Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from Jesus, the Son of God who brings healing. Amen.
My good friend, David Hunstad, was pretty sad when his back went completely out. It was probably 20 years ago, but I remember this like it was yesterday. We were at a youth minister’s conference at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare in Chicago. Shortly after we arrived, David blew out his back. And when I say out, I mean completely out. He was flat on his back and couldn’t get up at all.
We managed to get him to the doctor, who took an x-ray, and told him that he would need surgery for a disc problem, but that he’d need to get home first. He gave David a prescription for pain killers. We discussed what to do, and David said that he didn’t want us to miss the event, and he would just stay in bed in the hotel room, and watch tv and sleep while the rest of our group, about 5 or 6 of us went to the conference.
That night, we went to the opening session in the ballroom. There was music, a great speaker and a lot of really great humor. The opening sketch involved one of the leaders of the organization entering the event dressed like an Egyptian pharaoh, and lounging while being carried by four men on a stretcher also dressed in Egyptian costume.
Now you have to understand that youth ministry people are, in general, just a little bit nuts. So it really shouldn’t have surprised me when after the session, David’s brother, Tom, turned and said to us “Wait! I. Have. An. Idea.” And he went up to the stage and talked with one of the stage hands. 2 minutes later he returned, yes, you guessed it, with the stretcher, an old-school, military surplus canvas stretcher with two long poles. “They’re not using it any more…they said we could borrow it.”
And so yes, we spent the next 3 days taking turns carrying David around the event at shoulder height, on a stretcher. He stayed in his room and slept during workshops, be he made it to every general session and concert. It really worked pretty well. We would get there early to get seats up front, and then put the “foot end” of the stretcher on the floor, and lean the “head end” against the 2 chairs, so he was kind of angled upwards, and could sort of see what was going on..
It did take us a while to figure out how to get him into the hotel’s round, glass elevators. We kind of had to jam him in and angle him a bit. The crisis moment came when we stepped onto the escalator with him without having thought through a plan. “uh guys…hey guys…hello?” Let’s just say that we had a quick lesson in physics. But it all turned out ok. The conference was great, we got home, he had his surgery, and a few weeks later was back to normal.
So I understand our Gospel lesson for today, when the passion of the four friends to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing was so strong that they would do just about anything to get him into that house.
Archeologists tell us that houses in that area during that time were simple, small, two room dwellings. And so it’s easy to see how, when it was crowded with people, it would have been pretty impossible to get four men and a stretcher into the front door. I can visualize them going to the door…”no, that’s not going to work.”…and then walking around the house from window to window, peering in…”no…too crowded…no, that won’t work…ugh…strike three…” And then one of them came up with a brilliant plan. “Wait! I. Have. An. Idea.” Let’s carry him to the roof, and then lower him down with ropes to Jesus so that he can be healed. These guys were committed.
Archeologists have also told us that roofs back then were made of a combination of thatch and mud, which dried in the middle-eastern sun to the consistency of cement, which explains why they scriptures say in verse four that the four friends made the hole in the roof by “digging through it.”
So they went up to the roof, and apparently, using their hands, broke up this thick, heavy, dry mud, and then attached ropes to the four corners of the stretcher and lowered this poor guy down to Jesus.
But then we get to the part that I think is really fascinating, and sets it apart from other healing stories. In most healing stories, the person would come to Jesus, and Jesus would say to them “be healed…your faith has made you well.”
But here, in this story, it is different. The man on the stretcher is lowered to Jesus, and the scripture says that when Jesus saw their faith…the faith of the four friends, he looked down at the man on the stretcher and said “Son, your sins are forgiven.” And the man stands up, picks up his mat, and walked out, in full view, so that all could see.
The Pharisees who were in the room were, of course, upset. They were upset because Jesus didn’t tell the man “you are healed.” Instead Jesus used the phrase “Son, your sins are forgiven.” But according to Jewish law, only God could forgive sins. So the Pharisees huddle up: “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Now, we can’t really blame the Pharisees for getting upset. It was their job to ensure that the laws were followed to the letter. And Jesus clearly had broken the law.
But for Jesus, the Spirit of the law trumps the letter of the law. Law and Grace are two sides of the same coin. They are inter-related. But throughout the scriptures, the Pharisees were paying attention only to the law. And if you pay attention to only the law, it becomes legalism. And it is a thin line between legalism and judgmentalism. And that is what Jesus was reacting against.
So, against that backdrop, there are two things in this story that I think we need to pay attention to today:
First, the faith of the man’s friends made a difference. Jesus healed the man not because of his great faith, but because of the great faith of his friends; faith so strong that it would cause them to carry a stretcher up onto a roof, dig a hole through concrete hard mud with their hands, and lower their friend with rope to the floor below.
