Sermon for the Annual Gathering of Recovery Ministries of The Episcopal Church (held in North Falmouth, MA), Saturday, June 5, 2004. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas.

Isaiah Isaiah 42:5-9Psalm 30
Luke 5:17-26

We have seen strange things today

“We have seen strange things today” [bbllink]Luke 5:26[/bbllink].  No kidding.  The story we’ve just heard is strange from start to finish.  It begins with a paralyzed man – along with his bed, for heaven’s sake – being lowered to Jesus through a hole in the roof.  It ends with the man being able to stand up and walk, his sins forgiven.  We’re not told very much about the fellow, but for all we know, when the story begins, his physical, emotional and spiritual condition is completely hopeless, a desperate case.  And yet here he is at the story’s end, standing on his own two feet, restored to health in body, mind and spirit, heading home and praising God.  “Strange,” the people say to each other, seized with amazement.  “We have seen strange things today.”

Do you want to see something strange?  Just take a look at the group of us gathered here today.  You and I were paralyzed once – maybe not in body, but definitely in mind and spirit.  One way or another we were trapped by addiction, powerless, immobilized, and stuck, overwhelmed by our obsession.  There was no way to move, no way to get past the endless craving for the next drink, next bite, next hit, next toke.  What a small world we lived in, you and I – a world completely centered on ourselves, a world riddled with fear, doubt, and insecurity, a world haunted by shame.  Maybe we flailed around for a while – perhaps a very long while – looking for answers, searching for some way out.  We made vows, you and I, earnest New Year’s resolutions.  We promised we wouldn’t do it again – this was it, we told ourselves.  This time we meant it.  We weren’t going back.  We wouldn’t fall for temptation again. 

But we did.  We couldn’t help it.  We were in the grip of something we couldn’t shake, no matter how hard we tried.  Our own efforts availed us nothing – we might as well have been paralyzed, helpless in our own small bed, a basket case.

What happened next?  Someone carried us to Jesus.  Someone – and perhaps many someone’s – cared enough to carry us, or accompany us, or finally to push us into what today’s collect calls “this fellowship of love and prayer” in which we “know ourselves to be surrounded” by those who witness to the power and mercy of Almighty God [Collect of a Saint, BCP, p. 250].  Who knows how we got here, what conspiracy of grace was required to make us finally find our way into the 12-step program.  It may have taken a lot of effort on someone’s part – maybe a court order or an intervention, maybe someone’s ultimatum, someone’s tears, or someone’s prayers – but even if it meant climbing up on the roof and tearing away the tiles and lowering us bodily into the presence of Christ, something made sure that we got here – that’s how urgently God wanted us healed.

As the paralyzed man is lowered into Jesus’ presence, does he really believe that meeting Jesus will make a difference?  The story doesn’t say.  Maybe he wants to see Jesus and maybe he doesn’t.  Maybe he’s convinced that nothing and nobody can heal him, that his sins are too great, his past too bleak, his character too weak.  But here’s the thing: his friends believe in Jesus.  They know, as our text puts it, that “the power of the Lord was with [Jesus] to heal” [bbllink]Luke 5:17[/bbllink].  And isn’t that how it was for us, too?  When we first came into the 12-step program, we probably limped in with only the faintest of hope, if we had any hope at all.  We’d failed in every other effort to change our lives – why should this be any different?  But the people around us believed – if not in us then in the power of the program, in the power of a Higher Power, in the power of God.  They had faith when we did not and for a while – maybe a good long while – we had to trust in their trust.  We had to have faith in their faith. 

That’s where healing begins.  Sometimes it’s the faith of friends that saves us, the faith of our sponsor, the faith of the person sitting beside us in the meeting who simply refuses to believe that sin and death should have the last word in our lives.  When Jesus sees the faith of the people who’ve struggled so hard to carry the paralyzed man to him, he responds on the spot with words that heal.  Right then and there the man’s sins are forgiven.  Right then and there the man receives power to stand up and walk.  Our own healing may not take place in an instant, but when we come into his presence, Jesus speaks the same words to us that he said to the man who was paralyzed: “I say to you,” says Jesus, “stand up and take your bed and go to your home.”

Stand up and take responsibility for your life.  Stand up and face who you are and what you’ve done.  Stand up and tell the truth – about your pain, your guilt, and your need for a fresh start.  Stand up and claim your dignity in Christ, for however far you’ve fallen, however long you’ve been lost, the one who loved you into being has not given up on you and summons you now to fullness of life. “Stand up and take your bed and go to your home.”

What a poignant phrase: “Go to your home.”  Isn’t that what we addicts have always wanted, to find a home inside ourselves, to find a home inside our skin?  All that running around, all that restlessness and craving, all that greed to grab the next thing, all that anxiety that we wouldn’t find what we were looking for, that we’d be lonely and desperate forever, forever aching, forever wanting – doesn’t that express our soul’s longing to be at home, to find peace and fulfillment at last, to know on some deep level that we belong, that we’re wanted, that we’ve finally found our place?  As psychiatrist Gerald May once put it, we are all children of God but we keep running away from home [Addiction and Grace].

When – one day at a time – God puts our addiction behind us, we stand up and we head toward home.  Like the once-paralyzed man, we are released from the burden of guilt and the clutch of shame.  Like him, we make peace with ourselves and with our past.  Like him, we praise the God who set us free and whose home and dwelling-place, we are amazed to discover, turns out to be within us (c.f. John 14:23, Luke 17:21). 

And so our lives begin to bear witness to God, the one whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine [bbllink]Ephesians 3:20[/bbllink].  We find ways to serve, ways to reach out beyond ourselves and to offer other people what we’ve been given.  We become people who bring others to God – maybe not by lowering them through a roof, but by inviting them to worship with us in the sanctuary or to join us in the 12-step fellowship that we find even lower in the building, in those church basements where we share our experience, strength and hope.

Here in the Eucharist we meet the God who says to us, “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.  Quit chasing your idols, whatever they may be – booze or food, sex or drugs, fame, power, or possessions.  None of these,” God says to us, “none of these can satisfy you the way that I can.  For I have made you for myself, and your heart will be restless until it rests in me.”

Here in God’s presence, here at God’s table, we put down our idols.  We lay them down right here.  And then we stand up, we come forward and we offer God our empty hands, an empty space that only God can fill.  We receive a little bread – it seems hardly enough to take our hunger away.  We receive a little juice or wine – it seems hardly enough to quench our thirst.  And yet it is the Body and Blood of Christ that we are taking in – it is God’s very Self.  The love for which we’ve always longed, the home that we’ve always sought and so often fled – here it is, being offered to us, just waiting for us to accept it. 

And so another paralyzed man gets up and walks.  Another addict puts down her drug and learns how to love.  Yes, we have seen strange things today.  Thanks be to God.