by Daniel Harrell
I’m back from two weeks in North Carolina where I reconnected with my Southern roots and helped my parents downsize and move, an endeavor that unearthed a mine of memories as cleaned out closets revealed dusty yearbooks buried since I left home 35 years ago. In them I’d written of plans to become an ad man in LA. Instead here I am, a minister in Minnesota. Ate as much Southern food as could be fried down south. One dish, a Southern eggs Benedict, included fried goat cheese grits cakes with fried eggs, pulled pork (which North Carolinians just call barbecue), black eyed pea purée and Texas Pete hot sauce hollandaise. It was lip-smacking delicious.
The highlight of our trip south was treating my parents to a week on the Outer Banks, the first time I’d ever been there even though I’m fifth generation Carolinian who lived half his life in the Tar Heel state. The Outer Banks were always just too far to drive. It’s often how it is. I’m sure plenty of Minnesotans have yet to paddle the Boundary Waters. You figure you live so close, you’ll get to it someday, but then you never do. We enjoyed a gorgeous week by the sea and the sound, the water’s on both sides of the Banks. We made the requisite trek up to Kitty Hawk, the symbol of choice for North Carolina’s license plate and its quarter, the famous site of the Wright Brothers’ historic first flight 112 years ago. The ranger talk at the visitors’ center was excellent, emphasizing how the physics of aerodynamics discovered by two humble Ohio bicycle makers made the impossible possible. Advancements in flight afterwards occurred at stunning speed. Orville Wright was alive to witness Chuck Yeager break the sound barrier in 1947. A piece of the original Kitty Hawk plane went to the moon in Neil Armstrong’s pocket twenty-two years after that. Though taken for granted thousands of times a day, human flight happens with such simple defiance of gravity and never fails to marvel.
Of course it never fails to make miserable too. We were supposed to be back in Minnesota on Father’s Day but didn’t arrive until midnight Tuesday. Consecutive flights on consecutive days out of Raleigh were cancelled. A refunded fare meant rebooking on another airline that got us as far as Philadelphia. We boarded our plane to Minneapolis as an dark and ominous line of severe weather rumbled in from the west. No sooner were our seat belts buckled than everybody’s smartphones went off in alarm, warning of a sighted tornado and of the need to take cover immediately. The rain began to pound, lightening crashed, the wind roared, rocking and rattling the plane to the point where you thought it would take off on its own As a Southerner all I could think was “trailer park,” so I jumped up, grabbed Dawn and Violet and hightailed it back to the terminal, dashing through the cascade of water pouring through the jetway seams making the tunnel seem like a angry carwash. Once inside, I turned, expecting to see an exodus of fearful passengers on my heels, relieved that a Moses had flouted airport protocol to lead them to safety through the raging storm. But no, everybody else stayed on board buckled in like sheep. They rode it out on the plane and then rolled their eyes at me when we re-boarded. The passenger beside me snarked that we would have stayed safer had we stayed on the plane which is not true. I googled it. The only reason the whole plane wasn’t evacuated was because airline employees had to take cover themselves.
Nevertheless, we did eventually take off and fly—in the sky. Above the clouds. Above the storm. The park ranger at Kitty Hawk pointed to the stone monument marking the Wright Brothers’ feat and called it “the gravestone to impossibility.” Dawn joked that the ranger stole the line from the gospels. If anything, the risen Jesus’ gravestone rolled over every impossibility. Jesus flew long before the Wright brothers ever lifted up off the ground.
Jesus challenged and defeated impossibility over and over in the gospels, which Matthew and the rest narrate only in part. Here in my last of a series from Matthew 9, I circle back to the beginning and a familiar story told in various ways. Good friends hauled a paralyzed man to Jesus for help. Jesus saw their collective faith, and then then to the paralyzed man and told him his sins were forgiven, one of only two times Jesus ever says this. The religious authorities were predictably perturbed. They thought to themselves “this is blasphemy!” Sin is a crime against God. So nobody can forgive sin but God. Who does this man think he is?
Scholars wonder why Jesus didn’t just say “get up and walk” and get on with it. But he gives his own reason: “so you may know the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Jesus was out to prove something here. Picking up on his critics’ thoughts, wondering why they needed to be so cynical, he posed yet another question: “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven?’ or ‘Stand up and walk?’” If you think “you sins are forgiven” is easier to say, you’re probably right. Verifiable proof of forgiveness is empirically elusive. But which is harder to do? Forgive sin or heal paralysis? Well, that’s harder to say. Curing paralysis on command is impossible for anybody but God. But if only God truly forgives sins too, then that’s also impossible. Given this equal degree of impossibility, the ability to cure would likely infer an ability to forgive. Taking up the challenge, Jesus turned to the paralytic and told him, “Stand up, take your bed and go home.” The man got up and went home and the crowd went wild. We read, “they glorified God who had given such power to human beings.” Only God can heal and only God can forgive. Jesus did both. You do the math.
This story draws on the long held assumption that sin and sickness were linked. Specifically, people believed sin caused sickness. If there was something wrong with your body their was something really wrong with your soul. This belief justified the maltreatment of the sick and disabled in ancient cultures. This was not right. Jesus broke the link here and elsewhere; the man’s paralysis was not his own fault. It had nothing to do with the state of his heart. This being so, would the paralyzed man on the mat, his sins forgiven, have remained on his mat had the religious leaders not raised their objection and Jesus not wanted to make his point? Such a scene is difficult to imagine. Since curing both body and soul fall under Jesus’ authority to do, why would he ever forgive but not heal? Except that this happens all the time. Grace gets dispensed without limit even as the ravages of disease and affliction destroy our bodies. This is not right either. We want forgiveness and physical fitness, a long life on earth over resurrection from the dead. Remarkable advances in medicine, health and nutrition have heightened the horror of disease and death. Billions of dollars are spent every day to extend lives a few hours, despite Scripture’s insistence that earthly existence is a vanity, a mere puff of air, grass that sprouts today and withers tomorrow, a broken jar of clay not worth comparing to the glory to be revealed.
