Carrying The Load

A Sermon for Sunday July 1, 2012, Micah 7:18-20 and Mark 2:1-12

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in April 2008, Sarah Tucholsky approached the plate in the top of the 2nd inning with two runners on base in a scoreless college softball conference game between Western Oregon and Central Washington.

Some Central Washington fans taunted the tiny part-time starter-outfielder and senior from Western Oregon who had only three hits in 34 at-bats during the season. She took a strike on the first pitch while trying to block out the jeers. But when the ball was thrown a second time, Tucholsky smacked the ball straight over center field and into the stands—her first-ever home run in four years of playing collegiate softball! And an overly excited Tucholsky started her home run trot around the bases.

However, as she headed toward second, she realized that she missed touching first base. Tucholsky reversed direction to tag the bag when suddenly her right knee gave out, causing her to crumble into a heap on the baseline. The two runners who had been on base already had crossed home plate, leaving Tucholsky as the only offensive player on the field, although she could hardly move. The physical pain was too excruciating for Sara to even crawl back to first base, much less get back up.

If Tucholsky received any assistance from coaches, trainers or teammates, the result would be an out and her home run wouldn’t count. Umpires confirmed that that the only option available under the rules was to replace Tucholsky at first base with a pinch runner and have the hit recorded as a two-run single instead of a three-run home run. Either way, it appeared that Tucholsky, who doctors later confirmed had torn her ACL, would lose the run and a memorable moment, a devastating end to her collegiate career.

As Western Oregon’s coach started to tell the umpires they would replace Tucholsky, another voice spoke up. “Excuse me, would it be OK if we carried her around and she touched each bag?” said first-basemen Mallory Holtman, a four-year starter who owns nearly every major offensive record in softball at Central Washington and who was expecting to have surgery on both her knees at the end of the season. Holtman explained her decision to help out her opponent in an interview with reporters after the game:

Honestly, it’s one of those things that I hope anyone would do it for me. She hit the ball over her fence. She’s a senior; it’s her last year. … I don’t know, it’s just one of those things I guess that maybe because compared to everyone on the field at the time, I had been playing longer and knew we could touch her, it was my idea first. But I think anyone who knew that we could touch her would have offered to do it, just because it’s the right thing to do. She was obviously in agony

Sara Tucholsky being carried by Central Washington’s Liz Wallace, left, and Mallory Holtman. Photo by Blake Wolf, ESPN.com

Holtman and shortstop Liz Wallace lifted Tucholsky off the ground and supported her weight between them as they began a slow trip around the bases, stopping at each one so Tucholsky’s left foot could touch the bag.

When they finally reached home plate, Holtman and Wallace passed the home run hitter into the arms of her teammates. They were all greeted with a standing ovation from the fans that had never seen anything like this! Holtman said of the moment:

We all started to laugh at one point, I think when we touched the first base. I don’t know what it looked like to observers, but it was kind of funny because Liz and I were carrying her on both sides and we’d get to a base and gently, barely tap her left foot, and we’d all of a sudden start to get the giggles a little bit.[1]

 

…………………………………..

 I like to imagine that the paralytic and his four friends were having a mighty fit of the giggles as they made their way through the crowds and up to the roof so they get their sick buddy inside the house where Jesus was teaching. 

“I can’t believe we’re doing this!” the first friend says, clutching his aching ribs with one hand while trying to steady his buddy’s cot with the other.

“Some of these folks might think we’re taking Bill up top to get a sun-bathin’!” the second friend suggests with a couple of loud cackles.

“I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces when a hole starts to appear in the roof,” the third friend bellows. “Somebody is going to get dirt in the eye!”

“Look at the twinkle in Bill’s eyes. I know he can’t move but I think he’s laughing on the inside fellas. Might even be thinking about how those scribes are going to get their parchment in a wad over this!” the fourth friend chortles while he slapping his knee.

It must’ve been quite an unexpected and peculiar sight (much like a softball game where two players carries an injured opponent around the bases to score a home-run) for the people in the house to see four grown men digging a hole in the roof several feet above Jesus’ head. Their jaws probably dropped as the men were lowering the paralytic through the opening and onto the floor.

 Even Jesus appears to be moved by this surprising interruption to his afternoon storytelling time with the folks from Capernaum. The gospel writer tells us: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

When Jesus saw their faith.

When Jesus saw the faith of the four friends, he told the paralyzed man that his sins were pardoned.

The faith of the paralytic’s friends rid the paralytic of his sins. This is an amazing detail to note in the story. The paralytic did nothing on his own to receive mercy for his wrongdoings before God and the community. The paralytic didn’t confess his sins nor was he required to confess, whatever those sins may have been.  And yet, the paralytic was rewarded…because of the faith of his friends.

It’s kind of like a softball player who lays paralyzed on the field after hitting a home run and two friends pick her up and carry her around the bases.  The softball player did nothing on her own to deserve the help. The softball player didn’t ask anyone to carry her to home plate nor was she obligated to make the request. And yet, the softball player was rewarded…because of the faith of friends.

