“…when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbersthat there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man,carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.””
-from Mark 2
Yesterday morning, I was blessed to be here at the meetinghouse with local Friends from several different meetings, all of whom wanted to share in God’s gift of music. It was a lovely time of singing, storytelling, laughter, and waiting worship. Jennilou has already told you a bit about our retreat, so let me skip to the part that I found the most remarkable- the impromptu handbell choir.
Raise your hand, Friends, if you’ve played in the handbell choir at this meeting.
Okay, now raise your hand if you’ve played in a handbell choir anywhere.
Okay, now raise your hand if you figure you probably have the musical skills necessary to learn to play handbells, whether you’ve had the chance to do so or not. You’ve played an instrument before, or you can read vocal music pretty well, or you’re just confident in your ability to learn a new thing.
Okay. Now, to finish off this line of questioning: raise your hand if you know how to read. Not read music- just read English. Raise your hand if you can read a newspaper, or a menu, or a nursery rhyme.
That knowledge right there – the ability to read English words typed on a piece of paper – is all the knowledge you would have needed to play in Jennilou’s impromptu handbell choir yesterday.
So, maybe you don’t think of yourself as a musician. Or maybe you’re a musician, but not that sort of a musician- you can play the guitar or the drums or the piccolo, but that doesn’t mean you can play handbells!
Well, congrats to you for having a humble sense of your own musical gifts. But also: you are completely wrong, and you totally could have played handbells with us yesterday. I don’t care how non-musical you think you are. You could have been part of the handbell choir.
There’s two reasons for this, Friends. The first is that the pieces that we played didn’t require you to read music. You would just be given the lyrics to a hymn that you already knew, a familiar one, and every time you needed to play your word was circled. So, if you can read the words to “Come, Thou Fount Of Every Blessing,” then you could ring your bell on the words that were circled and contribute your part to the beautiful harmony that we created.
That’s one reason- the music was written so that people with absolutely no musical experience could play along. But here’s the other reason, though, which I think might actually be more important: if you had picked up a bell to play, yesterday, then you would have done so surrounded by Friends. This is a choir in which all your choirmates are Friends.
Why does that make a difference? Well, I think no matter how talented you are – whether you’re actually tone deaf or a budding Mozart – your ability to play will be at least somewhat dependent on the willingness of those around you to forgive your mistakes and celebrate your successes.
That’s what keeps us going at anything, right? Whether it’s mastering an instrument, or playing a sport, or raising a child, or recovering from an injury, or training an animal, we have the courage to keep failing and learning because we’re surrounded by a community of people who remind us that our failures don’t last forever and that our successes really do matter.
The folks ringing bells in Jennilou’s impromptu handbell choir, yesterday, had the technical ability to make beautiful music because of the simplicity of the arrangements. It’s also the case, though, that we had a motley bunch of Quakers, some of whom had never rung handbells before, and they were able to trust one another enough to make beautiful music.
I mean, think about it. Picture the bell in your hand. It has an unfamiliar weight. What’s more, you’ve never thought of yourself as a musician. This just isn’t what you do.
The music is so simple as to be nonexistent, in the written form- you just ring your bell when you get to your word. But all of this is new to you, and so you mess it up. You ring too soon, or too late, or in the middle of someone else’s chord. and in your inexperience you turn a beautiful piece of music into a muddy mess.
What then? Well, this is what- people smile at you forgivingly, and the choir moves on, and you get it the next time around.
That picture of a choir is also a picture of what the Gospel looks like: you mess up, and you are forgiven, and the band plays on and you are very much still a part of that music.
Last week we talked about baptism, both for Jesus and for us. Jesus – God incarnate – was cradled close and dipped into the muddy Jordan River by his cousin John. You’d think that maybe God wouldn’t submit to someone else’s leadership like that, but that’s not the God that Jesus reveals to us.
This week, Jesus reveals to us a God who is willing to forgive all our mistakes and errors and sins.
Just look at today’s story. John the Baptist dipped Jesus down into the muddy river. The skies were torn open, and a voice that rang with heaven announced, You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.
Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, fasting and being tempted and getting to know his own weaknesses. Then he started calling disciples, started healing, started praying. And now here he is, in the town of Capernaum, suddenly such a popular teacher that the house he was teaching in was full.
The room he was in was full of disciples, all eager to see Jesus, some of them convinced and some just curious. The adjacent rooms were all full, too, of people who so wanted to hear Jesus speak that they weren’t going to quibble (for now) over whether or not they could see the action. And even outside the door, outside the house, people gathered- just wanting to be in the vicinity of Jesus speaking.
