Monday, January 13, 2020

“Old and New” - January 12, 2020

Text: Mark 2:1-22

There are some pretty spectacular stories in the Bible.  The parting of Red Sea…The walls of Jericho tumbling down… David defeating the giant Goliath…  These are some of the stories I remember learning as a kid in Sunday School.  But one of the very first that comes to mind for me is the story we read this morning of the paralytic man being brought by his friends to Jesus.  Other stories are perhaps more spectacular, but for some reason this one comes to mind.

I’m not sure why that is, but I have a theory.  If there are any heroes in this story, besides Jesus, it would be the four friends who bring the paralyzed man to Jesus.  Without these friends, the man does not get healed.  Now if you stop and think about it, and this may be what drew me to the story as a child, these people do everything that we are told not to do as children.

When they first bring the man to Jesus, they are unable to even enter the house where Jesus is.  The place is packed.  Now we all know that we are supposed to wait our turn, but these people insisted on getting in, and right now.  In other words, they cut in line!  Everybody knows you are supposed to wait your turn.  But these friends refuse to wait.  They decide to take action. 

They have a plan—they will climb up on the roof.  You’ve got to love a plan like that.  When I was a kid, my grandmother lived in McLeansboro, Illinois, and at the back of her house was a sloping roof over the basement stairs that extended almost down to ground level.  I’ve never seen another house quite like that—I’m sure the roof over those stairs to the basement were added after the house was built.  It looked like it was made just so that kids could climb right up on the roof.  Well – it may have looked that way, but that was not what it was for, as I was told on more than one occasion.  But that’s what the good guys do in this story.  They climb up on the roof.

And then, to get to Jesus, they not only climb on the roof, they cut a hole in the roof.  What if you received a phone call saying, “Your little Johnny has climbed up on my house with a Sawzall and cut a hole right through the roof?”  The heroes of the story mess with other people’s property.  You’ve got to love it.

And then, they drop the paralyzed man down through the roof, on his mat, to Jesus.  Jesus was preaching.  They were in the middle of the worship service.  In other words, they interrupt.  This is a huge interruption.  How many times will a child blurt out something in the middle of the adults’ conversation and be told, “that’s rude—now don’t interrupt.”  And here were people interrupting right in the middle of a worship service!

So what we have here is a perfect story for children.  The examples to follow are people who cut in line, climb on buildings, tear up other people’s property, and interrupt.  How great is that?  It is no wonder this story has always appealed to me.

But just as appealing is Jesus’ response.  He doesn’t get upset.  Of course, it’s not his roof, right?  And maybe I should say that it is probably a mud and thatch roof – I mean, they dug through it.  But Jesus is not upset by the interruption, by the commotion, by the brashness of this effort to get to him to ask for help.  In fact, he is impressed by it.  He sees all of this as an act of faith.

“Seeing their faith (that would be the faith of his friends), Jesus said to the man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

Why would he say that?  It not only seems a little odd – I mean, the man did not ask for forgiveness – Jesus seems to be claiming the power to forgive sins, which does not sit well with some of the religious authorities present.  After all, only God has the authority to forgive sins.  To the scribes, this is blasphemous.  Jesus is aware of these grumblings.  And to show his authority, he says to the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk home.”  And the guy does just that.

It is a great story, an amazing story.  I love the role of the four friends.  Each of the four friends held up their corner of the mat.  Each did their part, and without each one holding up their corner, it would not have worked.

From the perspective of the friends, we can read this as a story about each of us doing our part.  Each of the friends held up their corner.  What if we all held up our corner?  What if we all did our part to bring healing and hope and joy and justice to others?  What is we cared for people in need as these friends did?

I would love to think about these four friends and what they do together and just run with it, but I have been thinking about this scripture in a little different way this past week. 

With a new year, we are following the Narrative Lectionary.  It is a set of scripture readings for each week that tries to follow the narrative flow – the stories and the Story, capital S - of the Bible. 

We will be in the Gospel of Mark until Easter.  One of the things you may have noticed last week, and now this week, is that the readings can be fairly long – sometimes combining a couple of different stories, often more than one section heading, if you have those little section headings in your Bible.

So I’m wondering - looking at the bigger picture - what is the common theme that is running through this passage?  What larger point is Mark making as his gospel just gets going, with the story of this healing, of the calling of Levi, with Jesus hanging out with a bunch of tax collectors, and then this sort of odd exchange where people are asking Jesus why he isn’t fasting like John’s disciples and the Pharisees, and he talks about new wine and old wineskins?

Well, I want to go back to a small detail in the story of the man who was healed.  It is a small thing that can be easily missed – I had never much noticed it before: the paralytic’s mat.  His stretcher.  His bedroll.  We are told the man is laying on it, that this mat is lowered down through the roof.  That mat or bed roll is what makes it possible for the man to be lowered down through the roof to Jesus.

But not just that.  There is the way Jesus specifically includes the mat in the question he poses to the scribes.  He doesn’t just ask if it is easier to tell the man his sins are forgiven or to “stand up and walk.” No, it is “stand up and take your mat and walk.”  And then Jesus tells the man to do exactly that: “Stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.” And then Mark writes that the man did that, immediately, taking his mat with him.  This man’s bedroll gets a lot of airtime, a lot of mentions in a relatively small number of verses.  What’s the deal?

You have to admit: it sounds like an odd thing to tell a person who has been healed:  be sure and take your sickbed with you!  Why in the world would this person want that kind of souvenir? 

Many years ago, just before I started dating Susan, I tore the ACL in my right knee playing basketball at the seminary gym.  I had surgery and they didn’t goof around with that arthroscopic surgery stuff back then.  This was a big deal and I have a couple of big scars to show for it.

