Stuff that Lasts for Fifty Years
“My son, your sins are forgiven. Take up your mat and walk.”
No Cartesian dualism here. When Jesus heals someone, He heals the whole person— mind, body, spirit, whatever!
This is my second 50-year class reunion and homecoming. Two years ago, I received an invitation from Essex, Iowa, High School to attend a special class reunion for the graduates of 1952, 1953, and 1954. The school was so small that they needed to include all three years in order to have enough people to justify calling it a “reunion.” I didn’t graduate from Essex but apparently they were hard up for bodies and I did make it through my Junior year there so the invitation was sent.
I put the invitation aside figuring if I didn’t make this reunion, there’s always the next one. However, I ran across an old poem chronicling the stages of human existence that convinced me otherwise. It read: “Spills, Drills, Skills, Thrills, Bills, Ills, Pills, and Wills.” I reflected where I was on this continuum and decided I better “gather a few rosebuds while I may.” So I went.
I was assigned two roles at the reunion. First, since I was the only person in the three classes who was in the Apostolic Succession, I was the official pray—er. This meant doing the blessing of the banquet feast and praying for those of our group who had died. There were five in the Necrology of my class and I prayed for each of them, including Bob Hurlbert. When I was finished, Wayne Ryberg stood up and said, “You shouldn’t have prayed for Bob. I bought worms from him two days ago!” Sure enough, Bob was alive and sold worms in a bait store in Denison, Iowa. Now here’s a question for you: How do you rescind a prayer that is already heaven-sent? We couldn’t answer that one, so we decided to hold it in escrow. Sooner or later, Bob will need it and it will be there, ready to be activated.
My second role was to preach in the Essex Covenant Church in which I was nurtured for nearly a decade. Their pastor called and asked for a sermon title. I was in a feisty mood so I said, “How about this one—The Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis of the Resurrection according to the Hegelian Dialectic?” That, I explained, was the first sermon I preached in my homiletics class in Seminary. There was a significant pause and then he responded. “I am afraid that won’t work.” “Well,” I answered, “that’s the same thing Dean Hawkinson said back in 1957.” After a brief dialogue, he suggested, “How about sharing your experiences from 50 years ago in the Essex Covenant Church?” We both thought this was a good idea. Hence the title of this sermon: “Stuff That Lasts for Fifty Years.”
This was a fortuitous/providential occasion for me. For the last 40 years, I have been a prodigal son, laboring in the far countries of the Methodists and the Presbyterians. But for the first 30 years of my life, I was as Covenant as anyone could possibly be. I attended her churches, I graduated from North Park Academy, College, and Seminary. I was ordained in the ministry of the Covenant Church and Pastor of the Edgewater Church in Chicago for five wonderful years. Now, after my sojourn in alien denominations, I was “returning home,” at least for one memorable Sunday. What did I remember about the Covenant? What made it so distinctive? What influence did it wield over my spiritual odyssey? This morning, I want to share with you four things I recall from my Covenant days—stuff that has lasted for 50 years.
The first thing I remember is pretty sophisticated. I learned that the church—even the local church—has a divine mandate to ontologize linguistics. Therefore, the Church is the most important institution in the whole world, 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most important hour in the whole week, and being a preacher is the most important job in the whole universe.
What does it mean to “ontologize linguistics?”
When I was in graduate school, there was an unending acrimonious debate between two kinds of philosophers: linguistic analysts and metaphysicians. The linguists insisted that language created reality. The meaning of life depends entirely on words, their logical form and the context in which they are used. We metaphysicians thought it was the other way around. We said that reality is primary and the task of language is merely to point to the things that exist. As Augustine wrote, “Language pictures reality.” Things have their own meaning independent of what people think or say. Personally, I thought the linguists were both simple and silly.
Then I remembered a story about a young man who was in love with an attractive young lady. One moonlit night, the two of them were seated on a bench in the park. Overwhelmed by her beauty and irresistible charm, he blurted, “Will you marry me?” She said “Yes I will!” There was a long period of silence, broken by her asking, “Why don’t you say something?” His response was “I think I have said way too much already!”
Many of us can relate to that story. All it takes are two life-altering words—”I do!”—and our lives are changed forever and our reality can never be the same. We have ontologized linguistics.
