Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Prescription for Spiritual Health

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 2:1-12


The reading of the Scripture places us naked before God. In these few minutes, as Christ walks among us in the Word, we are naked as at birth and naked as at death. It is tempting to read this passage as advice for improved healing, as church growth imperatives, as technical exploration of paralysis, or as support for our own—preconstructed—politics or theology. Rather. Sursum Corda. This is good news. Jesus here is teaching us how to die, by teaching us how to live, and by giving us a prescription for spiritual health. The Gospels open where the rest of life falls silent.

At our golf tournament, I faced a 30 foot putt. “I might do this. It is possible.” To which my friend replied, “I guess it is possible. But it will never happen.” May one find friendship, forgiveness and faith apart from the God of these three graces? May one find such apart from the Lord Christ Jesus, friendship, forgiveness and faith incarnate? I guess it is possible. But today, let us turn over our hearts to Him.


Our paralytic, the embodiment of human mortality, lies prone and silent, outside the community of faith. We notice that it is the devotion of his four friends that brings him to health. They shoulder him up to the roof and lower him down to the feet of the Master.

Before we die, we crave friendship. We need the tutelage that real friendship alone brings.

We are glad to preach about salvation in large moments. In church…by revelation…in emotion…at a moment. Good. Yet salvation comes in small doses, daily, if it comes at all. If we are so tuned to the glory of Easter morning that we miss every winter day grace, we have missed saving experience. One of the real forms of damage done to life by fundamentalist Christianity has been to let large salvation eclipse small salvation. If you are not being saved, and grown, and healed from paralysis every day, to some measure, then what is salvation? The rhythms of friendship, daily and demanding, are forming your soul right now. Before you die, you want to master some measure of friendship. Friendship, like grace, is really a gift. One of life’s best, by the way.

Friendship also makes demands. These four men were out for a walk, saw their chum and a chance for healing, and acted. His healing depended upon his friendship. Why are we so clumsy and parsimonious in our friendships? What else is there to take with you across the river? A bank statement? An annual review? A Ph.D.? Please.

Much of life misses the living soul. It could be that this judgment is mistaken, but the age of technology appears to have muffled the music of friendship. Friendship is mainly conversation. Eased by activity. Fueled by meals. Inspired by birth. Toughened by death. Still, mainly forms of conversation.

Your boss probably will not push you to be a friend. Your family too has its own cloying needs. Your upbringing may or may not have apprised you of the treasure of friendship.

Friendship requires oceans of time. It requires the serious, abject waste of time. It admits no necessary rhyme or reason in its billing systems for time. Nothing about friendship will ever be convenient. There is no good time for it. You will always have something better, more lucrative, to do.

Until the day comes when you need somebody to carry your own body.

As pastors, we hope for your friendship among one another, because we know that in the intimacy of friendship, the soul is healed. Who else will tell you the honest truth? Who else? The friend, the real friend, tells the truth, shames the devil, and risks the friendship for the sake of the friend.

As a congregation, you exude friendship. Eight years ago the Partnership Class, on retreat at Watson Homestead, enacted Plaza Suite. It was full a moment of mirth as ever we have known. Real. Live. Friendship. Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell…This Friday, in our own neighborhood, one AFUMC couple hosted 12 others and children for a Friday fellowship moment. Real. Live. Friendship.

Yet, life is not full of real friendship. In the eighties, four couples became friends in the life of a growing church. Think Reagan, thirty something, trivial pursuit. Over some years, and monthly dinners, the bonds strengthened, particularly for two of the women. Then one of those couples moved, and the searing pain of loss, the departure of one true friend, was palpable. For a while, the pastor lightly said, ‘you will have another friend’. But that was not true. Not to be true, in this case. This had been a lifetime friendship, one that made all others pale. Later, the pastor found this paragraph, and found it helpful:

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone, whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first; but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he does not fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain. So like Bonhoeffer.

Before you die, do you want to make some allowance for the rigors of friendship? Some friendships can take four decades to grow. The best time to plant that seed is 40 years ago. The second best is today. It is not too late.

It is not accidental that the church remembered this story (ah, the alto voice of church). It is a beautiful tale. Especially this cameo appearance of four friends. We love it because we know it. Our friends get us through. One real friend in a whole lifetime is a lot. You may not have that fully, or more than that.

Martin Buber taught us, as we had inclination to listen, about friendship. It is a matter of I and Thou, said he. Of relating from heart to heart, soul to soul. How would man exist if God did not need him, and how would you exist? You need God in order to be, and God needs you—for that is the meaning of your life. A true relationship, with God or with our friend, is one in which the other is met and addressed, I to Thou. For us, this means, in friendship, to be human in a Christian way, and to be Christian in a human way.

Every sermon is a doorway to friendship, in that sense.

Before you die, be a friend. Whether or not you have a friend, you still can be one.


