A sermon preached on Matthew 9:1-8 at First Presbyterian Church of Oakland on July 10, 2016
And after getting into a boat he crossed the sea and came to his own town. And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.
We are at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when this event takes place. Jesus has been to the mountaintop. It had been a rich, life-giving experience – a time of sharing his vision and helping his followers grasp the work they were about to take up.
He spoke words of blessing on that mountaintop – words of blessing for the meek, for the poor in spirit, for those who mourn. He talked about being salt and light. He spoke about what to do with wealth (give it away) and what to do with anger (seek reconciliation) and how to deal with the desire for retaliation (turn the other cheek) and what to do about enemies (love them).
Coming down from the mountaintop, Jesus has set a relentless pace, demonstrating for all to see his unshakeable commitment to his laser focused purpose – to look to the needs of the oppressed.
He began to travel throughout Galilee and is immediately overwhelmed by the intensity of need. Wherever he goes, crowds of people are waiting for him. As he arrives in each town, they are waiting. Many more join him along the way. Crowds of people follow him on the dusty roads as he travels from place to place, yearning for, desperately grasping for any crumbs of hope that might fall from his hands.
Jesus saw yearning in the people in his hometown and in the surrounding countryside. The oppression of the Empire was a yoke his people could not shake on their own. Add to that the burden of complicity with the Empire modeled by the King of Israel who believed political alliances would be the salvation of the people. Let me repeat. The king of the region – the one who was tasked by God to be faithful in the work of lifting the yoke of oppression for God’s people, to bring justice for them, to shepherd them toward shalom – toward wholeness – was more determined to climb the ladder of success and power than he was concerned with the needs of the people under his care.
It should not be surprising to us that when Jesus comes down from the mountaintop he is overwhelmed with need. Somebody needed to do something. Because up to that point, it sure seemed like nobody had been doing anything.
And just then, some people were carrying a paralyzed man, lying on a bed.
It had been quite a week for those men. They had to meet after a long day’s work to build a pallet that could support the weight of their friend and to plan how they would find Jesus and get their friend to him. Then, risking the loss of income as they left their daily labors to carry him to Jesus.
Why would they do such a thing? In those days, the disabled were part of that ‘other” group – the ones who were to be set aside as less than, the ones who could contaminate anyone who would dare to make contact with them. There was a lot at stake for them once they decided to risk everything to be in solidarity with him and to seek the revolutionary power of Jesus. These friends felt the burden of oppression for their friend and sought the healing that would overturn the powers that held them all in check.
It’s their faithfulness to their friend and their faith in Jesus that brings him the healing he needs. Without those two things, that man never sees Jesus.
In that moment, in both word and in action Jesus shows his disciples what it’s like to carry out his vision, how to – as one theologian put it – break free from the established order that allowed, even encouraged oppression to flourish, to disrupt a system that required the suffering of so many, so that only a few could prosper.
And his first action is – Forgiveness.
This is not what anyone in that crowd expected. Jesus sees a paralyzed man but speaks words of forgiveness. Why?
Jesus understands what is at the heart of his faith – Shalom – wholeness and forgiveness is key to the healing that brings about that shalom.
- Forgiveness sets people free from their fear of what might happen if…
- Forgiveness releases people from the bonds of “I need to take care of me and mine first”…
- Forgiveness removes barriers that prevent the flourishing of neighbors…
- Forgiveness breaks the chains of discrimination which, in those days, cast the sick and the disabled as unclean, that creates otherness and places THE OTHER in the role of outsider, relegating them to virtual or actual invisibility and which ultimately kills the very community in which such behavior thrives.
Jesus understands that without forgiveness – without the freedom that comes from forgiveness – true healing from paralysis cannot take place. Because even if that man got up and walked, if people around him only remembered him as unclean, only acknowledged him as “that guy who used to be paralyzed,” then his ability to walk would be meaningless.
In this radical moment of deep need, Jesus actions tell this man that he matters. And let’s be clear, Jesus is not saying: “Other people who need me don’t matter.” He’s not saying “Only paralyzed people matter.” But he is saying: “Right now, in this moment, this man matters to me.”