Okay, so say that you want to get close to this Jesus. Say that you have a paralysed friend, and that you’ve heard that Jesus is a miraculous healer, and you want to find a way to get your friend to Jesus but the room is full and the adjacent room is full and the yard is full. What do you do?
I was impressed, yesterday, by the courage of the people who didn’t consider themselves musicians but accepted handbells and played their parts anyway. And, likewise, I am impressed by the courage of the friends who looked at an impossible situation – there’s no way to get to Jesus, with all these people in the way! – and decided to climb up and tear off the roof.
How much faith does it take, Friends, to look at the meager gifts that you think you have, and look at the colossal task before you, and to think that through your hands and feet and heart this task might be accomplished?
Picture yourself with the bell in your hand, in the moment after you make a mistake. Maybe you weren’t used to playing in a choir. Maybe you didn’t know the song as well as you thought. Maybe you are just actually terrible at music. Maybe you knew when to come in, and did your best, but your hand just didn’t play along.
No matter. The choir forgives your mistake and keeps rolling on. That forgiveness, I would argue, is what gives you the courage to play in the first place. You knew, when you grabbed that bell, that you were surrounded by a community of Friends who would love you even if you made a mistake. That’s what made you brave enough to grab the bell in the first place!
You knew that you’d be forgiven for your errors. You knew that you’d be loved even if you made a mistake. You knew that this love that had given you the chance to play in the first place wouldn’t take that grace away if you didn’t ring it right on the first round.
And look- I’m not some amazing Old Testament scholar, but I’m not aware of any precedent by which the friends of the paralysed man, the friends who tore through the roof to get to Jesus, could argue that they hadn’t really destroyed someone else’s property. I mean, they tore a hole in the roof! If you did that to my house, I’d be pretty angry about that!
The friends of this paralyzed man: they were willing to take a pretty unconventional route, so long as it led them to Jesus. They broke the rules. They were willing to think outside the box- literally, if you think of a home as being sort of box shaped. They did whatever they needed to do to get their friend to Jesus.
And yes, in the story, the man was healed and forgiven. What about these friends, though, that peeled back the ceiling and lowered him down to Jesus?
What gave them that courage?
I don’t know, entirely. I can’t help but think, though, that some of it must have stemmed from their belief that when they found Jesus, they’d also find forgiveness. Not just for the paralyzed man that they lowered down on a stretcher, but for themselves as well.
I think they must have met Jesus before. So they looked at their paralyzed friend, and they looked at the roof that they’d have to break through in order to get their friend to Jesus, and they took the chance.
Jesus doesn’t offer any condemnation, for the friends who lowered their paralyzed brother through the roof. These men tear apart the roof of a house, and when they lower their friend down, they find only forgiveness inside.
Think of the Friends who joined in yesterday’s handbell choir without knowing how to play. Would any of them have joined, if they thought that the Friends who surrounded them yesterday were going to judge their failures harshly? Probably not. They were persuaded to join, not because the music was simple, but because those around them would not refuse to forgive their mistakes.
The same is true of the friends who dared to destroy a roof in order to get their friend to Jesus for a healing. The door was blocked, and so they went in by a different way. Who would do that, unless they were sure of forgiveness? Who would dare to be so creative, if they thought that Jesus (or his followers) might react angrily to their idea?
And the same is true of us, as a part of God’s body here on earth. Listen, all of you – from the most musical to the least – this body of Christ needs your song. This body – and this world – needs you to sing out, to ring out, to share the music that’s in your soul. That’s why we have congregational hymns, rather than just listening to special music all the time- we need to hear each other’s voices.
And, just as much, this body needs your willingness to forgive your Friend for playing a wrong note.
I don’t think that creativity can exist without forgiveness. I don’t think that we can make radical new choices without the hope of forgiveness. Forgiveness, Friends, is what makes experimenting possible. It’s what gives us license to try something new.
The hope of forgiveness is essential to creativity. How could the nameless folks in today’s Gospel story have taken the chance to break through the roof and lower their friend down, if they didn’t already understand that the God-made-flesh waiting below them was a God of forgiveness? And likewise, how could you and I dare to create anything new, except that we believe in the God who forgives our mistakes?
God’s forgiveness is what empowers the creativity of the church- of you and me, and of the gathered body when we come together for worship and for business and for fellowship.
When we know that forgiveness is available, it empowers us to try things that we’ve never tried before- knowing that if we fall, the grace of God and the Friends that surround will stand us on our feet again.
What would you be willing to try, if you knew that your failure would be met not with judgment, but with forgiveness? Would you tear through a roof? Would you pick up your bell and ring?