers and sisters that they were joining a story that arose in another people, with another language and another culture. And yet, somehow, they found a home in that foreign text. They willingly immigrated to the narrative world of the Bible, learned to speak its language of faith, and made some version of it their own.

Even though we often ignore it, it’s a good thing to be reminded of the foreign weirdness of the scriptures from time to time. First, it reminds us that we have some translation work to do if the gospel is going to be intelligible to our neighbors—they may not be as used to moving through the Biblical weirdness as we are, glossing over the odd names and applying the bits and pieces of cultural information we’ve picked up along the way.

Second, it keeps us from pretending that we own the book. We take a little too much ownership of the Bible sometimes; it can be our way of domesticating it, pretending that we are fully aligned with it. In reality, we are always learning what it means to live in its world. Hearing and recognizing the weirdness of the names may also prepare me to read with humility and a little healthy caution about my ability to easily and naturally understand what is happening in these texts that come to me from another culture.

Finally, recognizing the foreign character of the scriptures prepares me to have a more cosmopolitan faith, one that can be conversant with other cultures besides my own. Recognizing that my faith is really an ancient Hebrew-Greek faith spoken in a Southern American accent prepares me to hear that faith spoken in other accents as well. The faith of the Bible is not an American faith, at least not in origin. So, when I hear other accents struggling to pronounce the genealogies, I can lay down any presupposition of superiority, knowing that I too had to learn how to say names like Hezron and Abijah, and that I too am a non-native to the language and faith of the Bible.

I have much to learn.

The Strange and Formative Word

The Bible is a strange book.

Written over hundreds of years by a collection of named and anonymous authors, it spans genres and themes as diverse as power and money, family and sexuality. It alternates between genealogical lists and colorful histories, ritual law and love poetry, all managing to say something important about what it means to be human, the nature of the world, and God.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how the Bible is both a product and a means of God’s mission in the world. It is a witness to the things God has done in the past to shape and recreate people, and it is itself a part of the process of shaping those who read and receive it.

For instance, take the story of Nathan confronting King David (1 Samuel 12). It’s both a witness of how God was confronting and shaping David to be the king he was supposed to be. But at the same time, as we read the story and allow ourselves to live in it, the story shapes us as well, challenging us to think about how we use power, or our own tendency to cover up our sin with even more sin.

As we read stories like that, or meditate on the poetry of the prophets, or read along with the first century churches in their letters from Paul, we’re pulled into the story of God through time, and are shaped to be more like God, and less like the world.  We become gracious where the world is judgmental. We become joyful where the world is bitter, and mourn in the places where the world wants to celebrate. We become peaceful in the middle of a world at war, or we become generous in a world of selfishness.

The Bible is a strange book.

But, that’s okay.  We’re a strange people.

By God’s grace, and through God’s word, we’re becoming stranger every day.