A Lectionary Lab Bonus Sermon(for those who may not be celebrating the Transfiguration of the Lord on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany)
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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
Alex Haley, the author of Roots, was not an overnight success. He grew up on a farm in West Tennessee then spent many years in the merchant marine. After he was discharged he turned to writing penny-a-word short stories for pulp magazines under many pen names.
He worked in relative obscurity until first his biography of Malcolm X and then roots made him both rich and famous.
In his office Haley had a framed photograph of a turtle sitting on top of a fencepost. When asked about it, Haley would explain; if you see a turtle on a fence post you know he didn’t get there by himself. He had some help. Whenever I start thinking about what a great job I’ve done, I look at the turtle and remember how I got here. I had help.
Today’s Gospel lesson is about a man who got well. He didn’t do it alone, he had help; help from Jesus and help from his friends.
As the story opens Jesus has returned to Capernaum, where he was “at home,” the Bible says.
We’re not sure if that means he was a home-owner and they were in his house or if he lived in someone else’s home. Either way, people had heard about his healings out on the road and they knew where to find him and flocked to his house.
There was a crowd, a crowd so large and tightly packed that one person in search of healing could not force his way in. So he and his friends hit upon a clever idea.
They went up on the roof and cut a hole in the ceiling and lowered him into the room where Jesus’ was. This was not as difficult as one might think. There was almost certainly a set of stairs on the outside of the house leading to the roof, The roof itself was probably flat because families used the roofs the way we use patios; as a cool place to eat and sometimes sleep during warm weather.
The roof itself was formed by thick beams three or four feet apart, first covered with tree branches and then several feet of dirt. This is why the text says they “dug through it.”
Though this was not a welcome act of destruction, it was one that could be easily and inexpensively repaired.
So they lowered the man down into the room so that he could be healed by Jesus. Then comes the most fascinating line in the story; “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Did you catch that? Mark says Jesus saw the faith of the friends and healed the man. This was indeed a turtle on a fence post, for he was completely dependent on his friends. As are we all.
Several years ago I knew a man who was a prominent church leader; a pastor, a professor, eventually a bishop. He was a man of strong faith.
But his faith grew very cold when his wife died of cancer at a relatively young age. A few years later he wrote about his very personal dark night of the soul. He said he could no longer believe in god, he felt no love, no hope, no faith, no anything. He went through the motions in his job, but his insides were dead. He wrote of going to church and being unable to pray. He went, he said, and sat when everyone else sat and stood when everyone else stood, he read the prayers, he sung the hymns, but he felt nothing. Nothing at all.
The worst time was during the prayer of the church. He could not pray, he could not believe that anyone was listening. He knelt, he said the appropriate responses, but nothing was happening, it felt so unreal.
Often he asked himself, “Why do I go? Why go through the motions?” And the only answer he could come up with was that he needed to be there with those people who did believe and who did care, about God and about him.
Eventually this man’s faith grew back again. He said it was a long, slow process of hanging on.
And the most important factor in being able to hang on was the people who prayed for him.
He said, “I don’t mean the people who prayed to God mentioning my name and my need and asking God to help me. I mean the people who, week after week in church, prayed the Prayer of the Church while I sat among them unable to pray. They prayed for me, in my stead, in my place, because I was unable to do it for myself.
In those days, he was a turtle on a fencepost, carried by the faith of his friends when he was unable to lift himself. The faith of the church became his faith when his faith was paralyzed.
We are all called to be friends to one another.
We are called to carry each other into the presence of Christ.
We are called to pray for one another.
We are called to have faith in and for each other.
We are called to carry each other before the presence of the Christ, where our sins are forgiven and we are truly healed.
Amen and amen.