Saturday, February 18, 2012

Raising the Roof: Overcoming Obstacles to Faith (February 18-19, 2012)

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

    When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home.
 Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and he preached the word to them. They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?”
Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”— he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”
He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. They were all astounded and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.” Mark 2:1–12 (NAB)

I call this Homily “Raising the Roof: Overcoming Obstacles in Your Life”, but in honor of these four friends who lowered this paralyzed man through a roof, maybe we should call it, “Four of a Kind Beats a Full House.”

This is a wonderful story in the ministry of Christ, and fits well in the midst of the healing miracles we have been sharing in our gospel readings for the past few weeks, and our own preparation for Lent. Sometimes it’s hard to put yourself there into the scene, but try to imagine what’s going on. Jesus is preaching, and people are coming. Notice they always come to hear Jesus’ words. It’s so crowded, its standing room only. LinSanity, Tebow-Mania, no one can get a ticket into this event.

He’s going preaching and (noise of drill)…okay, they did not have power drills in that day (hammer on the board). Imagine what it would be like…you’re sitting there, one of the ones lucky enough to get in, within earshot, and all of a sudden there’s noise on the roof, then some dust, then this paralyzed man is lowered…I mean, image Fr. Andrzej being lowered on that motorized Advent wreath we have…it’s noisy, it’s interrupting the sermon (Jesus could preach when there was some noise, and he didn’t mind kids, did he?)

“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”

Whose faith? The paralyzed man, or his friends lowering him down from the roof? The answer? Yes!

Jesus saw THEIR faith…it was either the faith of the man—he knew he was paralyzed, and he knew he needed some help. Imagine how tough it must have been for him to rely on others, to rely on his friends. Imagine how dejected he must have felt as they drew closer to the home, and found it full. Imagine the look on his friend’s faces when he said, “Guys, let’s go through the roof!”

It was also the man’s friends. These are not just good friends—they are awesome friends. Maybe one of them hears that Jesus is in town, and he gets the others all together. They go to the paralyzed man, and they tell him their plan. When they see the crowds, they are not defeated. They are not going back home without getting to Jesus. I love these guys! These four men didn’t want to take the paralyzed man to a chariot race. They didn’t want to take him down to the lake to go fishing. They wanted to share Christ with him. And that made all the difference in his life.

So, here were four men who refused to have a defeatist attitude. There were some obstacles in the way, yes. There were probably some people who said it couldn’t be done. But their faith led them to put forth the effort and the Lord rewarded them. What do we see in these friends?
  1. They Were of like Mind. Their hearts desire was to see this guy brought to Jesus.
  2. They Were of like Motive. These men had a single motive, to get this guy to the Savior. Nothing would stop them, not pride, not polite manners, not people in the way, not making a little noise, having to go to the Home Depot afterwards and fix the roof, nothing could deter them from their goal of seeing this paralyzed man meet Jesus, the great physician. Yes, it’s a bit awkward to ask people to Mass with you, to hear God’s Word preached with power, to witness the presence of Christ in the sacraments, even if you are not prepared to participate. Yes, it’s awkward. But if you were truly convinced that that person you know was paralyzed without Christ, and you needed to do whatever you could to get that person to Christ, then you would do it, wouldn’t you?
  3. They Were of like Motion. Their effort was concerted, if they had worked hard, but in different directions, the sinner would have never reached Jesus. Division in the house of God will lead to no good end and the loss of many opportunities to lead people to the Savior.
·   Oh, I wish I had time for another homily to preach on these points, church, but we will have to wait. But Lord, give us a church filled with friends like this!

In one of the unpublished gospels, though, you know, the ones that are always on the History Channel, the ones that show that everything we learn from the New Testament is wrong, they actually got a chance to interview some of the people who did not come to hear Jesus that day, and who certainly didn’t bring any of their friends. It's amazing what they said:

  • One of them said, “Well, I don’t want to judge anyone who is paralyzed. Sure, he can’t walk, and he just lies there on his bed, but who am I to tell him that walking is important? Who am I to judge what is right and what is wrong?”
  • Another said, “Yes, I know I have a friend, a loved one, a child who has that same paralysis of sin. But you know, I don’t want to put any pressure on him. After all, no one ever became a Christian by loved ones having expectations, or offering a ride, or anything else. So I just stayed home and prayed about it.
  • “I saw there were others who brought their friends, but I was too eager to run home and watch football to spend a few minutes being friendly and encouraging after Mass.”
Friends, that is not the gospel I love, or you love.

