Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25

2 Corinthians 1:18-22

Mark 2:1-12

Stand-up comedians have a great time poking fun at Jews and Catholics for their tendency to wallow in guilt.  Judging by the response the sketches elicit from the audience, the jokesters must be right on the mark.  Maybe there isn’t much that can be done about that given all the years of practice members of each denomination have had with that response to the sense of sin in their lives.  What a shame that we have been unable to hear the message.  Maybe it has something to do with the responsibilities that follow should we take the good news to heart.

I remember sitting at the bedside of a dying man.  He lay flat on his back, his eyes staring fixedly at the ceiling, his fingers clutching the bedclothes close to his chin.  His family had asked that I pay him a visit without letting him know that they had done so.  He gave a quick glance as I entered the room and introduced myself.  Just as quickly, he resumed his stare.  I could see his facial muscles clenching.  “You’re wasting your time,” he said.  “There’s nothing you can do for me.  It’s too late.”

It’s interesting how the mind works when there is so much you don’t know.  I didn’t know the man’s story.  I knew a little about the disease that was ending his life.  I didn’t even know his family enough to place him in a context.  So I started talking, voicing platitudes that I have used over the years in similar situations.  Was it grace that inspired me to ask the question?  “Do you know that God loves you?”

I didn’t miss the quick glance in my direction and the momentary rush of color to his cheeks.  And so I talked about that unfathomable love that God has for each one of us, a love beyond all telling.  “Do you know that God loves you as if you were the only person in the world?  And there is nothing God wants to do more than to forgive you if there is anything that you have done that is wrong.  God wants to forgive you even before you find the way to say you are sorry.  Did you know that?”

His lips trembled and tears ran down onto his pillow.  After a silence that seemed enormous in duration, he turned to me and asked, “Is that really so?  Does it apply even to someone like me?”

“Yes,” I said, “even to someone like you.”

There is much that is important for us to hear in this week’s Liturgy of the Word, especially when we remember that this coming Wednesday will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of another Lent.  If we get the message, we just might have the best Lent of our lives so far.

Take the key from the Lord’s words in the first reading: I am doing something new!  The context?  Israel is in slavery, convinced that their condition is perpetual and that, because of their infidelities, God has forgotten them.  Don’t miss the point that Israel is not crying out for mercy and forgiveness.  It is love that moves the Lord, the love for this people the Lord has formed.  It is for the sake of that love that the Lord says: It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.

It is we who imagine a white-maned God with arms folded across his chest just waiting to hurl lightning bolts of punishment upon us who have sinned.  That is our conception and not a reflection of the God who has called us into existence and sustains us in existence with love.  God sealed that love with the gift that is Christ, the Word who took on our flesh, removing forever the chasm that separated the human and the divine.  Humanity has been divinized, if you will, because God dwells in humans in whose image they are made.

We gather as Church on Sundays to celebrate Eucharist.  The word means thanksgiving.  Every Eucharist gives thanks to God in the renewal of the Christ’s dying and rising.  In each heart ought to be the elation that comes from the knowledge of having been forgiven.  Of course that knowledge but be preceded by the awareness of having sinned.  That is why each Liturgy begins with our invitation to pause and call to mind our sins.  The purpose is not to rub our noses in guilt or to convince us that we are the worst creatures ever created.  The purpose is to remind us of the forgiveness that enables something new to begin.  God is doing this in, with, and through Christ, doing it in us.

Forgiveness forms the bond that unites the assembly even as will the celebration and the sharing in the meal.  One Bread, one Body, one Lord of all/ One cup of blessing which we share.  The hymn sings of that unity that is ours in Christ who died for us and whose blood washes away our sins.  It is gift.  A stranger coming into the midst of the assembly for the first time ought to be awestruck by the palpable joy that is there and sense immediately that the assembly welcomes all and wants to share the joy.  That is the infallible sign of a community that is alive in the Spirit and in Christ.

For the past several weeks the gospel narrative has been about Jesus driving out evil spirits and curing people of their diseases.  Both actions are signs of the new something that is coming.  Each time that sign occurs, crowds come for the same experience.  Then Jesus moves on to continue announcing the Good News to new people and continue the healing.  What we can’t miss, however, is that even though there are many who are cured, there are many who are not.  The miracles are signs, not ends in themselves, something seen that points to something unseen.  Those who are cured are changed in a far deeper way than the mere restoration of sight or hearing or the power to speak or walk.  They become believers and immediately begin to tell others of the wonder that is Jesus. Encouraging them to believe even if they have not seen.

Don’t miss the setting for this week’s gospel.  Jesus has returned to Capernaum where the first preaching occurred and the first miracles.  The word has gotten out that he is back home and so many come to be with him that there is hardly room to breath the crowd is so dense.  Then they bring a paralytic carried by four men.  Who are the they?  The ones in the midst of whom he is sitting.  The four carrying the paralytic are part of the community bring to Jesus someone in need.  They carry the man to the roof, remove the tiles and lower him to where Jesus is sitting.

Don’t miss the key element in what follows.  Notice that Jesus acts because he sees their faith, not the faith of the paralytic, but their faith.  The man on the stretcher may or may not know who Jesus is.  He may have heard something about Jesus.  But this will be the first encounter with the one some are calling Lord.  Then comes the proclamation that interprets that to which all the miracles or signs have been pointing.  Child, your sins are forgiven.  He may or may not be aware of his sins.  It seems certain he has not asked for forgiveness if he is aware.  The faith in the community brings about the transformation in the man.  Their faith becomes his and so does the forgiveness that they have received.  How do we know that?  Because, when Jesus says: Rise, pick up your mat and walk, he does.

Had we time and space, we could talk about the scribes who scoff at Jesus’ words proclaiming forgiveness of sin.  Suffice it to say that their attitude ought not be ours.  How so, you ask?  Their attitude becomes ours when we deny the possibility of forgiveness or classify someone as being beyond forgiveness.  Strange, isn’t it that our own sins are the most understandable?  The least understandable are those we have never been tempted to commit. On the other hand, if we marvel at the abundance of God’s grace that resulted in our knowing we are forgiven then so will we rejoice when we see another come to that same knowledge and peace.

So we come to the Table where all are welcome, where all join in celebrating Eucharist, giving thanks for the forgiveness that is ours in Jesus.  (If all are not welcome there, it is not the Lord’s Table, and those who gather there do not practice the Lord’s Table fellowship.)  And remember, it never stops there.  The Eucharist transforms and then sends us to be ambassadors of what we have received.  If we have understood and taken to heart our transformation, we must be willing to be the next stretcher-bearers regardless of who is the paralytic or what s/he has done.

Now, are you ready for the Ashes?




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