The gospel story for this morning holds a special place in my heart. This scripture was the centerpiece of the first time I spoke in front of a congregation. I was eleven, and I had been selected to play the owner of the house in the children’s musical. It was a great part to play. I got to narrate the destruction of my own roof.
The scene is Capernaum once again, and the crowd is even bigger than ever. People are drawn to Jesus as if by an invisible magnetic force. Even though Jesus operates beyond the borders of the cultural and religious institutions, the Galileans recognize his powerful spirit. His reputation for teaching and healing has revealed his spiritual authority, and people want to hear and see more from this Nazarene carpenter.
Throughout the first few scrolls of Mark, Jesus has been transgressing boundaries and bending rules—casting out a demon on the Sabbath, for instance, and cleansing a leper by touching him. But Jesus pushes the envelope a little further in the second chapter of Mark. By proclaiming that the paralytic’s sins are forgiven, he’s practically inviting the scribes to be offended.
Jesus responds to their murmurs of blasphemy by backing up his bold proclamation of forgiveness with another impressive healing. The man whose limbs had been frozen with weakness walks away, healed of body and spirit. He is given new life by the Son of Man—with, of course, a little help from his faithful friends.
We like to think of ourselves as the spiritual brothers and sisters of the paralytic’s friends. Their unyielding commitment to bringing their hopeless friend into the healing presence of Jesus is just the sort of passionate dedication to the gospel that the church is supposed to demonstrate. And sometimes we do tear through the roof to make way for the Holy Spirit. Sharing our resources with South Bay Korean Christian Church and Redondo Beach Community Church is a-tear-down-the-roof kind of ministry. Establishing and sustaining the pancake breakfast is a tear-down-the-roof kind of ministry. Supporting Dean Cornwell’s mission in the Congo through prayer and assistance is another tear-down-the-roof kind of ministry.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) tore through the glass roof when we elected Sharon Watkins as our General Minister and President, especially when so many Christian churches struggle to affirm women in ministry.
The Church can and does dig through the roof, and our faithfulness never fails to draw us closer to the forgiving and healing spirit of Christ.
Sometimes, though, the Church resists. Who wants a hole in the roof, anyway? It’s all very cute of the paralytic’s friends to dig their way to Jesus, but someone’s going to have to get up on a ladder and patch up their handiwork.
And sometimes the Church plays the part of the scribes, doubting the power of Jesus and substituting his including love for our excluding rules.
And then sometimes, the Church is more like the paralytic.
Paralysis is a devastating condition, especially for those who once experienced life with use of their muscles and joints. The memory of that former life, full of movement and motion, full of jumping jacks and dancing, can paralyze the mind as surely as an accident can paralyze the spine.
Back in 1956, very few Protestant preachers would have likened the church to the paralytic. The church was anything but immobile. Mainline congregations were bursting at the seams. The nurseries were full of babies and the Sunday School classrooms were abuzz with off-key renditions of “Jesus loves me.”
Fast forward 50 years. Countless mainline congregations are struggling. While the decline in membership and participation is more pronounced in the west, it is a nationwide phenomenon. While congregations like Saddleback Church and Hope Chapel have thrived, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Disciple congregations have misplaced entire generations.
South Bay Christian Church is not alone in this. When I went to Texas last month for a conference on congregational transformation, I sat in a room full of people who told painful stories of dwindling congregations. A sharp majority of baby boomers that had been raised in church nurseries left for good in their early twenties. Some found a home in other traditions, but many spend their Sundays mornings over coffee and newspapers instead of communion and scripture.
Like so many congregations, we are in danger of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by the memory of a time that is no longer. We could easily get stuck in the recollection of yesteryears. But the world is different. Stores are open on Sundays. Little league games are scheduled for Sunday mornings. The television and internet have trained people to be constantly entertained. And in this post-Vietnam and post-9/11 era, many people prefer to attend churches that offer clear-cut answers to human struggles. The strong tradition of diversity and free thinking in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) does not appeal to many people in younger generations.
We cannot turn back time. Because the world beyond the church is vastly different than it was 50 years ago, life within the church is never going to look quite the same. Besides, we might not want to turn back time even if we could. It’s easy to be sentimental about the past, and make believe that it was perfect. The 1950s were great for many reasons, but we can’t ignore the fact that women were barred from serving as Deacons, Elders, and Pastors, even while some congregations had Klu Klux Klan members serving in those same positions.
So what now? Recognizing that we do, in some ways, resemble the paralytic is not a tragedy. Mark’s story of the paralytic who was forgiven and healed by Jesus is anything but a sorrowful tale. It is a story of hope for the hopeless. It is a story full of good news—especially for the paralytic.
I want us to consider another paralytic. In the 43rd chapter of the prophetic writings attributed to Isaiah, the Israelites were as paralyzed as can be. The Israelites had been exiled in Babylon. Spiritually and metaphorically, paralysis and exile are one in the same. A paralytic is exiled from movement, caged from her own body. And an exile is stuck in a foreign land, bound by memory alone to a time and place that is no longer. Isaiah had the difficult job of helping the Israelites prepare to leave Babylon and be a part of the restoration of Jerusalem. But Isaiah knew that even when the Emperor Cyrus released the Israelites from exile, they might still be exiled in spirit. They might still be paralyzed by the devastating experience of losing their homeland, the center of their cultural and religious life together.
Isaiah relayed this message from God to the people of Israel: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
The Israelites were in danger of binding themselves so tightly to their complex memories that they were incapable of continuing their journey. They remembered the amazing things that God had done for them. They remembered the many ways they betrayed the same God who offered them salvation. The sum of these memories made them heavy with the despair of exiles and paralytics.
And the prophetic word for them is to forget about the past. “Do not remember,” Isaiah said. It wasn’t that the past didn’t have its fair share of wonderment. But if remembering how fantastic it was when God made the sea as dry as a bone meant giving up in Babylon, then the Israelites needed to forget. They were promised that God had forgotten their own sins, even though they had not made full penance for their wrongdoings.
And God made another promise: “I am about to do a new thing.”
God released the Israelites from the prison of their past, and led them out of exile.
Jesus released the paralytic from the sins of his past, and commanded him to walk home.
Do you not perceive it? God is about to do a new thing. It is not a repeat performance of the things of old. It is not a reestablishment of how things used to be. It is a wholly new thing.
A way will be cleared in the wilderness. A river will burst through the desert. A hole will be dug in a roof.
And the way will be a way of love. The river will be a river of mercy. And the hole in the roof will allow the forgiving and healing presence of Christ to reign free again.
Do we believe this, sisters and brothers? Do we believe that in this place, in this congregation, God is about to do a new thing? Are we willing to let the past be past, and open ourselves to the miracle at hand?
Some exiles make a home in Babylon, some paralytics are afraid to take up that mat and walk. And some congregations would rather die than let the Holy Spirit change their old ways. Let us pray we are not such a congregation.
God is extending new spirit and new life to this beloved congregation. The transformation is already happening.
Do you not perceive it?