Friday, January 25, 2013

Nobody . . . but nobody . . . can make it on their own . . .

I received a facebook message from someone last week, who said in light of recent news stories that I consider sharing my own experience with depression. I've shared it in a number of places and in a number of ways, but I felt this sermon was the most appropriate expression at this time. I preached it at Trinity and it was part of a sermon series on Spiritual Friends.

[Note: This sermon was preached during Lent after Katrina and while the roof was being replaced at Trinity.}

Spiritual Friends – The Need

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that [Jesus] 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 paralyzed 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!"
Mark 2:1-12

Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone . . .

Perhaps people have always thought they could make it on their own. But somehow I think the idea seems like a pretty modern concept. In years gone by, people had to rely on one another. If you wanted a barn built, you didn’t have a contractor to call. Instead you called your neighbors and you built it together. When there was a death in the family, you didn’t have a professional funeral home down the street. Your friends and family came to you and they not only brought food and solace, but they helped prepare the body, welcome the guests and even dig the grave. If you were cold, you invited your friends over and made a quilt.

Until very recently, the majority of humans knew instinctively that nobody but nobody can make it out here alone. In fact, sociologists tell us that the fact that we needed each other to survive is why societies were created in the first place. Without self-help books, counselors, sociologists or public service ads, people knew that they had to rely on each other to ensure that they had the very basics of life: food, shelter, security, and even spiritual strength.

Only in the last few hundred years as we became more and more specialized and trades became more and more professionalized did we begin to get this odd notion that we could make it on our own. As we began to be able to earn money to hire professionals to build our houses, raise our crops, teach our children, and even pray our prayers, we began to feel that we were self-made men and women. And what makes that so very strange is that in many ways we are more dependent on others than we have ever been in the history of humankind. We think we are independent but let the grocery stores close, the electricity go out, the hospital lock its doors, or a fire engulf our home and we find out just how much we have to rely on others.

We saw this need in action after Katrina and we have seen it this week as people reach out to the people in Enterprise who have lost their homes and their loved ones.

Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone . . .

Our need to rely on each other is no less true for our spiritual life than it is for any other aspect of our lives. In order to be fully who God created us to be, we need community. We need spiritual friends. We need folks to journey with us, to study with us, to pray with and for us. We need each other.

I mentioned on Ash Wednesday that many of us think that the Bible says that “God helps those who help themselves,” but you won’t find that anywhere in the Bible. The quote is actually from Aesop’s fables and is more appropriately stated, “The gods help those who help themselves.” And as wise as Aesop may have been, he wasn’t a Jew or a Christian and those words are, in fact, unbiblical and wrong.

The Bible is clear! From the beginning, God created us to help one another.
Remember Genesis and the creation of Adam? From nothing God created a paradise. And God looked over everything—the glistening rivers, the blooming flowers, the peaceful dogs and mooing cows—and God said it was good. But then he saw Adam standing alone in the midst of all that beauty and God said, “It is not good that man should be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” So God created another human, Eve, and then and only then did God say that it was very good.

If you think about it, it makes sense that God could not conceive of a world without community. After all, God himself has always existed in community. The idea of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three yet one—is a very difficult concept to teach and yet at its core is a very simple idea that God has never been alone. From the beginning—before our beginning, God existed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a cooperative creative relationship. I suspect before Jesus hung on the cross, God had no idea what it meant to be alone. When we say we are created in God’s image, we are reminded that we are created to exist in community with one another.

So God created us to be in community with one another. In fact, we are most truly human when we are in relationship with one another. I believe that is why God created marriage and families and societies and the church! We were created as social beings who need the support and care of others.

Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone . . . Not even Jesus!

The first thing Jesus did when he started his ministry was to call disciples. Now I suppose that some would say that Jesus didn’t need his disciples, but if you spend any time at all reading the gospels it is hard not to notice all the people that Jesus depended upon in order to fulfill his mission. He trained the disciples to continue his teaching and his actions after he was gone. Then there were the women who provided for him out of their resources-who apparently cooked and cleaned for him as well as bankrolled his three year ministry. Then there were some folks who apparently were simply friends—Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. One of the most touching stories in the bible to me is Jesus’ visit to his friends in Bethany before his final entry into Jerusalem. A few moments with friends to give him the strength to do what needed to done. Even Jesus needed spiritual friends!
And nowhere in the entire bible does the power of spiritual friendship show so strongly as in our gospel lesson today.

Actually, this is one of those Bible stories that our bishop says are “thick.” These twelve verses have much to teach us about sin, about forgiveness, about the mission of Jesus, and about healing. We could preach a different sermon every week for a long time before we exhausted all the meaning in this passage. But today, I want us to concentrate on a less mentioned aspect of this story—the importance and power of spiritual friends.

We really don’t know much about the paralyzed man except the obvious. We don’t know what paralyzed him. We don’t know what his life was like before this encounter with Jesus and we don’t know what his life was like after this encounter. But I suspect that despite his physical condition and despite his need for forgiveness, he must have been a very special man. I believe this because he had a group of really special friends!

Look at what they did for him! Hearing the word that Jesus, who was known to perform some really great miracles, was in town, his friends went and to great lengths to take him to Jesus. Some carried him. Others simply came with him.

