Sunday, January 26, 2020

Phil Kniss: When hope is on the mat

In It Together: The Church As Global Community of Hope
(Anabaptist World Fellowship Sunday)

Mark 2:1-12; Ephesians 1:15-19

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Anyone else notice that hope has come up in worship a lot lately?
It was our main theme two Sundays in a row a couple months ago—
the last Sunday of the “God’s Good Earth” series,
and the first Sunday of Advent.
But here we are again.
Anybody getting tired of hope?
Too bad.
We still need it.

Would anybody like to hear a long list of all the reasons
we still need to talk about hope?
. . . I didn’t think so.

Well, this Sunday, as we’ve already pointed out,
is Anabaptist World Fellowship Sunday.
It’s planned and organized by Mennonite World Conference,
and they gave us this topic this year—
“Jesus Christ: our hope.”

Mennonite World Conference,
for those of you not familiar with it,
is a world-wide fellowship of Anabaptist groups.

They are not a legislative body for the church.
They are a resource for relationships.
They don’t mandate things.
But they organize many different ways to help us connect,
as a global community of Anabaptist faith.
Everyone is invited to a global assembly once every six years.
In 2021, I hope to attend the assembly in Indonesia.
There are regional and continental gatherings in-between.
There are gatherings of the General Council more often.
There are young adult gatherings.
There are gatherings of mission agencies.
There are commissions for Peace, Missions, Faith & Life, etc.,
again, to provide resources and connections, not mandates.

So this year, as a tool for bringing us together across the globe,
they have provided worship resources—
scriptures, songs, prayers, stories, etc.
I think it’s pretty cool that Anabaptist-Mennonite churches
all over the world, like the ones pictured in our bulletin,
are, many of them, today, also reading from
Lamentations 3, Psalm 62, Mark 2, and Ephesians 1,
and may have also sung the Kenyan version of
“My hope is built on nothing less.”

So I’d like to invite us to use the scripture this morning,
to help us reflect on our place in this global community of hope,
and what it is about this community
that might help us grow in hope.

So let’s focus on the Gospel story from Mark 2,
wherein four good friends of a paralyzed man
brought him to Jesus for healing,
and when they could not reach Jesus because of the crowds,
went up on top of the house where Jesus stood teaching inside,
opened up part of the roof,
and lowered the man by ropes, on his mat,
where Jesus could not help but notice and respond and heal.
And heal, he did.
The man came in on ropes,
and walked out on his own two feet.

This is an amazing story on a number of levels,
and we could explore any number of them.
But what I want to think about is the hope—
what sort of hope,
who had it,
and where it came from.

We aren’t given details,
but assuming the level of medical care in the first century,
it’s probably safe to assume this case of paralysis was hopeless.
He had probably been paralyzed for years, maybe for life.
There was no known treatment.
But who knows how many times
some strange or dangerous kind of cure was attempted?
He was entirely dependent on everyone around him,
for his basic needs, day and night.
Yet, he had (at least) four
faithful and persistent and activist friends.
We don’t know if the man had hope.
But certainly the friends did.
Based on what they had already seen Jesus do,
and what they had heard Jesus did in other places,
they had hope that if they could simply get their friend
to appear at the feet of Jesus,
Jesus could, and would, do something about their friend.

So they acted on their hope.
They would put everything on the line.
They would move heaven and earth . . . and roofing tiles.
Nothing would stop them
until they had their friend at the feet of Jesus.

So that’s exactly what they did.
And Jesus’ response was a bit . . . unexpected.
Mark tells us,
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,
‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

Jesus completely ignores the presenting problem,
the man’s paralysis.
Instead, he notices the friends’ hope,
the friends’ faith.
And marveling at the depth of their hope,
he took his response to a deeper level.
“Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Now this is an interesting development in the story.
It’s a controversy story,
stuck in the middle of a healing story.
There are lots of examples of this in the Gospels,
where a story is being told of Jesus doing something
that everyone can feel good about, and applaud,
and then right in the middle of that feel-good story,
Jesus inserts some controversy, on purpose.
It throws people off-balance.
Reveals them for how they really are,
instead of how they try to present themselves.

So then, this story is suddenly interrupted by a big argument
between Jesus and the scribes (that is, the legal scholars),
over whether or not Jesus has the right to forgive sins.

Now, I don’t think the four friends saw this coming.
They did not climb on the roof and dismantle part of it,
and lower their friend on ropes,
in order to spark a theological controversy.
They wanted their friend whole.
They wanted their friend to walk.

But Jesus, perhaps seeing a bigger picture,
perhaps knowing there was a real, and powerful, connection
between physical and spiritual well-being,
saw beyond the immediate problem: paralyzed limbs.
He saw something else binding this man,
and his community,
and preventing them all from living fully.
There was unforgiven sin gumming up the system,
and his community did not have the wherewithal
to do anything with it.

Of course, we know nothing about the man’s life story.
We know nothing about what Jesus saw in him.
Perhaps the man knew of his sins and had long ago repented.
Perhaps, even, some of those standing there in the house
were harmed by the man’s sins,
and were still holding them against him.
Maybe no one in his community had yet extended forgiveness,
and it was paralyzing everyone,
figuratively, if not literally.

