God’s embrace, 7 Epiphany (B) – 2006

February 19, 2006

Isaiah 43:18-25; Psalm 41; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12 

As we have worked our way through the beginning of Mark’s gospel this Epiphany season, we have seen the explosive growth in Jesus’ ministry. In today’s gospel his popularity has hit such a peak that the people can no longer gather close enough around him even to hear what he has to say. The word is out – in spite of Jesus’ wanting everyone to keep it a secret – and crowds are coming to see him, gathering around, demanding his attention. People are coming from all over: sick people, possessed people, and just plain curious people, and all of them want just a little piece of Jesus’ time and effort. They could overwhelm him with their many requests and demands.

Do any of you know what this is like? Those of you who are mothers are most likely familiar with this kind of problem. Many of us are familiar with the countless demands of a job, or the unreasonable expectations of a boss. And most of us know what it is like to have too much of a good thing: too many people making demands, too much attention, too many things to do.

And for Jesus, the problem is not simply that there’s too much going on. The crowd that is such a positive sign of his popularity keeps the people who really need him at bay. They limit his effectiveness by keeping many people away.

Clearly, some followers are just plain too creative to be thwarted by this. In today’s gospel, the four people carrying the paralyzed man do not give up when they realize they can’t get near him; they do not declare their task impossible, they do not go home in despair. No, they are so determined to help their friend get to Jesus that they take the roof off the house where Jesus is — and they don’t just remove a few shingles, they dig through what must have been some combination of adobe brick, wood, thatch, and maybe even stone.

It’s a powerful image, isn’t it? We can almost imagine the conversation of these four faithful friends:

“Just look at the crowds!”
“We’ll never get near him.”
“We might as well give up.”
“But we came all this way.”
“We’re tired; what can we do at this point?”

We can imagine them trying to get through the crowd, “Excuse me, but this man is ill and needs to see Jesus.”

And we can just about hear them say, “Forget it. We’ll never get through. We might as well give up.”

And in that moment of despair, the very darkest time in their journey of hope – just at the instant they are about to abandon everything, declare defeat, and return home – in that moment, one of them must have thought, “Hey, what if we were to go around behind the house, hoist our friend up over our heads, and dig through the roof?”

I figure at this point, the other three responded with a combination of outraged skepticism and uncontrolled laughter. “Oh, right! The four of us are going to carry a paralyzed man to the top of that house, then dig through roof. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

And the paralyzed man himself, what do you imagine he said at this point? Would he not be terrified at the risk of being lifted up and lowered through a hole in the roof, let alone concerned about the sacrifice his friends were making on his behalf?

And somewhere in the midst of this confusion and chaos – with tempers short and bodies exhausted, having already put a lot of energy into this effort, and having every attempt met with failure – somewhere in midst of all this comes a moment of grace. “Why don’t we just try it? What have we got to lose?”

And lo and behold, they not only succeed in getting their paralyzed friend to Jesus, but in having him healed: seeing him stand, and take up his mat, and walk. Seeing the impossible happen, a miraculous cure, the power of God working before their very eyes.

Now, the point here is twofold. First, it is about tenacity; about not giving up till you see Jesus. How many of us would turn away in frustration just seeing that crowd? I suspect many, if not most, of us would do just that. How many people do you know who say something like, “I tried going to church, but it didn’t change my life, so I stopped” or “We used to go to church, but they were such hypocrites. Nothing happened”? How many times have we tried something once, and then given up when we didn’t see immediate results?

These five souls – one paralytic and four friends – just kept at it until they achieved their goal. They may well have stopped and re-examined their situation, even, as I suggested, argued about their predicament. But they continued on in spite of what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles.

And the second point is about creativity. Notice that they did not continue on with their original plan when circumstances prevented it. They had to develop a revised plan to account for those changing circumstances. They did not insist on their own original idea in spite of all odds. No, they carefully considered the situation and came up with a creative solution. Someone in that group must have said, “This isn’t working. Let’s try something else.”

Tenacity and creativity: two spiritual attributes that we all posses in some portion. These are values that can help us mature into the full stature of Christ and important attributes to consider as we approach the coming season of Lent. We’ve all heard the old adage “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Today’s gospel tells us to do that, yes, but perhaps it also suggests that “If at first you don’t succeed, try something different, try something else.”

And notice, finally, that they used their energy not for their own personal gain, but in service of another. They did not use their gifts of tenacity and creativity to increase their real-estate holdings or their investment portfolio, but to strive for someone else’s healing.

And at the end of that effort, after all that arguing, heavy lifting, and brainstorming – a result of our tenacious striving and our creative energy in serving others – what awaits all of us is what the paralytic in today’s gospel received: Jesus’ touch of healing, his proclamation that our sins are forgiven, and his bidding for each of us to stand up and take our own proverbial mat and walk.

Those four friends of the paralytic knew that the healing touch of Jesus was their friend’s destiny. They weren’t quite sure how or when, but they knew in their hearts that this paralyzed man was entitled to health and salvation. They knew that God’s loving embrace was not reserved just for those who managed to make it closest to Jesus. And they knew it was their responsibility to see that their friend got the healing he needed.

Their faithful tenacity would not allow them to give up in the face of some pretty serious adversity. And their hopeful creativity allowed them to see a way forward when others might have turned back. The paralyzed man received the help of God’s power: his sickness turned into health, and his sorrow into joy. This person was a burden to his friends, unable to help even himself. His body was transformed into the temple of God’s presence, his weakness vanquished by the risen Christ, his soul restored to the soundness and serenity that God had always intended for him – and for everyone.

May we not be turned back as we strive for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. May we seek new strategies and ideas for reaching the goal, through service to others. And may we all, through God’s grace and mercy, come to know the healing of God’s embrace.


— The Rev. Barrie Bates is curate at the Church of the Ascension, New York City, and a doctoral student in Liturgical Studies at Drew University. He is the author of numerous articles in scholarly journals, including “The Problem of Clergy Misconduct: Preaching Liberation from Bondage to Sin in an Age of Moral Freedom,” Journal for Preachers (26:1, Advent 2002). 

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