By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Mark 2:1-12
A few years back I watched a special on the history channel on FDR. Prior to the show, I didn’t know much about Roosevelt other than what I’d learned in school. The show, however, delved deeply into his personal life. One of the most astonishing things about the show related to Roosevelt’s polio. It indicated that, during his presidency – and particularly during his presidential campaign – very few people were aware of his physical disability. For me, growing up during a period of American history during which great emphasis was placed on equal rights, I would have never imagined that a physical handicap would have provoked public disgust and personal embarrassment just a few decades earlier. I was appalled to learn that at whistle stops on the campaign trail, the presence of FDR’s son so close to his side served the purpose of steadying the presidential hopeful on his feet. His son later recounted that, some days his father’s legs were so weak that the grip of his hand left bruises on his son’s arm and that it took tremendous self-composure on the part of his son not to betray on his own face the pain he felt from his father’s iron-clad grip. But, I guess that was the price to be paid in a culture where Roosevelt’s polio-weakened legs would have resulted in a judgment that he was unfit for the office of president.
I’ve started my sermon with that FDR story because I want us to be aware – as we begin to examine this morning’s gospel story – that physical infirmities and the way in which they are socially interpreted varies a great deal from one culture to another and from one generation to another. And among those who know these bible stories well, we may be tempted to neglect or overlook how these healing stories would have been understood by the early followers of Jesus.
Now the topic of “sin” is prominent in this story. Jesus is the one who introduces it. But we need to know a little bit about the thinking of people who lived in Jesus’ time in order to get a better understanding of what’s going on here. In the culture in which Jesus lived, people assumed that various sicknesses or disabilities were the direct result of sin. In other words, people believed that things like blindness or paralysis were God’s punishment for human sin; the sin of the individual or the sin of their parents. Questions about the relationship of sin and suffering stretch back over millennia and, in truth, the bible provides varying explanations for human sickness and suffering. Yet in this morning’s story, Jesus does not say that sickness is – or isn’t – the result of human sin. Jesus doesn’t even say that this man’s sickness was – or wasn’t – caused by sin. But Jesus would have known that the people in the crowd that day – from the everyday folks to the religious leaders – would make that assumption. That’s where their minds would naturally go.
And so, we need to acknowledge the cultural distance or distinction between those ancient people and us. As modern Americans, we don’t consider sickness God’s punishment for someone’s sin (at least I hope we don’t).
But what we do share in common with these ancient people is the recognition that sin is something that gets in the way of our relationship with God; and sin also impacts our relationships with others. Sin can be a barrier or obstacle that puts a wedge between us and God. And although our sins don’t result in physical paralysis, often our sins and the results of those sins can create spiritual, emotional or social paralysis. Broken relationships, relentless shame, resentment, envy... those are all things that can stop us in our tracks and prevent us from standing up and moving forward with our lives and living out God’s purpose for our lives. The word we translate “sin” in this morning’s story (and in most places in the New Testament) is a word that means, literally, “to miss the mark.” James and Evelyn Whitehead[i] write of guilt as the natural result of our “missing the mark,” especially in our relationships. So, healthy guilt increases self-awareness and inspires us to change and make amends. But sometimes when we “miss the mark” our sense of guilt becomes crippling and diverts our energy away from healing and mending and redirects it toward an unhealthy mental self-flagellation.
Sin is something that can spiritually, emotionally and socially cripple us; holding us down and holding us captive.
The man in this gospel story would have been judged by his culture as being a sinner; one whose presumed sin had led to physical paralysis and whose paralysis had led to shame. And so it should not surprise us that Jesus pronounces God’s forgiveness. In Jesus’ culture, this man’s physical symptoms were secondary. Of primary concern was his devalued state of existence. His paralysis stripped him of his honorable position in his family and his village; it robbed him of his ability to interact in socially appropriate and meaningful ways with his family and his neighbors. And so, when Jesus pronounces this man forgiven, Jesus declares in the midst of the crowd that this man is acceptable to God and worthy of God’s grace. Jesus has the power and authority to bestow God’s grace and forgiveness. When this man stands up, rolls up his mat, and heads for home under the power of his own two legs that is not so much the healing as it is the sign or evidence of the healing. And notice that Jesus tells him, very specifically, “go to your home.” The word used here means more than a physical structure; it refers to a household; it is a relational word.
