In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, blessings on this Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, as we are here assembled in celebration of Our Lord’s spiritual healing of the sick of the palsy. Like so many of Our Lord’s miracles, we see the multitude gathered around a public personality who is more infamous than beloved, more derided than acclaimed; where the people claim that they want a Prophet or a Messiah, but who in their hearts really clamor for a circus freak show that ruffles a few feathers but leaves their lives and their world mostly undisturbed. Very few of the people there want their lives to be turned upside down. They may not be particularly happy in their jobs or with their families, but like with all of us there is a kind of lazy comfort in living out their self-fulfilling prophecies and maintaining a way of life that is familiar and stale. Let Christ Jesus be the impresario and the master of ceremonies of the Show of All Shows, so they think, but keep Him out of my home and away from my heart. If He gets too close, laugh at Him, call Him a Samaritan or an Agent of Beelzebub, murmur that He speaks blasphemy, and then when all else fails turn Him over to the authorities on the pretext that He is a dire threat to the State. Indeed, this is how most persons have approached Christ Jesus over the centuries: Sometimes, intrigued, or even enthusiastic; sometimes, hostile; but almost always at arm’s length and with prepackaged doubts that they can conjure up if and when He seems to get too close to them or to threaten their comfortable prejudices. Worldly success, luxury, good health: People charmed with an excess of these gifts all too often are even more removed from Him. For why upset that proverbial applecart, when by virtue of your good genes, hard work, and more than a little luck, you have had the good fortune to replace most of those apples with gold bars and jewels? This is why it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God. It is not that God has more of a problem with those rich men than He does with any of us. We all fall short of the glory of God and are in desperate need of His Son for our salvation. Rather, it is that those rich men too often confuse their own Kingdom for God’s. Why be challenged by Christ Jesus, when I can buy my own tailored made heaven on earth? Anyway, how sick is my soul, really, when my life seems to be so good? Whether we are afraid of getting too close to Christ Jesus, or sufficiently charmed with ourselves, the result is the same: We may love to see the Son of Man put down those self-righteous Pharisees. We may be thrilled, when from time to time He heals a blind man or a leper. But we keep Him in a box, like an ornament inside of a crude tabernacle we have constructed for ourselves in our own hearts, and we only take Him out on our terms and in a manner we think we can always control.
Now, what happens when we can no longer remove Christ Jesus from our own box on our own terms? Indeed, what happens when because of disease, disability, or old age, we cannot dictate even our own lives on our own terms, let alone the life of the Incarnate God? Whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, the common denominator when we are so afflicted is suffering. Though we always try to avoid it, and sometimes manage for a while, we are never in this lifetime freed totally from its snare. We may hide behind our prejudices, our intellectual conceits; we may go a long way in crafting a kind of heaven on earth for ourselves; but in the end we simply cannot refute what we know to be true: To live in this lifetime is to suffer. Loneliness, misfortune, lost or unrequited love, derailed ambition, physical sickness, mental disease, spiritual doubt or even emptiness: Suffering has many handmaidens. If joy is all too fleeting, suffering stays long passed her welcome whenever she shows up at our front door with all her baggage. Moreover, like any burdensome guest, suffering spreads her bags everywhere, talks incessantly, drinks up all of the liquor we thought could keep her at bay, and more or less makes it impossible for us to indulge the fantasy that we can control our lives and our destinies. When we suffer we are reminded to some degree at least that we are helpless. Like the man sick with the palsy, lying in his bed, and relying on his friends to take Him to Christ Jesus, when we suffer we are weak, not in control, at times even infantile. Like a crying baby whose hands are too small to grab a hold of his crib, and to lift himself up, when we suffer we cannot hold onto our illusions, our prejudices, our doubts, even our fears. We have to let go what keeps Christ Jesus tucked away in our own little box, for when the pain gets dark enough we cannot but see who we really are and what we really need.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich, a Bishop in the Serbian Orthodox Church in the first few decades of the twentieth century, was imprisoned by the Nazis at Dachau. Once liberated by the Allies, he had the opportunity to relocate to the United States where he became a proponent of the unity of all Orthodox Churches and of closer ecumenical ties with the Anglicans and Episcopalians. Even though he was much celebrated during his lifetime, he suffered from persecution and ill health. In a sermon on suffering, he said, “there is no suffering in the world that can be anywhere near as hard and destructive as sin is. Every sin, however small, would inevitably bring forth death, if Mercy were not to allow suffering in order to sober men up from the inebriation of sin. For the healing that comes through suffering is brought about by the grace filled power of the Holy and Live-giving Spirit.” This is not to say that it is good to suffer. Indeed, we were created not to be in pain nor sorrow but to know and to love God as He loves us. Nevertheless, Adam sinned, and we all bear the legacy of his sin, and part of the collateral damage from that sin is suffering. The mercy of God is that by grace we may be sobered up when we suffer. Our awareness of what is good and true may be slapped back into us, when we can no longer hold onto our lies. It is said that when we hit rock bottom there is nowhere else to go but up. That is true to a point, but by grace we may come to see when we hit rock bottom that indeed we are not meant to be down there where it is dark and painful. By grace we may come to see that indeed we are meant truly to be up there where there is light, joy, peace, and eternal life. The awareness is not just that it is better up there but that that is where our real home is. The root of all suffering is sin, and sin is estrangement from God, and so the ultimate remedy for suffering is forgiveness. Medicine or surgery may heal physical suffering. Therapy may heal emotional suffering. A new job may heal financial suffering. All of that is fine and good, however temporary, but only divine forgiveness, and the forgiveness we render ourselves and one another, will heal our souls. Without healing our souls, there is no peace to be found in the body, nor in the mind, nor in the heart. As always with His miracles, Christ Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter. He knows that the man sick with the palsy is meant to be a citizen in His Father’s Kingdom. His real home is with God. His body is sick, but his need is salvation. His body will pass away, even after it is healed, but his soul will be alive, forever, in God’s light and love. Christ Jesus is willing to incur the wrath and the murmurs of the Pharisees who accuse Him of blasphemy in order to give this poor, unnamed sufferer the forgiveness he needs above all else. Pray, my brethren, that we may turn to Christ Jesus when it is so dark and painful for us that we have nowhere else to go. Pray that our suffering may wake us up from our own sins. We meant to be God’s children, and so let our suffering so remind us.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.