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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
January 14, 2024
Grace to you and peace from God, our Creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
At our Congregation Council meetings, we begin with a devotional practice called “Dwelling in the Word.” I select a scripture text, we read it aloud twice, and then consider questions about it – what caught your attention, what questions does this bring up for you, and what might God be saying to us in this reading.
For the last three meetings, we looked at the first part of today’s reading – Jesus healing the man who was paralyzed. And the first time that we read it, when I asked, “What catches your attention in this reading?” someone answered, “That guy’s got some really good friends!”
And they were right. Roofs, at that time, typically had log beams as support, and then reeds or branches were laid across them. Then the whole roof was overlaid with packed mud or clay. They were accessed by a staircase or a ladder, and they were stable enough for walking on, but they could be broken through by digging.
So, not only did this man’s friends get themselves up to the roof, they got him up there, too. And then they dug through it, dumping debris down on the people that were below – because it wouldn’t have been a clean job. And then they lowered him into the middle of everything.
Not only do their actions demonstrate their faith in Jesus and in their friend, they demonstrate how disruptive and invasive the Kingdom of Heaven is. It tears apart that which once was to make space for something new.
Jesus was born about 500 years after the Babylonian exile ended. And there isn’t much information about that 500 years in the Bible, as far as what the people experienced and the things they did.
What we do know is that the people of Judah, or Judea – depending on the time period, lived under occupying governments that entire time. The exile ended because the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians. So, when the people returned, their occupying government was the Persians.
That occupation continued under different empires as one conquered another, bringing us to the time of Jesus’ life and the Roman Empire. People living under Roman rule lived the way the empire wanted them to live because it made life easier, even if it wasn’t the way that was named in scripture.
But the Romans did allow the Judeans to continue their religious practices. So, the Temple system, with all of its rules and regulations and practices, was alive and well. But in Jesus, a new way of being had arrived.
When he forgave the sins of the man who was paralyzed, Jesus forgave the sin of his physical ailment. He broke the long-held belief about the connection between a person’s faithfulness and how their life was going, and opened the possibility that a person’s community can heal them.
The point of healing the man was for Jesus to get the people’s attention about forgiveness because the forgiveness was the more important thing. The man didn’t actually get up and walk until Jesus told him to. And even if he’d never gotten up and walked, he still would have been whole because he’d been forgiven. His physical ailment wasn’t held against him anymore.
And that upset the Temple leaders. And then Jesus called Levi, a tax collector, to be one of his disciples. And then he had dinner in Levi’s house with other tax collectors and sinners. And that just sent the leaders over the top.
Jesus offered a different path. He reached out to people who didn’t normally get reached out to, and offered them an invitation into God’s way of life. And where the Pharisees got tripped up is that they couldn’t accept that the faith community ought to embrace people like the tax collectors, the people who were paralyzed, the sex workers, the people who had skin diseases like leprosy, and other people classified as “sinners.”
And so, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Look, I didn’t come for you. You’re doing fine – what you’re doing works for you. But it isn’t working for these people here. So, we’re gonna create something new. You are more than welcome to be a part of it – there’s a place for you here. But if you aren’t on board with it, then keep doing what you’re doing. You’re fine.”
Jesus was the new piece of cloth, the new wine. And to force the established leadership and structure to accept his teaching would have destroyed both the old and the new.
In other words, the Temple leadership and infrastructure weren’t able to stretch to the point where they could hold Jesus’ teaching. So, he created something new alongside them instead.
So, it’s important to note that the parables about the holey cloak and the seasoned wineskins don’t make value judgments. They’re not suggesting that old ways are bad and new ways are good. Or that the old ways ought to be scrapped and new ways of being or doing things brought in.
What these parables do is acknowledge that when old ways and new ways are brought together, if it isn’t done with care, it can be destructive for both. So, how and when they’re brought together needs to be done thoughtfully and carefully.
It’s a conversation that has been had in the church throughout history.
When we think about the church today, and the old ways of doing things and the new ways of doing things, what often gets lost in the shuffle is the teaching of Jesus about the importance of reaching out to people who normally aren’t reached out to.
The core message of the Christian gospel is about the radical embrace of people who are on the outside. Not for the sake of making them like the status quo, but because God loves them. That message hasn’t changed in more than 2000 years, and it won’t ever change.
That’s the message Jesus taught, and what he exemplified and embodied in his life and ministry. It isn’t a new message for us, but it’s still as revolutionary as it was when he introduced it. And it’s the one that’s often the most difficult for churches to live into.
It’s easy to reach out to people who are like us. It’s safe. It keeps things on an even keel. But when that becomes our focus, we become like an old cloak or old wineskins. We become inflexible. And stuck. And unable to receive anyone who might be different, in whatever way.
And then they’re left out. And the cycle continues.
Living into the newness that Jesus brings asks us to examine how we’re reaching out to others and whether we’re reaching out to others. When that examination becomes a regular practice, we take the risk to reach beyond ourselves, and our community becomes stronger because of it.
Don’t overthink this. Reaching out to others is simply a matter of loving people as they are. When we do, they know they have a place in God’s realm. And in this house of worship. And at God’s table. That’s how we create a community of radical embrace and, in the process, we’re made new.
There is no one that Jesus won’t reach out to. He reaches out to everyone. And when we follow him and do the same, it doesn’t mean we get rid of one way or another of doing things. It does mean that we’re able to receive Jesus’ teaching, that we’re flexible enough to hold it and make it part of who we are. And when we do, we grow with it and Jesus creates something new in us.
Thanks be to God! Amen.