“Rejoice in God’s Mercy”
Rev, Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
April 28, 2022
17 One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18 Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; 19 but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. 20 When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 24 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the one who was paralyzed—“I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.” 25 Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. 26 Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today.”
The theme for the week is rejoice in God’s mercy and the healing of this paralytic man is the text. To understand the joy in God’s mercy in this passage, we need to understand the prevailing attitudes in the first century towards the disabled. As today, it was often easier to blame someone than to face the randomness of suffering. Books are still being written to try to reconcile the human experience that suffering visits the undeserving and the deserving alike. By human reckoning, that is simply not fair. The concept that human suffering is a fact of life rather than something that is doled out —- is too frightening for most of us to face. We need a reason. We need to know “Why me?” Why some and not me?
For centuries, blaming the victim has served to provide the healthy with a false entitlement and a false security. Jesus, however, directly countered that belief. When confronted with a blind man in John 9, the disciples asked Jesus: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replies that “neither this man nor his parents sinned.” In Luke 13 Jesus challenged the contemporary thinking that victims of disasters were somehow deserving of their fate when he asks: “those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” These are important questions for another blog (or a book) but today, I want us to notice what the prevailing attitude toward a paralyzed man would have been—physical disability was ‘proof positive’ that someone was a sinner.
Those attitudes explain in part the first words of Jesus to this parlytice were: “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” Forgiveness is a fact. It is a foundation, not something we earn or have to qualify for. How we accept and respond is a different story. There was no expectation that the man repent. It was simply the declaration of the gospel. God forgives. God does not hold our sins against us. Jesus was not assuming God’s perogative, he was declaring a new understanding of who God is. As such, it is a promise any one of us could offer. God simply loves—without words like deserving or earning. Human attempts to qualify God’s love are misguided and sinful.
The scribes and the pharisees viewed Jesus’ pronouncement as blasphmous. Who gave Jesus the right to turn their understanding of God upside down. Ritual purity was their livelihood. There were all kinds of rules about clean and unclean. Jesus skipped all of that and said: “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” The stigma and shame attached to disability was removed. This man was freed of the shame which exiled him from belonging. What was true for him is true for us. When the onus of shame is lifted, we walk differently in the world.
Stigmatizing and excluding people is not limited to the first century. There are many obvious examples in our time. Todd tells of a man whose family kept him in a closed dark room because of his mental difficulties. They were ashamed to have such a man in the family. But we are not really different. Few of us talk about the alcoholism, mental disorders, broken marrianges, secret wishes for escape or revenge or even the ordinary fatigue of care giving. We treat our limitations and our brokenness as bad. Our secret-keeping reveals our shame. When we do this, we exclude ourselves. When we do it to others, we exclude them. Our behaviors, if not our thinking, reveal that we fear that if we were known, we would be rejected.
“Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” In the best of world’s that is what the church is for. The church, however, is made up of people who often feel obligated to present themselves ‘shiny side up.’ We forget the church is not for the ‘good’ people, church is for ordinary, limited and broken people. Our sins are forgiven. We are not defined by our physical condition, our past behaviors, our limited ability to love or even by our refusal to accept love. God always gives us room to learn to love—and room to return to him. It is a gift beyond price.
Unfortunately no matter how freeing or desirable, we fiercely resist such a promise. In FIRL, we ran into two major difficulties. The first, we have already mentioned, is that we can not receive God’s grace if we don’t acknowlege we need it. That calls for honest confession. And that can only happen if we can trust God’s promise to receive us. That will always feel like a dangerous propistion. God’s care functions very differently than most of our human experience.
The second problem in both FIRL groups was sin still has consequences and this promise seems to eliminate those. Why be good if we all have a free pass? This reflects our holding on to secular values. There is no free pass in grace. There is the unfaliling opportunity to learn what is truly important in life. It is never to late to learn how to love. It is not about escaping consequences. It is about not being defined by history. In fact, if God’s promise is trusted, we will choose to face consequences rather than seek to avoid them. We become more accountable. Not less.
Two quick side notes. Notice that the paralytic was healed because of his friends faith not his own. Contrary to all social expectation, his friends treated him with regard. This regard was neither expected nor called for. It emerged out of the friend’s belief that this man’s life mattered. And they treated him so. Without that faith, the paralytic would not have been in front of Jesus. Jesus was blessing their understanding of God.
Finally, Jesus says, “Take up your pallet and walk.” It is an odd detail. One commentator said it war equivilent to telling someone with a leg cast to take their cast home with them after it had been sawed off. I think of it as a reminder of his past life. I read a short essay years ago about scars. It reminded us to treasure our scars as reminders of what we went through and as a reminder that we could be healed. This man was an outcast no more. He was free to belong—but he should never foret what it was like to be a stigmatized outsider.
God’s forgiveness is a great gift. God shows mercy that is beyond imagining. His steadfast love endures forever. We will live differently if we receive it. We will rejoice in the new life it gives us.
Let it be so.
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
April 28, 2022
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