You see, the faith of others makes a difference in our lives. And, our faith makes a difference in the lives of others. Faith is not simply a vertical relationship between one person and God. It is also a horizontal relationship between ourselves, and every other person we encounter.
My own Christian faith is a gift, and is the result of God’s Holy Spirit, received in my baptism, but it is filtered through those who surrounded me as I grew up, and as I live every day. My faith is the faith of my grandparents, my parents, my wife Lori, my kids Nathan and Samuel, and my good friends like David, Tom, Scott, Chris, Jim, Peter, Jay, John, Bruce, Tom, Tim and many, many of you. In a figurative way, at one time or another, all of these people have been the ones to lift me up when it was my turn on the stretcher, when I needed to see Jesus. And it is because of their faith, their lifting me into the presence of God when I needed it that I glimpsed the presence of Jesus, who says to me “Todd, your sins are forgiven…get up off of the mat and get back to it.”
Jesus is telling us that our faith makes a difference to others. Both to those we know and love, and to those who are still strangers to us.
This week, I spent four days with our two AWOL (that’s A Work of Love) high school mission trip teams in Lexington, and Louisville, Kentucky. We spent a day doing interior demolition on a home in a low-income neighborhood that had sat abandoned for 2 years, and that Habitat for Humanity is going to rehab. There was dust, plaster and wood flying everywhere. On Tuesday afternoon, I saw the next door neighbor to the home, which had sat abandoned, walk to the edge of their porch and ask one of our youth, Jacob, “do you think I could have a couple of the hinges off of the door that you just threw into that dumpster?” “Umm…sure…that’s not a problem.” And the two of them went down and did a little dumpster diving and pulled out the door and disassembled the hinges. As they walked back up to the house and separated, the neighbor looked over at Jacob and smiled, nodded and winked his thanks. Jacob smiled and nodded back.
In that moment, I saw connection. With a simple act of faith and kindness, I believe that our high school youth group helped the man to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
The second thing in our Gospel that to which I think we need to pay attention, is the phrase Jesus chose to use. He said “Son, your sins are forgiven.” He could have just said “You are healed,” or “Your faith has made you well.” But he didn’t. He knew that the Pharisees were in the house…he knew the law (he was, after all, a Rabbi), and he knew the consequences. But intentionally, he went ahead and said “your sins are forgiven.”
An ongoing theme of Mark’s Gospel is the revealing of Jesus; of who he really was. All through the book, one step at a time, Jesus is revealing himself to his disciples, to those in the community, and to all of us who read the Gospels. And this story is a key moment.
The scriptures say that Jesus picked up on the anger of the Pharisees. And so he confronted them: “why do you ask these questions? I said ‘your sins are forgiven’ so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”
In this story, Jesus revealing another layer of who he is. He is claiming his authority. He is saying “yes, I know that only God has the authority to forgive sins. I am claiming that authority.” Jesus is saying here “I am the one you have been waiting for.” I can almost hear the gasps of the crowd. And the scriptures say they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’
So, here is my question for the day: Where in the story do you see yourself? Are you the man on the stretcher? Are you the friends who lifted him to the roof? Are you one of the Pharisees, who are concerned for the law? I have to admit, at one time or another I have been all of them. I’m guessing that many of you would feel the same way.
But here’s the thing: Jesus came for the man on the stretcher. He came to restore and bring healing to those who are in need. If you feel broken; if you are sick; if you are emotionally overcome; if you are addicted; if you are in pain; if you feel like your life is in shambles; if you need to be in the presence of the Savior; Jesus, he came for you. He brings healing.
And, Jesus came for the men who carried their friend. If you are the one who invites others into the presence of God; if you are one who feels called to serve; if you are one who worries about those around you; if you are the one who literally or figuratively lifts your friends or family into the presence of God, know that God works through your faith to affect those around you. And God will strengthen you to continue.
And Jesus came even for the Pharisees. If you find yourself struggling with the expectations and rules; if you are hard on yourself, or hard on those around you, because of the expectations that you feel you have to meet. If you feel overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world, or your own brokenness, Jesus came for you. Jesus says to let go of the pain and the stress, and to allow God’s grace to wash over you.
The man on the mat, his friends, the crowd who gathered in the house, and even the Pharisees; they were just seeking a glimpse of the Savior. Ultimately they all had one thing in common. Faith.
And we are the same. And there is power in that faith. There is power to transform lives. There is power to change the world. It is Jesus who brings that power. It is Jesus who welcomes us all into his presence. Whether you are doing the lifting, or you are being lifted, look today and glimpse the Savior who brings you grace and love, and who says to you “your sins are forgiven. Now get up, and walk.