January 12th, 2020 “Healing of Community” Rev. Heather Jepsen
This morning our narrative lectionary reading continues to follow the story of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Mark. Last Sunday we read about Jesus’ confrontation with the forces of evil using his powers to bring healing to those who were ill or demon possessed. This week Jesus continues to battle evil, bringing the gift of forgiveness of sins to the people of God.
Just like last week, we have a lot of ground to cover. Our reading begins with the familiar story of the paralytic man and his friends. Once again Jesus is mobbed by the crowds that seek his healing. Mark tells us that so many gathered around him at home that there was no longer room for anyone, even at the front door. A paralytic has been brought by his friends for healing, and unable to bring the man into the space, the friends devise an alternate plan. Going on to the roof, they dig through the mud and straw to create an opening, lowering the man into the crowded room and into the midst of Jesus.
Needless to say, this is quite the distraction. Instead of immediately offering healing, Jesus is moved by the faith of the man and of his friends and declares that the man’s sins are forgiven. Thus begins Jesus’ conflict with the religious authorities. No one has authority to forgive sins but God. Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness equates himself with God which is surely a blasphemy. Even though no one says this out loud, the room immediately becomes tense. Sensing the thoughts of those around him, Jesus declares that he is the Son of Man and he does in fact have authority to forgive sins. And to illustrate his power he heals the man, commanding him take up his mat and walk away.
The conflict with the religious community continues into the next story as Jesus calls Levi the tax collector as one of his disciples. Tax collectors were some of the most unpopular figures in the ancient world. The job of the tax collector was to collect money from their fellow Jews to pay off the Roman Empire. Not only were these folks making friends with the oppressors of their nation, they were known to line their own pockets with taxes, insuring their personal wealth as well. These folks betrayed their nation and their people for personal gain and were justly unpopular. Imagine a terrorist, a meth dealer, or someone who has made millions by selling opioids today. These are the people no one likes.
Not only does Jesus call Levi to be one of his followers, he continues to associate and eat with the community of tax collectors and other sinners. Those within the religious community cannot understand why Jesus would spend time with such unsavory characters. Everyone knows that the company you keep is important; those who associate with sinners are sinners themselves. When asked about this practice, Jesus replies that he has come to call not the righteous but sinners.
The confusion among the religious community continues as Jesus also neglects to observe the ritual of fasting. Just like its practice today, fasting in the ancient world was about separating oneself from the world and purifying oneself for worship of God. Jesus responds to this confusion declaring that we cannot fast while the bridegroom is here. He has come to be part of the world not separate from it, and the time for fasting and holiness will be later.
Finally Jesus lectures us on sewing and viticulture. We don’t sew new fabric to old garments and we don’t put new wine into old wineskins. The old and the new don’t go together. Clearly Jesus has come to do something new, which may or may not fit with the religious authorities’ old ways of understanding God and faith.
The theme I see running through our readings for today is that of community. Just as Jesus comes to bring healing to individuals, now we find Jesus bringing healing and transformation to the community that is the church. Whereas last week Jesus was fighting the power of evil in the lives of individuals, this week he fights the power of evil in community.
The story of the paralytic man features two distinct communities. First the crowds that gather around Jesus and block the door. Then the separate community of the man and his friends. The first community are insiders, they are literally inside the house with Jesus, and knowingly or not, their position of privilege blocks access to those who are in need. The second community are boundary breakers; they literally break the boundaries of the house in an attempt to join the community.
Moved by the faith of those who would go to great lengths to join the community, Jesus offers healing not just for the man but for the community as a whole. For what is the forgiveness of sins if not a healing for the community? Sin by its very nature is a breaking of the bonds that tie us together as one people. To forgive sin is to mend the bond of people in community.
Unfortunately it is not that simple. Insiders don’t like new outsiders and the community bristles at this attempted healing. Jesus pushes the point, physically healing the man and encouraging him to take up his mat and walk. To walk is to join the first community, those gathered together in the room. Jesus now physically mends the community bond. And to carry his mat, the man carries the memory and marker of his ailment. By the very sight of him and his mat, he is spreading the word of Jesus’ healing power which will inevitably draw more to the community. In this story, not only is the man healed, the community itself is transformed.
Jesus continues the transformation of communities with the calling of Levi. Once again, those that are outside the group are brought in. As Jesus eats at Levi’s house with tax collectors and sinners he begins to redefine community. Those that were purposely kept outside the community are now members of the inner circle. Dangerous people, rule breakers, and sinners are all welcomed in. Not only are they welcomed in the group of followers, they actually dine at the table with Jesus, making them part of the inner circle. It’s no wonder that this boundary breaking attracts such negative attention.
The religious traditionalists literally do not understand what Jesus is doing. That’s why they ask so many questions. Why does he eat with sinners? Why doesn’t he fast? Why doesn’t he know how to be holy? Jesus on the other hand is redefining holy. He is teaching that holiness is something altogether different then what we thought. Where we once thought holy meant separate and pure, Jesus is demonstrating that holy means bringing different people together. Holiness isn’t the rigidity of separate communities. Holiness is the flexibility of strangers coming together. Like sewing together garments or stretching a wine skin, we need to be flexible to be the people of God.
Last week we wondered about Jesus bringing the power of the kingdom of God to fight the forces of evil and to heal us physically. This week Jesus fights the forces of evil that seek to divide us by healing us spiritually. Like the man on the mat, we are paralyzed by the suffering of our world. When we hear the drums of war beat, we don’t know what to do. When we are faced with poverty in our midst, we don’t know how to respond. When we see the ravages of climate change destroy the continent of Australia, we feel helpless. We are paralyzed by our collective sin.
Alone we can do nothing, but together we can find forgiveness and healing. Just as the man was helpless without his friends, so too we are helpless without the community. When we can cross boundaries and form community, we can get ourselves to a place where we are no longer paralyzed. We can accept the forgiveness of our sins and mend the bonds that have torn us apart. We can take up our mat and walk into the world together enacting healing change. The power of forgiveness frees us from our paralysis and unites us together to make a change. We need to admit our collective sin, receive forgiveness, and form new communities of healing. This is the only thing that can fight war, poverty, and the destruction of our planet.
Today we gather at the communion table and this is always a moment and a meal of forgiveness and community transformation. We never eat this meal alone, we always eat it together. We need to recognize that God is inviting everyone to this table. This is a feast for tax collectors and sinners, for terrorists and meth dealers. This is a place where Jesus moves us toward folks we want to push back against. This table has the power to transform people from separate groups of Republicans and Democrats, of Americans and Iranians, into one united people of God. At this table we find forgiveness, and in forgiveness of our sins communities are made whole.
The message of our gospel today is a challenging one but it is one we need to hear. Jesus has come to bring healing to communities by offering the forgiveness of sins. To accept this gift, we need to face the power of evil in our own lives and in our collective lives together. We need to admit the ways we have fostered division and allowed the sin of brokenness to grow and fester. We need to accept Jesus’ gift of forgiveness and be willing to move towards those we are tempted to push against. And we need to work together to form new communities made up of insiders and outsiders, of righteous folks and sinners together. Only as a community can we receive Jesus’ healing powers.
As you go out into the world this week, take the message of this table of transformation with you. Jesus has come to bring us together in new ways. As you feel tempted to push against those who are outside your chosen community, remind yourself that Jesus wants to bring us together. May this table of grace guide our lives this week. May we seek to be flexible, bringing old and new together, bringing saints and sinners side by side, forming new communities of healing and grace. I believe this is what our world desperately needs today. Amen.