Our paralytic, the embodiment of human mortality, waits for healing under the rain clouds of theological debate.

Friendship depends on the capacity to forgive. There comes a moment in most friendship, when a future of any kind requires forgiveness.

We put it to you, too. Which is easier, to heal the body or the soul? Which? The wounds of the flesh do often give way to some steady healing. Not always. Yet even antiquity knew the power of healing. (ah, the soprano voice of history). And thou? The soul? It is a hard question, a devilish one. Matthew, a darker gospel, says not ‘why do you question’ but, ‘why do you think evil’ (ah, the baritone voice of tradition).

Did you ever see Citizen Kane? The depiction of a life, a grand life, rippling for eight decades around the cavernous hurt of childhood. Rosebud. Which is easier, to heal the body or the soul?

Gabriel Vahanian, a strange man, when interviewed in his office by a graduate student 20 years ago, opined, all human activity is a cry for forgiveness.

We can speak pretty fast about forgiveness. But the real thing, the shoreline of the real thing, hovers into view when you are completely sure that there is no way to attain it. The thing about friendship that leads straight to forgiveness is that friendship means disappointment. When you love, you hope. No human is able to bear full hope, because we are so human. We fail. You know that and expect it, except for with your friends. So, when betrayal, real or perceived, occurs, the loss is great. If your best friend is your spouse and there is infidelity, you know both the need and the impossibility of forgiveness. If your best friend is your neighbor, and there is gossip…If your best friend is your work partner, and there is phony accounting…If your best friend is your colleague, and there is disloyalty…If your best friend is your subordinate and there is betrayal…We can speak pretty fast about forgiveness. But the real thing, the enormity of the real thing, hovers into view only when, on our own, we probably could not manage it.

Who has power to forgive? Does the ‘son of man’ here mean Jesus, or every man? Or some combination? As one man among many, Jesus has and shows the power to forgive? Grace to receive forgiveness and the glory of sharing what we receive? The early church has placed this matter of forgiveness here because the church wanted and needed to trace back to Jesus its own power to forgive (Bultmann). (ah, alto again). Every community, every church, soon finds the need of forgiveness, a grace that cannot be engineered, for it is not of human origin. To forgive is divine. We have to await its arrival, pray its blessing, hope for its timely intervention.

Ancient Palestine understood sin and sickness to be related as cause to effect (soprano again). We do not believe this today. Even in the New Testament, there is movement away from this older understanding, as in Luke 13, and the Tower of Siloam (baritone of tradition, yes).

As the globe sails into the 21st century, speaking now as an aged near dinosaur of someone whose parishioners began to be assailed by sermons 30 years ago, the profound need for the Forgiving Jesus appears devastatingly paramount. Neither Judaism nor Islam nor Marxism carries the full panorama of forgiveness that the future, in a nuclear age, will require. If we mount up with strength to defend as crusaders the details of our holiness traditions, and will brook no breach of them, our world future is dark indeed. Crusades do not work. ‘A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still’. There is no reconciliation without the shedding of blood. Which is easier, to heal the body or the soul?

It was Reinhold Niebuhr who best expressed the historical, political anatomy of forgiveness. Leave it to the Lutherans to do so, so well. If social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is impossible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice is impossible without the use of further coercion, are we not in an endless cycle of social conflict? Niebuhr, unlike other so-called realists, did not stop there. He did see a way forward. It is the way of forgiveness, on a grand scale. One can mitigate the cruelties of conflict. One can remember Garrison, and Ghandi. One can recognize that the evil in the foe is also in the self. One can give up the privileged status of victim. One can avoid claims of spiritual superiority. One can work daily to develop a spiritual discipline against resentment. You hear it in Lincoln. You hear it in King. You hear it, every so often, in some unlikely world leader. I heard it on TV last month in the new president of Chile. Michele Bachelete. As a young woman she had been assaulted and tortured. She is a physician. She spoke about healing of body and soul. The way is still there, somewhere out near the truth and the life: Bachelet is a pediatrician by profession. She was, along with her mother, a political prisoner, arrested and tortured during Pinochet's rule. Her father, an air force general, died in prison after being tortured: "You know I have not had an easy life, but then who has? Violence destroyed what I loved. Because I was the victim of hate, I have consecrated my life to converting that hate into understanding, into tolerance, and why not say it, love."

Before you die, feel forgiveness. Even if you feel it by virtue of its absence, a great homesickness for a land of love, still, feel it. And if you are so blessed, offer it.


At last our paralytic is to be healed. The number of sturdy three point sermons preached on this verse would be enough to refill a vacated divinity school library. Rise. Get moving. Take up your pallet. Carry along a memory of your poverty. Walk. Take a step into the unknown.

There is the old issue of whether the call out of sin should be a shout to Wake Up, with say C S Lewis, or to Grow Up, with say Sigmund Freud. Some of us do need to wake up from stupor, and some need to grow up out of naivete. Either may suffice to get you moving. Or both.

