Scripture Readings: Psalm 146
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
There is a bit of a hubbub in the lakeside Galilean town of Capernaum. News has got around about a young rabbi from the nearby town of Nazareth, whose preaching and teaching is sincere and heartfelt, and who has also got a reputation for healing miracles. He’s been in Capernaum already, then went on a preaching tour around the local synagogues; now he is making a return visit. This was an age and a place when people had an entirely different attitude from us to personal space and public space. You left your door open as an invitation to anyone to wander in. In a small, humble house, there would be no entrance hall- from the street, you stepped directly into the family’s living quarters.
It is to such a small, humble house that the carpenter’s son has come, probably looking for a bit of a break. However, in an age when disease isn’t understood, and medicine is primitive and expensive, the poverty-stricken fisherfolk and farmers are understandably keen to meet Jesus, to hear what he has to say, and to find healing for body and soul. So they cram into the wee house, spilling into the street and blocking the door.
Let me tell you what happens next in the words of a popular Scottish biblical commentator the 20th century, William Barclay:
Into this crowd came four [people] carrying on a stretcher a friend of theirs who was paralysed. They could not get through the crowd at all, but they were [people] of resource. The roof of a Palestinian house was flat. It was regularly used as a place of rest and of quiet, and so usually there was an outside stair which ascended to it. The construction of the roof lent itself to what this ingenious four proposed to do. The roof consisted of flat beams laid across from wall to wall, perhaps three feet apart. The space in between the beams was filled with brush wood packed tight with clay. The top was then marled over. Very largely the roof was of earth and often a flourishing crop of grass grew on the roof of a Palestinian house. It was the easiest thing in the world to dig out the filling between two of the beams; it did not even damage the house very much, and it was easy to repair the breach again. So the four [people] dug out the filling between two of the beams and let their friend down direct at Jesus’ feet. When Jesus saw this faith that laughed at barriers he must have smiled an understanding smile. He looked at the man, “Child”, he said, “your sins are forgiven.”
This is a story of determination in the face of adversity, of social exclusion, a story of religion and power misused.
We have to give credit to the four friends of the paralysed man for their determination. Often, in poor communities, people will work together, show solidarity with one another, in order to help each other through. That instinct has not entirely faded out in our more individualistic world. On a family holiday recently, a car left the road and crashed into an electricity pole just in front of us on a very busy road. Many people stopped to help; doctor in a car going in the opposite direction did a U-turn and came to assist. It was a relief when the police finally arrived; but for around quarter of an hour, it was left to civilians like us to help. People were being good citizens stopping to help a stranger. The spirit of the Good Samaritan lives!
Today, advances in medical care and science mean that we know much more about our bodies and their ailments than people did in Jesus’ day. Yet the solidarity which those four men who carried the bed showed with their sick friend is something we still need.
A few years ago, I met a young American woman who told me of her family’s experience of the US healthcare system. In America, most people receive healthcare by paying into private insurance schemes. Former President Obama sought to reform the system, to ensure that there would be care for the millions of Americans who do not have private healthcare for one reason or another. But this young woman came from a family in which her parents worked, and the family was covered by the father’s employer’s health insurance. He’d never been unemployed, and he’d never missed a payment. But her younger brother was born with a genetic condition which needed a great deal of expensive treatment. The private insurance company were told, and they pointed to small print that said that such genetic diseases weren’t covered. She loved her younger brother, but her family’s life from that moment had been one of constantly worrying where the cost of his treatment would come from. They moved house a number of times- always to a smaller, less expensive house. They used up all their savings trying to look after him.
We do not know who the four people who carried the stretcher were, but we can imagine that they were family, friends or neighbours or the unfortunate man suffering paralysis. Out of concern for their friend, they went to all that trouble to bring him to Jesus, in the hope that he would find health and wholeness. In today’s world, it ought not to be beyond a modern industrial society to be able to pool our resources so that those who need help when they are ill receive the care they need.
When the National Health service was founded seventy years ago, the first Health Minister was Nye Bevan, who said
No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.
Nobody would suggest that it is easy for the health care, and other social care services today. We face the challenges of increasingly complex medical procedures and drugs, together with a population which is aging. We can all of us, I am sure, can think of times when we, our members of our family, have received treatment which, of course, we could not have paid for ourselves. It happened to me recently- I wouldn’t, I don’t think, be here, except for a high technology procedure which cost goodness knows what, but has given me, I hope, another couple of decades, at least, of actively contributing to society.
We should cherish the health service. It is a fine example of ‘solidarity’, in which wider society helps look after those unable to help themselves. And that’s also the principle which underlies all our public services, whether they are provided by national or local government. All of us, at times, need friends to carry our beds. That is what our health and social care system is all about.
Indeed, that is what we pay our taxes for- so that together we can do things we can’t do on our own. Instead of everyone having a gun, we have the police. We have a military to defend our shores. We have pensions and social security to help if things go wrong for us. None of it is perfect, and much of it is threatened by people who can’t see the point of doing all this together, people who think we don’t need solidarity. But politics how we decide how we are going to share our resources, for the good of us all.