We don’t know the details, but we know this:
No one . . . until Jesus,
had the grace to communicate forgiveness to him.
The only message he ever got from others was judgement.
Disease was a direct result of sin, in their view.
Because of his paralysis, he carried a label, written in big letters:
And that label,
perhaps even more than whatever was going on physically,
was keeping him from living a full and joyful life.

And who knows which of Jesus words
were most responsible for the miracle,
for the strength to get up and walk—
the words, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
or the words, “Take up your mat and walk.”

To hope in Jesus Christ, is to have the hope of restoration.
Whether physical healing,
or spiritual deliverance,
or reconciliation of broken relationships,
or forgiveness of sin,
or redemption of creation,
or peace among nations.
Restoration Hope is what God is about.

So let’s think about this story in terms of community,
and specifically our global community
of Anabaptist sisters and brothers all over the world.

The first thing we notice in the story, of course—
the first thing Jesus noticed—
was the persistent hope and faith of the friends.
That is the remarkable thing, isn’t it,
that four friends would go to such great lengths,
to help their friend get to the source of his healing.
Such foresight,
such courage,
such boldness,
such faith and trust.
It is laudable. It is to be emulated.
May we have that much compassion and courage
to boldly go to any length
to lay that which is broken at the feet of Jesus,
and trust that Jesus will do what is right.

When it comes to putting ourselves in the story,
that is where we usually go, understandably.
We are the friends.
We are the strong.
We are the walking.
We are the ones with resources.
Let us be willing to put ourselves on the line,
to help those who cannot walk,
to assist those who do not have the strength or resources.

When we apply that idea to Mennonite World Conference,
our global faith family,
it’s also not hard to put ourselves in the same role in the story.
One of the gifts of MWC is its Global Sharing Fund.
We at Park View make regular contributions to it,
especially when it’s time for our global assemblies.
It is prohibitively expensive for many of our sisters and brothers
to travel to other parts of the world.
Especially those who live in the Global South
cannot get there on their own.
They need friends with ropes.
So the Global Sharing Fund
is a way to—at least in part—offset some of the expenses,
and allow more of our family to come to these reunions,
as full participants.
That’s a good thing.
And a moral obligation, I think.
We will continue to support that Fund,
and be there, persistently, for our paralyzed friends.

So we could stop there with the analogy.
But what if . . . we in the Global North
put ourselves . . . instead . . . on the mat?
What if we could see ourselves as needy,
as broken and needing to be made whole by Jesus?
And what if we could imagine our siblings in the Global South
as being our friends with ropes?
How does that change things, in regard to hope?

Yes, we seem to be among the walking and strong and whole.
But we may be paralyzed in ways we cannot perceive,
or perhaps do perceive,
but cannot see a way forward to healing.
There may be a paralysis of Spirit that we are hopeless about.
And it may be that our sisters and brothers in the Global South,
have some insight about our paralysis,
and have the courage and strength and persistent hope,
to use their ropes to get us to the feet of Jesus for healing . . .
and while Jesus is at it,
maybe for some forgiveness of our collective sin.

I believe this beautiful Gospel story about
healing and forgiveness is for all of us,
as communities and as individuals-in-community.

Sure, we can sometimes step into the role
of the courageous, heroic, and persistent friends,
who will take swift action to help our brothers and sisters in need
to get to Jesus for healing.

But will we be just as ready to find hope on the mat?
Are we willing to lay down our pride,
and be forgiven for our own wrongs,
and be restored into relationship with those we have wronged?

As I said, communities can be the person on the mat,
every bit as much as individuals.

Churches can hurt people,
can hurt other churches,
even within our own family of faith in Mennonite World Conference.
We can be prideful and presumptuous.
We can be racist in our institutional practices.
We can be inwardly-focused and protective of our interests,
at the expense of God’s mission in the world.

I wonder what sort of confession of sin might be needful.
I wonder whether some of those carrying us,
might be able to help us see.

It can also happen in our neighborhoods.
We can look at our ministries (like Kids Clubs, block parties,
and programs like New Bridges or Bridge of Hope)
as ways that we are carrying the paralyzed to Jesus.
But can we be with our neighbors,
and see ourselves as the needy partner in the relationship?
can we open ourselves to receive
their love and compassion and courage?
can we let Jesus heal and forgive us through them?

Sometimes, hope comes from being willing to lie on the mat,
and be carried,
and be dependent,
and be open for God to touch and heal our wounds,
through our least-expected neighbors.

Turn in your blue hymnals to #306,
“In Christ there is no East or West
in him no South or North.”
Globally, we are the West, and the North.
As we sing, let’s keep forward in our mind
those in the East, and the South.
Especially as we sing phrases like
great fellowship of love, and
high communion, and
golden cord, and
children of the living God, and
Christly souls.

And may the Spirit of Jesus bring to mind,
even as we sing, and as we go from this place,
the many gifts God is ready to give us
through the more distant members of our community.

So that (to use the words of Apostle Paul that we read earlier),
“ . . . so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened,
you may know what is the hope to which he has called you,
what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.”

May we find a new level of hope on the mat,
as we embrace our need for healing,
and our dependence on others.

—Phil Kniss, January 26, 2020

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