I LOVE these friends of this paralyzed man! They were willing to take a risk, they were willing to overcome the obstacles, and had an expectation that seeing Jesus was the most important thing in the world.

And don’t talk to me about putting pressure on this poor paralyzed man. I know all about pressure. The pressure on our young people every day to sexually compromise themselves, to go along to get along, to be accepted, to be cool, to not stand out. Don’t talk to me about pressure!

I want to speak to the teens right now—what kind of friends do you have? Are they taking your closer to God, closer to Christ, closer to dealing with the obstacles in your life, or are they taking you farther away from him? Are they helping you overcome the obstacles, or leading you to be overcome by them, leaving you more and more paralyzed by your sins? Do you see that parent, that loved one, that friend, trying to bring you to Christ? that is the best friend you'll ever have, and you better realize it and cut them a little slack!

I need about three hours to preach on that, too. But don’t talk to me about pressure; I understand pressure all too well. 

Jesus sees their faith, but he also sees the skeptics…and so he asks a question in verse 9.
“Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”— he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”

We think to ourselves, which is easier…to fly to the moon with your arms, or to swim to Hawaii? Both are impossible, but Jesus wants people to know that healing is only a part of his ministry.

By the common rule of argument, if the greater case holds, so also the lesser. Jesus insists that if he heals this man, then his enemies must recognize his authority to forgive sin.

Jesus heals the paralytic in order to confirm this radical revelation that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.  In this way, the inner healing that is required for the forgiveness of sin is also associated with physical healing.  It gives perfect expression to the entirety of forgiveness which involves the whole person: the body is freed from the disease just as the spirit is freed from sin.

Faith unlocks the healing, faith unlocks the forgiving power of God.

And Jesus has a right to examine our faith, to see our faith, and to look at what we do with it. Faith is something you can see, people!

James 2:14–18 says
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.

No obstacles are too great to bring people to Jesus.

Jesus created and grew a church just like this. They turned the world upside down. They would not change their minds, and they would not change the subject

And you know, the government tried to get in the way…"we don’t want you preaching in our public places, we want you to bring in your paralyzed man in this way, take him in the back door, we have some OSHA regs about breaking someone’s roof in your religious services, we don’t want the healing like this"…you know something? The church has been bringing broken people to Jesus for over 2000 years, and it does not need the help of anyone else, or some government agency to get them there. We’ve been doing this for a while. It is part and parcel of the ministry of Christ, and it cannot be separated, minimized, regulated, denigrated, segregated, obfuscated by bureaucrats—it is the ministry of Christ. Take up your mat, and walk! That’s our business! That’s the church’s business! Don’t tell us how to run Jesus' business!

In the first and second centuries, on the ash heaps outside the city of Rome, the early Christians would go out and would bring in the newborn babies who were left to die there, exposed, waiting to be eaten by the wild dogs, thrown away by men and women exercising their choice, their freedom to allow another to die, and they would rescue them, and care for them, and bring them to Jesus. 

And the church has been doing that for two thousand years. Take up your mat, and walk!

And so that man went home, carrying his mat. The thing that controlled his movements he now carried, and he now moved. St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century, wrote about this passage, saying in one of his homilies “Take up your bed. Carry the very mat that once carried you. Change places, so that what was the proof of your sickness may now give testimony to your soundness. Your bed of pain becomes the sign of healing, its very weight the measure of the strength that has been restored to you.”

The paralytic lifting up himself, taking up his bed, and walking, is a story in itself, the person who, in the strength of Christ, has lifted himself up from the life of self and sin.