Here in this country, we’ve had quite a week, too. The mass shooting that targeted police in Dallas on Thursday evening was terrible. The vicious brutality with which two men – one in Minnesota and one in Louisiana – were killed by the very people who had taken oaths to protect and serve them is just one more episode in the horror story of police violence that never seems to end.
This week, so many of us have grieved. We have mourned what we believe to be a broken system. But in truth, on Thursday evening at a rally at Ogawa Plaza, my friend Tur-Ha put it quite clearly: “The system is not broken. It is working exactly as it was designed to work.”
We live within a system that makes it possible for 14 more people to have been killed by police since #AltonSterling was executed Tuesday. This is more deaths than most nations in a year.
We live within a system that creates an environment in which a total of 569 people have been killed by police since January. Last year the total was 965 for the year. (See “A Year of Reckoning” in the Washington Post) We’re well on our way to breaking that record. To put it in perspective, Canada and California have roughly the same population. Canada records an average of 24 fatal police shootings in a year. In 2015, California recorded 72 for the year. For additional perspective. In the first 24 days of 2015, the United States recorded 59 police killings in 24 days – in the UK, it took more than 24 years from 1990 through 2014 to reach that number. (See “U.S. Policing: The Counted” in The Guardian)
We live within a system in which the killing of 5 police officers in Dallas was not a random act of violence. That said, neither should we consider it an unprovoked act. While we don’t know what went through that young man’s mind, we don’t know what was on his heart, we do know that centuries of systematic, institutionalized oppression takes a toll. The brutality of battles nobody should be fighting breaks men and women into pieces so that when they return from war zones, they are unrecognizable to themselves and to those who love them. Generations of enslavement has an impact – not just on the ones enslaved, but on the ones buying and selling human bodies and then passing down the lie that somehow this country was built by the sweat of their own brow and the work of their own hands.
We should not be surprised that something like this happened. What’s surprising is that it hasn’t happened sooner and with more frequency.
And just now, we need somebody to carry us, lying on a bed to Jesus.
If we are going to be freed from a paralysis that grips our humanity, we will need a revolutionary radical proclamation of forgiveness. The paralyzed man was not dead. Humanity is not dead – but right now, we are living the antithesis of what it is to be free, what it means to be truly and fully alive, what it means to live in shalom.
If we are going to be freed from the paralysis that holds us all in our sick-beds, we need recognize the real power of evil and sin comes when human life and freedom are thwarted by powers that benefit when freedom is kept in check – when it’s impossible for most of us to thrive, until black and brown lives matter, the truth is, none of our lives will ever really matter.
If we are going to be freed from paralysis, then we must take up the real authority that people of faith have been given by Christ to do the work he did – to become revolutionaries – to overcome the power of evil and bring our institutions, our friends, our selves to him for healing.
Jesus wasn’t wandering around the Galilean countryside being nice to people, he was inciting a revolutionary movement. We see it in the revolutionary faithfulness of the friends, and in Jesus’ radical offering of forgiveness and healing for the paralyzed man. In acts like those, we see what it takes to destroy the established order of oppression. The forgiveness Jesus offers is meant to bring freedom – not freedom to do as we wish, but freedom to stand, walk and live the life God wants us to live.
That’s why this morning, we shouldn’t just hear these words as an invitation to healing. These words aren’t just about forgiveness. In the actions of the friends and in the actions of Jesus, we should hear our call to the revolutionary, radical work we need to do so that forgiveness and healing can be made real among us. It took effort for that long ago miracle to occur. It required vulnerability and risk. It meant putting aside trust in a system that couldn’t care less about a person – a system that was, in truth, designed to call a guy like that unclean, unworthy, and invisible.
May the Spirit strengthen us for that work as we join the struggle for healing and hope for us all.
And just then, some radical people were carrying a paralyzed man, lying on a bed.
And when Jesus saw their faith all HEAVEN broke loose!