This past week I lost a good friend. Cathy Coyle Johns died very unexpectedly on Monday. I was with her on the Friday before she died and she was fine. I met Cathy about 6 years ago when we were on a silent retreat with each other in Michigan. Now as you can imagine, you don’t get to talk much at a silent retreat, but we did share adjoining rooms at the retreat center and because of that we shared the same bathroom.
I remember at the end of the retreat, she asked me if I heard music during the week in my room. I recalled that I had heard some music periodically but I thought maybe she was singing. She said she had heard it too, but she wasn’t singing – there was just music coming from somewhere into her room. It made her happy that week.
After that time, we saw each other every once in awhile, but then I saw her a lot during Obama’s campaign and again when she was working on the Affordable Care Act sign ups and petitions to get it to pass the House and Senate. She worked so hard on both campaigns. She also organized prayer vigils for victims of violence in our city, one of which was at my former church, Monroe Street United Methodist.
And then I didn’t see her for a while. When I asked about her, I was told that she had a very bad virus that had attacked her heart, that she was really sick and that they weren’t sure she would survive. But she did. And although she was weaker and believed that because of some lack of oxygen to her brain during her illness, her speech was affected, I never saw her skip a beat. Her laugh and her spirit were spontaneous and wonderful.
She was in a Dialogue to Change group this last six weeks and attended faithfully every session. She was so sensitive to the needs of others; she was passionate for the poor and for those who have mental illnesses. She was thinking of organizing some pastors and churches to get involved with a need that had surfaced, and asked Cheri and I if we would be interested in helping out. She was an active supporter of NAMI, the group who will benefit from our production of “Next to Normal.”
And then she was gone. She and her husband, Brian went to pick up a puppy that was supposed to be hypoallergenic, but on their way back from Akron, Cathy went into anaphylactic shock. Although CPR was performed on her, she had suffered a lack of oxygen to her body for too long, and after a few days on life support, the family decided it was time to let her go. She died on Monday evening.
When her family put the news on Facebook to let us all know, there were hundreds of comments left. The comments ranged from shock to many words of witness to Cathy’s life and effect on others. She touched so many lives in so many ways, and with all the work she did, she really made a difference.
In today’s Scripture reading, we have the story of a man who was paralyzed, being brought on a pallet to see Jesus. It’s another one of my favorite stories and I want to thank Juliette for telling it to us. It is, after all, a story and it was told over and over after Jesus died as a witness to his power of healing and to who he was.
So we have this man, who is paralyzed who wants to see Jesus. Or at least we think he does. What we know for sure is that he was brought to the house where Jesus was speaking the word. There were a lot of people there, and in fact, there were so many that there was no more room in the house. People were standing outside trying to hear what Jesus was saying. This paralyzed guy was brought to the house where Jesus was speaking by four men, friends, we suppose. They were so intent on getting their friend to Jesus that, when they couldn’t get in the door, they went up on the roof and tore the roof off.
Houses in those times were made of mud, kind of like what we would call adobe. The roofs were generally flat and made of the same mud or clay that the house was. So, when these four friends removed the roof, you get a picture of what they went through. They had to claw, probably with their hands, to tear out a section of the roof so that the pallet that the man was on could fit through, so that he could be lowered down into the crowd. Are you kidding me? Think about this. We’re talking about a roof that was probably pretty thick – thick enough that five people could be up there with little or no effect. These guys clawed their way through the mud, which means that those inside the house had to find themselves with dust and hunks of clay falling all around them and on top of them as the men worked. Imagine being the owner of the house! This man’s four friends were pretty desperate to get him to Jesus.
And when he was finally there in front of Jesus, waiting to be healed, Jesus says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” He didn’t say, “You’re healed.” He said, “Your sins are forgiven.” And not only that, in verse five it says that, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.” The paralytic didn’t do or say anything. The four friends who carried him there did it all, and it was their faith that Jesus saw. They made all the difference for the paralytic. They believed that Jesus could heal him. And Jesus responded to them.
