A Sermon: Beyond Paralysis
The man who was paralyzed and knotted in his own body, so much so that it worked against him, was healed by Jesus. He is knotted no more. He walks. His sins are forgiven, and then he moves.
As Thomas Troeger has pointed out, all people are paralyzed. All paralyzed people are not sinful. Nor are knots evil. But not being able to move—being double binded—becomes a form of sin.
It may not start out that way but it sure can end up that way. Why? Because when we are paralyzed, we can't do the good we were meant to do. St. Paul spoke of sin as not doing the good we could as well as committing the evil we could not prevent ourselves from doing.
When the paralytic moves, he becomes capable again of goodness. He doesn't live any longer in that awful place of the rock and the hard place; he becomes able to do good.
Some knots are not meant to be untied. They are meant to enjoy. They are meant to complicate. They are meant to resist unraveling. They are conundra, the plural of conundrum, the ball of it all.
Some people want to tame the mystery of a spider's web. Again, why? Why tame tethers? What God has put together, we often say in a service of marriage, let no one tear apart.
Most people need affirmation so much that we walk around with our hand out for a compliment. When we are paralyzed, we depend on others to give us what we need. We can give the affirmation we so desperately want for ourselves. Instead of yelling at our daughter about her room, we can find something good in her mess and speak it. Instead of glazing over at our husband's repeated analysis of the problems of his department, we can find something interesting about them. We can affirm his stuckness, his ritual repetition of a difficulty he can't seem to solve. Instead of noticing how much of the woodwork is chipping in the den, we can notice how beautiful the ceiling is.
Double binds are a normal enough problem; everyone has them. When Jesus heals, he moves the knot. He loosens it. He sets us free to do good.
Knots, like everything else, require a point of view. We can hate them and use them as excuses, or we can love them and find them an occasion for healing. The paralytic was able to turn his knot, through the blessing of his friends, into an occasion for healing.
Knot experts know that there are a variety of knots and different techniques of tying them. From stopper knots (overhand; figure-eight; double diamond) to binding knots (square knot; surgeon's knot; timber hitch), knots are a world of their own, not to mention braids and bends and sennits and splices. Many of us know these words spiritually if not physically. If you have ever had a "Charlie Horse," you know what I mean. One does not forget the experience of a Charlie Horse. Nor does one forget what it was like to be paralyzed for a long time. To be stuck in a job or relationship and not be able to get out is to be knotted in the middle of the rock and hard place.
Simultaneously, the strong connections of knots are a positive experience. "But There's No Knot for me," wrote Ira Gershwin. Marriage is often conceived as a knot—and also as a prison or ball and chain. We speak of marriage as "getting hitched." What are the double binds of marriage? How do we make the best possible partnerships—and what is the spectrum from wedding ring to ball and chain?
When we live as the freed people of Jesus Christ, when we accept our acceptance, we find our way to connect without fear to each other. We knot willingly—and the knots don't paralyze us.
Often we must be forgiven before we can be healthy enough to form relationships. Even if we haven't murdered anyone or stolen anything, often we "enjoy" a kind of sin, the name of which is moral paralysis. We refrain from doing the good we can do. We just sit. When the love of Christ embraces us, we are set free. We can move. We can be alive and connected and not be afraid.
Healed people, healthy people know the difference between a positive knot and a negative knot. The double shift is a double bind for many Americans: we must work well and play well, raise children well and self-actualize, all seemingly at the same time.
What is the spectrum of family member and human being—and where are the binds and where are the tethers? What differentiates a bind and a tether? People who have been forgiven by Jesus know: they are able to keep the knots but not too tightly.
Older people who are too sick to live alone and too proud to tell their children they need help can also be healed from their double bind. Once they know the depth of Jesus' love for them, they don't depend too much on their children—and oddly, become free to ask for help. Saved people are safe people: they know how to give and how to receive.
Henri Nouwen put the problem of the unhealed person well: "If pastors are uncertain of what is absolutely essential in ministry, they tend to lose themselves in the merely important." Pastors are people: they get "sick" because of the inability to make priorities or decisions. They become paralyzed. What heals the paralytic in all of us is the decision Jesus made for us. He said we were healed of our paralysis. We are set free to do good.
There is a way in which, once we are saved and safe, once we have accepted our acceptance, we can no longer get lost in a knotted up life. Labyrinths tell of this safety well. A labyrinth is an archetype found in ancient sites, the earliest notation of which is 2400 BCE in what is now Egypt in a cave drawing. A labyrinth is a maze with only one pathway leading into and back out of the center, so there are no wrong turns and you can't get lost. You will find the center if you walk the path. Labyrinths were used often in medieval cathedrals to symbolize the great pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
People are using labyrinths a lot these days.
