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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Year B
Isaiah 43:18-25
Psalm 32 or 32:1-8
2 Corinthians 1:18-22
Mark 2:1-12

I love this story. It’s a great image, isn’t it? Jesus has developed something of a following at this point. So much so that when folks hear where he’s staying, they make a beeline for the place.

The “open door policy” that was part of the culture led to standing room only; it was crowded. But, then just as now, there were those among the crowd who never seem to have problems getting front row seats. You never see politicians or celebrities up in the nosebleed section, do you? Well, humanity hasn’t changed much, and there was a very hierarchical structure to Jewish society. It was reflected in the very structure of the Temple in Jerusalem, with its gated areas limiting who could pass further in: first, the Court of the Gentiles, then the Court of the Women, then beyond regular male Jews there was Priestly caste, and then the center,
holy of holies, where only the high priest could go-- and that only once a year.

So when we hear “scribe,” we need to remember that this was not some kind of notetaker, or recorder-- a sort of secretarial role. They were priests, these men (they would have all been men, back then) and highly educated professionals; the sort we would address today as “Rev. Dr.” They were high ranking officials, coming from several different branches of Judaism (we hear later of the “scribes of the Pharisees,” which leads one to believe that there would have been scribes of the sadducees, etc. as well). Whatever sect they came from, they would have been the ones responsible for maintaining, explaining and interpreting the details of Jewish law.

In military terms, they were the JAG officers of their culture.

In this story, I imagine they were present in an investigative role-- checking out this Nazarene, seeing what all the fuss was about. Being who they were, they would have had been accorded a certain respect and deference, and given the best seats in the house. That likely meant they were front and center when the ceiling crumbled away above them, and the group lowered their paralyzed friend to the ground.

That meant they were there to hear Jesus’ words, announcing the man had been forgiven, very clearly. Now, we have the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight; we know that Jesus was God, and had this authority. They did not. All they saw and heard was this unknown Jew, of no rank and questionable reputation, telling this obviously sinful man (illness or incapacity stemmed from sin) that his sins were forgiven. Where does he get off, usurping God’s authority that way?! Talk about bypassing the chain of command! Imagine the reaction of our JAG officer to actually witnessing some egregious insubordination, and you’ll have a clearer of how they must have felt.

This was the beginning of tension with the authorities, because Jesus made a practice of this. He did it all the time. This is just the first time in Mark’s gospel that there are official witnesses. That was part of why he came, brothers and sisters-- to upset the status quo, to question authority, to defy the powers that be wo were letting legalism get in the way of human relationship with God. Overturning human authority, and bypassing that chain of command, was part of his objective, his mission-- and, if we are to be committed Christian disciples, it is part of ours as well.

Now, let’s back up. I’m not saying that hierarchical structures and a chain of command are always bad things. Not at all. I am not in the military, like many of you are; but I am a parent. And our children will tell you, our household also has a hierarchical structure. It is not a democracy, but more of a benevolent dictatorship, and there are rules they must follow and ways they must behave if they wish it to remain benevolent.

Likewise, we in the Episcopal church also have something of an overarching authority structure. We are not a congregational church. Each of us, layperson bishop, priest and deacon, has a call to ministry, and a part to play. Having taken vows of obedience to the authority and direction of my bishop twice now, I am well aware of this.

On the other hand, there are times when rules and regulations and “what’s proper” can and should be reconsidered.

Let me give you just a small example. Once, when our children were small, we went out for lunch at a local diner. As the waitress brought out our food, our son-- then three years old, and normally a very quiet, introverted child-- reminded us that “we need to say grace.” I was surprised, but agreed. Then he surprised us further by announcing in a firm voice, “I will say it.” So we bowed our heads, and he did-- as a rhythmic chant, and at the top of his lungs! “GOD IS GREAT, GOD IS GOOD, LET US THANK HIM FOR OUR FOOD. AAAA-MEN!!”

We were stunned, and sat looking at him for a moment with open mouths. Then, before I had a chance to say anything about “appropriate” public prayer, he looked up with an enormous grin on his little round face and declared, “God likes to laugh-- so I let him!”

That was a lesson to me. Formal, considered, liturgical prayer -- the Lord’s Prayer, say, or any of the other prayers we find in our Prayer book-- often allows a comfortable reaching to God, and frames our own needs and desires in wonderful ways. But it’s also a “good and joyful thing” to set this aside and simply to let God laugh, or cry, in whatever ways our hearts are moved in the moment.

And what is true in prayer, also holds true in other aspects of our lives as well. Consider for a moment what rules you play by. We all have them-- our own “laws” and preconceived notions. Where we live, how we vote, how and where we worship, how we spend our time and effort and money, and with whom. . . These decisions all come back to where we grant authority, and what chain of command we follow. And if a rule, or a habit, is in some way coming between a person and God, or not allowing godly love and grace to flourish between people, then maybe it’s time to reconsider.

So this is the challenge I’d like to leave you this morning: To think about what your rules are -- and where might they need to change? When do we follow regulation, and when are we blessed by bypassing the chain of command?


Anonymous shari said...

Aren't you like...completely missing the point? As I see it, Jesus was making clear his credentials: What is more difficult - Healing lameness or healing sin? Obviously a number of competant physicians may be able to do something about lameness, but only God can heal sin. Jesus heals lameness as an afterthought to prove that he has authority to heal sin.

General Patton has materialized annonymously in a forsaken foxhole in the backside of France, and has told some wretched shell shocked GI that he can go home on leave, after the GI's leutenant has just said all leave has been cancelled indefinately.

This passage is where the 4 star general takes off his coat so that the overzealous second lieutenant can see precisely who is overiding the lieutenant's orders. This is not a call to overthrow the authority structure, but a call to rise to attention and to throw out the snappiest salute one can manage at a time that one's mouth is hanging open.

Shari (formerly Lt. Commander DeSilva, USPHS).

February 20, 2006 4:59 PM  

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