Sunday, February 19, 2006

7 Epiphany B

Isaiah 43:18-25; Psalm 32:1-8; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12

The number one excuse I’ve heard from people who really didn’t want me to ask them to be youth group volunteers is “I just can’t think up all those games.” And with names like “Gargoyles,” “Pandemonium,” “Sardines,” and “Poop Deck,” I can understand how the games might sound a little too intimidating, or at least a little too messy, to coordinate.

Well, I’m going to let you in on a youth ministry secret, armed with which, like it or not, you will all be qualified to be youth ministers. Here it is: all games are no more than variations on tag. That’s all you need to know. So, you’re it – who’s leading youth group tonight?

It’s really true – it’s all tag, perhaps with elements of catch or a scavenger hunt mixed in. “Gargoyles” is the local favorite, and it’s a perfect example. In this game, teams search for pieces of disassembled flashlights that have been hidden throughout the darkened buildings. Their goal is to reassemble a flashlight and then use it to defeat the gargoyle or two (usually the youth leaders) who has been trying to keep them from finding the pieces. If a gargoyle tags you, you are frozen – paralyzed – until another member of your team unfreezes you. The first team to reassemble a flashlight and shine it on a gargoyle wins the game. See? Mostly tag, a little scavenger hunt, and maybe some catch when you’re cornered by a gargoyle and you toss your flashlight pieces to a team member….

Back when I was in junior high, my youth minister discovered New Games. That’s what the book was actually called – New Games, and there was something different about them. There was no tag, no catch, no scavenger hunt, no teams – most of the time, these games were about the whole group trying to do something or get somewhere. New Games were about problem-solving, trust, collaboration, and the great stories that set them up. They were a little intimidating and a little messy, but a lot fun. “Magic Shoes” is a perfect example. Here is the story: Your group is trying to reach a wise man on the far bank of a river of boiling green slime. The wise man has given you a pair of magic shoes that can adjust to anyone’s foot size and allow you to walk across the river safely. But, each person in your group can wear the shoes only once to cross, and the river is too wide to throw the shoes back to the other side. How will you get everyone across?

If a group was really good at these games, the youth leader would change the story up a little to make it more challenging. For example, perhaps only one person in the group would be allowed to speak. Or you might have to pretend that three people in your group are blind (so they have to keep their eyes closed), that two have broken arms (so they can’t use them), or that two are paralyzed….Now how will you get everyone across?

What about this story. Your team is trying to get to a Healer deep inside a house packed with people. The door is blocked, and so are the windows. All you have is a mat and a rope, and one of your team members is paralyzed. How will you get to the Healer?

At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is no longer a new thing. Lots of people had heard about what he was doing and saying, what excitement he was stirring, and so they came from all over to see him whether he was on a hillside, on a city street, or even, this day, in his own house. The crowds that spilled out of his doors and windows surely expected something dramatic – some great healing or miracle or teaching.

But Mark says Jesus was simply speaking the word to them, and I wonder if they weren’t beginning to yawn when they noticed a little dust drifted down from the ceiling into Jesus’ hair. Suddenly, chunks of mud and plaster and straw were falling all around him, and he stepped back just in time for a ceiling timber to dislodge and as the dust cleared, there was a man on a mat looking nearly as surprised as the crowds that he was there.

The man was clearly paralyzed, and as if the drama of his arriving wasn’t enough, I imagine the crowd braced themselves for the dramatic healing they had come to see. Instead, Jesus said to the man, Son, your sins are forgiven. Well, this was a new game! To the crowd, it didn’t look like anything at all. To the scribes, it was blasphemy.

According to the law, there was a specific system of repentance and sacrifice that had to be made before one could merit forgiveness, which, in the end, only God could grant. Who can forgive sins but God, the scribes wondered (which was, of course, Jesus’ point exactly). In their eyes, Jesus had just ignored that whole system and had himself granted forgiveness before demanding repentance, as though forgiveness were a gift instead of a reward. This was a new game.

