LUKE 5:17-26

28 July 2013


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           Frederick Austerlitz was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1899.  We know him better as Fred Astaire.  His stage mother changed his last name to Astaire, thinking Austerlitz sounded too much like a battle fought in a war.  Astaire's show business career spanned a total of seventy-six years.  He started out as a child, dancing with this sister in a vaudeville act, and went on to make thirty-one movies.  He's generally acknowledged to have been the most influential dancer in the history of film and television.  The American Film Institute named him the fifth Greatest Male Star of All Time.

            It almost didn't happen.  In 1932, a Hollywood talent agent made this note on his screen test: "Can't act.  Can't sing.  Can dance a little."  David O. Selznick, who had commissioned the screen test, described it as "wretched."  This, however, did not affect RKO's plans for Fred Astaire who later, danced his way into the hearts of America through musical after musical.

            The truth is, most of us, maybe I should say, none of us will never dance like Fred Astaire, but like the man in our passage for this morning, we can still dance for joy because of what God has done for us.  Let's meet him now.  Luke 5:17. 


            One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal.  Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, Friend, your sins are forgiven you. Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone? When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, Your sins are forgiven you, or to say, Stand up and walk? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins he said to the one who was paralyzed I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home. Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, We have seen strange things today.


            Granted Luke didn't mention dancing.  Luke simply says the man stood up, took his bed and went home glorifying God.  But I bet he did more than that, at least when he got out of view of the crowd.  I bet he leapt for joy.  I bet he did a little jig and then danced his way home, if not on the outside, then at least on the inside.

            Today's story has always been one of my favorites.  Let me describe it.  Jesus is teaching ... indoors, rather than outdoors ... in a house, rather than a synagogue ... to a crowd, rather than a handful.  And the reason there is a crowd is because his fame is spreading.  People who never heard him of before are hearing of him now, and they are curious, including the Pharisees who came from three regions ... Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem.

            And in a very strange phrase, Luke writes: "And the power of the Lord was with him to heal," as if it wasn't always with him ... as if it came and went from him ... as if it wasn't an everyday kind of thing for him ... as if it were a gift that could be used, but couldn't be commanded by him.  I'm going to ask Luke about that phrase when I get to heaven because I thought it was always with him.  Anyway, on this day, Jesus had it and was using it.

            We see that when some guys brought a paralyzed man on a stretcher to Jesus.  Luke doesn't say how many guys, although Mark, in his gospel, says four.   And I'm supposing they knew the guy on the stretcher, probably being close friends or relatives.  Well, they can't get anywhere near the house which tells us how thick the crowd was, and no one seems of a mind to move out of the way.  It's wall-to-wall bodies, everywhere you look.  Then one of the four has an idea.  "Let's lower our friend through the roof," which tempted me to title this sermon "When Friends Let You Down" instead of "BFF's," but I resisted that urge.  For those of you not familiar with that acronym, BFF stands for "Best Friends Forever."

            So they make an opening, right above where Jesus is doing his thing, and they lower their friend down to him.   By the way, that wasn't such a big deal in that day.  The didn't have building codes and building permits like they do today.  A typical Palestinian roof was flat, with a slight tilt to get water to run off.  It was composed of beams and the space between the beams was packed with twigs, compacted together with mortar.  It was easy to take out the packing between the beams.  In fact, coffins were often taken in and out of a house via the roof.

            Well, after they lower the man down, Jesus does three things.  First, he marvels at the faith of the four friends.  Second, he forgives the man's sins, thereby giving him mobility.  Third, he gets into a hassle with the scribes and Pharisees who, instead of marveling that a paralyzed man can suddenly walk, challenge Jesus over whether he has the authority to forgive sins.

            Given what happens in these verses, we could talk about a number of things.  We could talk about what Jesus does when someone questions his authority.   In effect, he usually says something like, "I did it, didn't I?  And it worked, didn't it?  What you see is what you get.  Pay attention to what your eyes tell you.  The proof is in the pudding.  So back off."  But noticing how Jesus responds when his authority is challenged didn't peak my interest today.

