Sermon by Pastor Kris Tostengard Michel

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

If you’ve been following along in the bulletin, you may have detected that an alternate plan is in place. Pastor Ben was planning to preach today until he came down with a nasty bug yesterday (before he finished writing his sermon). Since Chris Nelson is preaching at Minnetonka today, he graciously passed his sermon on to me to read; that was plan B. But our text today is abundant with possibility, so here we are with Plan C. You can read Plan B on the website if you’d like. 

This is the third week in our sermon series called, “All In.” We are reading the Gospel of Mark between now and Easter – the story of Jesus and how God came to us in the incarnation, how God fully invested Godself in a relationship with us and took on human form. And we’re asking, What does it mean for us to be “all in” with God?

We’ve said before that Mark’s Gospel is dense, the stories are packed together, and there’s constant movement. We get this sense of urgency and brevity. When Jesus begins his public ministry, he comes to Galilee proclaiming one of the shortest sermons ever: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God has come near, Jesus says. What in the world does that mean? What in the world does that look like? Jesus is going to show us. He’s not going to tell us, but rather show us. The kingdom of God has come near. God’s way in the world will be revealed.

In our story last week, Jesus began his public ministry in earnest. He healed people, he cast out demons, and he taught. The thing that surprises everyone is that he speaks with authority. He has the power to make things change. Over and over again, we find that the people are amazed because Jesus speaks and acts with authority. So they follow him. They pay attention, they want to hear what he has to say, they want to see for themselves what he can do. Crowds gather. And then Jesus goes on a little speaking tour, and he visits the neighboring towns. When the story picks up today, he comes home to Capernaum, and word gets out.

Today, Jesus encounters controversy for the first time. This week, Jesus stirs up confrontation. We’re not really sure whose house he’s in – whether it’s his house or someone else’s – but Jesus is said to be there so the crowds come to see him. It’s a bit like Christmas Eve at Bethlehem for the 3:30 and 5:00 services; so many people were there that there wasn’t room for everybody inside so they stood at the door and listened. Then along come these four friends carrying the man who can’t walk, and they take extraordinary means to get their friend in to Jesus.

The story unfolds and takes us by surprise. Jesus has shown his ability to heal, and that’s exactly what they want him to do for their friend. Jesus senses the commotion, looks up and sees a man being lowered into the room through a hole in the roof, and he recognizes the faith of the friends, and then he says to the man on the mat, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” – Whoa, what are you talking about, Jesus? What does forgiveness have to do with healing? That’s where our mind goes; it’s the filter we use. But the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious officials, are scandalized. How can Jesus pronounce forgiveness? No one can forgive sins but God alone. For Jesus to say this is to speak on behalf of God, and no human can do that. It’s not only cavalier and reckless; it’s blasphemy, serious stuff. This was threatening the very fabric of Jewish life.

In First Century Palestine, Jesus and his neighbors lived under occupation of the Roman Empire. I don’t think we can truly imagine what this must have been like. Scripture is filled with references that point to that reality, but it doesn’t fully register for us in our context. People of Jesus’ time lived in fear of a cruel empire that kept them squarely under its thumb. The Scribes and the Pharisees were trying desperately to preserve the Jewish faith and their way of life, to preserve their identity and understanding of how to tend the human and divine relationship. That meant keeping the religious laws and staying under the radar, not drawing too much attention from the Roman authorities. And then along comes Jesus, this charismatic leader who draws crowds and stirs up excitement. He teaches with authority, can heal people of their diseases and cast out demons, and now speaks a word of forgiveness. Jesus is a threat.

We get that. We know how hard change is. We cling tightly to what we’ve always known or the way it’s been. We know that the church struggles today, that on the whole churches are declining. I serve on the board of an organization that’s been deeply impacted by shrinking churches. Fewer people in churches means fewer kids come to camp. And so we scratch our heads trying to balance the budget, trying to draw people in. Sometimes we get scared, and our conversations and communications seem to revolve around the question, “How will we save the institution?” But in moments of clarity, we remember our mission and that it’s about a relationship with God.

