Last month, when we were gathered together for Breakfast Church, I left my table during the period of reflection on the readings, and went out to where the kids were gathered. We ended up talking about our favorite Bible stories, and I realized that in my 18 years of preaching, I have never once had the opportunity preach on one of mine. It turns out it is in the lectionary, but only in the version of the story from Mark, and it’s scheduled for so late in Epiphany that unless Easter is at its latest possible date during the Year B cycle, we never hear it.
I thought of it again this week as I was meditating on the passage from John’s Gospel you just heard. This poor man who has been unable to get into the healing waters of the pool of Beth-zatha. There was a legend that when those waters were ‘troubled,’ or stirred up, an angel was visiting and one could find healing in them. But of course, one had to be able to reach the pool while the waters were still in motion. This man could never get there in time. No one would help him—instead, others would take advantage of his slowness, his lameness, and step in front of him, claiming the healing for him or herself.
It’s infuriating to me that for thirty-eight years—38 years!—no one ever put him first. That’s what called to mind this other story, the one I told the kids was one of my favorites. Here it is from the Gospel according to Mark:
When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’
Two stories of men, both paralyzed, unable to claim for themselves the healing they so deeply desired. Two men whose encounter with Jesus changed them. The difference, of course, is that one man had friends to carry him to the place of healing. The other had to wait until the opportunity came to him, and it took a long, long time.
All of this has been swirling around in my head since I read a comment on the livestream of (Christ Church’s/the) worship service last week, written by someone who has been to church a few times since I arrived five years ago (this weekend!), a woman who deeply loves the church community but whose family commitments prevent her from being here.
She wrote, “I’m watching from a soccer field!”
I experienced an odd mix of feelings about this. One of my concerns about streaming the service is that it might become tempting to watch from home and never be forced to do the hard work of being in community with one another, even when we disagree. Even when we don’t necessarily like the person Jesus is calling upon us to love. So a little part of me, that inner scribe or Pharisee that I try to keep contained, was screaming, “See! I told you so!”
And part of me was feeling self-conscious about being seen and heard by people who don’t know me, who might get the wrong idea about me from one sermon. Who might get the wrong idea about God from one sermon. Part of my role among you is to foster relationship, so that we are able to hear what is—and is not—being said, and respond to one another with compassion and honesty.
But for the most part, I was oddly overjoyed. I could just picture her sitting there, attending her kids’ soccer game while simultaneously attending church, and having someone come up and say, “Hey, what are you watching?” Someone who would never even consider setting foot in a church. Someone who had no idea there are people whose message is one of welcome, and love, and forgiveness, and community. Someone who will never get to Jesus through the door, but might not struggle when he finds himself suddenly be lowered down through the roof.
We can’t count on people to come knocking on the door and asking us to tell them about Jesus. We have to go where they are. In the reading from Acts, Paul thinks he knows what he’s getting into when he jumps aboard a boat for Macedonia after having a vision of a man calling him to go there. I sincerely doubt he ever expected he’d end up preaching to a group of women on a riverbank, or staying in the house of an independently wealthy Gentile woman who, basically, told him that if he really believed what he preached, he should prove it by staying in her home.
God doesn’t always use the door.
And God’s work in this world is never as neat and tidy as we would like. God brings order out of chaos, to be sure—but God’s definition of “order” may still look a bit chaotic to those of us standing in the rubble.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to briefly sit in on a preaching class at Yale Divinity School in which the students were practicing a little Ignatian spirituality with that story about the man being lowered through the roof by his friends, imagining themselves in the picture. What did they see, hear, smell? What did they think?
I had to hold in a giggle as I listened to them all talk in that way that only seminarians can, revealing their own theological biases and trying to impress one another with their social justice insights and deep spirituality. After the class, the professor came over to speak to me, and I explained the reason for my amusement. My first thought had been, ‘Well, now, who is going to clean up THIS mess?! Are you going to come back and repair the hole you just made in my roof?!” We chortled together. That’s the difference between preparing for ministry and actually doing it. It’s rarely as tidy as you think. Real ministry—lay or ordained—is messy. Sometimes the best experiences of God’s activity in our lives are the most unexpected.
And it’s almost never a solo venture. We are called to work together. Sometimes we have to pick up and carry each other along for a bit. Sometimes we are the ones being carried. Sometimes we’re the ones left to clean up after the mess has been made. Sometimes we are the ones left pondering the power of forgiveness.
I can’t leave the pulpit this morning without sharing one last insight, offered by someone who was reflecting on all this with me this past Wednesday. I’d tell you who it was—I even suggested she preach it today—but she insisted on anonymity.
She compared it all to the startling announcement by the commencement speaker at Morehouse’s graduation last week, that he would pay off the entire student loan debt of the class of 2019. It is an incredibly generous act by one man to one group of students. At the same time, it puts every other commencement speaker on the spot—people who don’t necessarily have that kind of wealth to share.
But, she said, that doesn’t mean we do nothing. We can buy someone’s cup of coffee or lunch. We can pick up a gift card the next time we go to the grocery store and send it to someone we know who is living on a tight budget. We can buy a couple of gas cards to have on hand when someone gets a frightening diagnosis that will require multiple trips to a larger hospital out of town—or even offer to drive. We can write an encouraging note to someone who is grieving or take some soup to someone who is sick. We can call someone and listen patiently as we let them talk. We can say a prayer for a person we might rather ignore, carrying them to the healing waters that they can’t reach by themselves. It’s about offering what we do have to God’s service. Everyone has been blessed by God somehow, and the point is to share that blessing, rather than compare it to someone else’s.
There’s a saying that God makes a way where there is no way. What we don’t always remember is that often God accomplishes this by convincing us to dig a hole in the roof for the people who can’t get to Jesus otherwise, and trusting us to clean up whatever mess we make in the process.