The crowds that mobbed Jesus would have been acquainted with this. Their own life expectancy was lower than in places like Chad or Afghanistan, where few people currently make it past 40 or 50 years old. Faced with such limits on life, hopes of future glory beyond death always outweighed any desire for earthly well-being. Jesus asked, “What does it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your soul?” For the paralytic to have his sins forgiven meant his disability was not his fault. This was huge. Now at peace with his maker, what did he care about walking? Because he could die in peace, he could live out his life in peace, unafraid. This is a great gift. We witnessed it with our brother Jerry Potter who died on Tuesday. We witnessed it with our brothers and sisters murdered in Emmanuel AME Church.
As our flight had been grounded, we attended my cousin’s white southern church on Fathers’ Day, where prayers were prayed for our black brothers and sisters two hundred and eighty miles away. Nothing got said in the sermon, however, which sadly was not so surprising. The preacher didn’t do like many did; namely, rip up whatever they’d planned for the pulpit to address the massacre. I’m guessing the preacher wasn’t sure what to say. Racism and guns and religion tensely intwine in a white Southern way of life. Instead, the preacher stayed with Father’s Day as his theme, relying on a dramatic and well worn illustration about a fearful boy perched on a precipice, searching for his dad in the dark. His father stands below and beckons junior to jump. Junior jumps. Having faith means making the leap. God caught Jesus, he’ll catch you too. Have faith. Trust the Lord. Amen. Eat lunch.
Sitting over those fried goat cheese grits and eggs, we ate lunch and talked about this sermon, and about Charleston, and about trusting the Lord and about whether God really caught Jesus. If the cross is our measure, Jesus’ leap of faith and trust got him crucified. Jesus jumped and God let him fall. Christ died and praise the Lord for it. We call it good news. This is the enduring mystery of Christian faith.
In Charleston that fateful night, eleven faithful believers stayed for a Wednesday night Bible study with the senior pastor after other church members who’d gathered for an earlier meeting had decided to go home. The hate-filled white boy joined in for an hour before gunning down nine, including the pastor. Throughout the long and tragic history of Christianity, to die innocently and unjustly as you profess your faith is its own act of faith both holy and horrible, both righteous and wrong, a direct participation in the death of Jesus at the hands of evil. The evil killer was quickly captured and arraigned, and the relatives of the slain with other church members who attended the arraignment announced their own forgiveness. As with Jesus, the crowds were in awe that God had given such power to human beings.
The religious experts of Jesus’ day knew only God could do the things Jesus did. Yet interestingly, Jesus never identifies himself as God embodied, choosing instead to refer to himself as “the son of man.” In Hebrew culture, to say “son of man” is to mean “human being,” and most often in the gospels, Jesus resists any attempt to be seen as anything other than human. However, by tacking on the definite article, Jesus also hints how he is not just any human. He calls himself the Son of Man, the difference being that while you and I are only human, an adverbial phrase we often use to excuse our bad behavior, Jesus is truly human, the person like whom we are redeemed to be. Regrettably, even as redeemed sons (and daughters) of men, distance remains between us and the Son of Man; between who we are and who we really are. And yet there are moments when our own true identities shine through, when Christ in us, the hope of glory, is revealed.
New Yorker columnist David Rednick observed, “it is an enduring mystery how the moral range of humanity can stretch from a twisted young racist such as Dylann Roof, who faces charges of slaughtering six women and three men during a Bible-study class, to a woman such as Nadine Collier, who is the daughter of one of the victims, Ethel Lance, and who was able to find it in her heart to turn to Roof at his bond hearing and say, “I forgive you.” How many of us are capable of that? Imagine the capacity for grace in Felicia Sanders, who lost her son, Tywanza, in the Emanuel A.M.E. Church massacre, and who said to the alleged killer at the hearing, “Every fibre in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. But as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.” We enjoyed you. This is a superhuman form of endurance and pity. The world is such a fallen place that it is somehow easier to comprehend the deranged cruelty of Dylann Roof than the unfathomable and uncompromising mercy of Nadine Collier and Felicia Sanders.
“To study the history of the black freedom movement is to be astonished by its collective capacity for forbearance. The litany of its great leaders—Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer among them—is vastly outnumbered by the anonymous millions who encountered the noose, the lash, the cattle prod, the attack dog, the laws of Jim Crow, and answered it all, so often, in the spirit reflected by the survivors and the congregation at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Those soldiers of the movement were clear-eyed about their oppressors. They were the least naïve people imaginable and they were hardly weak. But they answered most often not to the understandable urge to vengeance but to the call of a preternaturally elevated form of justice and mercy.”
Which is easier? To heal the sick or forgive the sinner? Both are as impossibly hard as raising the dead. Yet we Christians profess that to take part in the death of Jesus is to take part in resurrection. There is a gospel link between death and forgiveness: the horror of the cross is the supreme act of divine mercy, bearing its strange fruit in that wondrous and inexplicable capacity sinners redeemed by Jesus possess to rise above hatred and injustice and evil with true love and pure grace.
Jesus jumped and God let him fall. Christ died and praise the Lord for it. Here in Matthew, Jesus tells a fallen man his sins are forgiven, and for the man, that was enough. But then Jesus goes on to tell him to stand up, using the same words the gospels use to talk about rising up from the dead. Healing is not the point. Healing points to the point. Then as now, we all fall with Jesus. And now as will be then, God stands us up—with Jesus, like Jesus.