A Time To Love

This sermon was preached on September 30, 2018, at the Wolcott Congregational Church. The Scriptures were Ecclessiastes 3: 1-9, Mark 2: 1-12

Say you’re in a nice roman city with a nice roman house with a nice Jewish Roman family. You hear stories about the nice rabbi who’s been going around, and invite him in to do some talks. 

He’s popular around town, so hosting him will make you look good, and you invite the local scribes, clergy and other intellectuals to meet with him.  It’ll be an easy day, just sitting down, drinking some wine and talking philosophy and Torah.  So you think. Of course, what ends up happening is that by the end of the day, you end up with crowds so thick you can’t move about in your own house and a giant hole in the roof.

As much as I would like to say this is out of character for Jesus, it’s not. It’s quite in line with who Jesus is throughout the Gospels. He’s constantly disrupting the lines separating the conventional and the unconventional.  Jesus is clearly a learned man, who knows his Torah and is able to debate with the wisest rabbis of his time.  But he’s also a man who gives no regard for social conventions, especially when they restrict who can claim him, and who he can claim as his own.

Our Gospel story today is emblematic of that. I will say that there’s certainly something cinematic about the imagery of the scene.  Picture it: a large house, beyond standing room full.  People from all walks of life are present, from peasants, and hardscrabble workers, to scribes, respected teachers and religious lawyers. In the center is Jesus, holding court.  Perhaps he is teaching about forgiveness.  Perhaps he is teaching about the transformative work of God’s love, or our love for our friends?

Four men, perhaps friends, perhaps folks who didn’t know each other at all, heard about the healing power in this Rabbi Jesus, and decide to go and see if this man can heal a man they knew, who had been paralyzed. Maybe this paralyzed man was a war veteran, maybe he got sick, or maybe he was born paralyzed. Either way, as they approach the building, they see that the crowd around the house is beyond crowded.  The house is so thickly crowded that maybe they begin to despair.  They try yelling, cajoling and pushing their way through, but to no avail.

One of them has an ingenious idea: if we can’t get in through the conventional way, why not go in through an unconventional way? So they literally begin to “unroof” the house.  Yes, the word in the Greek that we translate as to dig through the roof of the house literally means, “unroof.” We can imagine these four men digging with pickaxes, shovels, or maybe even their bare hands, trying to get at Jesus.  They know that they very well might get in trouble for this from the civil authorities, but it does not matter to them.  That this man, maybe their friend, maybe someone they met that very day, is in need of their love is what matters.

And eventually they do get to encounter Jesus.  They lower him through the hole they made in the roof, delivering him into the arms of the healer.

After this, a discourse on forgiveness follows, but that’s not what we’re going to focus on today.  Today, we’re going to focus on the unconventional and difficult work of faith and love that we see in this story.

The paralyzed man and those the four who lowered down their fellow into the house with Jesus are an example of faith manifesting itself as love.  They were willing to risk physical and financial harm, or even imprisonment, because they knew of the healing power of God. They knew that it would be hard work, but that it would be worth it. They trusted that the abundant love of God would dissolve the boundaries of what conventional and what was unconventional, and heal the paralyzed man.  

It’s an error of our modern world that when we think of love, we think of an easy sort of emotional affection, something that we never have to work on, or work for.  We are in love with narratives of “love at first sight,” or that love in a family is easy. I think Jesus would disagree with that characterization of love. 

This is not to say that people didn’t feel genuine romantic affection for one another.  The presence of the Song of Songs/Song of Solomon, a book of romantic poetry in the Bible signifies that.

But when Jesus was talking about love, love of God, love of neighbor, Jesus was not speaking just about an emotional response toward someone that you feel an intense affection toward, but hard work.  Jesus talks about love mostly not as a noun, but as a verb. The work of love for Jesus is to see your neighbors, your friends, and most difficult of all, your enemies, as children of God, full of dignity and humanity, and to be able to place their needs and desires as equal to your own.

This means that love is really hard work. Anyone who has tried to be concerned for or care for someone who really irritates them knows this.  It’s hard when we have the best of intentions, and it’s harder when life complicates things. Sometimes we only see as through a mirror darkly.  We grow and we change, seeing things differently than we did when we were younger. Ultimately, I’m thankful that the balance sheet of my works is not what will guarantee my eventual communion with God, but trusting in the rather the overwhelming power and sometimes strange and abundant love of Jesus Christ.  When that trust is absolute, we can’t help but manifest that as love for our neighbors.

That’s true at least in theory. As much as we like to think that our love is an ever upward trajectory, the work of love is not guaranteed. The history of the church is full of stories of failure, death, and sometimes resurrection. After all, right before the crucifixion, Peter, the chief disciple denied Christ three times. Three days later, when the women of the church proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus to the men of the church, the men believed it was idle chatter.

Yet the church did sometimes grow in love, in fits and starts. Peter would go on to proclaim the Gospel in the far away city of Rome, with a church of mixed ethnic origins, something scandalous in the ancient world. 

We also know that even though women were not believed after the resurrection, women played a key role in the early church; the letters of Paul mention several women working as apostles, something unconventional and scandalous for the time. In ancient Greek culture, women were not just thought not to be inferior to men, but perhaps a whole different category of less than human.

On a related note, especially given the testimony of Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh in the Senate that captured the nation’s attention on Thursday, and the hurt and pain I saw that it caused in many women, especially those who had been sexually assaulted and harassed, I promise that as your pastor, as a Christian, as a fellow human being, if you disclose to me your experiences with sexual assault, sexual harassment, or abuse, I will believe you.

I believe that we have a special calling in the church as Christians to believe women, as the disciples should have believed Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John.

Unfortunately, the unconventional promise of a leading role for women in the earliest church soon lost out to a conventional sort of misogyny.

After a ban in the second century, women were not allowed to be priests, deacons, or clergy for more than 1700 years. And although women make up a majority of Christians in the United States, most Christians in the United States have never, and might never have, a female pastor or priest.  Thanks be to God for our Congregationalist forebears for ordaining the first woman in a mainstream denomination in 1852. Despite that long history, this year is the first time that women are the majority of ordained clergy in the United Church of Christ.

I will leave us with one final note. When I’m reading the Bible for myself, one of the things I like to do is try to identify, or imagine myself as one of the characters in a particular story. Who and why I identify with someone changes over time, depending on where I am. For example, in the story of Mary Magdalene and the women telling about Jesus’s resurrection to the male disciples, has my own testimony been dismissed for one reason or another? Have I been a man who has dismissed what women have had to say? 

I find that strategy to be particularly meaningful in our story of the paralytic man.  Am I a member of the crowd, unwilling to give up a conventional and privileged place near Jesus in order that someone who needs to be near him right now can approach? Am I one of those folks, coming up with an ingenious way to help someone I love encounter the living God that I know can help heal them? Or am I the man so wracked with ailments, paralysis in the Biblical story, or in my case, loneliness, depression, or anxiety, that I am unable to come to Jesus without a little unconventional love from those around me?

So let us thank God for God’s grace, healing and love when it finds us in a conventional way or especially, in an unconventional way. Let us give thanks to a God who loves us so much, that he is always pushing us to love more and more.  Let us sing and shout for joy for a God who loves us so much that we can’t help but try to love our neighbors.  And let us be especially grateful that when we screw up our, we can do better.

Thanks be to God.