            We also could talk about forgiveness, and how guilt can cripple a person.  After all, if guilt can eat away at our stomach till it bleeds ... we call it "ulcers ... I suppose guilt can also eat away at your limbs till you're lame ... we call that "paralysis".   But guilt and  forgiveness didn't peak my interest either.  As you can tell from the sermon title something else did ... friendship 

            These four guys have to be some of the all-time great guys of the world.  Although they don't necessarily need to be guys.  If it makes you feel better, make two of them women.  Indeed, if it will make you feel better still, make all of them women.  My point is not gender-dependent.  My point is that, in a world where we are commanded to bear our friends' burdens, these four bore their friend.  So let's focus on friends this morning.

            Remember that childhood bedtime prayer?


            Now I lay me down to sleep,

            I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

            If I should die before I wake,

            I pray the Lord my soul to take.


            And as a child, I'm glad I did not stop to think about that prayer because it would have scared the daylights out of me.  Thankfully, I didn't, so it didn't.   But having reached an age where I know people who go to sleep and don't wake up, I am much more drawn to Dorothy Sayers and her poem entitled "Hymn in Contemplation of Sudden Death" from which I offer but one stanza, the first stanza:


            Lord, if this night my journey end,

            I thank thee first for many a friend,

            The sturdy and unquestioned piers,

            That run beneath my bridge of years.


            I looked up the word "pier" in a dictionary and read, "A mass of masonry, iron or timbers supporting one end of an arch, walkway or bridge."  I like that image of supportive friends.  Piers.  If the years of our life are a bridge carrying us from here to there, then without friends, without the piers, the bridge collapses.

            You would think that clergy, who talk about such things glibly, would establish friendships readily, but you would be wrong.  Many of the clergy I know are quite lonely.   I think three things contribute to that.   For one thing, many of us are more in love with roles than relationships.  Meaning that when we take the collar off, the robe off, the title off, the church off, we are painfully private and somewhat socially inept. Great as we are at bedsides, we are far less effective at parties, where the gathering is casual and the conversation non-professional.

            Second, clergy types make others uncomfortable.  They feel like they need to be on their best behavior.  They can't let their hair down, they hesitate to be who they really are around clergy, so often clergy have difficulty finding people who see them as regular people. 

            And the third thing, we are told from day one of our ministry, "Don't get too close to a few, lest you offend, confuse, or otherwise ignore the many.  And when you leave a church, leave it.  Sever all ties."  For which there may be a rationale, but which leaves clergy at retirement age rather high and dry.  

            I turned 65 earlier this month and the Board of Pensions seems generally concerned about me.  Apparently, there is a computer somewhere in Philadelphia that thinks this is my year to retire.  It's not.  Believe me, it's not.  But the computer wanted to be sure I had the necessary financial information, just in case.  The Board of Pensions has sent me booklets on Medicare, and on retirement in general, like "How Do You Know It's Time?"  It contained a series of questions concerning one's emotional readiness to hang it up.  One read: "Do you feel comfortable that you have friends to replace work?"  Which is a good question.  But we clergy would be better served if it were asked of us in our twenties, rather than in our sixties because the goal of friendship is not to replace ministry, the goal of friendship is to enhance ministry.

            True friendships come in all shapes and sizes.  At least they do for me.  I have two clergy friends with whom I consume liquids once a month.  One I meet for a beer and one for coffee.  One is about my son's age, the other closer to my age. 

             And I have two other friends, both guys, whom I could call from the police station at 3:00 in the morning, asking them to come right away with $500, and they would do it, not knowing the reason why.  I have lunch with those guys most every Wednesday.

            And there's the woman who, ever so many years ago, attracted my eye as the object of my youthful passion, but is now, some forty-four years later, my best friend.

            And there are those who, across the years, who have come and gone and who by word, deed, example, encouragement have supported me, and I hope I have returned the favor.  The Beatles were correct.  I have gotten by with more than a little help from my friends.

            But as we think about friends here on earth, there's also this, courtesy of Peter Gomes.  Peter John Gomes was an American preacher and theologian, the Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School.   Gomes said, "God desires friendship with us, and has given us the model of friendship to describe his relationship to us, and ours to him."

            Think about it.  God and you.  BFF's.  That's what God desires, and God is the sturdiest of all piers.  Amen.


[1] Much of message borrowed from the sermon, "The Sturdy and Unquestioned Piers" by William A. Ritter