And we do so, not just within nations, but across nations. In our complex, interconnected world, it’s vital that different countries work together for the common good. It’s good to have our friends from St Valery here today, because they help remind us of that. During the Second World War, as many of you will know, the Normandy town of St Valery-en-Caux was destroyed by fighting, as the 51st Highland division aided the French army in the face of the German invasion in 1940. But in 1944 the 51st Highlanders returned to liberate the town from occupation. At St Valery, Highlanders and Normans stood together against a poisonous ideology- an ideology which thought that one country was better than the rest, a twisted racist ideology which led to mass murder and which brought suffering to millions.
The horror of the two wars in Europe on the twentieth century led to a determination among the peoples of Europe to find ways of living in peace- the town twinning movement was one attempt to build friendships across national borders. There was also a recognition that there were many fields where the people of Europe would benefit if their countries worked together: the European Union is the most obvious example of that. I’m sure that our friends from St Valery are aware that the decision for Britain to leave the European Union is one which continues to be very controversial in this country. In Scotland, 62% of those who voted in Scotland voted to remain in the EU. Whatever the outcome of the negotiations among the politicians, we are not leaving Europe- we can’t leave Europe. These islands are part of Europe, and you can’t change geography. And the ties of history, shared experience, and common interest will, I hope, ensure that, by some means, we will continue to meet the challenges of the future together with our friends in France and other European nations. In our turbulent world, solidarity among nations which believe in peace, freedom, and justice is more essential for ever.
And in these turbulent days, we need leaders in our public life who will show, by word and action, that they are honest and that they will seek to unite, and not to divide. The biblical writers were often exasperated by human rulers. The person who wrote Psalm 146 reminds the faithful ‘not put your trust in princes’ who are mere mortals: ‘When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’. And yet the Bible expects much from our all-too-human rulers. The perfect king in the Old Testament is one who seeks justice for all the people, especially the poor; that is line with the character of God, says the Psalmist:
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
For the Bible, the vision of a Godly nation is one where leaders act in justice, in truth, for the sake of the vulnerable: the oppressed, the hungry, the widow and orphan. And, important for us to hear in an a time when intolerance is on the rise, the Psalmist says ‘The Lord watches over the strangers’: that is an important theme in the Old Testament- that the God had a special care for the foreigners who lived in the land- an important lesson for us today.
There is one final point about the story of the paralysed man and his friends. Recall what happens when they do lower the stretcher down through the roof. Jesus does not immediately cure him. Instead, we are told that
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’
Those are strange words for us to hear, but they are important in the original context of this story. In the absence of much knowledge about medicine, superstitions about illness abounded in Jesus’ day. One of those was that illness and disease was cause by wrongdoing. It was believed by many that you could be ill or disabled because of something you had done, or even because of the sins of your parents. The paralysed man was just excluded from fully participating in the life of his community due to his disability. But he faced another kind of exclusion- he faced social exclusion, as many people would believe him to be guilty of some kind of sin. It is to the credit of his four friends that they apparently did not believe that. They did not judge, but saw a friend in need, and were willing to help him, despite what the neighbours might have muttered about them.
What was sinful was decided by the religious leaders. So when Jesus says to this man that his sins are forgiven (because of the faith of his friends, interestingly!), he’s throwing down a challenge to those religious leaders. Even in our own increasingly secular society, there are plenty of people who are quite happy to be judgemental, who seem to relish calling others ‘sinners’. They would rather condemn, than help; but the friends of the paralysed man chose to help him, and not to condemn him. And Jesus approves: thanks to the faith of his four friends, Jesus forgives the man. It is as if he is saying- ‘It’s not your sins that are stopping you from walking. Know that God does not condemn you, and become whole again’.
For Jesus always takes the side, not of the judgemental people, but of those wo are unjustly by the rest of us. As one commentator says:
…God through Christ says “Yes” to those to those to whom the world so often says “No”.
Too many people in our society think that the world just says ‘No’ to them all the time. Are saying ‘No’ to too many people- to those who are different from us, to those who are strangers to us, to those who are poorer than us? To the people we say ‘No’ to, God in Christ says, ‘Yes’. That is the wonder of the Christian message, even if Christians themselves don’t always recognise it- that Christ looks at us with compassion, and with a smile assures us that our sins are forgiven, and that God has said ‘Yes’ to us. Our world, our communities, need to hear that word of healing anew.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the New Revised Standard Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo
 William Barclay, Mark: Daily Study Bible p47
 Tweet dated 6 September 2018 from @rights_info: https://mobile.twitter.com/rights_info/status/1037654741864656896
 see eg Psalm 72; also last Sunday’s sermon: https://www.oldhighststephens.com/2018/09/02/a-polluted-faith-a-polluted-planet-sermon-for-2-september-2018-proper-17/
 Stephen J Ray Jr, ‘Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany’ in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year B, p104