The faith of friends is what helps makes the merciful kingdom of God visible for all to see.

My theology professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, the late Shirley Guthrie, used to say that our responsibility as Christians is to tell outsiders about the good news of the God who is redeeming all of creation from sin and brokenness:

Why should we tell them? Not so that God may come to love if they believe and obey, but so that they may hear and believe that God does love them….so that they may receive the gift of freedom now. Not by words only, but by demonstrating as individuals and as a Christian community the freedom for God and for fellow human beings that is the gift of God’s grace. If there are some who never ‘enter in’ who will be responsible? Will God ask them accusingly, ‘Why did you not believe and obey and accept the gift of a free life?’ Or will God turn to us and say, ‘Why did they not believe? Why did you not tell them? …You who talk about the love of God for guilty, lost, helpless people, why were you so unloving toward them? You who talked about God’s justice, why were you so indifferent to injustice in the world around you?…Instead of worrying theoretically about what God thinks of unbelievers or those who follow other religious traditions, could it be that we as Christians ought to worry more about what God thinks of us when God sees people who are still outsiders because of what we have said and done, or not said and done?[2]

Jesus watches the paralyzed man being lowered through the roof. Courtesy of Google Images. Slavujac, artist. 2001

The scribes, and other religious leaders of the time, are more concerned with who fits in, who is perfectly worthy of God’s mercy and love (as I mentioned last week) than about their duty to teach people about the goodness of God.  The gospel writer recounts that the scribes are practically spittin’ nails about Jesus forgiving the paralytic.  They are too cowardly to say anything out loud but angry questions are stirring in their hearts. “Who does Jesus think he is? God? How dare he forgive this man of his sins, that’s something only God can do!”

It was a common belief in Jesus’ day that one’s suffering in life was a punishment from God for their sins or a sign that one lacked a certain amount of faith and belief in God.  But Jesus exposes this inaccuracy by declaring that it’s the faith of (the paralytic’s) friends—the way in which they embodied God’s steadfast love for another human being—which eliminates sin and also relieves pain and suffering.

The angry scribes ignore their calling to embody God’s love and to be compassionate toward another person who is hurting. Jesus, sensing the contempt in the scribes’ hearts, says, Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’”

The answer is that it’s easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven” because each and every one of us has the ability and choice to be merciful, loving and compassionate toward another as God has been toward us. None of us has been given the ability to miraculously heal someone’s physical pain with a few words.  But we can forgive them. That is the more extraordinary miracle of God’s goodness in our lives. We can reach out and pick them up and carry that person in the grace of God.

I know we can do this because… we have already done it! Over and over again, we have seen folks in this congregation reaching out, picking up and carrying others—fellow members and complete strangers—who for whatever reason were in stuck in pain and needing help.


PHPC Middle School Youth Mission Trip Group, June 2012

 A couple of weeks ago, I witnessed the act of carrying others while on a mission trip in Asheville, North Carolina with 8 youth and 2 adults from Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church. Over the course of four days, the group crossed barriers to carry a load of God’s love to others who are often deemed unworthy of such a gift.  The PHPC group, along with two other church youth groups (one from Boone, NC and one from Maryville, TN) did the equivalent of 667 service hours, more than 16 weeks of work (the amount it would take 1 person working 40 hours per week), for a living wage total of $7,559.10.

More importantly, they fed the homeless; laughed and played with low-income and developmentally challenged children; shared stories, served ice cream and played badminton and bean-bag toss with low income veterans; worked in thrift stores; helped several non-profit agencies with mulching, gardening and cleaning projects, built relationships, and as one youth said, “We changed people’s lives.”

Their faith helped make the merciful kingdom of God visible for all to see.

Their faith was (and still is being) shaped, molded, nurtured and carried in God’s love through the promises the congregation made in each youth and adult’s baptism.

Fountain in downtown Asheville, NC

It is in the baptism of every person, we are reminded who we are, whose we are, and from whom our faith flows.

Earlier in the service, during the baptism of William Charles Goorsky VI, the children of the church were asked if they would be a good friend to William and support him in all he does and share God’s love with him. Similarly, the parents, the family and the congregation were asked if they would promise to nurture William in the love of God in this church and beyond. By responding with “WE DO!” we essentially affirmed our calling to reach out and pick up and carry, not only William, but every child in the grace of God!

Our faith compels us to do no less. And when we carry the load, the merciful kingdom of God is made visible in ways we’ve never seen before…around the bases and all the way to home.

 Amen.


[1] “Central Washington offers the ultimate act of sportsmanship” by Graham Hays, ESPN, http://sports.espn.go.com/ncaa/columns/story?columnist=hays_graham&id=3372631; ESPN video story, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jocw-oD2pgo

[2] Christian Doctrine by Shirley C. Guthrie Jr. Westminster John Knox Press, 1994. Shirley Guthrie also shared this thought and others from his book in two theology classes I took from him at Columbia Theological Seminary, 2002-2005.

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