The story we heard tonight from the Gospel of Mark is one of my favorite stories. There are so many elements to it that reveal who Jesus is, and how legalistic we often like to be, and yet how we can serve one another. Which is what makes it a perfect text for Ash Wednesday.
Word has gotten out that Jesus is in town and everyone has gone to see him. There isn’t a spot left in the building, not even in the doorway. The place is packed. Then, in the middle of him teaching or healing or talking or whatever he may be doing which is drawing that kind of attention, a paralyzed man is brought to him, carried by four of his friends. They can’t find a way in. They can’t find a way around. They can’t figure out how they’re going to get their friend to Jesus. It’s like that old camp song “Going on a bear hunt.” “You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You’ve got to go through it.” And that’s what they do. They go right through the roof! Imagine Jesus’ surprise when someone comes right through his roof! And yet surprise isn’t what we are told that we see at all. What the writer of the Gospel of Mark tells us, is that when Jesus sees the friends’ faith, he tells the man he is forgiven.
It is an act of beauty and grace. It is an act so simple and yet so profound because somehow Jesus knows what the man needs and even though it doesn’t sound like he asked for it, Jesus offers it because his friends have faith that Jesus will heal him.
Tonight we have come to participate in worship and in the Ash Wednesday ritual that is extremely counter cultural.
It’s counter cultural because we take time out tonight to remember that we belong to God and not just to ourselves. We remember tonight that we belong to each other and not just to ourselves. Those four friends knew that they were connected to their friend who was paralyzed. They knew that Jesus could offer him something that he needed, even if he couldn’t see it himself. They knew that he belonged to God just as much as you belong to God and I belong to God. And when you realize that, there’s nothing to stop you from tearing apart the roof to make sure that your friend can find the healing he or she needs and desires.
Sometimes, I think that’s exactly what we need. How many of us are much better at looking out for our friends than we are at looking out for ourselves? How many of us can ask for help for a friend long before we can ask for help for ourselves?
And so tonight we come. We come in humbleness, realizing that we are not God. We come in relief, finding the courage to set down the burdens we have been shouldering on our own. We come to witness to all of the ways God is moving in our lives and to recognize that we want to respond to that grace.
And I want to be absolutely clear about something. As much as we come in humbleness and conviction and even repentance— wanting to turn to God rather than away from God— tonight is not about feeling shame. That would not be countercultural. There are many places you can go to get beat down— to be told that you are not worthy; to be told that somehow you need to be better. This is not one of those places. Tonight is not about groveling in how awful we are. Tonight is about recognizing that we come from God. That our self worth comes not from the things we do or the things we’d like to do or even the things we are not doing. Our self worth comes only from knowing that we are loved by God. We may be humbled by how often we get it wrong, I sure am. But we come remembering that we are created in God’s image— that we are created from the earth— and in all humbleness, we recognize that we are mortal and that this life is a gift from God.
Jesus said to the man who was paralyzed, “stand up, take your mat, and go home.” And what did the man do? He didn’t wait to tell Jesus all the ways he didn’t deserve to be healed. Instead, with what I’m sure was joy, he stepped out into a new kind of life. He stood up, immediately picked up his mat, and went out to face a new life with the grace he had been given.
May we not waste any more time judging one another or judging ourselves. Instead, may we stand up, receive our forgiveness and healing, and walk into the world to be part of sharing God’s kindness, love, and forgiveness.