In the text for today, a paralyzed man is dropped in front of Jesus. The occasion is a worship service. The text reads, “Jesus was preaching the message to them.” Like us Covenanters, the Jews must have been asking, “Var stardet skrivet?”—“Where is it written?” Also, the congregation must have been very curious: what will Jesus do with this interloper and his friends? What spectacular acts will he perform? Surprisingly, Jesus does nothing. Doesn’t even touch the man. Instead, he talks! To the paralytic he says, “Your sins are forgiven. Take up your mat and walk.” And the man does. The ontology of linguistics—God created the world by speaking. Jesus recreates it the same way.
The context for all of this is a worship service, a kind of church event. In preaching the Word, in confession of the faith, in the company of believers, a new reality comes into being. It happens because—to quote Paul Holmer—in worship people speak the language “of” faith, not the language “about” faith. The language “about” faith examines reality; the language “of” faith creates and recreates it. That happened in Capernaum and it happened in a small town in Iowa as well.
The second thing I recollect after 50 years is that there is a categorical difference—as Aristotle would say, a difference of kind and not just degree—between making a decision and making a suggestion. There’s an old sports saying, “The difference between being a head coach and being an assistant is the difference between making a decision and offering an opinion.”
I learned this the hard way. Back in the ’70s, I was an assistant basketball coach at Millikin University. The job was a piece of cake. I coached the Junior Varsity and the only persons at our games were my two pre-teen daughters and their friends who were self-appointed cheerleaders even though there was no one in the stands. During the Varsity games, I sat on the bench, next to the head coach, and occasionally made suggestions that were mostly ignored. It was a no pressure deal.
My idyllic world of coaching came an abrupt halt when the head coach had a health issue. So, for one week, I was in charge. First I hired an assistant—the Chaplain, who, like myself, was an ordained Presbyterian clergy. He didn’t know much about coaching either, but you’d figure between the two of us we would have some connections which might come in handy. Unfortunately, our first game was against Augustana, who featured in Sports Illustrated that very week, was ranked number 1 in Division III in the country. We made the trek to Carver Arena where the home team had not lost a game. Still, there’s always a first time!
The first half was a miracle in the making. We were ahead by several points and I envisioned fame and fortune. “Rookie coach defeats unbeatable superteam.” Then something traumatic happened. Our superstar, largely responsible for our success, picked up his third foul. I called time-out and conferred with my assistant. “Bill, should we take Gary out or leave him in?” The Chaplain’s response was, “I’ll pray about it.” Well, the officials had no interest in waiting for a Divine Command and I had to decide. I took Gary out. Augustana went on a tear. They scored a dozen or more quick points and grabbed an insurmountable lead. At halftime, on the way to the locker room, Chaplain Bill sided up to me and said, “Coach, I just heard from the Lord. He said, ‘Leave him in!’”
At Essex Covenant Church, we learned that to be a Christian meant to make a decision, not a suggestion. We were continually confronted with the invitation to take a leap of faith, to make a public confession, to respond affirmatively to the promptings of God’s Holy Spirit.
Of course, even a good thing can be overdone. A wise old church deacon took me aside after my fourth or fifth response to an altar call and observed that everyone knew where I stood and now was the time to live it. Nevertheless, we concurred with Soren Kiekegaard’s conviction that “The road to hell is paved with both/and but the road to heaven is paved with either/or. We were either/or people.
In the text, the paralytic is carried to Jesus by four men. One can only imagine how difficult it must have been for these friends to decide whether to make the venture. The incident occurs in the early part of Jesus ministry. There is a rumor that Jesus can heal perhaps he’s the genuine article. On the other hand, there have been many charlatans who have claimed magical powers. Should they risk making fools of themselves and dashing the slim hopes of the paralytic? What should they do? Surely suggestions came from many of their acquaintances. Go! Don’t go! Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus is the young man from next door. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? It is very unlikely that this man we knew as a kid is the Savior. Why not do some research? Why not wait until we know more about him? Suggestions are easy and cheap. Decisions are hard and costly. After the opinions are in, these men must decide. They do. They decide to take the gamble. And the paralytic is miraculously healed.
The third thing I recall learning in the Essex Covenant Church five decades ago is that God is not so much a concept to be understood as a presence to be encountered.
