Recently I had an opportunity to offer the morning devotion at the Aldersgate Gathering of representatives from Duke Divinity School, The Duke Endowment, and the North Carolina and Western North Carolina Conferences of the United Methodist Church. The day focused on how the four stakeholders, or partners, could work together to improve the health of clergy. I found inspiration for this topic in the story from Mark 2: 1-12, where four people carry a paralyzed man to Jesus for healing. Here’s what was shared:
“A Call to the Four Friends”
A Devotion for the Aldersgate Gathering May 28, 2009
Mark 2: 1-12
“Which is easier, to say to the paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up, take your mat, and walk?”
Apparently even Jesus can’t get people to stop dropping by unannounced at his parsonage, either.
Word has gotten out that Jesus is at home, that the doctor is in, and pretty soon Jesus has a full house. People are spread out over sofas, wedged into corners, spilling out the door, all trying to get closer, craning their necks to hear Jesus teach. The fire marshal would have had a fit – the trustees wouldhave raised concerns about the stains on the carpet – but Jesus, showing an egregious lack of boundary-setting aptitude, lets them all come in.
Even though Jesus welcomes all into his home, not everyone can get in. The problem is that the congregation gets in the way. Oh, they don’t set out to exclude anybody: they just want to be near Jesus. But they don’t leave an aisle, they don’t leave a space, they didn’t allow room for those who had not yet come. Their backs are turned to the people outside.
That’s what the four friends see when they arrive, carrying their precious cargo like a pedestrian ambulance crew. They are toting a mat, a “krabottos” or bed for the poor, and lying on the mat is a paralyzed man.
Who is this man? Has he been paralyzed from birth? Was there an accident? Polio? Is he a young man robbed of mobility, or an old man with feeble knees? Or is his paralysis of a different kind, the kind of paralyzing depression that presses down against your chest as you lie in the bed each morning, a weight that won’t let you get up? Imagine for a minute the life of this man. Put yourself on the mat. Imagine living your whole life dependent on the kindness of others. Picture the bedpan for a daily companion, the bedsores for a daily plague, the empty hours spent staring up at the ceiling.
But now picture hope. In a beautiful image of intercessory prayer, the four friends are carrying the paralyzed man to Jesus when he is unable to carry himself. But when they arrive with their blessed burden, the front door looks like the front door of Wal-Mart in the early hours of Black Friday. And there is no Duke Endowment handicapped accessibility grant, no way for a disabled person to easily enter Jesus’ house. It looks as if the stretcher-carriers might end up as pallbearers at a funeral. . . .
Except for the fact that these four partners refuse to let any obstacles keep them from helping their sick friend to wholeness. They will not allow other people to keep them from Jesus. They will not let gravity keep their friend from Jesus. They will not let layers of reeds and clay keep their friend from Jesus. To overcome these obstacles, they don’t just think outside the box, they think up on the roof. Soon they are climbing up on top of the house by scaling a miniature reverse version of Jacob’s ladder, an impromptu stairway to heaven – and maybe their prone friend calms his nerves by singing “Love lifted me” - even the old Drifters tune “Up on the Roof.”
Down below the roof, it must have sounded like Santa Claus and all his reindeer have landed. A shower of dust and plaster falls to floor, sunlight streams in, and suddenly Jesus has a skylight. The caring quartet have, in the Greek, “unroofed the roof”: we could say, raised the roof. Their four grimy faces peer down through the hole that will lead to wholeness. Soon, paralyzed man and mat are being lowered to the floor.
I imagine Jesus smiles. I imagine he sees in their faith a reminder of his own downward earthward incarnational journey, of his own mission to unroof the world and leave it wide open to heaven. THIS is faith: creative, desperate, sacrificial, risky, heavy lifting, roof-raising faith. The kind that unleashes the healing, forgiving power of God.
“Son,” Jesus says tenderly, (he calls him “Son”) “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
It seems a strange thing to say. The paralyzed man is looking for a divine intervention, not an absolution. What does sin have to do with any of this?
Tom Long reminds us that for Jesus, sin is not just a word that describes the naughty deeds that people perform. Sin with a capital “S” is a power that opposes God’s will, a force that captures human beings, that pollutes nature, enslaves the human heart, devastates bodies, destroys life. Put another way, “Sin with a capital S” is an infection in the bloodstream of creation, a polio that paralyzes the world, leaves it lying on mat, and drags it towards death. Sometimes we are dragged along for the ride: sometimes we experience the destruction of this larger force funneled into our own minds and bodies, through no fault of our own, our illness simply a reflection of the mortal world’s disease. At other times, if we are honest, we go along with that death-directed power, cooperate with it, to the harm of body, mind, and spirit.
So the first thing Jesus does is to assure the man that his misdeeds are not the reason for his suffering. His paralysis is not punishment. “Son, your sins are forgiven.” At the same time, if there is any way the man has contributed to his own plight, made things worse, with the same words Jesus lets him know he is forgiven this as well. Forgiveness, the healing of relationship with God and self, is apparently a precondition to lasting healing of the body.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there, with the state of the man’s soul, pretending that he’s not lying there on mat. That would be like saying you love turtles but don’t care for their shells. Can you imagine a turtle without a shell? No, Jesus wants to free the man’s body from the effects of “Sin with a Capital S”, as well. So, in response to the HMO’s, I mean, scribes’ objections about his prescribing forgiveness without a license, Jesus says, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise up, take your mat, and walk.’?” It’s a good question: which is easier, healing body or healing spirit? Maybe it’s a trick question, two sides of the same coin, two sleeves of the same seamless garment.
Jesus leaves the question hanging, but so that they may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, Jesus says, “Rise up, take your mat, and go home”; and the man rises and walks, walks, walks home of his own power into a suddenly roofless world.. His bodily healing an outward sign that with this man Jesus is the authority of God, that he is the Lord. The congregation, the crowd sees “Sin with a capital S” cast out, and they are all amazed and glorify God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Today, there are so many of our pastors lying on mats. There are four friends here: four partners – leaders of The North Carolina Conference, The Western NC Conference, The Duke Endowment, and Duke Divinity School. Today the four friends are called to pick up the mats. To carry our clergy to Jesus through our prayers. To take on the larger sources and personal effects of “Sin with a capital S.” To do some up on the roof thinking about how we can lift our clergy to a place of wholeness. To have the kind of faith and dogged commitment that refuses to let any obstacle get in the way of salvation in all its fullness.
Thank God, there is a balm in Gilead: so perhaps, through our efforts, the paralyzed shall rise up, mat under arm, redeemed suffering shall appear in the rearview mirror as sanctification, and the watching congregations and crowds will glorify God and say, “We have never seen anything like this.”