Lot’s of Rumble; Little Rain

Growing up in West Texas the one thing I somehow absorbed was a deep love of rain. It doesn’t rain often in Abilene. When it does rain, it’s needed. Even though I never lived on a farm, the agrarian culture surrounding me gave me that much. Out in that part of the world, people will let rain ruin a picnic, parade or even an outdoor wedding with one simple expression, “Well, we needed the rain.” Rather than being nervous or scared or full of dread whenever we hear the thunder, people from West Texas anticipate the blessing of rain.

Occasionally, though we’d hear the thunder but rather than the earth soaking pounding rain that we expected we would get a simple trickle. Lot’s of rumble; little rain.

Some sermons are like that. The preacher has lots of thunder and lighting. I’m not just talking about the pulpit pounding variety. Most preachers have techniques they try to use to maintain people’s interest–more or less effectively (usually less). Their thunder might be humor or sentimentality or poetry or personal detail or cute stories about the preacher’s children. Nothing wrong with that if what follows thunder is actually nourishing rain. The thunder needs to be a harbinger of rain otherwise it’s just noise.

I find that listeners sometimes confuse the thunder for the rain. The fixate on the humor or the delivery or the personal details the preacher threw in as more than an aside. I would counsel listeners to discard the thunder and embrace the rain.

In 1996, Baylor university revealed the results of a study that assessed the attitudes of 341 seminary professors and religious editors as to who they believe to be the most effective preachers. Later that same year, Newsweek reported the results. When many of these most effective preachers get introduced they are falsely introduced as being named by Newsweek as one of the 12 greatest living preachers. They study was clear–most effective. I have heard every one of the 12 preachers–not all of them in person but some over media. I would have to agree, these are truly effective preachers. But I wonder how instructive the list is. What do we really accomplish in naming effective preachers.
The announcement from Baylor University said that the study reflects their commitment to “preparing ministry students.” So, naming effective preachers is meant to be exemplary for those who preach.
Nearly any communication scholar will tell you that effective communication depends as much on the receiver of communication as it does on the sender of communication. Somewhere I have heard that the most common average worship attendance is 35. We can extrapolate, therefore, that there’s at best 1 preacher for every 34 sermon-listeners. It would make sense, therefore, to create the list of the 12 most effective sermon listeners and offer their habits as examples for the rest of us.

Sermon for June 15

“Your Sins Are Forgiven”
Matthew 9:1-8
June 15, 2008

Sometimes certain biblical texts raise more questions than we can effectively answer in one setting. I will name some of these questions in relation to Matthew 9:1-8 not because I intend to answer them but just to show that I’m not ignorant of their presence—and to give you something to think about should the question I’m concerned with doesn’t interest you. Notice two things in the first two verses. Jesus got off a boat. He had been on the other side of the Sea of Galilee and there delivered a man plagued by a legion of demons. He returned to his own land, to the people who knew him best. Some men brought to him another man who could not move. The man was lying on a mat. Jesus saw their faith and said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Jesus saw their faith. Typically, we try to personalize faith. We like to talk about people whose personal faith in Jesus Christ brings about their own personal healing. Yet here Matthew tells us the faith of this group of people caused Jesus to take note of them. Second, Jesus said to him—“Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Typically, we say that a person must confess their sins before sins can be forgiven. Yet, Jesus preemptively says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Additionally, Jesus said this before the crucifixion which generally we say is necessary for forgiveness.

As we look at Matthew 9:1-8, one of the unavoidably difficult aspects of the text is the seeming connection between the man’s physical paralysis and his sin. The implication is that his sin caused his paralysis. It is one thing to say that our sin can create physical problems. Indeed, all manner of physical diseases, addictions, and manifestations come as the result of our sin. Globally, we are witnessing an explosion of problems related to our systemic sin of poor stewardship—global warming. Those who drink excessively can develop a disease of alcoholism. Most of us could accept the concept that sins–like all actions–have natural consequences and some sins will manifest themselves in natural, negative physical problems. What many of us, myself included, would resist is the idea that that negative physical consequences come as judgment upon us because of our sin. We would want to reject the notion that all physical ailments emerge from sin.

However, several texts in the New Testament suggest just this. In Acts 5:1-16, Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead because of dishonest dealings with the church. In 1 Corinthians 11:30, Paul indicts sinful practices around the Lord’s table—which probably meant unjust distribution—for the weaknesses and diseases many were experiencing in Corinth. I would contend that these and other examples would have to be understood independently before we could make a complete assessment of the whole. In this particular context, the healing is offered as evidence that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins.

Jesus asks a question, “Which is easier to forgive sins or tell this man get up and walk?” In the New Jerome Biblical Commentary on this passage, Viviano writes “This is a confusing questions. It is easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ since there is no visible control; it is harder to do since only God can do it. It harder to say ‘Rise and walk,’ because your words can be checked for their effectiveness by the result or lack of result” (p. 649). The point that Matthew seeks to make is that Jesus can heal the spirit but in order to provide tangible evidence of that authority, Jesus heals the body.