And when they got to the house, they couldn’t get anywhere near Jesus. In fact, they couldn’t even see Jesus for the crowds surrounding the house. At this point, many folks might have given up and said, “Sorry, friend, it looks like this is not the day for a miracle,” these people did not give up. Instead they did a very odd thing; they climbed to the top of the roof, made a hole and lowered him down into the room where Jesus was teaching.

Can you imagine how odd it must have looked? Archeologists tell us that the homes in those days had flat roofs made of mud. On really hot nights, people would climb a ladder on the side on their home and sleep under the stars. So what the friends must have done was somehow climb up the ladder and then haul their friend up to the top of the roof on his pallet—all while the crowds must have looked on laughing. Then once they got him on top of the roof, they began to dig into the roof to create a hole large enough for him to fit through. And then they lowered him into the presence of Jesus.

Can you imagine what Jesus and his friends must have thought as they heard the thumping of feet above them and then began to feel bits of mud falling down upon them? We’ve been somewhat roof obsessed around here for the past two years. Can you just imagine how Peter must have felt as he watched his roof get demolished?!

All in all, it must have been quite a sight. If the crowds didn’t know anything about the paralyzed man, they must have wondered about what kind of man would inspire his friends to go to such lengths. They were persistent. They were courageous. And they must have really really believed that Jesus could help their friend.

And as the man was lowered into Jesus presence, Mark tells us that Jesus saw their faith and Jesus said to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” and later “Take up your mat and go home.”

Jesus saw their faith.

We don’t really know much about the faith of the paralyzed man. Some scholars think that when Jesus referred to their faith, he meant the paralyzed man. Other scholars dispute that claim. In either case, one thing is for sure, the faith of the paralyzed man’s friends was instrumental in his spiritual and physical healing.

You see—nobody can make it out here on their own!

We need each other. We not only need a large community of faith to support us but we need close spiritual friends who pray for us, challenge us, and walk with us in our journey of faith. We need friends that we trust enough that we can honestly admit the sins we struggle with, the questions that we have about God, the moments that we feel closest to God and the moments we feel farthest away. We need spiritual friends who can listen to the stories of our lives and point to us the places that God was at work even when we couldn’t see it.

And sometimes we simply need spiritual friends to have faith for us when our faith is weakest, to pray for us when we can’t find the words, to believe for us when we doubt. We need spiritual friends who will carry us in to the presence of Christ even when we are unable to find our way to Christ ourselves!

It took me over thirty years to learn this lesson. For the vast majority of my life, I thought I was suppose to be on a spiritual journey all my own. Sure, I knew I was supposed to go to church and worship. But I guess I thought of church as the place where we all came together on our individual journeys—sort of like the shelters on the Appalachian Trail where hikers meet other hikers when the weather is bad or they are in need of shower and then leave the shelter to continue on their individual and unique journeys.

Then in the middle of my thirtieth decade of life, I learned that nobody—not even me—could make it out here on their own. And being hard-headed, I had to learn the lesson the hard way.

The doctors call it depression. And we suspect I had been slowly falling deeper and deeper into it all my life. And when I hit rock bottom, I truly felt paralyzed. I couldn’t pray—well I prayed but I was sure that my prayers hit the ceiling and fell back down. I couldn’t believe. I considered leaving church because I wasn’t sure I believed anymore in a God who acted on our behalf. I didn’t feel like I was a good wife, a good mother, a good daughter, a good friend. I felt useless. And as awful as it sounds, my wish was that I would go to sleep one night and not wake up.

But I was blessed with some wonderful friends. They prayed for me. They supported me. They let me cry on their shoulders. They listened as I told them my doubts about God. And when I could not see God in my life, they kept assuring me that God was there even if I couldn’t see or feel him.

They lifted me as I lay paralyzed by doubt and fear and they lowered me into the presence of Christ and I was healed. To this day, I am sure that my healing was the result, not of my faith, but of God seeing the faith of my friends!

It was a hard lesson but an important one. And while I learned that I couldn’t make it out here alone, that was okay because I also learned that I didn’t have to make it on my own.

Since then spiritual friendships are an important part of my faith journey. Just this past Friday, I drove to Decatur to meet a spiritual friend who had driven down from Nashville. We studied together, prayed for each other, and supported each other through seminary, our first churches, her brother’s suicide, and so much more. And we continue to pray and support each other. She is the one person I can count on to ask me regularly “How is your soul?” And because she claims I tend to overwork and then neglect my spiritual disciplines, she says she keeps a board to knock me about the head when I get so busy doing that I don’t stop to spend time with God. And she is only one of many spiritual friends that God has blessed me with.

The truth is that God helps those who help each other. He created us to help each other, to challenge each other, to pray for each other. And so while it may sound like bad news to hear the hard truth that none of us can make it on our own, the good news is that we don’t have to make it on our own. We aren’t even supposed to be able to make it on our own. We were created with the need for spiritual friendships and our lives are most abundant when we live in close relationship with spiritual friends who pray, encourage, challenge and support us.

We are now in the season of Lent, when we prepare our hearts to experience the joy of Easter. And we often think of this as a solitary time. But Lent was originally a time of preparation for baptism when believers came together to prepare to make a commitment to Christ. In other words, Lent was originally a time in which spiritual friendships were made and nurtured. So I want to invite you to make a Lenten commitment to be here for the next three week as Charles shares some specific ways you can find and nurture spiritual friendships so that you will grow closer to Christ.

You see . . .Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone . . .but thanks be to God we don’t have to!

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