Grown-up Bible Stories: Part 4
John 15:12-15; Mark 2:1-5
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
May 6, 2018
This story is a favorite for Children’s Sunday School classrooms and it probably is because of two things: popsicle sticks and friendship. This event in Mark is so descriptive and action-packed that it is the perfect opportunity to get out the box of popsicle sticks and glue and get messy making a house so kids can bust through the stick roof. I’ve even seen lesson plans that offer an upgrade, telling you to use Legos for the building and the people and even where the teacher can purchase a Lego stretcher for the paralyzed man. The popsicle stick opportunity is great for this story.
So is the topic of friendship. This is the second big reason the story is popular for children. It gives us adults a chance to drill into children that friendship is powerful. “Look at what this man’s friends did for him?” we point out. And we end with this guidance, “Always remember: you should be friends with everyone.”
Except it is not possible. I think children probably already know this as well but they don’t want to hurt our feelings and tell us. But, as adults, we certainly know it is not possible. We cannot be friends with everyone. We won’t be. And even if we tried, not everyone would want to be friends with us. Yes, the friend relationship can be quite powerful but friendship can let us down too. Each of us has learned that at some point—or maybe over and over again.
My first big lesson in this was in high school with my best friend Kelly. Kelly was funny and smart…and mean. Except I didn’t think she was mean because she wasn’t mean to me. We had such a great time together but I did start to notice that she was always talking badly about other people we knew. I must admit that I ignored it for a long time: she was nice to me so why should I care? Eventually though, I realized that it would someday be my turn to be talked badly about. And it was; and she did. Friendship did not seem very powerful in that moment.
Some would say we now live in a golden era of friendship. People have more friends than ever before, hundreds and maybe even thousands of people have “friended” them on their Facebook page. We can keep up friendships from across the world through Facetime. We can find friends we thought we’d lost just through a google search. Except that friendship of this kind has a cost. People describe that they have never been lonelier. Which is probably true. Research has shown that the majority of people had 3-5 best friends 30 years ago and now they only have 1 or 2 and that is counting their spouse.
Yet we consider ourselves in a golden era of friendship for one other reason. We live in a time when we do not have to affiliate with someone who doesn’t agree with us. We don’t have to go to school with them. We can join a separate club. We don’t even have to listen to the same news as them. These affinity groups are so strong at this point that, if we wish, we can live parallel lives, never spending time with people we disagree with; never having a conversation that would press in on our view of the world, never being with people who are not our friends. Sadly, this version of friendship is not simply leaving us with fewer friends. It is gaining us extra enemies.
None of this is to say that you may not have a friend relationship that has strengthened your life. I do and I pray you do too. Friends are incredibly important. But I hope that “friendship is powerful” is not the main message of this Mark passage. Our first clue that it is not is that the scripture never says that they were friends at all. It just says that the house was so crowded that “some people” came, carrying a paralyzed man. We don’t know anything about them for they never speak. All we know is that there were four of them and they carried a paralyzed man to the house where Jesus was. We know that they could not get in by the door because of all the people. We know they did not stop their efforts there but they climbed onto the house’s roof and they dug through it until they could lower this man down to Jesus. That is what we know. What we do not know is whether or not they were friends. Everyone assumes they were because of what they did for the man. But the text never says so.
This text is not simply about what a friend does. We know what friends can do. This text is about what the Church does. For all we know, those four people fought the whole way to the house. For all we know they were carrying the man because they are tired of being in charge of him. For all we know they were late for a meeting the week before and all got volunteered to chair this transport committee. We don’t know what their feelings were. We simply know that they knew they needed to get to Jesus. And that is the Church. In the Church, we carry people, not because we like them, but because they need it. In the Church, we allow ourselves to be carried, not because everyone is so nice, but because we need it.
The Church is not our friends on Facebook. It is not a club that matches our likes and dislikes. And, God forbid it, if the Church ever becomes an affinity group! No, the Church is none of those things. We have people in the Church who are not friends with one another. For goodness sake, we have people in the Church who do not even get along! But that is as it should be for the Church is not about the power of friendship. The Church is about the power of Jesus. We may not always get along or have our opinions match, but we are all trying to head in the same direction. We need to get to Jesus.
We are at our best here when “digging through” the roof is our goal, rather than tallying relationships. For some friendships will fade on us and other friendships will surprise us when they come from a person we never would have chosen to be a friend and other friendships will never materialize. If any of those happen, our strength is not weakened for digging through that roof together is our main goal. Getting to Jesus, no matter what it takes, that is what we really need.
One of the great truths we know in the Church is that we need each other. We know the face on the stretcher will change. One week it could be you and the next week it could be me. All of us need to be carried at some point in this journey to our Lord, and, at some point, all of us need to carry someone else. Which leads me to this: being Church together in this way is quite countercultural. In the Church we choose to be with people we might never choose! And we may have little in common. Except that we cannot get to Jesus without one another. We need all of us to get to him. We need all of us to dig through. We cannot do it alone.
Getting to Jesus is a group project, not an individual endeavor. As much as our personal faith matters, traveling there together matters too. It is shocking to read that Jesus sees what the four people have done and, based on that, he forgives the paralyzed man of his sins. Jesus redeems and heals the man because of what four other people did. Not because of anything about the man himself. Amazing! The power of friendship did not do that. The power of Jesus did that. And we get to him, we dig through to that power and forgiveness and redemption and hope—not alone—but together. Amen.