I’m fond of the word juxtaposition. It means to put things next to each other for the sake of comparison. The juxtaposition of physical healing and forgiveness of sins raises this difficult question for us. But having seen that they really are separate what does their juxtaposition suggest to us. Indeed many people have spirits paralyzed by the effects of sin. Sin can cause the paralysis of guilt. Guilt is the prolonged feeling that what you have done is unforgivable. Guilt causes some people to hang their head and refuse the love that is offered them. Guilt causes some people to look for the sin in others that they could elevate themselves by tearing down others. Paralysis means that a part of your body isn’t working the way it was designed to work. Paralyzed limbs loose both feeling and movement. Guilt is the paralysis of the spirit. You’re spirit is designed to feel joy. And when guilt overcomes people, they loose the sensation of Joy. You’re spirit is designed to move in grace. And when guilt remains, spirits loose their ability to move in the grace that God has given us. Sin creates a paralysis of the Spirit.

In my vocabulary guilt has to be distinguished from conviction or an awareness of sinfulness. In the normal pattern of the Christian life, a person sins and through the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives they recognize that sin. Talking about sin in our culture is tricky. Inevitably we have people who hear the word—sinner—and they know, “Oh, I know they’re talking about me. I’m such a miserable sinner.” They dissolve into this puddle of self-pity. Other people respond with defiance. “I’m not a sinner. Who you calling a sinner?” The fact that confronts us is this—all of us have sinned. All of us are sinners. I could try to run through the checklist of sins until I found one you’re guilty of but what would be the point. The Gospel message takes as a forgone conclusion that we are people who have sin and need the redemption of Jesus Christ. People who wallow in the self-pity created by that assumption and the people who defiantly refuse to acknowledge their sin both do the same thing—they both deny the grace of God and the authority of Christ to forgive our sins.

I don’t know what you believe about Satan. But I believe this—guilty feelings are tools Satan uses to keep you from living the life God intends for you. If you feel guilty you will withhold that word of grace you’re meant to extend to another. If you feel guilty you will edit yourself out of serving others because you’ll say, “I’m just not worthy.” The Bible declares in various ways, you’re sins are forgiven. If you haven’t committed 1 John 1:9 to memory, you should. “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” God longs for you to know forgiveness.

Jesus after making this beautiful declaration—your sins are forgiven—said to the paralytic man “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home. If we continue with our juxtaposition this suggests to us that whenever we become aware of our own forgiveness. How do we do that? Christian theology tells us that there are simple realities that must be acknowledged and lived out. So, the reality of forgiveness of sins must simply be lived out. Souls who embrace their forgiveness get up and walk. They walk with thanksgiving and joy. They walk with self-awareness. The sensation of grace returns to the extremities of their spirits. And they grant forgiveness to others. Wait a minute? You say. Isn’t it blasphemy for us to claim to grant forgiveness. Is it?

There’s a final bothersome question in this text. Notice in verse 8 what Matthew says, “When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to human beings. That’s not just the NRSV being politically correct. The word there is indeed plural—men, people. Just as their faith received Jesus’s notice; so their authority is to forgive sins. Matthew teaches that the church community is the agent of forgiveness on this earth. After Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus confirms that he is the foundation of the church and he entrusts to this church the keys of the kingdom that what the church binds on earth is bound in haven and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. Later in chapter 18, Jesus reminds the church that they have a roles in bringing people to repentance and an awareness.

If a church would let me assign readings, one of the assigned readings I would require is Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel. It is an extended reflection on the forgiveness of sins. If find that people who have been Disciples all their lives are frequently unimpressed with Manning’s book. Traditionally Disciples do a better job at not making people feel guilty—we get so few things right, we need to celebrate the ones we do get right. Brennan Manning tells a story in The Ragamuffin Gospel about a woman who had apparently made headlines because she was receiving messages directly from Jesus. Because she was Catholic, the Catholic bishop decided he needed to investigate. And so he contacted the woman and said to her, “The next time Jesus speaks to you I want you to ask him to tell you what I confessed the last time I went to confession.” A few days passed and the woman called the Bishop. “Bishop,” she said, “You need to come over here. I have something to tell you.” The Bishop made his way to the woman. “Did Jesus speak to you?” he asked. “Yes,” she said. “Did you ask the question I instructed you to ask?” “Yes.” “Well, what did he say.” “Bishop, when I asked Jesus about the sins you confessed these were his exact words . . . ‘I don’t remember.” First Christian Church Arlington, we have the blessed and joyful responsibility of helping others come to the awareness that their sins are forgiven and that they can take up their spiritual mats and walk.