God of Grace and Glory, we pause now in this time of worship to give you thanks for your love that continues to pursue us, uplift us, and carry us through life’s ups and downs. Help us to remember that we are not alone in this journey of faith but are part of a community of fellow travelers. Teach us to care for one another along the way. And may your word to us this day inspire and inform our path. Amen.
Today, we turn to another story of healing found in the second chapter of Mark’s gospel. We find Jesus back at his home-base in the town of Capernaum on the shore of Galilee. Word has spread that he’s back home and, as a result, a crowd has gathered to hear him teach. It’s so crowded, in fact, that there is no room left inside, and the doorway is blocked.
Just then a group of people shows up carrying their friend who is paralyzed. Since they can’t get in through the door, they get crafty. Clearly, they are motivated to get this man to Jesus. So, why not just lower him in on his mat through the roof? It was probably a thatch roof of some kind, so digging through it shouldn’t have been too difficult. I hope they repaired it afterwards, but Mark doesn’t tell us.
Jesus’ response to their tenacity in this moment is important. He’s sees this as an act of faith. And as a result of their faith, he offers this man both forgiveness for his sins and physical healing of his paralysis.
As I mentioned last week, healing stories in the Bible often operate on multiple levels. And here we have clear examples of both spiritual healing and physical healing. In some stories these are simultaneous. In this story they are sequential. First, this man receives forgiveness of his sins and is healed of his spiritual burden. And then, he is healed physically.
We should be careful not to view this man’s physical paralysis as caused by his sin. Sometimes that assumption of causation is made in interpreting these healing stories. But we should reject such an assumption. That can be damaging to real people and we know that is not how bodies work.
But, nevertheless, this man is a human being. He’s as imperfect as the rest of us. Maybe he’s said or done some things he later regretted. Certainly, he’s had his share of mistakes and mess-ups, as we all do. So, like anyone else, including all the folks in the room that day, he is in need of forgiveness. He is in need of an assurance of God’s grace. And part of the point of this story is that spiritual healing is as important as physical healing, maybe even more so in some circumstances.
Interestingly enough, it is this spiritual healing that stirs up a bit of controversy. Who does this guy Jesus think he is, dolling out forgiveness of sins? Only God can do that. Who gave him the authority to do this?
Of course, we the readers know that Jesus’ authority does come from God. And that is part of Mark’s point in telling this story the way he does. And so, as a demonstration of this authority, not only does Jesus forgive this man, but he also heals his physical ailment. Perhaps Jesus was planning to heal his paralysis anyway. But now this healing also becomes a teaching moment for those in attendance.
Who knows how long this man has been paralyzed. We don’t know the cause of his condition. Was he born this way? Was this a result of severe illness? Was he injured?
But there, in front of both skeptics and believers, in front of those who question Jesus’ authority and those who are glad to accept it, this man is healed. He walks out of there on his own. And the crowd is amazed and glorifies God. Well, most of them, anyway; the question remains whether or not Jesus won over any of the scribes who challenged him.
This story raises a lot of interesting issues for us to consider. And one of those issues is who gets to be the gatekeeper of God’s grace.
The scribes question Jesus’ authority to forgive sins, to offer God’s grace, to this man or to anyone else. In response, Jesus questions why forgiveness and grace should even be thought of as so difficult in the first place. Why are they so hesitant to accept that this man is forgiven?
On a theological level, do they think God’s grace is so scarce? And what does that say about the character of the God they believe in? Do they think God is miserly? Do they think God is hesitant to forgive? And, on a human and societal level, are they so self-involved and concerned about maintaining their own social and religious authority, that they would hold back God’s grace from someone in need just to make a point and to maintain their own power?
These are questions that need our consideration, not only in relation to the scribes in this story, but also for ourselves. It’s a very human tendency to want to play the gatekeeper and decide who’s in and who’s out. And I’m afraid there are too many examples throughout Christian history when the church has acted more like the scribes in this story than like Jesus. When religion becomes more concerned with power and authority than with forgiveness and grace, it’s time to make a course correction.
Those course corrections can be risky, however. Power and authority generally don’t like to be challenged. We know that. Jesus knew that. Faith sometimes asks us to take a risk. But it’s worth it to build up the kind of communities and world we long for.
And so, this story also offers us an alternative model for faithful spiritual community. In addition to Jesus’ example, let us also consider this man and his friends. They didn’t let a blocked door stop them (literally or metaphorically). They were determined to help their friend get to Jesus, to help their friend receive the forgiveness, grace, and healing he longed for. And so, they got creative when they had to. When they found a blocked door, they didn’t turn away – they proceeded to dig through the roof.
