June 4, 2023
Rev. Megan Collins
Let’s talk about sandwiches.
Think about the best sandwich you ever had.
Mine was four years ago. We were in New Orleans. We asked someone who lived there where we should eat lunch. When we got to the address she gave us, we thought we must have it wrong. New Orleans has no shortage of excellent restaurants, and they have some of the best chefs in the country. But we were standing in front of this tiny, run down convenience store.
We went in and we worked our way through the aisles of pork rinds and candy. Then all the way at the back, there was a small counter with an old faded letter board menu up on the wall. This couldn’t be right. This couldn’t be the best place to eat lunch, but we were hungry and tired so decided to give it a shot. The woman who recommended it had said to order the kitchen sink sandwich. We learned it was supposedly called that because they put everything they had left over from the day before into it.
We ordered and waited for a while and they brought out these greasy heavy sandwiches, filled with a bunch of indistinguishable ingredients. I think there were shrimp and maybe some pork? It was a mess. The kind of thing you should put on a poncho to eat. You couldn’t sort out any specific filling, just a bunch of blobs held together with melted cheese.
But . . . it was the best sandwich ever.
I thought it would be just a chaotic weird combination of leftovers. But instead each flavor brought out the other and somehow it all made sense.
This is exactly what we’ll be looking for in the sermon series we are starting today.
We’ll be studying something called the Markan Sandwiches for most of the summer.
Mark is one of the four gospels that tell us about the life and teaching of Jesus. Compared to the clarity of the gospel of Luke or the poetic writing of John, Mark can seem like a mess. At first read, Mark is just a jumble of ingredients, a bunch of stories, all thrown in and held together with cheese. It looks like whatever Mark had, he put in there, with no particular intention to it.
But then, we look closer. It turns out Mark was doing something really interesting in the way he wrote things down. Mark will start telling a story, then he interrupts it with another teaching or story, then come back and finishes what he started. He does this over and over again. But it’s not because he got distracted halfway through or just threw it all together. It’s because he is letting one story bring out the flavors in the other. By bringing together two different stories, or a story and a teaching, they will end up both making more sense. The scholars call this literary device a Markan Sandwich because it follows an A-B-A or Bread-Meat-Bread structure. The meat brings out flavors in the bread we would miss if they were not all mashed together. Exactly where the lines are on which passages are a sandwich and which aren’t is the subject for someone else’s (boring) dissertation. So we’ll be casting a wide net to look at anything that follows the bread-meat-bread structure. We’ll see when we are done that Mark is not just a jumble of stories, but ingredients layered together with intention and precision. This will help us see new things in these familiar passages.
Today we’ll look at our first Markan Sandwich in chapter 2. First let’s just do the bread, without the interrupting meat. Watch for the repeating phrase that shows the boundaries of the bread sections - we’ll call this the toothpick that keeps the sandwich together!
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 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. 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,
10b 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!’ (Mark 2:1-5a, 10b-12)
This is a pretty clear story when we read it like this. The word that Jesus could cure disease has spread through the community, so when he returns to Capernaum, crowds of people cram into the house where he is. One group is determined to get their friend who is paralyzed in front of Jesus. They carry him through town on a mat, but when they get to the house where Jesus is they see people spilling out into the road because there is no room for anyone else inside. But they still don’t give up. They climb up onto the roof with the man on the mat and dig a hole through the earth. Then they lower the man down, right in front of Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t disappoint us. He cures the man, who then gets up and walks. Everyone is, of course, amazed.
This is not the only story of Jesus curing someone of a physical disease in the Bible. The miracle stories like this one are amazing. They show us just how good Jesus is and how much he cared about people. It’s his divinity and humanity on full display together.
But the miracle stories can also be very frustrating. You and I both know good people, who pray and love God and live a really good life, but who may not get the miracle we want for them. We don’t seem to ever get an answer to why some people get a cure and some people don’t, any more than we will ever know how Jesus decided who to cure out of all the crowds that pressed in on him that day of our story. People who want things to make sense will try and give you an answer to this question. But at best these answers will fall short of really giving us the answer we need. At worst they will subtly blame the very person who needed healing.
But Mark can shed some more light for us here on all of this. We may not get an answer to the why - why are some people given a cure and others not - but it will give us something else to hold onto. So let’s read the story again, and let’s add in the meat of the sandwich Mark includes and let it inform how we read the miracle story. Let’s read again starting at verse 3:
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—(there’s that toothpick keeping the bread together around the meat we just added) 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!’
In the middle of this miracle story that ends with the thing everyone is expecting - a cure for the paralytic - Jesus does something we weren’t expecting at all. Jesus looks at a man who clearly needs a physical cure and instead of saying “you are cured” first Jesus says “Son your sins are forgiven.”
Huh? What do his sins have to do with anything? We know there were people in Jesus’ time who believed that sin led to physical infirmity, but we also know that really isn’t true for most illnesses. Why would Jesus take this detour to talk about sin when clearly what this man needs is to be able to walk?
As confused as this might make us about Jesus, Mark tells us there were religious leaders there who were not confused, they were angry. The scribes were crammed in with the crowds who were looking for a cure from their diseases. But they weren’t there for a cure. They were there to discredit Jesus, to call him out. He just gave them what they were looking for. Jesus claims to forgive sins? That’s something only God can do! So for the scribes this was blasphemy for Jesus to say unless he was God, which they certainly didn’t believe.
