Your Sins Are Forgiven

Mark 2: 1-12
Rev. Dr. Robert T. Carlson, Jr.
January 28, 2018

There has been a debate going on in American society over the past few years. It has not often made the front pages, but it has been talked about on the Op-Ed page, on blogs and twitter and Facebook. The topic comes up with almost every tragedy, whether it was Hurricane Maria, or the shootings in Las Vegas this past October, in which 58 people were killed and more than 500 wounded.

The controversy concerns the sending out of “thoughts and prayers,” and the charge that this has more and more become an automatic response that does no good to anyone. All it does, some say, is to make people in authority feel as though they have made an adequate response. In fact, if you “google” the phrase “thoughts and prayers,” you will find an entry on Wikipedia. Near the top of that entry it says, “The phrase has received criticism for its repeated usage… since ‘thoughts and prayers’ may be offered as a substitute for taking potential materially corrective actions.” 

As a Presbyterian minister, you might guess that I have a different opinion about the efficacy of prayer. And I want to put my remarks in the context of a remarkable healing story that Mark puts front and center in his telling of the Gospel.

Sometime about 150 years before the birth of Jesus, ancient rabbis began teaching about the glory of the Lord—the shining of the Lord—in personal terms. They used the word, “shekinah,” or God as the settled one, the one who has begun to dwell with God’s people. This concept was not embraced by all the rabbis, but for many this was an essential element of the promised Messiah. God is not just the author of creation, not only the Being who is transcendent from the life of Israel; God is coming to dwell within the life of Israel and her peoples. i 

Mark believes that the first people who responded to the teaching and healing of Jesus recognized immediately that Jesus was this shekinah—the God who has taken up residence among God’s people. One of the reasons he has written down the story of Jesus the way that he has is that those reading his Gospel will see the same thing: Jesus is the light of the world, the glory of God in our midst.

That’s why the unclean spirits address Jesus as the Holy One of God, and why a healed leper cannot help but proclaim the glory of God even though Jesus tells him to keep silent. And that is why after Jesus returns home to Capernaum after his first journey to preach and heal around the Galilean countryside, so many people gather around the house that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door.

Four men walk up to the house. They are carrying their friend, a man who has become paralyzed and is laying on a pallet. When they realize that they will never get close to Jesus—that there is a literally a wall of people that will keep them from Jesus, they are undeterred. Mark recognizes that in Jesus, God reveals God’s boundary-breaking powers. God tears down walls and breaks into human lives and history. The friends find another way to Jesus. They climb up on the roof and the text says that they dug through the roof. These Palestinian roofs were normally constructed from dried mud and sticks which would require them to dig with their bare hands. They make an opening large enough to lower their friend on his pallet by ropes until the paralyzed man is laid at the feet of Jesus. They break through to Jesus.

When Jesus saw their faith and tenacity—the faith of the paralyzed man’s friends—Jesus acts. He acts in a way consistent with the way God always first acts. He speaks. And what Jesus says is, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 

There are scribes in the room, watching. They don’t even speak, but Jesus knows what they are thinking. They are thinking that these words represent blasphemy because only God can forgive sins. But this is precisely Mark’s point: Jesus is God’s son, the representative of God’s reign. Jesus does what God does; breaks open and breaks through. The boundaries of sin are overcome, and to make his point even more clear, Jesus tells the man to stand up, roll up his mat, and walk home. Healing—true healing—involves body, mind, and spirit. 

God the Father, the Creator of heaven and earth, speaks things into existence. By saying, “let there be” he calls light and dark, sea and dry land, sun and moon, and all creatures into existence. What is unique about human beings is that God not only speaks of them, but to them. God speaks to the “ha’adam—the dust creature; speaks to Abraham and Sarah; speaks to Moses. He takes an entire people to Mt. Sinai and speaks to them—makes covenant with them—and makes of them a nation, a people, a community. When the people believed that they had no life other than slavery in a strange land, God tells them that were created to live and to live a good life. The life that is good for human creatures, the Lord tells Israel, is a life that honors the Creator, rather than creatures posing as wanna-be gods. It is a life of religious observance, familial solidarity, sexual faithfulness, respect for life, legal responsibility, and generosity to others.

