Monday, January 11, 2016

Full to Bursting--a sermon on Mark 2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Full to Bursting
Mark 2.1-22
10 January 2016, Epiphany 2 (A-ha! moments), NL2-18

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’
 Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
 And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
 ‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’

This past summer I spent a morning picking 17 pounds of strawberries at a farm out in Woodstock. A few days later, I spent an evening turning much of that into freezer jam.
I’d never made it by myself before, so naturally I called my grandma for help. She’s worked with the Extension office for more than 30 years, so talking people through their kitchen questions is kind of her deal. As we were talking and I was making jam, she reminded me repeatedly not to fill the jars too full.

Now, my grandma is already sort of prone to repeating things. But this time she was doing it on purpose, because she could picture my freezer if I filled them to the top and then packed them carefully in the drawer….only to be awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of sadness coming from the kitchen.

It almost feels like Jesus is the extension office grandma at the end of today’s reading, repeating the wisdom of the ages: don’t sew new unwashed cloth as a patch on old clothes, because when it shrinks it’ll tear away and you’ll be sad you wasted all that work only to have a worse problem. Don’t put new wine into your old wineskins, because when it keeps fermenting it’ll expand and…well…it would be like jam and glass exploding all over the freezer. Use new wineskins for the new wine, that way they’ll have room to expand, and they’ll be full nearly to bursting, but they won’t break. They will be flexible enough to stretch and accommodate the yeast growing inside.

Everything seems full to bursting in Mark’s gospel. Every page is packed with action. In just two chapters we’ve already heard about him calling, teaching, healing, eating, praying, and getting into trouble. He has attracted attention and there are crowds of fans everywhere he goes, even at his own home.

Mark tells us that Jesus—having taking the disciples off to other towns at the end of chapter one—has come home, and people have heard about it. Soon the house is mobbed with people eager to hear, to be healed, and even some to spy. So many people wanted to see and hear Jesus that there was no room for even one more person, even in the doorways and out in the courtyard. But four guys are determined to bring their friend into the house, one way or another.

Notice that the paralyzed man never speaks. We have no idea if he wanted to come to Jesus, or if he could even imagine wanting. We don’t know what happened to him or if he wants to be healed. He lays there, unable to move, and his friends do all the work. And work it is—they climb up onto the roof, where there might be some space for sleeping out in the cool sea air, until they get their hands into the mud and thatch and start tearing it apart.

Surely the people in the house noticed. There had to be dust and pebbles and grass falling down from the ceiling, and strange noises coming from above. But like any good preacher, Jesus keeps going in spite of the distraction, until suddenly there’s a person being lowered in front of his eyes.

And when Jesus turns his eyes toward the hole in his roof, he doesn’t see the effort and cost to fix it. He doesn’t see vandals or thugs peering through. He looks up and he sees faith. Those four had the trust and perseverance to do whatever it took to bring their friend to Jesus. And Jesus, who doesn’t even know if the paralyzed man wanted to come or not, looks at the faith of his friends and then looks at him and assures him: your sins are forgiven. Jesus declares God’s forgiveness, which is already present and…well…that wasn’t a popular move.
It’s one thing when he’s a healer and teacher, and another thing when he’s acting like a priest, or even worse, like God. When Jesus sees the faith of the friends, and then sees into the hearts of the scribes, and tells the man to get up and walk…it’s too much. They can’t take all this new reality in at once, and some of them are amazed, and some glorify God, and some go out and plot.

I have a friend who says that the key to leadership is managing disappointment—leaders need to be careful to disappoint people at a pace they can handle. Change is hard, and none of us like it very much. There’s a reason we keep doing those comfortable things over and over again. Each new thing brings with it grief over the loss of the old, and leaders have to be careful to manage that grief, allow time and space to incorporate each new shift before moving on.

No one seems to have told Jesus about this key leadership principle.

He’s already expelled a demon in the synagogue, touched a leper, and abandoned his fans with no warning. People can see and feel and hear that he is different—that he brings authority and power and grace. He isn’t all that interested in accepting limits just because someone says they’re so.

Now he declares forgiveness without the man ever confessing anything, he calls a tax collector for a disciple, and then feasts with said tax collector and his friends.

The epiphanies are coming too fast for people to handle. Jesus is breaking all the rules, coloring outside the lines, and while some people can go along with some of this new way, it’s also clear that there are plenty who can’t get on board. He isn’t following the practices of other holy men and their disciples. He isn’t being careful about his religious cleanliness. He doesn’t seem to care who his dinner companions are.

Or rather, he does care who his dinner companions are—he just cares for the wrong people. He should be inviting over the other teachers and priests and holy people. Or at the very least other healers. But instead he’s dipping his hand into the same hummus dish with those people. You know the ones—the ones we try not to make eye contact with, the ones we pity and patronize, the ones we feel perfectly free to judge. Those people, with the wrong job, the wrong skin color, the wrong family configuration, the wrong accent, the wrong religion, the wrong budget priorities.

Those people.

They are the ones Jesus invites to his dinner table. They are the ones Jesus calls his friends.

And the upstanding citizens, the ones who go to church every week, who have the means of washing their clothes and educating their children…they’re standing paralyzed, looking in the window, assuming that Jesus got it wrong and they should be the ones sharing nice wine, passing a dish of figs, and telling stories around the table.

The irony here is that there’s plenty of room, if only we would be flexible like a new wine skin. Flexible enough to admit our need, and to see the image of God in those who are different, and to accommodate ideas that don’t fit our limited understanding of God. The kingdom of God is at hand, and like yeast it will grow within us and between us and among us…and when the kingdom grows, we need to be ready to stretch, fast. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to understand or to come to terms with his new way of doing things—he works faster than we want to deal with it, fast enough that things could get broken along the way if we don’t stretch ourselves and our world to the new shape he wants to make.

When we try to fit God’s new thing into the old wineskin, attempting to control God with our human ideas, we end up paralyzed, and we can’t see a way in to where Jesus is gathered with those people. Worse—we may not want to. And that’s where our friends come in—friends who aren’t afraid to just pick up and do it, to try something crazy and tear off the roof, to let the dust fall where it may. Those friends, those leaders, will pick up the paralyzed Christian and the paralyzed church and let us down through the roof into a new wineskin, which is full to bursting but still has plenty of stretch. There, at the feet of Jesus, he will call us back to ourselves, name us sons and daughters who are loved and forgiven, and we will take up our mat and walk right into the kingdom of God.

May it be so.


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