But then Jesus will show them by curing the man’s paralysis that he is, in fact, the Son of God. By placing this teaching in the middle of the story Mark shows us that if Jesus can do the miracle he must be the Son of God and therefore he can in fact forgive sin. But this meat on the sandwich shows us something else too.
Mark shows us that Jesus didn’t just come to cure. He came to heal.
There is a big difference between the two.
We want cures. A cure is eliminating any sign of disease. Curing is the work of doctors and nurses and medical teams and researchers and yes, the work of prayer and occasionally miracles. But healing, healing is something different. Maybe you hear healing and think of preachers who bonk people on the head and proclaim that they are healed, or people who turn to crystals and potions. But healing isn’t these things. It’s not a cure, it’s not a miracle and it’s definitely not magic.
Healing is making someone whole.
In verse 11, when Jesus tells the man to “stand up” in English, the Greek word here is ἔγειρε literally means to arise, or to wake up. He isn’t just being told to stand up on his legs that wouldn’t hold him before. Jesus has forgiven the man and now he is spiritually awake. He can see clearly the sin in his life and he can feel the freedom that comes from the grace of Jesus’ forgiveness. He has woken up from the coma of hopelessness that has plagued him. Yes, Jesus cured the paralytic on the bread for our Markan Sandwich. But there, in the meat, he also made him whole. Jesus forgave his sins. He saw past the brokenness in his body to the brokenness in his inner life and he started there, in the inner paralysis that comes from sin. It’s the kind of paralysis that keeps us stuck in place, not physically but in our lives. We get trapped by our addictions and our compulsions and our pride. Healing wakes us up and raises us into wholeness.
I know we still want a cure. We want relief for the illness and disease and things in our bodies that are broken, and we should. You should seek out cures for medical problems. You should visit doctors and consult the best medical teams. You should take care of your body the best you can. Absolutely you should pray. Pray for a cure for your illness or the illness of the people you love. Pray for a cure, pray for a miracle, pray for the right doctor.
But what do we do when there isn’t a cure, or at least there isn’t one yet? What about things like grief or death? What about a long term illness with a bad prognosis? What about depression that doesn’t respond to a quick fix?
We want a cure so much that when things can’t be easily cured, it’s easy for us to give up. We think there is only cure or sickness, only miracles or disappointment. We start to think we aren’t praying hard enough, or trying hard enough. But here’s where I find hope in our story from Mark. This distinction between curing and healing in Mark doesn’t tell us why Jesus cures sometimes and doesn’t others. But it does promise this: Healing can happen today, right now.
A cure involves a lot of waiting - waiting for the doctor to call, waiting for a new treatment, waiting for a miracle. But healing can happen anywhere, anytime. Healing happens in hospitals and on deathbeds. Healing happens before the medical breakthrough and even in times when there isn’t one coming.
You can be healed without being physically cured.
As a word of caution, you can also be cured without being healed. You can be free from disease but still paralyzed by your sin or your brokenness and pain. This is a powerful thing we learn also in the combination of the teaching and story in Mark. There is more on God’s heart for us than just our physical health.
Healing can happen with or without a cure. It puts back together the pieces of our lives that are broken.
When we are broken because of our sin Jesus heals us from sin by giving us grace.
When we receive a diagnosis that through no fault of our own breaks our lives into shards of what we had once, Jesus heals us then too. Jesus heals us from our hopelessness and despair and isolation by giving us his spirit . . .and then sending his people.
Because Healing is the work of the church.
Rachel Held Evans wrote this:
… there is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing…[Healing] takes time. It is relational. It is inefficient, like a meandering river. Rarely does healing follow a straight or well-lit path. Rarely does it conform to our expectations or resolve in a timely manner.
Most of us here are not trained to cure. We can pray for a cure, and we turn it over to medical teams to do the work of curing through medicines and surgery and the seemingly miraculous ways medicine can bring relief. But we can be the ones who carry the mat.
The paralytic man didn’t get in front of Jesus on his own. He had four friends who carried him on the mat, through the heat and the crowds. They were exhausted but they refused to give up even when their muscles strained under his weight. When they got closer and saw that the room was too crowded, they lifted him up and dug through the earth roof with their bare hands.
You can carry the mat.
Sit with someone when things are bleak
Refuse to give in to the temptation to pull away when there aren’t easy answers.
Pray with them. Eat with them. Let them be angry or sad. Love them right where they are. Take the broken pieces of their lives and, as the hands of Jesus, start gently helping them put the pieces back together.
Hold on tight to the edge of the mat and refuse to let go.
Some of you are on the mat right now. You also have work to do too. First, let your friends carry the mat. I know you don’t want to. But maybe God is doing something in them that can only be done if you let them help. Your ministry to them is letting them be a part of it. Also, while you seek a cure, whatever that might mean for you, open yourself up to healing. Look for the ways Jesus is bringing that sense of peace, or courage. Think about what wholeness would look like for you, right now, and go after it.
I don’t think it’s an accident that it isn’t one friend who carried the paralyzed man to Jesus. It was four.Whether you are the one on the mat right now, or one of the people grabbing an edge to help carry it, healing isn’t something we do alone.
We do it all together.