(The 9/11 meditation and prayer are below this post.)
What Are We Going to Do Together?
I had a great group of friends when I was growing up. There were three guys in particular that I met in the nursery of the First Presbyterian Church of Burbank, and we’ve been friends ever since. We got involved in a lot of things—once we snuck into the kitchen at the church and found a large cake in the refrigerator, which we promptly ate. It was only later that we found out it was someone’s wedding cake. Those people still don’t like us very much. You can ask me later what we did when we found some bacon in the church kitchen…
My buddies and I played baseball together, went to camp and ski trips together, saw each other through rough times and helped each other move more times than I can remember. We still get together when we can—we spent a weekend together in a beach house before Julie and I moved to London. One of them is an ER doctor in Philadelphia, one is a builder in Central California, one is a police officer in our hometown, and the last one is me. We’ve done OK, considering a lot of people at our church didn’t think we’d survive to adulthood.
I tell that story because our text this morning has always reminded me of my childhood friends.
1A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. 2So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. 3Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. 4Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. 5When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."
6Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7"Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"
8Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking these things? 9Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'? 10But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . ." He said to the paralytic, 11"I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." 12He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"
What a great story—there’s something so human about it, but there’s also an important spiritual dimension.
At one level this is about a group of friends, desperate to help someone they care about.
At another level, though, Jesus connects his demonstration of healing to forgiveness—to rebuilding the relationship between people and God.
There’s something so human about this story, but there’s also some important truth about who we are before God.
Now let me make this part very clear—it wasn’t sin that paralyzed the young man in the story, and it wasn’t forgiveness only that made him walk. Listen to what Jesus says here—he’s trying to make a point about why he came in the first place. He sees the faith of the young men in the story—that’s very important—but he also hears the nitpicking of the ‘teachers of the Law.’
He asks the critics around him which is harder, to forgive sins, or to make paralyzed people walk? He knows that they think the healing part is harder, and so he says: ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to offer forgiveness,’ he turned to the man on the stretcher and says, ‘get up, carry your bed out of here, and go home.’
Jesus used the miracle of healing to point to more important gift that he was offering: a path to re-connect with God in a meaningful way.
This is our welcome back day—it’s our day of re-connecting. It's a good day to pause and reflect on who we are—on who we want to be. We're left with is this question: What are we going to do together?
Now I spent a lot of time on that sentence. Notice that I didn’t ask: ‘What are you all going to do this year?’ I also didn’t say: ‘Here’s what the ministers are going to do for you this year.’ Nope—the emphasis here is on what we are going to do together—what this church family is going to allow God to do through us.
In the States, college football season is in full gear this week. What makes college football so great are the traditions that go along with the big games each Saturday. Some of you went to universities with a lot of sports tradition: At Ohio State a member of the band gets to dot the ‘I’ during halftime performances. When Army plays Navy each year there is an attempt to kidnap the other team’s mascot and parade it around at the big game. During the week before the UCLA/USC game, students stand guard around the big Bruin statue to make sure it doesn’t get painted in the evil USC colors. At the Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day, Cal Tech students try to show that even if they’re not big or strong or fast enough for football, they’re still smarter than everyone else. They try to hack the scoreboard computer and put up funny messages to the 100,000 people at the game.
But the best college sports tradition that I’ve ever heard of comes to us from Middlebury College in Vermont. For more than 40 years, freshman athletes have taken turns picking up Butch before every home football and basketball game.
Butch lives with his mom about a mile from the campus, and has been a fan of Middlebury since he was a kid. Butch also has Cerebral Palsy, and so as much as he loves sports, he’s never been able to play. When he was 13 his mother took him to a football game in the snow, and afterwards had a hard time getting him back to the car. Some athletes from the school carried Butch to the car and helped him home, and from that time on he’s been at almost every home game. That was 1961.
Here’s the way it works: Every game day two freshman drive to Butch’s house, lift him out of his wheelchair or bed, and drive him to the game. Basketball players do it during football season, and football players do it during basketball season. They take him to the game, sit with him, feed him, take him to the toilet, give him a chance to greet the team, and then take him home.
And it’s not just games. Students from Middlebury taught Butch to read. They helped him pass his GED exam—the equivalent of a high school diploma. And they threw a graduation party for him when it was all done.
Picking up Butch is a tradition that blesses everyone involved. Butch gets to be a part of a sports program even though his body won’t cooperate. Athletes with healthy bodies learn a little perspective about the gift they have, and learn to share it with someone who isn’t quite as lucky. And everyone gets reminded that this is way it’s supposed to be—with people being willing to participate, to help, to join in a tradition of service and cooperation.
We learn something about what church is supposed to be like from the ‘Picking Up Butch’ story.
We learn some important things about the church from our text, too. If you’ve been around here over the last few years you’ve heard me talk about the church as a community built on Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.
We see each of those in our text this morning: A group of friends care enough to do whatever it takes to help someone. Jesus senses their faith—their acknowledgement that he is who he says he is. There’s some risk involved, and growth in their belief in God’s love. And finally, they do something. Their fellowship, worship and growth in faith lead to action…together.
A few years ago Natalie Angier, a science writer for the New York Times, reported on a study of the impact of cooperation on the human brain. Scientists had demonstrated, against their expectations, that our brains respond in an overwhelmingly positive way when we join together with another person in a common purpose.
She wrote this: ‘Scientists have discovered that the small, brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy.’
What is it that makes your hearts and minds light up with quiet joy? Think about that for a moment. Maybe nothing does that for you anymore.
This year our focus here is going to be on things we can do together—on choosing trust and generosity over cynicism and selfishness. The work of effective churches is built on the friendships within the community—on the relationships we build as we fellowship together, as we worship together, as we grow in our faith together, and as we reach out in service together to people in all kinds of need.
As we begin another school year here at the church, let me invite you to find a place here where you can serve side-by-side with another person—where you can be an instrument of Christ’s healing and forgiveness and love for someone who needs to experience those things.
There are all kinds of ways to be involved: Sunday school, helping in the office, welcoming newcomers, joining a committee or even the Council, praying for the work that happens here. I have a pastor friend who just visited us this past week from California—she used to have a sign on her door that said: ‘Have you prayed for the pastor today?’ I like that one… There are all kinds of ways to be involved here.
So what do we take away from this text and message?
From picnics and Newcomers’ lunches, to Bible studies and small groups. We’re here to build relationships—with each other, with the community around us, and with the one who came and served and died and rose again, even Jesus Christ. Through those relationships we want to be people who point to the path Christ offers to re-connect with God in a meaningful way.
I started this with the question: What are we going to do together?
My prayer for us is that the answers to that question would fill this room up to the balcony.
My prayer for us is that we come to believe that with faith and the help of this community, we can do anything God wants from us.
My prayer for us is that we can take the mature step of being willing to serve, rather than worrying if we’re able or ready to serve.
What are we going to do together this year? Stay tuned. We’re going to talk about that all year.