Pardon the Interruption: What Friends Do
I want you to picture the scene with me. It’s a beautiful day, warm, but dry. You hear that The Teacher is home, and so you hurry there to hear him speak. You’ve heard so much about his amazing teachings. You’re not sure what to make of them, so when you hear that he’s nearby, you drop everything and rush over, curious and eager, feeling a sense of urgency.
However, when you arrive, there is a crowd. No surprise there, but there are so many people that you have to push your way inside. You get a few looks, and it’s hot and smelly inside, but it’s worth it. You made it! You’re here! You can’t help feeling a little bit of resentment that it’s so crowded, but you know it’s worth it. No one in the room dares move, either. You might lose your place! There are already plenty of people who are going to have to see and hear what they can from outside. You hear the murmurings and comments of the people around you, and then it begins to get quiet. The Teacher is speaking! To hear his voice and see his gestures first hand…You can’t wait to tell your family all about it when you get home!
But as Jesus is talking, you realize there is a commotion outside. It subsides, and then suddenly, pieces of the roof are falling on your head! Can you imagine such a thing? You’re finally able to experience what everyone has been talking about, and then something unbelievable happens, disrupting everything.
I can just see their faces. Can’t you?
The roofs of Palestinian houses were often made of wood crossbeams covered with thatch and held together with mud. To make an opening large enough to lower a man on a stretcher would effectively destroy the roof. Jesus was teaching while mud and thatch were literally falling on the people gathered there.
We can probably guess what the crowd was thinking as the friends broke through the roof, can’t we?
Anxious anticipation, confusion, amazement, perhaps straining to see the look on the paralytic’s face. And what were those outside thinking as the group first tried to enter the house through the door? Did they even give them a second thought? What about when the friends carrying the paralyzed man turned away and headed for the roof?
Our series this summer is called Pardon the Interruption, and this story from the Gospel of Mark is certainly an example of an interruption. In fact, there are several interruptions going on here! Jesus, of course, was interrupted while he was teaching. The crowd outside was interrupted, at least briefly. The people inside were interrupted from hearing Jesus speak. The paralytic’s friends interrupted their day to bring him to Jesus, and they just weren’t going to go home disappointed, were they? Likely their days were often interrupted with care for him. Even the paralytic was interrupted, wasn’t he? Scripture doesn’t tell us whether he asked his friends to bring him or they just brought him on their own, but either way, his regular routine was interrupted in the hope, in the faith, that Jesus could help him.
And what is Jesus’ response to these interruptions? He’s not flustered at all. He is full of grace and patience and calm, at least for the paralytic and his friends. He does what is needed. Of course he does!
And what is the crowd’s response? The religious experts are muttering, accusing him of blasphemy. The crowd knows this and is probably wide-eyed, anticipating a possible show-down. And Jesus says to the experts, “Why are you so skeptical? Which is simpler: to say to the paraplegic, ‘I forgive your sins,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your stretcher, and start walking’? Well, just so it’s clear that I’m the Son of Man and authorized to do either, or both, (he looks at the paralyzed man and says), Get up. Pick up your mat and go home.” Now the crowd is amazed, incredulous, maybe even rubbing their eyes to be sure of what they are seeing. And then they praised God, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this!”
I’ve sometimes wondered what Jesus did next, what he did right after that. Did he go back to what he had been saying? Did he stop and help clean up the mess from the roof? Perhaps he talked with the crowd about what had just happened. Because they were surely wondering about it.
I find it interesting that Jesus asks the experts, “Which is easier to say,” not, “Which is easier to do.” Now why would he put it like that? We know he had done more than said it. He had actually done it; he had really forgiven the man’s sins.
You know what I think? I think Jesus was directly challenging them. He was calling their bluff. He’s saying, “You think I’m just saying this, that I’m not really doing it?”
And it would be easier to say “your sins are forgiven,” wouldn’t it, because you can’t really see it happen. How would anyone know if the man’s sins were forgiven? With “stand up and walk,” you can see right away whether it’s legitimate or not. Which is easier? Perhaps it’s a trick question.
The religious experts accused Jesus of blasphemy, of assuming the authority and prerogatives of God. But Jesus called their bluff. Jesus first did the miracle that was most important; he forgave the man’s sins. But the experts needed proof. And because they thought sin and infirmity were connected, Jesus showed them that by doing the one they could see, by healing the man’s paralysis, that he also did the one they could not see. He forgave the man’s sins.
You see, at that time, people believed that sin caused illness and disease. But, as theologian Kathy Black tells us, “In this story Jesus breaks down the walls of alienation that divide this man from the larger community. By both forgiving his sins and curing his paralysis, ‘Jesus broke all the causes of alienation. The man was not only able to walk again, but he was also rid of the stigma that it was his fault.’”