We can learn from their persistence and creativity. This is evidence of their faithfulness, as Jesus points out. It is also a reminder to us to strive to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. We shouldn’t be blocking the door, paying no attention to who might be trying to get in. Nor should we be grumbling under our breath about who should be in or out. Instead, we should be extending a wide welcome and making sure everyone can join in the celebration of God’s wide and abundant grace. God doesn’t need us to be gatekeepers. God needs us to be a welcome wagon. And grace ought to always lead our way.
These friends show us an example of how to be of support to one another in community. They show up for their friend and offer the help they can. They show their love and support through service.
Perhaps these friends were also in need of their own forgiveness, healing, and sense of belonging in community. Mark doesn’t tell us that. But I would guess that most of the crowd who gathered there that day, including this man and his friends, longed to experience the grace of God and to have their burdens lifted, lightened. That’s why they sought Jesus out that day.
We all long for release; we all long for healing in various ways at some point in our lives. We look to God for such healing. But we also look to our friends and our communities for support along the journey. That’s part of what church ought to be all about.
It’s not always simple to figure out the best ways to support one another. Sometimes it’s obvious how to help. Sometimes it’s not. For some of us it is easier to be the helper than the one receiving help. It may be hard to ask for help. It may be hard to know what we might even ask for. Sometimes we don’t know what we need. Sometimes what we most desperately want isn’t something we can attain.
I just watched the move, Penguin Bloom. If you haven’t seen it, it’s really good. I recommend it. It’s available on Netflix if you want to watch. The movie is based on a true story of a woman named Samantha Bloom and her family.
Samantha was an active young nurse, wife, and mother. When on a family vacation in Thailand she was involved in a terrible, freak accident in which she fell off a rooftop balcony when a railing gave way and broke her back. She survived the fall but was now paralyzed from the middle of her back down. She will never walk again.
The film is honest about her journey through grief, anger, and frustration, until she eventually finds some deep spiritual and emotional healing and acceptance of her life as it now is. The real Samantha Bloom actually let Naomi Watts (who plays her in the film) read her journals from that period of time so she could understand more fully what she went through.
The story has a lot to say about how we support to one another when we’re going through tough times. And it’s also honest about how that isn’t always easy.
Samantha’s family is deeply committed to her. Her husband is a great caregiver, tending to her physical needs and her kids adore her. But they all struggle emotionally through this process. How can they not? And it takes a while for them to get to the point where they are all able to be honest with each other about some of their feelings. Samantha’s son, Noah, feels guilty because it was his idea to go up on that rooftop. Samantha struggles with her own anger and guilt. Her husband, Cameron, worries and wants to cheer her up but doesn’t always know how and fails to understand why sometimes she just wants to stay home and not see anyone, even when friends stop by the house.
As it turns out, they all receive some profound lessons about both caregiving and healing from an unexpected teacher. One day while playing down at the beach, Noah comes across a young, injured magpie who has likely fallen from her nest. He knows she’ll probably die if he leaves her there, so he brings the bird home to care for her. And they name her Penguin because she’s black and white.
Though they know Penguin the magpie will need to return to the wild eventually, she absolutely becomes part of the family. And her journey of healing becomes their own.
Like many animals in our lives teach us, one of the most profound lessons Penguin has to offer is just to be present. Sometimes words get in the way. Sometimes we’re quick to try and cheer up or fix things for another person, to offer solutions and advice. But unless that is wanted or asked for, it may not be helpful.
And maybe sometimes we don’t know what to say. That’s ok. Offering a compassionate presence is enough. Being present, offering prayers, sending a card, making a call; it all matters. Small things make a huge difference. Just knowing that someone cares means a great deal.
And we should offer these acts of compassion without strings attached. We need not expect a particular response or outcome. It’s not about fixing. It’s about serving with love.
Penguin also teaches the Blooms the value of persistence. She will heal and learn to fly. But it takes time. And it takes some failed attempts along the way.
It’s the same with us, I think. We might sometimes wish that the path from woundedness to flight was shorter, more direct, less difficult. I’m sure Samantha Bloom did. But that isn’t always how life unfolds. But perhaps, with God’s help, like Penguin and Samantha, we can find the courage and inspiration we need to persevere and keep going.
Eventually Penguin learns to use her wings. And eventually Samantha learns how to fly across the water in a kayak and finds that it brings her joy and a new lease on life.
Our faith calls us to be of support to each other along this journey of life and faith. From the beginning our faith tradition has been grounded in community. We don’t have to do this alone. Sometimes we are the ones carrying another, helping another. And sometimes we are the one being carried, being helped.
And at all times we are always being carried by the grace of God.
God’s grace can bring us healing for our spirits, healing for our souls. Let us continue to be people who celebrate that grace, accept it for ourselves, and offer it to others freely.
And like those folks who took their friend to see Jesus, let us never underestimate what being of support to others in our communities can do. It can help bring healing in profound and life-changing ways.