This definition of a good life is not just for Israel but for humanity at large. It declares that a good life is lived in community, in relationship with one another and with God. And if that is the case, then sin can be most simply defined as whatever breaks up this community, whatever fractures this good life, whatever destroys relationships. Sin is nothing less than the rebellion against what we are and what we were made for. Sin is not simply an individual failing; sin is a sign of disorder in the moral universe. What is needed is a way to put things back together that should not be separated.

We have seen the truth of this definition played out before our eyes last week. The sin of Dr. Larry Nassar is not just his sin. Yes, the relationships were broken between the doctor and the young women he abused; but this sin has also broken the heart and soul of this entire community. Things need to be put back together again and it will take hard work, healing work, deliberate, patient, compassionate work to mend the brokenness that is now all around us. And it will also require our thoughts and prayers. I say that not in a way to trivialize the problems, but to suggest just how serious the breach is. Gathered here as community called church, we claim to know the crucified and risen Jesus as the Christ, who dwells among us in prayer, in the bread and cup of our fellowship meal, in the waters of baptism, and the Word proclaimed.

As long ago as the 3rd century A.D., the Christian theologian known as Origen was crafting a response to those who thought prayer was worthless and wished to do away with the word altogether. “Why pray,” some of his contemporaries asked, “if prayer is not going to change anything?” Origen answered that prayer is not useless but rather is a mark of our freedom as rational beings alive in the world. Prayer does not immobilize us; it activates us. God uses our freedom and our prayers for the benefits of others. When we pray, we participate in God’s work.

A more contemporary theologian, Howard Thurman—often regarded as the theologian of the civil rights movement—teaches that prayer is the hunger for God within us calling to the God who created us. Prayer is what we are made for, and if we seek God in prayer, we won’t be able to stop ourselves from praying for others. Prayer opens our life to another’s need and helps us to see what that need has to do with us. More mysteriously, Thurman insists that our prayers for another may quicken the spirit of the person we pray for, awaken their own hunger, and so put them in the path of what he calls, “the vast creative energies of God.” Praying fills the space between us with a growing understanding of what we owe one another and our desire to be of use to one another.

That is how I have experienced the power of your “thoughts and prayers” as you have shared them with me over the past few months. You have put me in the path of the vast creative energies of God. I have been profoundly moved by the number of cards, letters, e-mails, texts, and phone calls as you check in with me, ask me how I’m doing, reach out and share your connection to me during these lonely days. People have knit hats for me, and in this cold weather, I suddenly find I need some hats. I am amazed when I learn that I am being prayed for by congregations across this city. I am on the prayer list at Princeton Seminary, at Calvin College, at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, and in numerous places in-between. Add to that the care and support of my wife, Barbara, my children, and my extended family—this is the source of all my strength. You are the ones carrying me up to the roof and lowering me down at the feet of Jesus.

Going through this experience, it has humbled me to realize how little I understood about this disease before my own cancer experience. I know that many of you have personally gone through this; many of you are still dealing with this disease; and almost everyone in this room has been affected by cancer as it has touched the lives of friends and loved ones near to you.

So don’t try to tell me that “thoughts and prayers” are worthless. They are certainly not the end of our compassion, but they are an important element in beginning to heal the brokenness that affects us all. Jesus tells the paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven; and then he tells him to stand up, roll up his mat, and walk home. He participates in his healing, and by this action, the whole community participates in the glory of God, in the shining of the Lord, and the repairing of brokenness.

Martin Luther says that what unites us with God is faith, which is nothing but our trust in what happens in Christ. It is precisely this faith and only this faith—this trust—that attaches our lives to the divine drama; namely the dramatic truth that God lives for us. That, I believe, is how the work of Jesus makes a difference in our lives. For Jesus Christ is the One who invites us to give everything in expressing our love for God and neighbor. Amen.