There have been times in my life when I’ve been or felt immobilized, paralyzed by fear, emotions, sadness, grief, chaos, depression, busyness, and any number of other things. How about you? Anyone here ever find yourselves just not able to think or do anything because you are so overwhelmed by what’s going on? When I get that way, my hope and prayer is that someone will reach out to me to lift me up and give me hope that things will be okay. Jesus can do that for me most if not all of the time. But there are times when I’m like the little boy who was asked by his mother to go to the basement to get a can of vegetables for dinner. He told her he didn’t want to go down there because he was afraid of the dark and the basement was dark. She told him that he would be okay because Jesus would be with him. His response was, “Yeah, but I need someone with skin!”
There are times when we need someone with skin, aren’t there? There are times when I need to be carried like the paralytic was carried to Jesus. There are times when I forget that Jesus is even there, or that Jesus can heal me and strengthen me. And that’s when I need someone to carry me. Can I get an amen?
When the four friends brought the paralytic to Jesus, his sins were forgiven. And when his sins were forgiven, he was able to walk. Imagine if they had gotten discouraged because they couldn’t get in the door. Imagine if they had left, bemoaning the fact that they didn’t get there in time or that all those outsiders took up all the space. Imagine if they hadn’t had the courage to go up on the roof and tear a hole to get their friend through. Imagine…
Those four friends made a difference in the life of their friend, the paralytic, and they made a difference for those who witnessed their friendship and their faith. Jesus saw it and he responded by healing their friend. Those who were there saw it as they felt the clay falling on their heads and watched the roof open up.
My friend, our friend, Cathy, made a difference. She boldly and courageously lived out her convictions about helping people and crossing the barriers between the rich and the poor and even between the rich and the middle class. She stood with others as they attempted to work the system. People who wrote memories about her talked about the difference she made just with her laugh, her smile, and her sense of humor.
I’m a firm believer that each one of us can make a difference. We don’t have to be in the spotlight or on the news to do it. We just need to reach out and be that one in the skin for someone else. A friend of mine, a pastor, did a walk on the streets of Cincinnati as he was getting to know his new appointment. He talked to strangers, he visited bars and restaurants, and he sat with the homeless on the streets. He says that he asked the homeless what was the hardest part of being homeless. He said that his or her response almost universally was, “No one looks me in the face.” I remember that story and I always try to look those on the streets and in the shelters and in the downtown library in the eyes and talk to them. I hope that is making a difference.
He also spent time in the neighborhood around the church picking up trash once or twice a week. He is white, and his church was African American. The neighborhood was African American, so when they saw this older white guy walking around picking up trash in their neighborhood, they asked questions. They found out he was the new pastor at the church in their area and that he was interested in bettering the community and so he was picking up trash. Before long others joined him, and the neighborhood began to look better. He made a difference.
Rock is constantly helping me learn about gender identification. He has been very patient most of the time in correcting me when I use the wrong word. At this point, he should be just about done with me, but he persists. He has made, and continues to make, a difference.
I think about those of you who are teachers and parents, those who touch the lives of others in your work and in your play, and I know you make a difference. I also know that sometimes you carry your students, your children, your co-workers, and your friends, just like the four friends carried the paralytic. And when you do that, when we do that, we make a difference. Many of you have brought others to church. I see posts that you put on Facebook about the awesome worship services we have here, and you invite others to come. Believe it or not, even if they don’t come, you have made a difference by witnessing to your faith and your faithfulness.
I often think about the Village statement that we read every week. Living out that statement, we can and we do make a difference. Living lives that show patience, forgiveness and compassion has to make a difference in this world that is so fast and furious and seemingly violent and hateful in many situations. Imagine what our world or even our community would be like if we all were able to live like that all the time!
So today, I challenge us to make a difference. Step up your game. Notice those who need someone with skin to lift them up, to challenge their paralysis, to show them their worth. Live that life of compassion, forgiveness and patience in a world that desperately needs it. Be an instrument of hope. Carry your friend to Jesus.