Now let’s think about the friends for a moment. The friends who carried the paralyzed man to Jesus. Scripture tells us, “Some people arrived, and four of them were bringing to him a man who was paralyzed. They couldn’t carry him through the crowd, so they tore off part of the roof above where Jesus was. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven!”
When Jesus saw their faith.
It was the friends’ faith that brought forgiveness to the paralytic.
Leonora Tisdale, a professor at Yale Divinity School, says this:
“…the friends…have a tenacious, imaginative, and bold kind of compassion that results not only in their carrying this man for some distance on a cot, but also in finding a creative solution when they realize that direct access to Jesus is blocked by the crowds who are thronging around him. Undeterred, they lift this man high over their heads, carry him up on top of a roof, and literally dig their way through the sod and wood on the roof in order to lower him to Jesus!
Imagine the faith and compassion of the community that surrounded this man. The sacrifices, the love, and ultimately, yes, the faith. They had probably cared for him for years, knowing he would die without them, knowing he was completely dependent upon them. Were their lives interrupted in caring for him. Of course they were. But these friends had a persistent faith. A determined, tireless, stubborn, maybe even pushy faith. And it was their faith that healed him.
I want to share a story with you about this kind of friendship. Gary Smith is a Jesuit priest who works with the poor and the homeless in Portland. In his book, Radical Compassion: Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor, he describes the impact of his friend named Wells, and he says this:
“Before multiple sclerosis confined him to his bed, Wells used to drop in on me, traveling in his specially adapted van…It was his way of being supportive of the work I do and of nurturing our friendship, which went back more that forty years. On these visits, he referred to me as a “Roofer,” a metaphor for those who care for the needy,” [this name, Roofer, is based on our passage today, where the friends go through the roof to get their friend to Jesus]. “[In time,] I received word of Wells’ death…[and at the funeral]…the lead Roofer, Tony [told the Gospel story of the paralytic man and his devoted friends].”
And then Tony shared, “This passage meant a lot to Wells. He mailed it to his friends. He picked it for today. For him it was a picture of the last years of his life. He called all of us here his Roofers. Those of us who phoned him, wrote to him, visited him, …prayed for him, spent the night with him, …cared about him—all Roofers.
We were involved in his life. We look at ourselves—friends, family, caretakers—and we see that we were indeed the people from the Gospel: packing him on his litter, down the alleys, across the river, up the stairs, to the very roof. We pulled off the tiles. We hardly had a choice. He was yanking us on to do so.
He really knew what it meant to be a Roofer. Most of us didn’t have a clue. We Roofers just did as we were told. We carried him around and then up to the roof.
We were never embarrassed by it. It really wasn’t too hard. He was pretty light, after all. He didn’t complain. His spirits were pretty good most of the time. Just bring me here. Do this. Do that. Bring me right up to the roof. You can do it. Now tear off those tiles, and look down there and see if Jesus is there. Okay, now lower me down. Carefully.
No questions asked. Okay, Wells. Here we go, buddy. No problem. Easy does it. Down you go.
And then the universe stops still. The Lord looks up toward the roof and sees us, the Roofers. And we are amazed. That’s what it’s all about.
Wells used to say, ‘My vocation, during this part of my life, is to lead people to God by having them take care of me.’
It worked. Our hearts opened. He showed us faith; he showed us caring; he showed us forgiveness; he showed us kindness. He led the way to God.
Our job was easy. All we did was carry him. He put his Roofer team together. He organized, talked, cajoled. He encouraged, pushed, advised, listened. He listened hard. He laughed. He prayed. He connected us all to one another. We just carried him to the roof and pulled apart the tiles and lowered him down. There. Is that what you want? And Wells moves aside, [and] the Lord smiles on us.’”
My sister shared this story with me a few years ago. Our mother was several years into her journey with Alzheimer’s disease, and early on she had wondered more than once why God wanted her to take this journey. A strong Christian, she was not afraid to die, but she had no desire to live when she could not contribute, and she did not want our lives disrupted with her infirmity. But Mom had an encounter with God, and God showed her that this was indeed the path she was to be on. God assured her that he had a plan and that there was a purpose to her life, even to the end of Alzheimer’s, and she accepted it with peace and assurance. She experienced more peace then and in her remaining years than she did her whole life prior to that. And so she made the best plans she could, and our families visited her and took the best care of her we could. And she did much more than just live out her disease. She did so with grace and dignity. She showed us that every life has worth, even to the very end. And as we walked that journey with her, as we
we experienced the challenges and indignities and sometimes humor of that journey, I saw Christ. In helping her with her clothes or wiping her mouth or feeding her ice cream, I saw Christ. Was it always easy? No, of course not. Was it an interruption? Did it involve multiple interruptions? Of course it did. But did I learn and grow during that season? Did I see Jesus? Absolutely.