Because people are lost. Because people are afraid. Because people are fragmented. Because people feel peripheral and want centering. Because they want to get back home.
In a labyrinth, you can't get lost. You always get home. No matter how outside you feel, you can still get in. No matter how peripheral, you can still get to the center. In fact, most labyrinths turn you to the farthest ring just before they bring you in.
In the Greek story of Ariadne's thread, we find one of the first literary uses of the labyrinth. She lets down a string so she doesn't get lost or "paralyzed" in the middle of her journey. So she will know which way to turn.
Novelists commonly describe the city in labyrinthine terms. To the ancients, the labyrinth connoted paths of intricate deviation leading eventually to the center for the initiated from which demons were excluded by the very device of the labyrinth. In the Middle Ages that center still held in the guise of walled towns with a centrally-located church giving order to the whole complex. "In the nineteenth century that center began to be eclipsed by secular institutions and by the twentieth century, novels question the existence validity of presupposing that a center can be found…."11
As we leave the twentieth century, people want more center, less periphery, more unity, less fragmentation. Labyrinths are spiritual devices no more but no less, that help people achieve these spiritual objectives.
Labyrinths are a physical and artistic representation of the certainty we have in our faith—that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not our sin. Not our paralysis.
Jacob, whose name means "twisted" in Hebrew crosses a metaphoric river and becomes Israel that means straight or Yashtar. The paralytic was made straight. He was made whole. He was able to stand up straight.
Sometimes salvation comes by way of humor. We "straighten up" and move on because we are made able to laugh. A British comedian swears that his father only came once to watch him in the annual school follies. He says he was six and came in utter last in the sack race. Utter. Last. The father came over and hugged him, saying, "you'll be the one they remember. You were very funny."
Faith and forgiveness yield enough time to get to the interesting parts of our defeats.
I think of the beautiful knarled vines that wrap, sometimes even so tightly that they create scars, artistically, in wood. No matter how "bent out of shape" we have become by our scars or our mistakes, God can still save us. We will bring our knottedness with us into our saved state.
In Isaiah 40: 20, we are told to worship the God who "as a gift chooses mulberry wood, wood that will not rot, then seeks out a skilled artisan to set up an image that will not topple." Then the text goes on in the next verse to really challenge us: "Have you not known? Have you not heard?"
Forgiveness and humor can move us off the paralyzed state. So can community. So can the blessed ties that bind.
Muriel Spark tells a wonderful story about traveling from England to South Africa during the war. "We went from Cape Town to Liverpool by way of the Azores. The voyage took three weeks. It was a dangerous journey. But it is curious how a sense of danger diminishes in proportion to the number of people who participate in the risk. On this occasion, as on others during the war, being in it together took off the edge of fear."
Any refusal to be a part of community can also keep us in a paralyzed state. A priest in San Antonio, Texas, has sought an injunction against a parishioner. At Our Lady of Sorrows Church, one member insisted on singing loudly during the service. The problem was not the volume but the songs. Apparently the woman's selections were not listed in the order of worship. "We don't mind her coming to church," the Priest, Alexander Wangler said. "We just want her to sing the same thing every one else is."12
Knots are not bad. They are the tethers to community. But we can be blocked and all tied up. The Chinese believe that when the heart is blocked so that goodness cannot express itself, evil results. The Chinese character for evil contains symbols for road, block and heart; no wonder the paralytic man moved when he was healed. The evil left him. He became positively knotted and no longer Charlie horsed.
He stood up straight and walked—and so may we.
1. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Constance Garnett (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), p. 132. 2. James Dodson, Faithful Travelers (New York: Bantam Books, 1998). 3. Kathleen Kuiper, ed., Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1995), p. 650. 4. Sir Philip Sidney, "The Defense of Poesy" in The Renaissance in England ed. Hyder E. Rollins and Herschel Baker (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1954), p. 607. 5. Sidney, p. 607. 6. Sidney, p. 608 and p. 612: "For indeed poetry ever sets Virtue out in her best colors…that one must needs be enamored of her." 7. George Puttenham, from The Art of English Poesy in The Renaissance in England ed. Hyder E. Rollins and Herschel Baker (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1954), p. 640. 8. Interpretation, Vol. 36 (1), 1982, pp. 58-63. 9. Edwin McNeill Poteat, Jesus and the Liberal Mind (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1934), pp. 256-263. 10. William R. Klein, Clothing for the Soul (Franklin, Tennessee: Providence House, 1996), pp. 71-77. 11. Marilyn Thomas Faulkenbug, Church, City, and Labyrinth in Bronte, Dickens, Hardy, and Butor, published by Peter Lang, 1993, p. 14. 12. Star-Tribune, Minneapolis, October 3.