Sunday, February 19, 2006

Sermon for Epiphany 7B

The story of the paralytic man always reminds me of my favorite Christmas show. I know it’s a bit of a stretch to get from late February healing stories to a commercial Christmas show, but bear with me for a minute. We always watched the Christmas specials in my house – How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christimas. My favorite one for as long as I can remember is called “Kerplunk, Kerplooey”. Well, its actually only called that in my house – if you looked for it in the TV guide, you’d find it under the name “Twas the night Before Christmas.” Its an expanded version of the Clement Moore poem, and tells the story of a two families – a human family and a mouse family who live in a small town. Santa has become angry with the town because of a letter written by the mouse child, and the father of the human family builds a clock to bring Santa back. Well, things break – kerplunk, kerplooey – and a little before midnight on Christmas Eve, the children decide there is no point in hanging stockings. The father tells them not to give up hope. Then, as people in cartoons often do, he sings a song. The words go like this: “You hope, and I’ll hurry. You pray, and I’ll plan. We’ll do what’s necessary ‘cuz even a miracle needs a hand.”

And that is what this story reminds me of. I love this miracle story because it involves people doing their part in working with God to create a moment of grace and wonder. What drives these men to climb to the roof and dig through to get to Jesus? Perhaps they had come a long way and did not want to be disappointed. Perhaps they were impatient fellows. Perhaps their friend’s case was so desperate that they were willing to try anything, see anyone, in the hopes of finding healing. But whatever their original motivations may have been, by the time they reach the inside of the house, Jesus sees only one thing: their faith. Jesus is so moved by their faith that he heals the man of all that ails him, spiritually and physically.

The paralytic man and his friends took the first step of faith in healing: reaching out because you can’t do it on your own, and they leaned on God to do the rest. This is faith – turning to God, leaning on God in hope. Faith is not passive, it moves us to bold action because we trust in God’s promises of grace. It balances our abilities with God’s gifts, and holds grace and effort together in our search for wholeness.

This journey towards healing and wholeness by the grace of God is a road not unlike those in southeastern MI – that is, it is full of potholes to be avoided!

First, we must be cautious when we go down this road that we are not equating the bold actions of faith with old adage “God helps those who help themselves.” Bold and faithful action is not the same as self-sufficiency. In the Gospel story, the paralytic man, in fact, does not help himself. What would this story look like if he had? Well, for starters, it probably would not have made it into the Gospel. Without help from friends, he may have made it to outer edges of the gathered crowd in Capernaum – but how would he have gotten in to see Jesus? Even the Beatles understand this part of the life of faith: we get by with a little help from our friends- and God smiles upon those efforts.

Once we do ask for help, however, we must also be careful not to confuse “faith” with “certainty.” It is sometimes thought that the opposite of faith is doubt. But as writer Anne Lamott and others have noted, “doubt is not the opposite of faith – certainty is.” Confidence is God’s ability to work through us is one thing - but being too certain of what help will look like can distract us from actually receiving the help! Perhaps you have heard this story: A certain man lived in a town where the river was about to overflow and radio reports warned the people to leave town for higher, safer ground. He was not worried however, because he said to himself, “I’m a good and religious man, I pray to Jesus, and I am sure that God will save me.” The waters came, and the man waited on the second floor of his house. Soon, another man came by in a row boat and called to him, “Friend, come with me in my boat away from the flood!” But, the man said, “No, thank you. I’m a good and religious man, I pray to Jesus, and I am sure that God will save me.” The waters continued to rise, and the man waited on the roof of his house. A helicopter flew overhead, and lowered a ladder to bring the man to safety. But, the man said, “No, thank you. I’m a good and religious man, I pray to Jesus, and I am sure that God will save me.” Soon enough, the man found himself at the gates of heaven. When he came to Saint Peter, he demanded an audience with God. He asked God, “God, I’m a good and religious man, I prayed to Jesus – why didn’t you save me?” God answered him, “My child, I sent you a radio report, a rowboat, and a helicopter. What were you waiting for?”

This is where we see the scribes in Mark’s story. They are so sure they know the law and the scriptures, that they cannot see the redemptive work of God when it is literally right in front of them. I wonder how often we are like the scribes, and miss moments of grace and wonder because we are convinced that grace does not happen that way.

A friend shared a quote this week from a book he is reading by Bishop Desmond Tutu. It went like this: “Dear Child of God, it is often difficult for us to recognize the presence of God in our lives and in our world. In the clamor of the tragedy that fills the headlines we forget about the majesty that is present all around us. We feel vulnerable, for vulnerability is the essence of creaturehood. But we are not helpless and with God's love we are ultimately invincible. Our God does not forget those who are suffering and oppressed.”

The eyes to see God’s presence and majesty, and the boldness to act on behalf of those whom God loves, a longing for wholeness and healing –these are the gifts of faith. May they be yours and mine today and always.

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