Have you ever experienced a time when you needed others to help you? Whether you asked for the help, you grudgingly accepted it, or you received help kicking and screaming, like it or not, you needed help and you received it. And while in that season of life, you may have thought of your “roofers” as being the hands and feet of Christ for you, and they were. But did you realize that you were also showing them Christ? That you were pointing them to Christ?
Of course, many of you here have helped others during times of need. I see examples of that around here all the time. A class or group learns of a need in their group, be it the death of a parent, a cancer diagnosis, a hospitalization and long recovery…and that person is surrounded with care. Meals organized and delivered, children picked up from school, visits, help with transportation to medical appointments, sharing the tears and prayers, bring pest to visit, just being present. And together they walk through that valley. It’s what friends do, right?
But what about the times this doesn’t happen? When need is missed? This rarely happens when the person is connected in a group, but it unfortunately sometimes happens in other situations. People don’t mean to neglect a need; more often, they tend to think that someone else is helping out, if they are even aware of the situation at all. But for the person in need, the hurt can be deep and real. It may be even more hurtful than if the person is not in the church at all. Why is that so? I believe it’s because people, even people outside the church, know what the church is supposed to be. Even people with no church affiliation at all often turn to a church when they are in need.
Of course, Jesus told us to do much more than that, didn’t he? Interruptions? Sure. But…
Returning to the “roofers” story, Gary Smith says, “I think that The image of the Roofers can be a great clarifying metaphor for the church…The church discovers the love and truth and compassion of its heart in the service of the broken. Driven by love, it cannot get stuck in selfishness…As Roofers, the church finds Christ… [and] discovers what it’s all about…In service it is gracefully drawn to its true purpose and meaning: to meet and be Christ in the world.”
Interruptions. It’s what friends do.
What are your stories of interruptions? The ones where you helped a friend. Or someone you barely know.
How did it impact you? You were being Christ in those moments. Did you realize it? Did also you let yourself encounter Christ?
The crowd that gathered to hear Jesus was interrupted, but in a sense, they also caused the interruption. Was it wrong of them to have packed in so closely that no one else could enter? After all, getting to hear Jesus is no small thing, and they were eager and excited. But through their actions, unintentionally or not, they were a barrier to someone in great need.
Are there ways that we sometimes do this ourselves? Do we put up unintentional or unrecognized barriers to those in need? What tenacious, imaginative, and bold acts are we willing to undertake in order to make sure that [others] can have access to the life of our church and faith community? What interruptions are we willing to experience? What interruptions will we welcome?
Jesus did some of his best work when he was interrupted, didn’t he?
Helping others, being open to others, it can be messy. In Mark’s story, it was literally messy. The house itself experienced collateral damage caused by those who were seeking Jesus and his healing and forgiveness. According to Lutheran pastor Timothy Leitzke, “…if those who need forgiveness cannot fit through the door, they might just have to tear a hole in the roof…Those who would tear a hole in the roof do so because they are seeking the Other who forgives us and will forgive them.” In our lives, and in our church, it can be hard, and it can be messy. But we need them. Sure, they need us. But we need them, too.
A couple of weeks ago in Pastor Mark’s sermon, he shared a couple of questions from a book by our own Dr. George Hunter. Dr. Hunter askes, “Do we really want to minister to unchurched people? Do we really want to spend time with them?”
I ask a related question: Are we willing to be interrupted? to share our time, to care for someone in need? In so doing, we will see Jesus. Jerry Irish, a professor of Religious Studies, puts it like this: “In this profoundly relational and incarnational theology, God’s all-embracing transcendence is known in God’s all-pervasive immanence…[put more simply], God is revealed in Jesus and in the paralytic.”
Generally, throughout Jesus’ ministry on Earth, the crowds are amazed by his miracles, but for most of them, that’s as far as it goes. Their response is at least a bit better than that of the scribes, who chastise him as a presumptuous healer…who sputter, ‘Who do you think you are? The scribes, who are the teachers of the law, interrupt Jesus by criticizing his every word and deed. The crowd is at least excited by what they see, but most of them fail to act it. They perhaps even fail to see the reason for the miracle. “We’ve never seen anything like it!” Hardly the words of discipleship and engagement.
We who claim to know and follow Jesus, we need to do more than be amazed by him. Are we, like Jesus, willing to be interrupted? We should be. It’s what friends do.