“We Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Like This Before”
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 4, 2018
University Baptist Church
The Gospel of Mark is different than the other gospels. It doesn’t have an infancy narrative. The Jesus depicted is a prophet and a healer—maybe a prophetic healer. It starts out with Jesus’ baptism and ends before the resurrection. It’s all about Jesus’ life. Mark’s Jesus does almost no preaching. There is no sermon on the mount, no long discourses like in John’s Gospel. Mark’s Jesus is an action figure, and an earthy one at that. By the time we reach the second chapter, Jesus has already healed people who were sick and had demons in them, meaning they may have been mentally ill, and a leper: all people who were seen as unclean—outcast, shunned, ignored by organized religion and polite society. Every time he does so, he reverses the idea of what is holy, who is worthy of healing and he implies that God’s priorities are in a different place. Jesus demonstrates that we need to reverse course if we are going to be anywhere near God’s transforming work in the world.
Today’s scripture reading is a humorous scene. But it’s layered with meaning. Let’s unpack it a bit.
Jesus gets such a reputation that he is drawing a crowd. He goes into a house and starts preaching. People are clamoring to see him. He’s inside a house. When you’re inside a house, you can protect yourself from the elements, including those you don’t want in. Jesus made his name as a healer. So why when a paralyzed man came by was he not let in?
What reason was there to keep him out? Might he be unclean? Might he have been disruptive before? Might people have written him off as a lost cause? Might he have something to say that the people didn’t like? Often times people who have been put down have a lot to say. We know there were scribes among the crowds that day. The religious leaders. Certainly they would have welcomed the healing of the man. But they didn’t. They didn’t even do crowd control. They kept Jesus in and the riff-raff out.
Sometimes churches can be like that, with subtle and not so subtle rules that keep people out. Luckily during the Super Bowl, several downtown churches are letting the homeless sleep in their buildings. But what happens after the game is over and we get back to normal.
I imagine the paralytic. Let’s call him Mordecai. I can imagine poor Mordecai brought over on a stretcher by his friends and not being allowed in. I imagine his dejection. Mordecai was used to it. But his friends saw the disdain the people held for Mordecai. And in a frenzy of charisma, the decided they would not take no for an answer.
When I got to this church way back in 2001, there was a room off the gym filled with lumber. The pieces were numbered, like it was a disassembled jigsaw puzzle. When I asked about it, people told me that it was the parts for the handicap ramp that the church put together each year so that Mark Juergens, a member paralyzed in a swimming accident up at Lutsen could attend the Palm Sunday brunch. Apparently this contraption was put in and taken down each year for Mark. It’s that kind of church. Within a year, we had a capital campaign in place and put in an elevator. It was fitting that we dedicated it on a Palm Sunday.
I love Mordecai’s friends. They don’t take no for an answer. When their entrance is barred to the house, they climb up the walls, hoist Mordecai up and then start tearing off the roof. The scripture says that they dug through the roof. At this point, as bits of soil and straw started raining down on the crowd, you would think that the people would go out the door and bring Mordecai in—but no. There was still a crowd and they still tried to keep him out. This wall will protect us, they intoned. It’s a great wall. But in the presence of persistent human need, a wall is only an obstacle to be conquered, a challenge.
Imagine the scene. Four friends, with Mordecai on a rope lower him down and put his palate in front of Jesus. Now he had to do something. And he looked, down at Mordecai, looked at the crowds that had kept him out, looked up at the roof and said, “Because of your faith (referring to his four friends), Mordecai, your sins are forgiven.” Now, this was not the answer they were looking for. No one. The friends wanted Mordecai healed. And Jesus responded with some kind of religious platitude? Outrage!
The crowd sensed the outrage and rode the wave. The scribes said, “Who does this guy think he is to forgive sins? That’s our job, as spokespeople for God.” They launch into a theological debate, worthy of a university symposium. But is this the time and place? Mordecai is sitting right there, still immobile. The theological debate was a distraction, a misdirection. They acted all defensive as the purveyors of decency and holiness. How dare you forgive sins.
Remember, if your sins are forgiven, then you are to be welcomed back into the community. It’s like you have your citizenship restored and you need to be treated like a citizen. And you needed authority to do that. Authority was parsed out by the scribes, vetted by the priesthood and elucidated in lofty high-fallutin’ language. Plus, you needed to pay for forgiveness. Oh yeah, that. You had to give your tithe of two turtle doves if you were poor or a ram if you were rich. There was protocol to follow. You can’t just go around forgiving sins right and left without authority.
