There is something in today’s Gospel reading that brings me a new insight to the way I look at faith. People in my family have a habit of praying for other people, not necessarily for a specific healing or reason, but just to hold up a person’s name in prayer in the belief that this simple calling to mind is somehow effective for that person. This is where today’s Gospel begins, with those four friends who brought that man on his bed. Let me ask: how many of you know for certain that someone has prayed for you? Someone who prayed for God to watch over you and keep you, someone who prayed for God to bless you despite any obstacles?
These are the holy frat brothers and sorority sisters in our lives, if you will, just like the frat boys in tonight’s Gospel reading. These guys are well aware that their friend needs a healing, and they know all too well what his limitations are. So they form a posse and decide on an ingenious intervention. They weren’t about to let their friend languish, to be left frustrated by the obstacles that seemed insurmountable to him were he to rely solely on himself.
In some way and to some extent, each of us has an obstacle or two preventing us from becoming what God intends for us. For some of us, these obstacles are far from simple ones. Maybe there are things that prevent us from expecting and believing in our own healing. Maybe we cling to the belief that miracles happen for others, but not for ourselves. Maybe the Church itself has closed doors in our face, and we are still smarting from the pain of that rejection. Maybe we keep listening to old tapes of how we were raised to think, afraid to let go of our childish understandings of God, afraid of what that would leave for us to believe in. Perhaps religion has stifled our spirituality, or conversely, maybe we are afraid of having our faith ridiculed by others. Maybe we have allowed the circumstances of our life, the chronology of events, determine who we are. Most probably, I think, we share several factors that work together to limit our understanding of who we are and limit our ability to view the Christ.
Here’s the cool part: we aren’t left to ourselves or our own cleverness to find a way forward. The man in tonight’s story had his friends and allowed himself to be carried forward by their faith, by their persistence, by their commitment to him.
It’s the same with us. Although we have heard, mostly from Republicans, how we need to be self-sufficient and “pull ourselves up by the bootstraps”, this is utter nonsense. None of us can claim we have actually done that! We have done virtually nothing on our own, by our own power or actions. It’s those people I referred to earlier, those who prayed for us, those who took the opportunity to bring us into the healing presence of God in some way….it’s their faith, their persistence that has carried us to this point in our lives, to this moment of decision.
Interestingly, when Jesus sees the man, this story takes an unexpected turn. Jesus already has a reputation for healing, so the four frat brothers come with the reasonable expectation that their friend will be healed. But what does Jesus do? He says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Son your sins are forgiven?? Jesus knew that beneath his apparent physical need lay a much deeper need for forgiveness. Medical science is only recently able to document the relationship between a spiritual/emotional problem and actual physical symptoms and disease. The body, we are finding out, is directly affected by the spirit. Jesus himself seems to have known this, as usual, way before it occurred to us.
Imagine that you bring someone to me … someone who has a deep need in her life … maybe she’s had so much rejection in her life and still carries the scars from all that suffering. What if I prayed with that person and reminded her, “Your sins are forgiven.” You would think, “That’s not why I brought her to see him!”
Yet, this is exactly what Jesus did with that man. That’s what this gospel is about … it’s not really about the physical healing of a paralyzed man, it’s about knowing God already forgives our sins and removes our limitations before we even know what to ask for. The physical healing is important for the man, of course, but this is also a powerful parable of what happens when we hear the voice of Jesus saying to us , “Son, daughter, your sins are forgiven.” Sometimes we need to hear a living human being say those words to us in the present moment, and that is, I think, the essence of the Sacrament of Confession.
Sin, or limitations, or erroneous thinking–whatever you want to call it–is paralyzing. It has more of a far reaching effect on our lives than we can even imagine, and we need to find a way to be released from it, to be forgiven. That is why confession is always a part of our liturgy, because it reminds us that we always have some area of our life that needs healing, that needs forgiveness.
Let’s focus on this issue of forgiveness for a minute. One image used in the Bible is a legal one, that of pardon. We stand before God, acknowledging the times we cling to our limitations, admitting our errors in judgment and we ask God’s forgiveness. And we are pardoned, of course, instantly, without question. Without a loss of trust. Without conditions or resentment. So when God looks at us, all God can see is the divinity and purity and goodness and innocence that was placed in us from the beginning. It’s amazing, isn’t it?
In our dealings with each other, in all our relationships, we are called to imitate our loving God in the same way. Instead of seeing our parents as flawed people with whom we struggle in order to “forgive”, we choose to see them as whole and perfect children of God doing their level best. Instead of seeing a cheating spouse as someone with whom we’ve managed to rebuild trust, we see him or her as the pure light of God’s presence in our lives, and suddenly there aren’t any dark shadows in which to hide unspoken resentments, or latent feelings of moral superiority. Another way of saying this is that instead of being mindful of “human forgiving”, let’s get on with the business of “divine forgetting”. For all of our limitations, each of us enjoys a certain level of healing and wholeness, due in large part to the interventions and prayers of the frat boys and sorority sisters in our lives who have prayed for our well being, and whose powerful prayers still carry us forward. The gift is “paid forward”, as they say, so it seems to me that the least we can do is to continue to pass the blessing forward, to lift each other up in prayer, trusting that in the dark times, our prayers will light the way for them. We have, all of us, experienced the love and prayers of individuals who have helped us. Like candles, they have lighted our way in their conviction that the Reign of God was somewhere just around the corner. The older we become, the longer we live, the more shining lights we need to help us. We also have to say a great many goodbyes to those we love, to those whose light has made us who and what we are becoming. But even in the darkest moments of doubt and hurt, we affirm the truth that individual candles may be extinguished, but the fire they bring can never be extinguished.