Just this week, two Lutheran seminaries in Pennsylvania – Gettysburg and Philadelphia – announced that they will both close and open a new seminary next year. Not concerned about preserving the institutions and their past but looking to the future, they are seeking to be the kind of school that will train leaders and nurture faith formation. This question hits close to home for us, too, as we move toward consolidation with Minnetonka Lutheran in order to be one church with two campuses. How do we keep the mission – a relationship with God – the focus instead of the institutions?

Jesus came with a message that amazed the people, not a new message, but a new interpretation – fresh eyes that saw the laws and the traditions from a different perspective – one that cut to the chase. The kingdom of God is not about rules. It’s not about exclusion but inclusion. It’s not about separation but reconciliation. God became incarnate in Jesus because God loves the world and wants us to live in relationship with God.

The Pharisees’ and Scribes’ charge of blasphemy indicated the course that Jesus’ path would take. We know that he’s headed to the cross. The crowds are excited now, but controversy has been sparked. There is only one way for this to go. And in his crucifixion, we’ll see the kingdom of God come near. In weakness, the kingdom of God will be made known.

Jesus meets us in our weakness. In all the places where we feel inadequate, where we struggle and when we suffer, in all the ways that we disappoint and hurt each other, we find God. He’s been there in Jesus. Jesus meets us there on the cross. And in his death and resurrection we’re reconciled with God and given new life.

Dr. Dwight Peterson is a college professor at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. He’s just 50 years old, but he’s retired now and living on hospice. Dr. Peterson lost the use of his legs when he was 18. He had an illness that rendered him paraplegic, and he’s been in a wheelchair for some 30 years. Three-and-a-half years ago he developed an infection and spent four months in the hospital. Then infection grew worse, and it became septic. He has lived longer than expected, but bottom line is, it will take his life.

I recently discovered a set of videos with Dr. Peterson. In one of them, he talks about this story from Mark. It’s one of his favorites, he says. He’s always connected with it because the man in the story can’t use his legs, just like Dwight. There’s always been something about this story, though, that made him a little nervous because the story doesn’t actually talk about the man’s faith; it talks about the faith of his four friends. Dr. Peterson grew up in the Evangelical tradition, and for an Evangelical, he says, faith is personal. How can it be that the faith of someone else brings healing? Yet, because his friends’ faith, the guy was able to pick up his pallet and walk out of the room. When Dr. Peterson first got the news of what was going to happen, that he was going on hospice, he said, “I felt like I was losing my faith. I just felt like I couldn’t find it. And a friend of mine came and visited from Iowa, a really dear man. He and his wife came and stayed for a weekend. And I told him that I just couldn’t find my faith, and my friend said, ‘That’s ok, we have it for you.’ And now the story makes perfect sense to me. It’s good news. You don’t have to do it yourself. Whenever I think of that story I get tears in my eyes….That was the one part of the story I never liked, and then my friend says those words to me, and boom, it all comes into focus. It sounds like just wild grace to me – when you can’t do it yourself, you can’t even find it, the thing you thought you used to have, but you don’t have to.” That’s grace.

We care for each other in so many ways. In my years as a pastor, I have witnessed some remarkable caregiving:

  • Spouses caring for their mate in ways they never imagined possible;
  • Parents caring for a child with needs they didn’t anticipate;
  • Adult children rearranging their lives to care for a parent or sibling whose independence is no longer possible; and
  • Friends gathering around to support a loved one fighting for their life.

I know, you’ve seen it, too. Some of you are living it or have lived it. I daresay that none of us chooses to lose our independence and be the one carried on a mat and dropped down through the roof to meet Jesus; we would just as soon arrive on our own two feet. But we need each other. We even need each other’s faith.

In the incarnation, God declared Godself ‘all in.’ In Jesus, God made himself ‘all in’ with us, his creatures and invited us to come along. We get to share the news that the kingdom of God has come near, and we get to show it. We get to be there for each other – lifting each other up and bearing each other’s burdens, inviting those on the outside in, and even declaring to one another forgiveness of sin. The kingdom of God has come near, and it’s good news. Good news for you, and good news for me. We are not alone. Let’s walk this life together. Amen.