It is striking that we spend so little time making our faith lives more joyfully creative. When it comes to rising, and pallet carrying and walking, we scratch the surface. We nurse old grief like dogs with our teeth into pant legs. We peddle old elixirs like some prairie chemist or another. We treat our worship life like a trip to Wegmans. We listen to the Scripture for what we want and expect to hear. To the sermon, we listen with one ear.

Yet with what shall we come before God? How shall we approach our final rest in the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being that is God? (Tillich). How? With our bank accounts and annual reviews and advanced degrees? Please.

We are naked in these 22 minutes.

As friendship forces the need for forgiveness, so forgiveness forces the need for faith. Is this what the writer, Mark, had in mind? (ah, the tenor voice of the evangelist) To trace the delicate interplay, in the life of the soul, between friendship and forgiveness and faith? To show that our daily development of health, salvation, needs all three? To implore you to turn off the TV and rise, take, walk? Truly, I tell you, if the creative imagination of this congregation were fully ambulatory, fully alive, there would be a spiritual blaze across this county.

Paul Tillich called faith the courage to be. It is sad that as Buber is still unsurpassed regarding friendship, and Niebuhr unsurpassed in forgiveness, so Tillich still is unsurpassed, forty years later, in the reflective expression of faith. Where has the theological imagination of the church gone? Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness …Sometimes in that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying, ‘You are accepted’. You know the theological imagination of the fifties and sixties may well be compared, centuries from now, to the explosive power of the fourth and fifth centuries. They were watershed years, from New York to Tubingen to Vatican II. The next forty years, have been like those in the wilderness of old. Where has our imagination gone? There have been wonderful strides in biblical studies, in ethics, in world religion. What has happened to the queen of the sciences, theology herself? Silent as a tomb since 1965. (Yes, there are a few exceptions, in Boston and Montreal and New York). No wonder our culture languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise. No wonder our globe suffocates under the tsunami of a pervasive fear. In those years, as Tillich so frustratingly repeated, the call of faith was to stay open, remain open, be open!

When I list those teachers (present company and family omitted for now) from whom I learned faith, I realize they have almost nothing in common. They shared a methodistic love of strong preaching, beautiful music, and a tasty casserole, to be sure. But otherwise, they were unique, idiosyncratic, idiopathic, sui generis. With this exception: without exception they were open to the future…

Lloyd Easton, Ruth Davies, Bernie Murchland—open
Ann Ulanov, Lou Martyn, Chris Morse, Ray Brown—open.
Philip Potter, George Todd, Paolo Freire, Emilio Castro—open
Al Childs, Dee Wade, Mark Baker, Gordon Knapp—open
Doug Hall, Tom Wright, Fred Wisse, Donna Runnals—open
Nancy Ring, Jim Wiggins, Violet Fisher--open

The complaint is that the 1950’s and early 1960’s were too open. Vatican II is still being reformed in Catholicism. Tillich is still being calvinized in Protestantism. Forty years later. What about this? What if the opposite is true? That we have not been open enough! That we let the trail they had cut go cold, as we went back to Egypt. Theologically, we have been part of a back to Egypt committee. There is always a ‘back to Egypt committee’. Were there no graves in the land of Egypt, that you brought us out here to die…Faith is personal trust in an unverifiable truth and an unforeseen future. A walk in the dark. In a word, the courage to be.

These are three forceful Greek verbs—rise, take, walk Two in the present with a sense of continuous activity (rise, walk). One in the jarring aorist of immediacy (take). Yet, all notably open, even vague. Rise—how? Take—why? Walk—where?

It’s up to you. When I truly think of how authentically different from one another my own pantheon of faith teachers has been, I must conclude that God loves difference. In Spain, we played a game, si fuera. One secretly chooses a person known to the group, and others try to guess his name by asking ‘if he were a….what would he be?’

If faith were a feeling, it would be homesickness.
If faith were a food, it would be broccoli.
If faith were a year, it would be the year of your birth.
If faith were an adjective, it would be long suffering.
If faith were a group, it would be the church
If faith were incarnate, it would be Jesus.
If faith were an attitude, it would be COURAGE.
If faith had a face….it would be yours.
If faith were a person…it would be you.

Tillich memorably wrote, “The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself.”

Before you die, consider the courage to be. This is faith.


I and Thou. Discipline against Resentment. The courage to be.

Nothing worth having ever came easy. Friendship that is worth having will involve the duress of entering a relationship, I to Thou. Forgiveness that is the real thing will involve the spiritual discipline against resentment. Faith that is death sturdy will mean the hardship of courage. They all came, by this gospel, to a paralytic, who in Christ Jesus found himself basking in the sunlight of spiritual opportunity. And Thou? Said Dr. King, “I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity”. Let your light shine! Sing in the way you live every day…

This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine
Let it shine
Let it shine

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