Soren Kierkegaard, who most certainly would have been a Covenant pietist had he been born in Sweden instead of Denmark, was asked if he knew any good arguments for the existence of God. He replied that he never argued about such matters. When his interrogator asked why, he answered, “It is very rude to argue about someone’s existence in their presence.”
In our Church, we never engaged in disputes about the existence of God or other theological matters—at least not on Sunday morning during worship. Once, a visiting preacher fresh out of seminary tried to instruct us in the ways of Biblical criticism. He suggested that we consider the book of Jonah to be a parable rather than an historical narrative—figuratively, but not literally true. That didn’t work. Afterwards angry laypersons confronted him, quoting Billy Graham (so they said) that “they would believe that Jonah swallowed the whale if the Bible said so.” End of Biblical criticism!
Our spirits were similar to that which Walt Whitman expressed in his poem about the learned astronomer.
When I heard the learned astronomer.
When the proofs, the figures were arranged in columns before me.
When I was shown the diagrams, and the charts, to add, divide and to measure them: When I sitting, heard the astronomer where he lectured with great applause in the room,
How soon, unaccountably, I became tired and sick,
Till, rising and gliding out, I wandered off by myself
Into the mystical, moist night air, and from time to time
Looked up in perfect silence at the stars.
We didn’t go to church to hear a lecture nor to attempt to demythologize the Scriptures, but to feel the presence of God and to experience, perhaps mystically, the reality of Christ. Of course, it didn’t always happen, but the times it did were life transforming.
In our Scripture, a confrontation occurs between Jesus and the learned “teachers of the law.” Jesus forgives the paralytic’s sins and is accused of blasphemy. “Only God can forgive sins.” Notice Jesus’ response. Instead of disputing, he apparently concedes their point and proceeds to show he can heal both the body and the soul. When the paralytic experiences the forgiveness of his sins and also takes up his mat and walks, no one can deny that they are in the presence of God. “God is in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.”
It is not ideas about God and Jesus that make the difference: it is the presence of our Lord.
The fourth thing I learned some 50 years ago is that the church has the ability and the mandate to practice surrogate faith.
Immediately before Jesus heals the man on the mat, we find this comment: “When he saw their (the four friends’) faith, he said, “My son, your sins are forgiven; take up your mat and walk.”
I call, this surrogate faith—faith the church holds in escrow for persons who have lost or never been able to find it in the first place.
Probably all of you practice surrogate faith for someone who needs it—a spouse, a child, a parent, another student, an acquaintance. Life has a way of temporarily paralyzing most of us at some time or another. Like this helpless man, we need someone like these four friends to keep the faith for us, to bring us to the rejuvenating Christ so we can hear His words of healing.
I have a friend who was pastor of a church in the Midwest. One Sunday he stood up in the pulpit and shocked the congregation by stating he could not preach. A personal problem made it impossible for him to embrace the Good News, much less try to proclaim it. What did the church do? Did they fire him? Or insist he take a temporary leave without pay? Or report him to his superiors? None of the above. Instead, they took over his ministry for him and kept the faith for him. After a few weeks, my friend got up off his mat, his sins forgiven, and became a prominent, successful clergyman.
After I preached at the Essex Covenant Church two years ago, a really old man commented, “Well, I never thought you would become a preacher!” When I ask why he thought not, he said, “You were kind of ornery.” “Don’t you mean creative or a bit feisty?” “Nope, I mean full of mischief. Remember the time we had a guest speaker who preached on the stoning of Stephen?” “Yes, I do. He thought he was a White Sox pitcher and threw the stones right at us in the pews.” The old man smiled and said, “And you boys pretended that you caught them and then threw them right back at him in the pulpit.” I did remember that. Our play-action caught the attention of everyone who was there, including my mother, who again that day demonstrated that there was more than one use for a good ping pong paddle.
The old saint reminded me of that incident, added a couple of others, and then, offered an editorial. “No matter how bad you kids were, we still had faith you’d turn out o.k. and I guess you have.” Often surrogate faith works.
That’s what I remember from 50 years ago. The church can’ ontologize linguistics and therefore is the important institution in the world, there is a categorical difference between making a decision and offering a suggestion, the purpose of worship is to experience the presence of God in Christ, and we are called to practice surrogate faith for a world which has lost it.
Stuff like that lasts for at least 50 years, and maybe forever.