When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ —Mark 2:5
Don’t you just love the shameless chutzpah of these guys in this story? In the Yiddish dictionary under chutzpah, there’s a picture of these four guys cutting a hole in a roof.
Here’s how it goes: Jesus starts off his career with a bang. He heals the sick and the broken. He heals an epileptic, and then a leper, and then some people with dangerously high fevers, and not only that but he turns out to be such a mesmerizing hotshot of a preacher that he draws crowds Joel Osteen would be proud of, but basketball arenas like Mr. Osteen’s in Houston hadn’t been invented yet, and even the Coliseum in Rome was still 50 years away, so Jesus’ huge congregations crowd into tiny Palestinian homes.
One day these four friends decide they’re going to get Jesus to heal their paraplegic friend, but the house where Jesus is preaching is more crowded than Soldier Field when the Packers are in town. These four guys are in the last row of the nosebleed seats and can’t see Jesus for love or money.
And then one of them has a Eureka moment. In first-century Palestinian homes, you see, the staircase to the roof is on the outside, and up it they tote their precious cargo. The roof is a thatch of straw and mud laid over cross-beams, so when they get there these four friends take a pickax and a shovel to the roof. They start sawing through a timber. Dirt and sawdust start raining down on Jesus’ head, sunlight peeks through the widening wedge in the roof, and a stretcher floats gently down and comes to rest at Jesus’ feet.
In Greenwich, Connecticut, I served on the Board of Directors for the local Ambulance Service. We called it GEMS—Greenwich Emergency Medical Service—so I was sort of the unofficial Chaplain of the ambulance corps—and I learned a deep respect for paramedics and EMT’s—Emergency Medical Technicians. I sort of like to think of the paraplegic’s four friends in Mark’s story as The Patron Saints of Paramedics and EMT’s, anybody who takes your vitals, loads you onto a stretcher, packs you into the business end of an ambulance bristling with menacing instruments and inscrutable technologies, cranks up the wailing siren, turns on the flashing lights, and races you to The Great Physician.
During my preparation for our classes on the Civil War, I have encountered so many interesting and beautiful people. One of them was Clara Barton. Clara Barton was born in 1821 in Massachusetts and spent her early career as a teacher, but nearing the age of 40 and still unmarried, Clara somehow got it into her head that she wanted to work for the federal government, so she headed to Washington and somehow managed to nail a job as a patent clerk for the United States Government. This was just not done in 1860. Clara Barton may have been the first woman ever to work for the Federal Government.
While Clara Barton was working in that patent office, wounded Union soldiers poured into the District of Columbia desperate for food, water, and medical care, so it wasn’t long before Clara Barton abandoned her day job to become a full-time nurse to wounded Union soldiers, and then it wasn’t enough for the soldiers to come to her in DC, so she went out to the frontlines to meet them, bringing entire wagons full of medicine and bandages. She was so close to the action that one time a bullet whistled through the sleeve of her dress.
She was there at Antietam, the Second Battle of Bull Run, and Fredericksburg. Along with her exact contemporary Florence Nightingale over in England and Europe, Clara Barton is the mother of the modern nursing profession.
She talked about caring for one young man who, on the verge of death, thought Clara was his sister Mary. Always a truth-teller, and suffering there and then a stab of conscience, Clara just couldn’t bring herself to call him “Brother,” so instead, she kissed him on the forehead, and thus, she said later, “The kiss of my lips enacted the falsehood my voice refused to speak.”
Anyway, back to Mark’s little story. Sod, straw, and sawdust start raining down on Jesus like he’s in a landslide, the roof is literally caving in on him, and then this stretcher falls miraculously out of the sky and lands gently at his feet.
And this is the part of the story I love. Mark tells us “when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you; fold up your stretcher and push it home.” When Jesus saw THEIR faith, not the paraplegic’s faith, but his FRIENDS’ faith.
Isn’t that why we stay committed to the Christian Church, that limping camaraderie of the lame, the halt, the blind, and the broken? Isn’t it because when we can’t take another step under our own power we know someone will come along and carry us to Jesus, four friends maybe, each at a corner, one with a shovel, another with a pickax, a third with a saw, a fourth with ropes and pulleys?
Isn’t it because when we are discouraged and haven’t a song of praise or faith left in our hearts, we can come here and stay quiet and listen while someone next to us choirs the proper praise on our behalf?
Emory University Homiletics Professor Tom Long said he once had a friend who’d lost his young, 45-year-old wife to cancer. She died two weeks before Easter Sunday, and his heart was so broken and his faith was so gone that he couldn’t even think of going to church on Easter Sunday. He hadn’t missed a Sunday at church in ten years and neither had his wife, before she got sick, but he just couldn’t even conceive of standing there in church singing Jesus Christ Is Risen Today; his grief had crushed his faith and stolen his voice.
But his friends came on Easter Sunday morning early to pick him up for church, and they wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. They practically dragged him to church, and he sat there grimly through the joyful festivities, and you know, to be honest, it didn’t help much. He was just as heartbroken after the service as he’d been before. He stood politely with the rest of the congregation during the hymns but he could not sing a word. He was silent and sad and sedimentary as stone. Jesus Christ Is Risen Today, they’d all shouted at the top of their lungs, accompanied by pipe organ and trumpets.
But then the weeks and months went by, and time—or God, or something—gradually puzzled together his broken heart, and he told Dr. Long, “I remember thinking that it would have been deceitful for me to sing about resurrection so soon after my wife’s death. I just didn’t believe in resurrection. But I also remember thinking that my friends in church were singing the hymns for me. They were believing for me. They pressed their faith into service for me when I had none to know and none to give and none to sing.”