You see; an assumption that poses a danger to us in interpreting this story is this temptation to focus on the man’s physical state – once lying on a mat and now standing up and walking. Yet, of greatest significance is the fact that this man is now restored to a right relationship with God and with his family and community. The man standing and walking becomes a clear and visible sign to the crowd that what Jesus said – “Son, your sins are forgiven” – was true and credible. And do notice that Jesus addresses this man as “son”; a title of intimacy, a title of honor. The crowd likely labeled this man as a sinner worthy of God’s punishment. This guy was not a child of Abraham; he was a sinner. But Jesus proclaims this man to be one of God’s children, a worthy recipient of God’s forgiveness and grace.
My friends: the good news of Mark’s gospel is this: that there isn’t any sin or failing in our lives that is stronger than the healing, liberating power of Jesus. There is nothing that Jesus’ saving grace and forgiveness can’t overcome. Jesus and his saving grace can set us free from the things in our lives that confine us and hold us down. There should not be anything standing in the way of you living out God’s purpose for your life; of fulfilling God’s call over your life.
There is another little bit of cultural trivia here. In the time of Jesus, people associated particular parts of the body with ways of relating to the world. People’s legs and arms, their hands and feet, were associated with the ability to carry out ones purpose or intent. In other words, they would have interpreted someone who suffered physical paralysis as being unable to fulfill God’s purpose or intent for their lives. Now again, we don’t think in those kinds of primitive ways today. But, if we interpret this story in a more symbolic way, sometimes we do suffer from a spiritual or emotional paralysis. We allow sin and the guilt and regret and the sense of failure it creates within us to hold us down and take us captive; it paralyzes us and prevents us from living out God’s purpose for our lives. And so, if you are feeling like that this morning… if you have felt as if some past sin or some weakness that you struggle with has paralyzed you and is preventing you from pursuing God’s purpose for your life, then let me tell you, it’s time to stand up and move on. God does not want you paralyzed, held down, by anything that is “sickening” your mind or spirit. Whatever it may be that’s been holding you down and holding you captive is not and cannot ever be as powerful as the forgiving grace of Jesus. When we come into the presence of Jesus, he is ready to heal us and to forgive us. There is no sin, no shortcoming, no failure that Jesus’ power and grace cannot overcome.
And here’s one final thing about this story… If you are so fortunate as to have already received and experienced Jesus’ transformative grace and to be living out his purpose for your life, then you need to be bringing others into the healing presence of Jesus. Let me tell you that the friends of this paralyzed man are unsung heroes in this story who rarely receive much attention. Think about it: their culture had taught them that this man was a sinner who’d done this to himself. And let’s face it; when we indulge ourselves in the belief that people bring on their own problems, it can be very comforting and reassuring. Even today, religion will sometimes try to convince us that we have far more control over our good fortune than reality bears out. But this guy’s friends aren’t about to ditch him. They dug their way through somebody’s roof for crying out loud. I mean, wouldn’t it be awesome if all of us cared so much for those who our culture deems “sinners” that we’d even jeopardize our own reputations and respectability just to get them into the healing presence of Jesus. These friends cared so much about this guy they were willing and ready to do all kinds of crazy stuff to get him connected to the healing, liberating power of Jesus.
Jesus’ desire for us and his word to us is forgiveness. Jesus wants us all to know that we are God’s sons and daughters. It is the grace and forgiveness of Jesus that overpowers those things in this world that threaten us and paralyze us. God has a purpose for your life; he offers you forgiveness and he names you as his child.
[i] Transforming Our Painful Emotions by Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and James D. Whitehead; Orbis books; 2010; chapter 7.
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