When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay.When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’
It wouldn’t take long for all of us to look back and remember defining moments from our childhood. Like the time we reached out and touched the burner on the stove just to see how hot it was. The moment we provoked a bee or a hornet and didn’t know enough about consequences to jump out of the way. That Fourth of July party when we lit the fuse and then a few seconds later returned for a closer look assuming the firecracker was a dud.
For all of us, there was a time early in life when we learned appearances can be deceptive. Things on the inside aren’t always what they appear to be on the outside. And sometimes we recognize the truth the hard way.
In fact, some of those lessons we continue to learn into adulthood. For example, only rarely does one size actually fit all. Pasta makers and juicers and food dehydrators, despite all advertising claims to the contrary, do not really make life easier. And there isn’t any credit card company on this planet that truly gives you cash back at the end of the month.
The same theorem applies to churches. Some of the most impressive churches you and I have ever seen…complete with beautiful stained glass windows and towering steeples and exquisite architectural features…they don’t bear much resemblance to a Godly community when you walk through the doors. And some churches go out of their way to proclaim in church publications and in worship services that everyone is truly welcome. But when you visit those same churches you can walk in and out feeling as though no one noticed whether you were there…and worse yet feeling as though no one cared one way or the other…
There is a well-worn cliché that reminds us “the devil is in the details.” But generally speaking I think it’s more accurate to say that God is in the details. If you really want to know where God is, you have to do some exploring, some investigating, some digging. You can’t just make assumptions based on outside appearances.
For instance, it’s one thing to agree that people of faith ought to go out of their way to feed the hungry. It’s another thing altogether to commit a block of free time in our busy schedules every week to volunteer at a feeding program. It’s hard to say that a favorite charity needs more donations if we’re not willing to write a check for our fair share. We can defend the Bible as the Word of God but that claim has more credibility if we pick the Bible up and read it from time to time.
The real work of God happens in the details. Which isn’t to deny that some amazing and wonderful things happen by accident or what is commonly known as coincidence. But most good things happen because somebody planned well. Somebody devoted their time and their energy and their effort to make it happen. And someone else had the courage and the perseverance to move an idea from the conceptual stage to the implementation stage…
In this morning’s story from the Gospel of Mark, tremendous crowds of people were gathered in one place to hear Jesus preach. And countless people among that crowd had needs. Some were sick and wanted to be healed. Some were grieving and needed to hear a word of comfort and reassurance. Some were lonely and looking to be reminded that no one is ever truly alone.
And somewhere in the midst of that huge crowd there were four men carrying a man who was paralyzed on a mat. By all appearances there was no way the four men were going to be able to navigate their paralyzed friend through the crowd all the way to Jesus. We’re talking about rows and rows of people packed tightly, surrounding Jesus on every side. And every single person in the crowd wanting to be as close to Jesus as possible…
Faced with a similar situation, most people would have given up and walked away. The four men could easily have patted themselves on the back and found solace in the fact that they tried hard to get their friend to a face to face encounter with Jesus. But conventional wisdom wasn’t good enough for these four.
It’s almost comical the way the story unfolds. Can you imagine how many crazy ideas those four men must have entertained about how to get their friend up to Jesus? Maybe they considered yelling out some kind of “fire in a crowded theater” announcement that would have caused the crowd to quickly part and disperse. Or perhaps they weighed body surfing the paralyzed man on the outstretched arms of strangers overhead as if the whole scene was akin to a mosh pit at some kind of heavy metal music concert.
The idea the four men eventually settled on was no less outrageous. Let’s figure out a way to climb up to the top of the roof carrying our buddy with us. Then let’s find a saw or a rock or some other makeshift tool and gouge a hole in the roof big enough for the mat to fit through. Then let’s rig up a rope and pulley system so we can drop our friend down through the roof and aim him right at that tiny patch of ground in front of Jesus.
Yeah, now that sounds like a great idea. Safe, simple, by the book…what could possibly go wrong? The whole thing conjures up images of a scene out of a Spider Man movie. Is it any wonder this morning’s story ends with words of amazement spoken by the crowd, “We have never seen anything like this!” Who in their right mind would concoct such a scheme, much less attempt to carry it out?
But when the pallet carrying the paralyzed man descended slowly from the roof all the way down to that small patch of ground where Jesus was standing, even Jesus had to be impressed. Four men actually pulled off their bold and creative plan, and for Jesus standing there and witnessing this escapade firsthand I imagine a thought crossed his mind. Yes, God is in the details.
In this morning’s story, the Gospel writer reveals to us what he knows about the specific, particular love of God. God’s love means not only sprinkling hope and blessing on masses of people. God’s love is revealed in the one to one work of being in solidarity with those who are in pain. Later on in the Gospel Jesus gave us the great commandment that we ought to love God with our heart and mind and soul and strength. But if we wonder where we need to start in terms of fulfilling that command, Jesus’ plan boils down quickly. You and I have to love each of our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.
Lifting up a general prayer for all of God’s children who may be in need isn’t difficult. You have to work a little harder to pray by name for one or two of the Nigerian schoolgirls still held captive in the wake of their recent kidnapping. We may cherish the words and the sentiment to the song, “God has the whole world in God’s hand.” Yet it’s harder for many to sing that God has Christians and Muslims both in God’s hand. God has Jews and Palestinians both in God’s hand. We put a lot of stake in the notion that God’s grace is sufficient through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to offer all people forgiveness and redemption and new life. It’s sometimes harder to trust that God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ is meant especially for each one of us…and for every single one of the people whom we might consider our enemies.
Faith is not about skimming the headlines. Faith is about seeing where the asterisks are and then going down to the bottom of the page and reading the footnotes. Occasionally God’s love screams out to us in bold print and capital letters. More often, God’s love is better understood and better savored under a microscope. We can proclaim God’s glory and God’s expansiveness, but we would do well to equally proclaim God’s molecular structures and God’s microscopic realities.
It’s not really the devil in the details. It’s God who meets us there. And if there was any lingering doubt, Jesus tells us all through the Gospel that God’s kingdom is revealed in the tiniest of things. The smallest of all mustard seeds growing into the greatest of all bushes. The slightest amount of yeast that causing the loaf of bread to rise. The single lost sheep worth pursuing even when the other ninety-nine sheep are left behind.
The cool cup of water offered in love and compassion. The hug that embraces our tears and calms our anxiety. Simple words that encourage us and keep us going when everything around us feels like it’s about to fall apart. A little child who manages to show us the way to go.
God teach us to plan carefully and to pay close attention to what is large and to what is small. And remind us how to love and how to live with particular detail. Amen.
NOTE: Inspiration for this sermon came from a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess. Dr. Guess’ sermon, entitled, “God Is in the Details,” was preached on the Day1 radio program on Sunday, February 23, 2003