I wore a cast on my leg for like 4 or 5 months.  It was an eternity.  Finally, the day came for it to come off.  What a huge relief.  It never would have occurred to me to ask if I could take the cast home with me.  Who would want that kind of souvenir?  I never wanted to see it again.  (And it was getting a little gross by then, anyway.)

Why does Jesus tell the man to take his mat, take his stretcher, with him?  What is up with that?  And why does Mark include this seemingly small detail?

Maybe it is just a way of showing that the paralytic really is healed.  Not only can he walk, he can reach down and pick up stuff.

Or maybe it is very practical – it is just the recognition that this man will still need something to sleep on now that he is mobile again.  Or maybe it’s pragmatic, given the setting: it’s a crowded room, we need the space, get that thing out of here.  (And why don’t you help clean up the mess from the roof while you are at it.)

But I am thinking there may be more to it.  Presumably this man’s life would never be the same after that day when he heard Jesus’ words of forgiveness and stood on his own two feet and walked.  He was carried in at the beginning of the story, but now he carrying the mat, and he is carrying on. 

The old life is gone and a new life has begun.  But take your mat with you, Jesus says.  Maybe it is something like this: Don’t forget where you have been.  Take your testimony with you.  The old and the new, the past and the future, are somehow related.

What follows in this chapter is in a similar vein.  First, Jesus sees Levi, a tax collector, sitting at the tax booth.  He says to Levi, “Follow me,” and he does.  And Jesus winds up having dinner at Levi’s house.  Levi had a bunch of friends over, and who were his friends?  Well, many of them were other tax collectors, along with other assorted sinners.

Like Jesus’ claim to forgive sins, his association with these kinds of folks struck people the wrong way.  It’s not that tax collectors would be that popular in any culture, but in this case tax collectors worked for Rome - the occupying power -and they were well known for cheating people.  They were seen as corrupt and as collaborators with the enemy. 

Yet Jesus called Levi and Jesus sat down for dinner with a lot of folks seen as generally unsavory characters.  The grumbling about Jesus’ ministry continued as people noticed that Jesus did not necessarily follow all of the generally accepted spiritual practices.  John’s disciples fasted, and the Pharisees fasted, but Jesus did not. 

Jesus replied with these kind of cryptic statements about not fasting at a wedding.  It would be completely inappropriate.  Nothing wrong with fasting, but there is a time to fast, and a time not to fast.  And Jesus continued, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak” – the patch will shrink and the tear will be made worse.  And no one puts new wine in old wineskins, because the wine will burst the skins.

What is Jesus talking about?  It all has to do with relationships between old and new. 

The gospel is not simply about God’s love.  I mean, it is absolutely about that.  But it is about more.  It is about transformation.  It is about healing.  It is about bringing about justice.  It is about making all things new. 

We started a class this past Wednesday for youth who are considering baptism and what it means to follow Jesus.  We talked about God this week and using construction paper and card stock and markers and tape, we all created an image or object or word collage that represented God.  Some decided to just write about it.  I was pretty amazed by what they came up with.  It was thoughtful and creative.  We talked about who God is and what God is like and came up with a whole easel pad sheet full of words to describe God. 

Love was a biggie, of course, but there was a lot more on that sheet.  Powerful, mysterious, creator, rock, shield, caring, friend, peace, kindness, justice, family, salvation, shepherd, coach.  And more.  They understood that God is actively involved with us and leading us to change, to grow, to be made new.

The paralytic man is healed.  He is changed.  He is transformed.  Levi, a tax collector, is called as a disciple.  He leaves behind his tax collector’s booth.  He leaves behind his old life.  Transformation is possible for any of us, for all of us. 

But just like that mat, we don’t simply throw out the old.  Jesus says that if you put new wine in old wineskins, the skins will burst, and you will lose both the skins and the wine.  He is concerned for both the new wine and the old wineskins. 

When new wine is placed in old skin, it continues to ferment and gives off carbon dioxide.  The old skin is unable to breathe and when a certain amount of gas is given off, it bursts.  But one can make the old skin usable by preparing it properly.  First you rinse it thoroughly with water, to refresh it and stretch it out.  In other words, prepare the old material to work with the new.

Jesus also uses the image of putting a patch on clothes.  You don’t just throw the old clothes out, but you have to patch them properly.  New material will shrink, so use old material (or “pre-shrunk” as they call it in the business.)

I did a wedding many years ago for some former students.  They were and still are kind of countercultural types and at their wedding, they wore tie-dyed clothes.  It was very nice tie-dye – slightly classier than the tie-dye t-shirts we made at Music Camp last summer.  (Not that they weren’t fabulous t-shirts.)  These clothes were made at a shop in Chicago called “Worn Again Clothes.”  I love the name of that shop.  You don’t throw out the old, you renew it, modify it, improve it, work with it. 

Diana Butler Bass wrote a book a few years ago exploring mainline churches that were doing well.  The story you hear is that churches are struggling everywhere, but she studied mainline congregations, long-established churches that were thriving.  And one of the things she found was something she called “retraditioning.”  These churches had experienced renewal and transformation, but in a way that remembered who they were and carried the best traditions of their past into the present day.  You might say that they had carried their mats with them.

We need to patch up and maintain the best of our old traditions.  We need to remember and carry with us who we are and where we have been.  But we also need to be pliable and stretchy enough and have faith enough to be open to and embrace the new possibilities which God is giving us. 

God is always doing a new thing, always working in new ways.  And even as God calls us to the new thing before us, even as God leads us to transformation, we hear Jesus’ words: “Take your mat with you.”  Amen.

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