What would that do to the social order?
Matty Strickler’s fine ordination paper has a great section on sin. In it he says that evil is sin that is codified, systematized and normalized.
To me sin is anything that breaks, conceals, or threatens the connections that bring people together into healthy relationships and healthy communities. If God’s love is a unifying force, then sin is that which divides or that which disregards the unifying force of God’s love. Evil is the systematization of those sins. For example, institutionalized oppression is a systematized expression of the sin of division. Sin is committed by humans, evil is larger than any individual sin. I believe that human beings are imperfect, make bad decisions, are sinful, but I do not believe that individuals are evil. Evil can only exist when sin transcends the individual, and therefore the soul, and becomes systematized or institutionalized. Some examples of personal sins of hatred that have been institutionalized to become evil are: racism, sexism, classism, ableism and heterosexism. When the sin of individual greed becomes systematized it can become the evil of exploitative global capitalism. When the sin of vengeance becomes institutionalized, it can become the evil of the prison industrial system. When the sin of hatred becomes systemic, it can become the evil of genocide. Of course none of these are discrete; in fact, part of what is insidious about these examples of sin and evil is that each of these evils feeds off the others.
I imagine the quartet on the roof started throwing catcalls to the scribes. Maybe they got into it with the others who had left them out. I imagine with each insult they threw at those in the rafters, they threw down pieces of roofing. I imagine it raining dirt on them, making them (fittingly) unclean.
Meanwhile, Mordecai was still lying there on the floor.
Finally, Jesus had enough of this charade of holiness. He stopped talking about sin and he said to Mordecai, “take up your bed and walk.” And that’s what he did. He walked right out. The people stood aside like the waters in the red sea and Mordecai walked out in dignity, not needing their approval any longer, while the quartet in the rafters cheered. The people said, “we ain’t never seen nothin’ like this.” I’m not sure what they had never seen before:
A healing of a paralytic.
A debate about sin—scratch that, they had seen this a lot.
A preacher putting the scribes in their place and calling out their complicity with the sin system that had become institutionalized evil.
Or was it the quartet on the roof who took matters into their own hands and demanded an audience and said this is going to happen whether you like it or not.
Every once in a while, I get asked to give a team a spiritual pep-talk. I did it for the Gopher’s basketball team and even the Penn State football team. I did not get a call from the Vikings, Eagles or Patriots. Each time, I use this story from Mark. I mention that it takes a team to get the man the healing he needs. I say that a quarterback is only as good as his offensive line. I talk about how when the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan, he racked up record numbers, but the team never won a championship. That wasn’t until they got some teammates for Michael like Scottie Pippin, Steve Kerr and Dennis Rodman. They needed to work together as a team and maybe even raise the roof a bit. The four friends are the heroes of the story because Jesus points out their faith which has led to their friend’s healing.
They all went away saying we ain’t never seen nothing like this—someone speaking as with authority, someone to put the scribes in their place, someone to heal people and restore them to the community, someone who sees the bigger picture. Someone to take on sin, including the sin of exclusion that they were all guilty of. But Jesus didn’t say the crowds sins are forgiven, even though they thought they deserved it. That glaring omission was a great reversal. Those who think they deserve it don’t get priority. Those who are outcast, who have friends who rip the roof off, who call out the sin of the world, they are the ones ready for redemption. And that’s where Jesus puts his focus.
Imagine if the Christian community started helping people to reimagine who was in an out. Imagine if we led with such fiery audacity that we declared that fear no longer binds us. What if we declared that there is no scarcity save the scarcity of our imaginations. What if we stood up and said with all of our moral authority, “Mr. or Ms. elected official, tear down this wall.” The people may well say, “We ain’t seen noting like this.”
Our work as Christians is to bring healing of individuals, but also of institutions. It is to call out evil when we see it. It is to forgive and to model a better way. And it is to work together with others who are similarly committed to making the world a better place. That’s what the church is for. That’s what this Christian team is for. That is what we are for. It is to create such a reversal that people will say, we ain’t never seen this before. And that’s not the end. We also want them to say, we need more of this. I want to be a part of that kind of movement.