A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany – February 19, 2012

“So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them,
not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.”

Can you put yourself in that crowd? It’s tempting to imagine a great sea of people like you see gathered in an arena for a concert. This is a far more humble gathering. The room is small, smaller than most of our living rooms. The gathering takes place in the lakeside village of Capernaum. Think about August in Fort Erie, feel the heat, and the humidity, and maybe there are 30 or 40 of us jammed into a tiny room, no windows, no air conditioning. Sure the front door hangs open but there is a crowd crushed against it straining to hear the man speak.

Jesus wasn’t like the prophets before him in how he spoke. Elijah called down a ball of fire from God on a mountain top to make his point. And who can shake the image of Charlton Heston playing Moses, never mind that the Moses we meet in the pages of the Bible bears no resemblance. He still looms bigger than life. Of Jesus it’s been said his reserve set him apart from these prophets before him. In Jesus, they say God spoke so softly that not everyone heard.

So this soft spoken man is holding court in a tiny house, the poor folks of Capernaum have gathered and in their midst some Scribes found their way in. What are they doing here? Respectable, religious men – risking all sorts of uncleanness by hanging out with these people. Obviously they’d heard of Jesus and came to see for themselves. It’s not hard to imagine them, arms crossed, tight lines on their faces, sitting erect not wanting to hear, not wanting to see, pushed up against the back wall of the room, outsiders, on the fringe of the action.

And then the dirt starts to fall from ceiling, bits of dust to start, chunks of dried mud soon follow. What in God’s name is happening? In our heady and lofty intellectual culture, it is all too easy to assume that Jesus, the incarnate God is wafting above us. Religion is lived in the head and not the heart. And now we know where we likely sit in this gospel – along the back wall with the scribes. It’s an uncomfortable place – but here we are. And if this story is to be lived in our lives, it might be true that to get to Jesus we might have to dig some, there may be some dirt and mud to be removed from the story of our lives,
Jesus might equally be below us as above. The miracle of the roof diggers in Capernaum is a story of dirt and depth, and not a lofty intellectual flight of the mind. And we’re no more comfortable with that thought than the Scribes were.

But this story is about more than just you and I. The bed hits the dirt floor, bodies leap out of the way, the dust rises and fills the room yet again. And the preacher just smiles. It’s been said that real life is lived in our interruptions. That couldn’t be more true in this hot lakeside room.

Did you hear him, did he really say it ? …… “Child, your sins are forgiven.” ……..What are we going to do with that? We like to think we’ve grown in our understanding of sickness since that hot night in Capernaum, that we’ve got our heads right about all that. Intellectually maybe we’ve broken the iron chain between sickness and sin. It all works in theory till a disease comes along we’ve never heard of – and some folks get sick – and it’s got to be their fault. The decade of secrecy and shame that surrounded the AID’s epidemic, and that still lingers amongst some good religious folks, exposes just how quick we’ll revert to that hot night in Capernaum, and link the iron chain again between sin and sickness. But not the preacher that night – he’s never shared our thinking on sickness and sin.

One of the last centuries great Christian thinkers pointed out that Jesus wasn’t actually forgiving the sins of that man on the mat that hot night by the Lake, he was simply proclaiming that in the sight of God the man was sinless. God wasn’t offended by the man on the mat’s humanity, by his rude intrusion into the room that night.

What Jesus saw, was a man in need of freedom. This nameless man on the mat was socially and physically chained to his sickness. On that hot night all we saw was a man with physical defect and if one of us though “there but for the grace of God go I,” a line that bears the weight of scripture – but that you won’t find in the Bible we wouldn’t have thought it strange or impolite. But what Jesus saw was a man in need of compassion…….“Child, your sins are forgiven,”

And once again God did a new thing. And it’s a mystery why it always comes as a surprise when God forgives. It was at least two thousand, five hundred years ago that the writer of our passage from Isaiah wrote these words from God:
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? . . . . . . . .
I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake and I will not remember your sins.”

And yet we sit with the Scribes arms crossed, tight lines on our faces, sitting erect not wanting to hear, not wanting to see the freedom that is in Christ for all of humanity. St. Paul struggled with our attitudes. To the good church folk of Corinth he wrote ; “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you . . . . . was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’

What is it in you and I that always wants to qualify that yes with a ‘but’ – what is it in our makeup that continues to take delight in placing obstacles to freedom in other folks paths through life? Why was it that we were so surprised that hot night by the lake in Capernaum when the man got up, and immediately walked out? Could it be that we’re paralysed by our fears?

I remember, another hot summer day. I was in a hospital hallway. On my way to get a coffee. I was walking and talking to the woman who was in charge of pastoral care at the hospital. And I’ll be honest she scared the living daylights out of me. She could look through all your pretension and fears and pull out the secret you didn’t want to share with anyone. And she frequently did just that to her students. I imagine that the young man in that hot lake side room in Capernaum had that gift to and likely he’d shared it with her.
Well as we walked down the hall a young man fell to the floor gripped in some kind of seizure – and the hall way froze in time. Doctors, nurses, visitors, theology student – we all just froze and watched.

And then she jumped on the floor with him and held him and kept him from doing serious harm to himself and she began yelling orders and the room came back to life and the young man was attended to. How is it that she alone had the freedom to come to that young man’s aid? She didn’t think – “there but for the grace of God go I” She was moved to compassion, moved to act. What did she posses that I didn’t?

That was 18 years ago and I’ve thought about that moment a lot over those years and I think she wasn’t afraid of life. I think she knew God loved that young man on the floor racked with pain. I think she didn’t care what anyone but God thought of her.

And so this morning as I think of her, and I think of that hot night by the lake in Capernaum and the young man and his quiet words of forgiveness and healing I wonder; Isn’t it time we blew the roof of the lie that God is deeply offended with any of his children, isn’t it long past time that we make ourselves feel good by feeling bad about other people who we can define as less than us in some foolish way. I wonder when the preacher is done venting his spleen at God’s enemy of the week – alchohol, drugs, the lottery, gay people, Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, liberals, conservatives and the like have we any freedom left in us to share the Good News of the gospel with God’s people?

I wonder and I dream of a God and a people who can dare to do a new thing; Who will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert of this modern life for others; who will give water to all of God’s people, the great multi coloured diverse sea of people whom God formed for herself so that they to might declare God’s goodness in their lives.

I thirst for a community that believes and lives out the ancient truth that Isaiah preached and Jesus lived that God, really is the One who blots out our transgressions and who does so for God’s own sake, a God who will set us free and not remember our sins. And I thirst for a people who desire to do the same for one another and for their neighbour.

And I wonder – can we leave that hot room on the lakeside in Capernaum and live the freedom God offered us all that night? Can we pick up our mats and walk into God’s great glorious new day of freedom, compassion and love for all. I pray to God that one Sunday soon I’ll have that freedom for compassion and love in my life – and in the mean time I’ll keep coming back Sunday by Sunday – until I do. And I pray you will to. Amen.