Mark tells us that “when Jesus saw the friends’ faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, fold up your stretcher and push it home.” You see, according to this story in the Gospel of Mark, faith is communicative; faith is viral; faith is contagious; you can catch it from your friends even when you think you have none of your own.
Have you ever been so paralyzed by grief that you could not walk? Have you ever been so crippled by injury or illness that you could not stand? Have you ever been so dispirited by disappointment that you were pinned, almost literally, to your bed? Have you ever been so weakened by chemotherapy that you could not make your way home under your own power? Have you ever been so deep down in the slough of despond that you could not tell if the sun were shining and you did not care?
And when that happened to you, did four friends come racing to your cot, each at a corner, and did they hustle you to where help was waiting, and did they drill holes through every obstacle till they dropped you gently down at the feet of the Lord, the touch of the Great Physician?
Who here has a story about four friends coming to your aid with a shovel, a pickax, a saw, and a rope with pulleys and never giving up till they’d dropped you at Jesus’ feet? Who here DOESN’T have such a story?
I’m going to tell you one of mine, and then sometime this week, you can tell me yours. My children spent their preschool years in Grand Rapids, Michigan, close to all four of their grandparents, who basically helped raise them, but then when my son was nine and my daughter four, we moved a thousand miles away. So the first thing we did, when we got to Connecticut, was to find them a substitute grandparent, and George was perfect for the job.
He was 75 years old at the time; his 100-year-old mother had just died; he’d been an only child, no brothers and sisters; he’d never married, so no children. Not a living relative on the entire planet. We needed a grandfather, and George needed a family. George is gone now, but for 15 years he was very important to us. Every single holiday, birthday, many Sunday afternoons.
George is a devout Roman Catholic, one of the most devout I’ve ever met, but he goes to Mass at St. Mary’s in Greenwich on Saturday afternoon so he can worship with the Presbyterians on Sunday morning.
George was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, and then matriculated at the University of Chicago, where he was a brilliant student and a champion gymnast. When he graduated from the U of C in the early 40’s, the United States Army snatched him up and sent him to the University of Michigan to learn Japanese. George has a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan, so how could I not love him?
Just before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they snuck George into Tokyo as a spy, because he could speak fluent Japanese, and, even though he was of Czech origin, had vaguely Asian features and could pass for a native of Tokyo. He was aboard the USS Missouri with Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur when the Japanese surrendered.
After the war, he went home to Chicago to work in radio advertising. Then this new medium called television came along, and its epicenter was in New York, so George moved to New York to work in television. His office was in Rockefeller Center; at lunchtime, he would wander out onto one of those 30 Rock terraces to watch the Rockettes rehearse in all their leggy splendor. He moved to Greenwich when he retired.
When George was 85, they found a tumor on his neck that needed to be surgically removed. The surgery was successful, but George was old and weak and had tubes and drains trailing from the wound, so we couldn’t send him home alone to his modest apartment. We needed a place where he could get stronger for a week or two. Kathy and I would have taken him home with us, but we were leaving the next day for a mission trip to Honduras.
I didn’t know what to do, so when I picked him up at the hospital to take him—where? Home? No, not home; to take him somewhere–when I got to the hospital, I paged my friend Phil. Phil’s a Presbyterian elder at my church and the Chief of Surgery at Greenwich Hospital.
I call Phil for all my medical emergencies. When I need an antibiotic, I call Phil. When I twist my ankle, I call Phil. When it looks like my daughter might have strep throat, I call Phil. He’s my own Dr. Phil. He is to the First Presbyterian Church what your own Dr. Phil—Phil Jones—was to Kenilworth Union.
In the present emergency, I was calling Phil to see if he could hook me up with a Visiting Nurse Association or something like that. I’m in George’s room. He’s sitting on the edge of the bed in street clothes, packed and ready to go, but none of us knows where George is going to. I page Dr. Phil in the hospital. Ninety seconds later, Dr. Phil, dressed in scrubs with one of those hairnets on his head, fresh from the operating room, strolls into George’s room at the hospital. I said, “Phil, what took you so long?”
I start to unfold my dilemma, but before I can get two sentences out, Phil turns to George and says, “George, I think you need to go to a Rehab Facility for a few days,” and George says “Not on your life; I’m not going to one of those places; they only have old people there; people die there.”
And Dr. Phil says, “George, this one’s different; this one is called 96 Perkins Road.” George says, “I’ve never heard of it, and I’m not going there.” But what George doesn’t know is that 96 Perkins Road is Phil’s home. My fragile friend George is going home with the Chief of Surgery at Greenwich Hospital. George found that to be an acceptable solution.
On the way home to 96 Perkins Road, George makes Kathy and me stop at his apartment to pick up his best three-piece suit, and his polished wingtip shoes, and his most expensive tie, because George is from a different generation, and he is going to the home of the most distinguished surgeon in Fairfield County.
Phil and his wife Linda spend seven days nursing George back to health, until Kathy and I get back from Honduras. Phil and Linda bought George another two years of life till he finally left us at the age of 87.
From one perspective, he was the loneliest man on earth: a never-married, childless, only child who’d never had a lover, so far as I could tell. But from another perspective, my friend George was rich as Croesus; he was like that other George—George Bailey, from It’s a Wonderful Life, who finally learned that “No man is poor who has friends.”
Sometimes I am so paralyzed by grief that I cannot stand, or so crippled by illness that I cannot walk, but then these four friends show up, and they drill holes through every obstacle till they lower me gently at the feet of the Lord, and when Jesus sees THEIR faith—not MY faith but THEIR faith—when Jesus sees THEIR faith, he turns to me and says, “Fold up your cot, friend, and push it home.”
Adapted from Clara Barton, Lecture Notes , Clara Barton Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., quoted by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 12.