The Authority Question


A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on February 19, 2012.

Mark 2:1-12

2When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2So 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. 3Then some people* came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. 4And 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. 5When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ 6Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ 8At 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? 9Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? 10But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— 11‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ 12And 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!’

We know how it feels to be stuck in a situation that is bigger than we are.  We can't think our way out of it.  We can't force our way through it.  We can't out-run it or hide from it. No matter where we turn or how we feel, we're stuck.  We're stuck in debt.  We're stuck with the diagnosis. We're stuck in the relationship.  We're stuck in the job. We're stuck in the economy. We're stuck.

Eventually, the problem seems to define us.  W.E.B. DuBois introduced his classic work about the experience of being black in the United States, titled The Soul of Black Folks, with these words.

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

Here's what it sounds like to be defined as a problem.  She's disabled.  He's an alcoholic or drug addict.  They're convicted felons.  They're divorced.  He comes from a troubled home. They're undocumented. We can be stuck so long that "stuck" defines how others know us.  "Stuck" and whatever predicament we're in may even become how we identify ourselves. 

This describes the man Jesus healed in today's lesson.  We only know him by his paralysis, the predicament that disabled him from walking.  He couldn't get up to greet family, friends, and guests.  He couldn't run from foes, fights, or other dangers.  He couldn't work.  His disabled condition made him unwelcome anywhere whole-bodied people didn't want him.  He couldn't blend into a crowd.  He couldn't even get to a crowd.  He was stuck with his paralysis on a pallet.  We never get his name.  He's just stuck in a predicament.  On a day when Jesus had returned "home" to Capernaum where Peter and Andrew lived, "some people" brought the paralyzed man to the house where Jesus was speaking about the Kingdom of God. 

We need people whose faith in our potential isn't defined by our predicament.  We need "some people" who won't be offended to know us.  We need "some people" who won't let the rest of the world leave us shut out.  We need "some people" who'll faithfully walk into our predicament no matter what others say, do, or think, and make fellowship with us. Stuck people need "some people." 

That's a sermon in itself.  One reason people are stuck is because they're left alone in their predicaments.  They don't have what this man had.  The paralyzed man had "some people." 

  • "Some people" came to his home. 
  • "Some people" told him about the preacher named Jesus staying at Peter's house.
  • "Some people" told him Jesus recently healed a mentally disturbed fellow while teaching at the Capernaum synagogue. 
  • "Some people" suggested taking the paralyzed man to see Jesus. 
  • "Some people" carried him across town to Jesus.
  • "Some people" didn't care how it looked to be associated with the man stuck on the pallet of his predicament. 
  • "Some people" were the legs he didn't have go to Jesus. 
  • "Some people" were the faith he didn't have. 

And here is the first place the authority question is presented in this slice from the history about Jesus.  "Some people" exercised moral authority to step into the paralyzed man's predicament. 

They refused to say "he's not my concern."  They wouldn't let it go.  They wouldn't let his predicament define his potential.  They refused to use his predicament as an excuse to leave him stuck!  They somehow believed that the man's predicament was not God! 

Do you have "some people" like that in your life story?  Did "some people" see more in you than your predicament suggested?  Did "some people" show up in your life, push past your anxieties, doubts, mistakes, guilt, fear, and other stuff, and pick you up—predicament and all? Did "some people" invest in you when they could have done other things?  Do you have "some people" in your life story who said "we're taking you with us" to do something about your predicament? 

Do you have "some people" who claimed the moral authority to say your predicament wasn't God?  That abusive relationship wasn't God.  That debt situation wasn't God.  The diagnosis wasn't God.  Those hateful people and their evil actions aren't God. 

Thank God for people who won't leave us stuck with our predicaments!  Thank God for people who pray for us, who call us, and who send food and flowers and notes that encourage us!  Thank God for people with the moral authority to help us face ourselves and the rest of the world in our predicaments.  Thank God for people with faith in something beyond the presence and power of our predicaments!

