In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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Canon Harry Robinson, a well-known preacher north of the border, was preaching one time on the paralyzed man whose friends brought him to Jesus to be healed (Mt 9.1-8, Mk 2.1-12, Lk 5.17-26), and he said something that has stuck with me ever since. That story is recorded in three of the gospels, each of them providing certain details that the others don’t. Matthew gives the bare-bones account; Mark says there were four friends who carried the man in; and both Mark and Luke say that the crowd was packed so tightly in the house where Jesus was teaching that the four friends lowered the paralytic through a hole in the roof into the presence of Jesus. We hardly ever read this story in church because of when it’s scheduled in the lectionary (Epiphany 7B or Proper 2B).
You have to stop for a minute and imagine the scene. These guys have heard about Jesus, and they’re convinced that he has the power to heal the sick. Their faith in him is further confirmed when they arrive at the house where he’s teaching and see how big the crowd is. Encouraged by all this, they climb up on the roof and start making a hole in it big enough to lower their bedridden friend down through. Now imagine Jesus and the crowd below watching all this. And of course Jesus knows exactly what they’re doing. So imagine him with a huge smile on his face—he’s got to be delighted by the faith of these men, and their determination.
Quite often when somebody came to Jesus, he would ask them a question: What do you want? What are you looking for? What is it that you want me to do for you? It’s not that he didn’t already know, but because he wanted to draw out their faith, to make them articulate their understanding of who he is. But in this case there was no need. The action of the four friends said it all. So as soon as they got their friend on the floor, all Jesus said was, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Of course, then the Pharisees started arguing with him over the fact that only God can forgive sins– which is exactly right. But since they didn’t recognize Jesus as God, they accused him of blasphemy. So he shuts down the argument by saying, “Just so you know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” then turning to the man on the floor he said, ‘I say to you, stand up, pick up your bed and go home.’ And right away he stood up before them, picked up his bed and went home, glorifying God” (Lk 5:24-25).
Now here’s the thing Canon Robinson said that has stuck with me: He held up a copy of the Book of Common Prayer and said, “This is our stretcher.” The liturgy– the worship of the Church– is like the stretcher on which the paralytic was brought into the presence of the Lord. We who are damaged and suffering, and are spiritually paralyzed from the effects of sin are carried into the presence of the Healer of our souls on the prayers of his Church. That includes every one of us, because there isn’t one of us who hasn’t been affected, even damaged, by sin, whether our own or the sins of others. And the Church at worship is the only place on earth where that kind of affliction can be treated properly and effectively. Because the only One who can do that is the Son of God. And the way he does that is by absorbing all the sin of the world into himself on the cross, and by washing us in the life-giving and sin-forgiving water and blood that flowed from his side there.
So we come here week after week, like cancer patients going for chemo, to be washed in his blood, truly sorry for our part in the sinfulness that afflicts ourselves and all the world. But we’re also the people who by our prayers carry our friends into the healing presence of the Lord. We don’t come here for ourselves alone. We come seeking the forgiveness, and the conversion, and the healing of the whole world. Our worship is the stretcher on which we carry those concerns into the presence of the Lord. Every one of us is both the patient and the stretcher-bearer. Every one of us is a sinner in desperate need of repentance for the sins by which we wound ourselves and others. And as Jesus says in today’s gospel, “there’s joy in the presence of the angels of God” over every person, every time we fall to our knees in repentance.
We read two parables in today’s gospel, but in Luke 15 there are actually three that Jesus told one after the other in order to drive home the need every person has of repentance, and to underscore God’s joy when we do. The first parable is about the lost sheep, then the lost coin, and then he tells the parable of the prodigal son. That one is probably the most famous of all the parables, but because it’s so long we read it by itself in the middle of Lent. The long and short of it is that a rich man had two sons at home who didn’t want for anything. But the younger, lured by the distractions of the world, asked for his inheritance so he could enjoy it right now, and he got it. It’s only after he squandered it all and hit rock bottom that he realized what he had walked away from when he left his father’s house. So he made up his mind to go home, cap in hand, and beg his father to give him the lowest position on the farm. When his father saw him coming up the lane, he ran out to meet him. The son repented, saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you,” and immediately the father wrapped his arms around his son, took him into the house and threw a party saying, “‘this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.” “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” There is joy before the angels of God every time people gather in this place, and everywhere God’s people gather, and repent.
That’s the point of these three parables–that true and lasting joy cannot be found apart from repentance. And that’s where the liturgy serves us so very well. It carries us into the presence and the source of true and lasting joy. One of the major criticisms of people who don’t like the Rite One version of the Prayer Book liturgy is that it’s too penitential, it overemphasizes, so the critics say, the fact that we need to repent of our sins. After all, worship should be a joyful event, and too much concern with repentance casts a gloomy pall over the whole thing—so they say. But that misses the point entirely. Because true and lasting joy can only be had through repentance, through casting off the burden of sin. That enables us draw closer to God who has set us free from that burden. “Our God is a consuming fire,” says the letter to the Hebrews (12.29), and we know that nothing unclean can survive in the presence of the righeous God. So rather than be burnt up with our sin, better that we lay them at the foot of the cross and be purified by the water and blood that washes down over us there.
Bishop Anthony Bloom says that every encounter we have with God is a moment of judgment.
As we come into the presence of God, whether in the sacraments or in prayer, we are doing something which is full of danger because, according to the words of scripture, God is a fire… Coming nearer to God is always a discovery both of the beauty of God and of the distance there is between him and us.
That distance is caused by sin.
We can approach God only if we do so with a sense of coming to judgement. If we come having condemned ourselves; if we come because we love him in spite of the fact that we are unfaithful… then we are open to him and he is open to us, and there is no distance; the Lord comes close to us in an act of compassionate love” (Living Prayer, 1967: 10).
This is what happened when the prodigal son walked up the lane saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” The father came running out to meet him and closed the distance completely by throwing his arms around him and kissing him. “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Repentance is the only key there is that can open to us the gate of everlasting joy. And whenever we do repent—every time—as the word of God’s forgiveness is pronounced over his people, whether in private or as a congregation, we can hear Jesus our Good Shepherd in the background saying to the angels of heaven, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” In the Name of…