Or was it? We know that the law was being rigidly applied during this time, often paralyzing both those who enforced it and those who could scarcely live up to its standards. But surely those same faithful – scribes and ordinary folks – knew well the psalms, which said that God has not dealt with us according to our sins, but has put our sins as far away from us as the east is from the west. And happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sin is put away! And they also knew well the stories of their ancestors whom God had forgiven time and again, always inviting people of faith back into Covenant relationship, whether they had just slipped away forgetfully or stomped out angrily. God, abounding in steadfast love, never seemed tired of forgiving.

So what was so new, so surprising about Jesus’ words that day? Theologian Sarah Dylan Breuer suggests that then, as now, it sounded like a new game because we just don’t get the rules, no matter how many times they are explained.

God, who created us, loves us not in spite of who we are, but simply as we are. Do you hear the difference? God loves us simply and exactly as we are, knowing full well that we are sinners (which means, literally, people who miss the mark of saying yes to God) who will repeatedly slip out of our relationship with God even in our good moments, and stomp out in our worst moments. No matter. God’s game now is the same as it was way back when God’s love overflowed and created that Covenant relationship in the first place, a relationship to which God has always said yes even in the face of our most vehement no’s.

Do we get it? Do we still not perceive?

Usually we don’t. Glimmers, maybe, when we realize that our relationship with God has carried us, mat and all, through a difficult, or even paralyzing time in our lives. But usually we seem as convinced as those scribes that we have to earn God’s love, earn God’s forgiveness. That God loves us and forgives us our sins when we repent, after we repent, because we repent, because we say the right prayer or do the right penance or make the right amends. You’re sorry? Oh, okay, then I can forgive you. It’s how we usually go about forgiveness with one another, right?

No, Jesus showed them that day. With God, our sins are forgiven even before we ask, even if we never ask, even if we never realized we needed forgiving in the first place. Our sins are forgiven. God has let them go. It sounded like blasphemy to the scribes, a charge that would eventually nail Jesus to the cross where life in relationship to God appeared to have been ended once for all. Until, in the first light of Easter morning, God did a very new thing, and Jesus himself showed us that not even the sin of the cross could keep God from loving us and forgiving us and inviting us back into relationship again.

God has let go our sins – we are already absolved. But our sins will continue to paralyze us if we are not able to confess them, to acknowledge our inability to stay in relationship with God without God’s help and grace and love and forgiveness. Frederick Buechner writes that we do not confess anything God doesn’t already know about. But while we hold on to our sins, they are an abyss between us and God. When we confess them, Buechner says, they become the Golden Gate Bridge.

We can confess our sins because they have already been forgiven. We can engage in reconciliation because we are already transformed. We can amend our lives because they are already made new. We can walk because we have been healed. Forgiveness is not restoration to what we were before – it is newness of life, and it carries with it a charge to walk, to walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.

So is this really a new thing? As surely as God is faithful. As surely as God made us and has always loved us. God’s love for us is as old as the mountains and as new as each morning, each moment, each breath in which we respond to God’s yes, you are forgiven, with our own yes, thank God, I am, and trembling we lay down our sins and find that we can move and stretch in ways we never imagined possible.

Of course life is not a game, although it often seems like we are caught in an endless game of tag, running to catch up with deadlines or expectations or goals, an endless scavenger hunt for success or happiness or peace or health that eludes us. But there all along, in the intimidating, messy middle of our stories, surrounded by the rubble of our lives, there stands Jesus, looking on our brokenness and offering God’s forgiveness, that transforming gift of love that heals the very deepest kind of hurt, that gift that restores and renews our relationship with God. Around us stand one another and whole the communion of saints, the rest of our team, who have walked in love to carry us through prayer and witness and encouragement to the Healer when we can’t find the way ourselves.

When we get there, let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor, not to walk away unburdened but to walk away in love. Not to be the same old person we were but to be a new creation. Not to earn forgiveness but because we are already forgiven, for Almighty God has forgiven us of all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, God has strengthened us for all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God will keep us in eternal life. Amen.

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