Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fierce Friendship: A Sermon on Mark 2:1-12

I realized this week that there are a number of weeks in year B we won't get to this year, and they have some texts from Mark that I love... so I'm off lectionary this week and next. Just couldn't rustle up whatever it was I needed to go to the temple with Jesus and his whips and all.

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The Martines lived what husband Layng called “a charmed life.” They met at 21 and 22, when Layng saw Linda for the first time through a screen door, adorable in an orange dress. He thought to himself, “If that girl will have anything to do with me, that’s it.” They married shortly afterward, the happy victims of a love at first sight that endured. About 20 years after that first meeting their charmed life changed forever. Layng writes:

Have you ever come upon a traffic jam on the Interstate and looked for an exit to try your luck on the back roads? That’s what I did the night of Linda’s accident. I drove right by my family without even knowing it. I bet I wasn’t more than 100 feet away. [i]

Now, years after the accident, they still take rides in the car, but, Layng says, Before the car even moves an inch… Linda has to put on her seat belt, because even a semi-sudden stop at low speed will whap her face against the dashboard as if she’s a spring-loaded bobblehead. She has no stomach muscles. Her body works only from the chest up.

Some of you will recognize the story of Layng and Linda from last Sunday’s “Modern Love” column in the New York Times. The piece delves deeply into the emotional aftermath of such an accident, as well as the physical care required once a member of a family has become paraplegic. It does so at such a level of detail that some readers were disturbed to be exposed to such intimacies. It’s not pretty, it’s not easy, but it is the story of a husband and wife who have learned to tolerate the intolerable. It’s the story of a fierce kind of love that will not accept defeat in the face of one partner losing much of her physical strength, ability and independence. It’s a story of a couple whose life together is captured in this vignette:

Not long after getting home from the hospital, when we were having dinner by candlelight at our kitchen table, [Linda] burst into tears. “I don’t know if I can do this for the rest of my life,” she said.

All I could say was, “We’ll do it together.”

What it takes to cope with paralysis is hard for most of us to understand, even in 2009, when technology and gadgetry exist that enable people in Linda’s condition to have a remarkable measure of independence. Now imagine life as a paralytic in ancient Palestine—a society where those who do not produce are expendable. A society where to be paralyzed means lifelong dependence on folks who already don’t have enough for themselves, to feed the people who are actually able to work for a living. A society where death looks like a reasonable alternative to being unable to move.

Jesus is at home, we are told, in the village of Capernaum, and the crowds have followed him there. In fact, the crowds are so thick around his house, it’s impossible to get anywhere near it. The crowds are assembled to hear Jesus, who is preaching to the people, sharing with them the word of God. Then “they” come, a group of friends. We don’t know how many, but we are told that “four of them” are carrying someone, apparently on a kind of makeshift stretcher. The man is paralyzed.

Then the story takes on a kind of absurdist turn. The newcomers can’t get anywhere near the house, but they can get near the roof? They brought, what, a ladder to climb to the roof? And that thatched roof is able support the weight of five men, the paralytic and his enterprising friends? And then they open it up or dig it out—the Greek says, they “unroof” the roof? It becomes a little cartoonish, or it would, if the whole thing weren’t so very serious. These four are fiercely determined to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus. Absurdities or not, the point remains: they allow no obstacle to stand in their way.

So, imagine the scene. The house can’t be very big, and it’s probably close and hot inside, and Jesus is trying to get through, let’s say, the parable of the sower, And all of a sudden there is thumping overhead, and maybe clods of dirt are falling here and there, and then, through a growing opening, light, and finally four sweaty men lowering one man—who is, himself, incapable of moving—into the middle of the dining room, plopping him on the floor, and then staring, expectant, into the face of Jesus. It’s quite a scene.

The next sentence is typical of this passage—densely packed, full of substance, capable of taking the reader down several different paths. Mark tells us, ‘When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”’

We modern readers are taken aback by that last part—“your sins are forgiven.” What on earth does Jesus mean, saying to the paralytic, “your sins are forgiven”? Does he mean to imply that the man is somehow responsible for his own paralysis, for this dreadful condition that makes his life a nightmare? The people crowded into that hot room would have heard it differently. This juxtaposition—sin and sickness—would have made sense to them. It’s a tune they have heard before.

