Close to my hometown in the north of England is a church—St Oswald’s if I remember right—that has a particularly ugly relic: the Holy Hand of Edmund Arrowsmith. It is usually kept in a glass bell jar and, mercifully, covered up with a kind of black glove. But once a month or on special occasions the hand is unveiled and people come from far around to be blessed by it. By this gnarled 450 year old shrivelled fist cut from a martyr. And the people who come cover the whole range from the merely interested to the desperate; from spiritual tourists to the seriously sick and the frantic parents and friends who bring them. Hoping for a cure and hoping for an end to their own guilt at being healthy.
In St Oswald’s it’s a Holy Hand. In Lourdes, France, it’s Holy Water. In Chamayo, New Mexico, it’s Holy Dirt. But two things they all have in common—the people who come in faith, in need, in hope and the crutches they leave behind, the wheelchairs, the oxygen tanks, the white canes, the stretchers. Every shrine has it’s trophies. A lumber room for things no longer needed and finally set aside.
That’s why I worry about the paralytic in the story today. When Jesus heals him he gets up and goes home but he takes his stretcher with him. I wonder why he doesn’t leave it behind. Maybe he’s just being tidy. Maybe he’s just doing as he’s told. But maybe he’s so used to it he can’t let it go. Maybe he wants it around just in case this healing doesn’t take.
But what happens the next morning when he wakes up on that mat and feels the comfortable familiarity of it—does he remember he’s whole and healthy or does he wonder if it were all a dream? Can he get up?
Now there’s a question for all of us, even if we are not looking to be healed from some physical disease. Jesus himself links the healing with forgiveness. Are we ready to be forgiven? Something about sin is like sickness. We each have aspects of the heart that are paralyzed. That can no longer be moved. That circumstance and choice have hardened and let waste away. I’ll bet each of us knows what it is like to be stuck, to be in a rut, going nowhere, to lack the freedom to get and up and walk the way we want to. And we probably have our crutches too, our stretchers, our oxygen masks. The ways we support our habit of paralysis, the beliefs we hold about who we are and what we deserve, about what is possible and what is impossible.
If something about sin is like sickness, something about forgiveness is like healing. Forgiven, we can stand up straight. We can move again. We have new freedom. And we don’t need the stretcher anymore. And there’s the crux. We have to leave behind the mat we’ve been confined to for years because if we take it home with us well pretty soon we’ll be sleeping on it again and letting it define our limits. The freedom that Jesus offers us is an entirely new life. Something completely new. And it requires on our part a forgetting. A wholehearted forgetting.
The central issue of the story as Mark tells it is whether we are willing to let God do something new or whether we insist God stays within the bounds we set. The miracle only happens because some people don’t do the same old thing: the four helpers tear up the roof of Jesus’ house and he, instead of seeing vandalism, he sees faith and instead of keeping someone out he makes them at home—physically, emotionally, socially.
God is willing to do something new because God is willing to set the past aside and when God does that God really does that—without reservation, without maybe, without “we’ll see.” Now are we? Are we ready to leave the past behind and be ourselves forgiven and healed?
Now I’ve been asking that question as though each of us could answer it alone. And sure … ultimately we have to be the ones walking and we have to take up our mat or let it go. But those choices are not ones we can make in isolation. We can be sick in isolation—at it’s worst that’s exactly what sin and sickness both do: separate us from each other. And we can be like the four helpers who let something new happen or we can be like the scribes who resist it for all the best reasons. Do we forgive our kids, forgive our parents, forgive our partners, forgive our friends or would we rather them stay crippled for our own reasons.
It’s pretty reasonable to want a roof over our heads. But sometimes we buy that shelter at the expense of the people we keep outside. So we ought to be challenged at every level by this gospel. Challenged to be like God and let a new wholeness begin inside ourselves. To be like God and let a new wholeness begin in those around us. To be like God and let a new wholeness begin in our community, our city, our church.
Even if it means we, like Jesus, have to live without a roof over our heads.
February 20th, 2000