Faithful people claim authority to defy predicaments and the people and structures that reinforce them.  The people who brought the paralyzed man to Peter's house found the entranceway blocked by a crowd.  They couldn't talk their way inside.  Nobody offered to help them pass through the crowd.  The crowd blocked the way to Jesus. 

Often people reinforce our predicaments.  The "crowd" may be folks in our family.  They may be influential people at work or school.  The "crowd" that blocked the paralyzed man and his faithful people included some preachers from the synagogue. 

The unpleasant truth is that religious people often help hold us hostage in our predicaments.  Religious people assented to trafficking in African slaves.  The Assiento of March 26,1713 was a contract between the King of England with a private company to traffic in Africans for enslavement in the Spanish West Indies.  Religious people approved it.

  • Religious people approved the commercial slave trade.
  • Religious people were part of the crowd that installed African slavery in what became the United States.
  • Religious people helped make it a crime to hide slaves who were trying to escape their predicament.
  • Religious people insisted that Baptist missionaries should be allowed to be slaveholders and created the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.
  • Religious people who supported slavery helped begin the Civil War and supported the Confederacy.  Then they grieved when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.
  • Religious people were part of the crowd that resisted Reconstruction and helped create Jim Crow laws.  Later they elected politicians across the South who refused to desegregate.
  • Religious people set up segregated "Christian academies" to keep white children from having to deal with black children as peers.
  • Religious people cheered when atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese civilians.
  • Religious people cheered when police dogs and fire hoses were turned on nonviolent civil rights demonstrators. 
  • Religious people backed U.S. war-making in Southeast Asia against peasants who simply wanted freedom from colonial powers.
  • Religious people often cheer when people who are non-white, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, trans-gender, poor, sick, undocumented, or otherwise disfavored are shut off from compassion, justice, and joy.   Often the forces that keep people stuck are set up and maintained by religious people in the "crowd."

Thank God for people who refuse to let what the religious crowd does or thinks dictate justice for people stuck in predicaments!  The people who brought the paralyzed man claimed the authority to defy the religious crowd.

They also claimed the authority to dismantle a structural barrier, Peter's roof, which blocked the paralyzed man from getting to Jesus.  It wasn't enough that they believed the paralyzed man had potential beyond his stuck predicament.  It wasn't enough for them to bring him to Peter's house.  They didn't accept the idea that the religious crowd and Peter's property rights ruled the paralyzed man's future.  The roof had to be removed so the man could have the chance to be delivered.  The friends of the paralyzed man didn't simply bring him to Peter's house.  They removed the roof! 

One reason people remain stuck in and by predicaments is that well-meaning people won't remove structures and systems that keep people stuck.  We could provide universal health care in the United States if well-meaning people would tear down the oppressive roof built and maintained to enrich insurance and drug companies.  We could free people from the mass incarceration predicament if well-meaning people would tear down unjust laws and stop giving private companies tax dollars to operate prisons.  We wouldn't have so many war-orphans, widows, and disabled veterans if hymn-singing Bible-hugging people had refused to go along with George W. Bush's misadventure in Iraq.  And the wars would soon stop if we'd stop voting for people who keep voting to spend money and lives in them.

God needs some people with enough faith to take on predicaments and the people in them.  God needs people with enough faith to bring stuck people before God's power.  God needs some people who won't quit when the crowd blocks their way.  God needs people willing to pull stuck people as high as necessary. God needs people with enough faith to do roof-removal work.

That was what Jesus found remarkable.  Jesus noticed their faith by their presence with the paralyzed man.  Jesus noticed their faith by their efforts on his behalf.  Jesus affirmed the authority of their faith, including the fact that it involved roof-removal on Peter's house. 

The crucial issue once the friends lowered the paralyzed man into the room with Jesus was what would become of the man.  His friends believed that his great potential was somehow connected to getting before Jesus.  What would Jesus do then? 