If you read scripture, you quickly catch on to the fact that sin and sickness are often said to be connected. Think of Miriam, sister of Moses who dares to question his authority—and so God smites her with leprosy. Pretty clear cut: her sin leads to sickness. However, if you read further in scripture, you find that the connection between sin and sickness is challenged… think of Job and his terrible boils. He is not a sinful man, he is a righteous man. Think of any number of psalms. The connection between sin and sickness is denied, often vehemently.

There is another way in which sin and sickness are related, however. Not long ago my daughter told me about an article she read for class, describing three people who had heart attacks—one a CEO making an 8-figure salary, one a mid-level manager, and one a chamber maid in a hotel. Guess which one got the best care? Guess which one got the worst care? Ancient Palestine was no different. The poor had the shortest life expectancy, the rich had the longest. Just as in our day. Sin and sickness do go hand in hand—corporate sin, society’s sin, the kind of sin that oppresses people and keeps them from enjoying even the fruits of their own labor, or from being able to be productive in the first place. The kind of sin that locates toxic waste near slums, so that the people living there suffer from chronic asthma or worse. The kind of sin that renders the weakest members of society expendable. There is a connection between sin and sickness… it’s just not the one we expect.

‘When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”’ That last part does grab our attention. But really… it is the first part of that sentence that grips me. Mark does not say, ‘When Jesus saw his faith…” He says, ‘When Jesus saw their faith…” This is the truly revolutionary moment in this passage, not the part when the man walks away at the end, pallet in hand. Jesus looks upon the kind of fierce friendship that will not let anything—anything—stand in the way of helping a friend in need, the kind that climbs up on houses and risks falling through to dining rooms and unroofs roofs, and Jesus sees—faith. Whether faith in him or faith in their friend or even faith in one another—I could not say. But Jesus sees faith. And he makes a decision to free this man from whatever it is that is burdening him. Whether he has sinned or been sinned against. Jesus sets him free. All because of the fierce and devoted friendship that constitutes a kind of faith, a faith that can even be borrowed.

Near the end of the Times article Layng Martine is describing how his and Linda’s lives have normalized… road trips in the car, jaunts into Boston to shop. He says, “You know those great old stores on Newbury Street in Boston with five or six steps up to each one? At first we could get up only about three of those a day. Now we can do every single store, one right after the other, all day long. My arms and my back are stronger — so are Linda’s.” And that is what fierce love and friendship do to us, and for us. They make our arms and our backs stronger. They make us do the extraordinary—unroofing roofs, carrying our beloved up and down stairs all day long—until it seems ordinary, as if it’s something we’ve always done. Fierce friendship opens doors to freedom… little doors and big ones… like the time Linda’s husband and son carried her into the Atlantic Ocean. To their delight and their surprise, “she bobbed peacefully, looking once again like every other person lolling in the sea on a summer day.” For that hour, Linda was free. Like the man who took his mat and walked. Free.

So I ask: who are your fierce friends? Who are the ones you can imagine standing around you like sentries, lifting you up when you cannot do it yourself? Who are those people in your life who, if everyone else has turned their backs on you, will be there, dropping by with a pot of soup and a deck of cards? Who are the ones who are praying for you, even when you have not asked them to pray? Maybe they are family, maybe not. Maybe they are new friends, maybe old. Maybe you are married to them, or maybe you were. Maybe you will be shocked, in the end, to learn who they are, the depth of their devotion. Maybe you doubt, even as you are listening to me, that you have such friends. But it doesn’t matter. In the end, we can borrow even the faith of such fierce friends. In the end, friendships like these mean freedom from those things that bind us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Layng Marine, Jr., New York Times, Sunday March 6, 2009.


Songbird said...

Love this story, too, used it in combination with one of the other weeks because I couldn't stand missing it either.
I hadn't read the Modern Love story but will do so. I like where you went with this. Our arms and backs grow stronger, indeed.

Choralgirl said...

In the end, friendships like these mean freedom from those things that bind us.

:-) May it be so.

cheesehead said...

This is truly lovely.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

thanks for this, m. i saw the story in the times, read it to c while she did the dishes. this was a really nice way to use it.