We first made the decision to meet Christ, perhaps by our own sense of need for him, perhaps with the help of others. We all faced difficulty in approaching him. A multitude of sinful thoughts and cares may have crowded at the door. The noise and incessant activity of the culture, its ability to divert our attention, to keep us entertained, to keep us stuffed by not nourished, keeps many from applying at all. But at length, whether alone or with the kind assistance of faithful friends, we were brought to the feet of Jesus, and we heard those words of love and power, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” And then we rise and walk. We take up that whereupon we used to lay. 

We will carry away those things that used to satisfy—the love of ease, the self-indulgence, the appetites uncontrolled. And carrying that bed, whatever it may have been, whatever it was, and now walking in newness of life, becomes the proof of our cure. When the drunk becomes sober, the passionate one gentle, and the covetous person now the generous one, in every sense that person is taking up that which he used to lay upon. Thus does each penitent man begin a new life; setting forward with new hopes and new powers towards his true home, eternal in the heavens. How are we “more than conquerors”, as Paul described in Romans 8? We conquer over those things that once conquered us. We carry around in our bodies the death of Christ, we also carry in our spirits and in our lives the live of Christ—real, genuine, inspired.

Take up your mat and walk! Don’t get back on it. Don’t go back to those life-dominating sins, that anger, that lust, that pornography! You have been freed of that!

If you are not a Christian today, why not? What’s your obstacle? I want you to think about those friends—maybe a spouse, maybe a parent, who has been trying to carry you to Christ, or back to Christ. Every person who drove someone to Mass this morning should get an extra doughnut or something. Seriously, think about those who have yearned, almost physically carrying you to church, so you could meet Jesus. Are there obstacles out there? Plenty! But no one will be turned away if we seek with eager and honest hearts, with a willingness to be open about our paralysis.

Nothing like overcoming an obstacle, and the more challenging they are, the richer the reward.

I close with a true story. African Marathon runner John Stephen Ahkwari of Tanzania had the honor of representing his country in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Around the mile 18 marker in the race, Ahkwari stumbled to the ground and seriously bloodied his leg and knee. It seemed clear to those around him that this man should not keep running the race, but Ahkwari would not have any part of giving up. He kept running and then walking…. but moving forward. The race’s winner was declared less than an hour after his fall, but he kept running… walking… and moving forward…

Nearly 2 hours after his fall and about an hour after the first runner crossed the finish line– Ahkwari would finish last in the Marathon that evening in Mexico City. From the dark of night, off the streets of Mexico, into the blasting white lights of the stadium, Ahkwari made his entrance--alternating a jog to a walk, and then, finally, to a run. The thousands of spectators that were speckled among the stadium seats there to watch an entirely different Olympic event, took notice of this ragged, bandaged individual making his final stretch to the finish line. One lone competitor, competing not against the other countries that began the race with him, but in the race for his dignity, his character or the pride of his country.
The crowd gradually realized what was happening, since the marathon had LONG finished–realized that this man was the last runner…in the moments that followed…the applause began…. and got louder as he made his way around the track. People began to stand and holler words of encouragement and the applause heightened to a full burst. Crossing the finish line was not an act of ego, it was an act of pride–honoring what John Stephen Ahkwari valued most.

After he received medical care and the questions of his run were asked, many asked why he kept running. Why did forge forward even in such tremendous pain that surely all would understand his not completing the marathon?

His response, quite simply, was this… “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

What are the obstacles in your life today? What are the obstacles in the lives of those you love the most? What is standing between you and a deeper relationship with God? As we approach Lent this week, as we receive those ashes of remembrance, of greater penitence, of the opportunity to live our faith more fully—what are those obstacles in our way?

By the power of God we can defeat them!

At the end of St. Paul’s life, he wrote to his protégé, Timothy, about his life, his ministry, his obstacles. And what did he write? In II Timothy 4:6-8, we read

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Let us come to Jesus, no matter the obstacle. Let us be healed of our sin-sickness and paralysis. Let us take up our mat and walk. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 

May God bless you this Lenten season, may you pick up your mat, and walk.

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