Jesus first pronounced the man's moral deliverance.  "Son, your sins are forgiven."  The local ministerial alliance representatives—part of the crowd that hadn't found it part of their ministry to deal with the paralyzed man—had a problem with that. What authority did Jesus have to absolve anyone?  That was God talk.  Jesus didn't have a preacher's license from Jerusalem.   He wasn't even a scribe.  What authority did Jesus have to forgive sins?

Moral authority ultimately turns on how God views us, not office holding.  Jesus recognized the controversy brewing around what he told the paralyzed man.  After all, Jesus had said something to the man none of the certified religious people believed they could say.  The prevailing view at the time (still held by some people today) was that affliction was caused by sinfulness.  If the scribes weren't authorized to forgive the man, how could Jesus?  How dare Jesus claim authority from God they couldn't and didn't claim?

When Martin Luther King, Jr. affirmed the righteousness of non-violent disobedience to Jim Crow segregation, many religious leaders openly questioned his authority to defy the law of segregation.  But moral authority never turns on official standing.  Moral authority is first and always defined by our relationship with God—the source of all authority.  Authority is based on power, not title.

If we know our authority is from God, we must not allow those who trace their power to other sources to define who we are and how we deal with predicaments.  Jesus knew his standing with God.  The religious elite didn't, but that was their problem.  Jesus refused to live out his relationship with God and the paralyzed man based on their ignorance, unbelief, and prejudice.  We who follow Jesus should remember this.  

Moral authority includes the power to make a material difference for stuck people and predicaments.  Moral authority involves more than making pronouncements.  Moral authority also carries a duty to address social conditions faced by people stuck in predicaments. 

Jesus said, in effect, "I'll prove my authority from God by what I trust God to do with this stuck man. God has authorized me to forgive sins no matter what you think and feel about it.  And to show that God's authority in my life doesn't turn on your official opinion about how God works, I say to this man, 'Stand up, take up your mat, and go home.'"  The man stood up, grabbed his pallet, and left the room.

Jesus wasn't part of the religious elite. The people who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus weren't religious officials. Peter's house wasn't a religious shrine.  But God's authority was at work.  Everyone who saw it, including the religious stuffed shirts, saw God's authority working through that low-class preacher named Jesus who turned Peter's house into a rehab center.

This tells me we have authority from God to deliver people from predicaments.  We have authority to tear down the cradle-to-prison pipeline.  We have authority to say God loves gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and other people who society calls queer. And we have authority to confront and overthrow the forces of injustice they endure.  The authority God gives us to condemn how children are educated includes authority to eradicate de-education and mis-education systems and structures.  We have authority to not simply demand that immigrants be welcomed.  We have authority to protect them from oppression, welcome them, and make sure they are treated as neighbors rather than dangers.

God's authority in our lives doesn't depend on the kingdoms of this world.  It doesn't depend on approval from Wall Street, the Pentagon, the Chamber of Commerce, City Hall, Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, or any other official sounding and acting body.  God authorizes us to declare that predicaments aren't God.  God authorizes us to bring stuck people before God's power. God authorizes us to defy the forces that keep people stuck.   God authorizes us to declare and deliver moral and material deliverance.  Yes, we're ordinary people, but we've been trusted to be vessels of God's extraordinary authority. 

The people who witnessed what happened to the paralyzed man were amazed and glorified God.  Why not?  Glory to God who authorizes ordinary people like them and us to be holy difference-makers!  Glory to God who sent Jesus to do great things without waiting on approval from "officials" who thought they were in charge. 

Glory to God who gives us authority to make moral and material differences in a stuck world and for stuck people, despite what the stuck up "scribes" say, think, and do.  Glory to God for making us walking miracles in the world!  Glory to God! Amen.           

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Tags: Authority, Glory, Sermons, Stuck, Wendell Griffen