“And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him….” Mark 2:1-12
This was not Jesus’ first trip to the fishing village of Capernaum. According to Mark’s gospel, he’d been there just a few days before. On that previous visit, he had stopped by the home of his two newest disciples, Simon and Andrew, and while he was there, he had healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever. News of the miracle spread quickly through the town, and by that evening a crowd had gathered at the house. But the very next morning, much to everyone’s disappointment, Jesus had awakened before sunrise, slipped quietly outside, and left town.
But now, Jesus was back! The miracle worker had returned to Capernaum! You can imagine how quickly the news spread through the village, as everyone put aside their daily tasks and hurried through the streets to Simon’s house. Everyone, that is, except for four men, who were hurrying, not to Simon’s house, but in the opposite direction.
They were on their way to the home of a friend, who was bedridden, paralyzed. They had heard of Jesus’ arrival as well, and they were determined that this time, their friend would not be left out of the miracle. So the four of them rushed to his house and hurriedly explained to him what was happening. Then they hoisted his bed up on their shoulders with their friend still in it, and the five of them made their way as quickly as they could toward Simon’s house.
But they were too late; the narrow doorway was already clogged with people. There was no way for their friend to get through to Jesus. The door was open, but he just couldn’t fit inside.
* * *
Now, we all know there are churches today which draw such large congregations that the people spill out doors, into the narthex, and latecomers have to watch the worship service on a closed circuit TV in the fellowship hall. But I have personally never been to a church like that. Most of the congregations I know are concerned instead about the number of empty pews on Sunday morning. But the truth is that whatever the size of the church, there are some of us who, like the paralytic in the gospel story, still find it hard to fit inside.
Sometimes the barriers to access are external: a flight of stairs we can’t scale, a small-print bulletin that we can’t read, a sound system that we can’t hear. Sometimes the barriers are internal: memories of past experiences in church which wounded us and left us feeling invisible or judged. The barriers that keep us outside may not be obvious, but they are there, underground, like one of those invisible electric fences that keep dogs in their place. Sometimes the memory of past pain can be enough keep us from crossing the boundary.
I have a friend who, as a young man, felt called to a religious vocation. He entered a monastery, and began the process of preparation and discernment that leads up to the taking of vows. At some point in the process, he confessed to his priest that he was gay. My friend recalls that at the time he honestly did not realize that this might be an obstacle to his becoming a monk; after all, monks take a vow of celibacy, and he was prepared to make that commitment. But within hours of making his confession, my friend was expelled from the monastery, literally pushed out the door onto the sidewalk without even a bus ticket home.
It took many years for the wounds from that rejection to heal, and during that time my friend stayed away from church. But then, after literally decades, he began to feel again a call to be part of a community of faith. In his town, he had seen a church with a rainbow flag outside. And so one Sunday, he stepped inside. My friend once described to me his feelings as he stepped across the threshold. “My heart was pounding,” he said, “and I was sweating, and my hands were shaking. I was terrified.” He took a seat in the very back pew, keeping open the option of escape.
My friend later became a deacon of that same church, but he still remembers how hard it was to come through the door. And his story is a reminder, I think, for all of us on the inside of the church doors. If it was that hard for him to cross the threshold, there must be people who just can’t get through the door at all.
There is a song that I learned from the good people at Haydenville Congregational, maybe some of you know it too. Its opening words are printed as the meditation at the top of today’s worship bulletin. “We are a church where everyone is welcome..” do you know this? “We are a church where everyone is welcome/I know it’s true cause I got through the door/ We are a dazzling bouquet of every kind of flower / So jump in the vase cause we got space for more.” It’s a great song. But every time I sing it I am struck by the fact that there is a flaw in the logic of the lyrics. Maybe some of you have noticed it too. It’s there in the second line: “I know it’s true ‘cause I got through the door.” Those of us who have struggled to find a church home that would welcome us may be perhaps excused for breaking into song when we finally found one. But the truth is, the fact that I got through the door doesn’t mean it was accessible to everyone else. I have never seen a church sign that read, “You are not welcome here.” But the fact that you and I feel welcome somewhere, doesn’t mean that everyone feels welcome.
That room in Capernaum, after all, was filled with people who had got through the door just fine.
Which brings me back to our gospel story.
So there they are, where we left them, outside Simon’s house. The paralyzed man lying on his bed, the four friends standing there, breathless and discouraged, with no way to get through the door, no way to get to Jesus. And then… whose idea was it? The man on the bed, or one of his friends? We don’t know. But one of them suddenly gets a gleam in his eye, and he looks at his friends, and says, “Boys: let’s raise the roof.” Maybe one of them objects – “We can’t, what would Simon say” – but the idea has already caught hold of them, there’s no turning back now – and the next thing they know they are up on the roof, ripping up the tiles. Making a way out of no way.
And the folks inside hear some commotion up above, as bits of tile begin to rain down on them, and suddenly sunlight breaks through from a hole in the roof. And then down he comes, on his bed, right to the very center of the room. And I imagine his four friends peering down after him, grinning at the holy mess they have made of Simon’s house.
The story of the paralytic and his four friends is a story of healing, and of forgiveness; but it is also a story about access, about who gets in, and about who is left out. In Jesus’ day, as in our own, those who differ from the norm were often forced to the back of the crowd, the margins of society. For the physically disabled, physical barriers were only part of the problem; disability and illness were often assumed to be a punishment for some sin. In Jesus’ day, as in our own, people with disabilities were relegated to the edges of the community, held at arm’s length, viewed as inferior to the able-bodied. This is why Jesus’ first priority is to tell the paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven; Jesus recognizes that the stigma of disability can be its greatest burden. With his word, Jesus completes what the four friends have begun: he brings the outsider in, to the true center, which is God’s love.
So why am I telling you this particular story, today?
I work for a Northampton ministry called Cathedral in the Night. For those of you who haven’t yet had a chance to be part of it, Cathedral in the Night is an ecumenical fellowship that meets every Sunday at 5pm on the corner of Main Street and Center Street in downtown Northampton. We worship outdoors, and then, thanks to the efforts of partners such as Center Church, we share an outdoor meal which is free to all comers. We do this every Sunday, rain or shine, winter or summer.
People sometimes ask us – not so much on weekends like this, but on January weekends when it’s well below freezing – why we worship and eat outdoors. After all, it is a lot of work to set up lights and heaters, and even then there are nights when we have to pass out those little pocket hand-warmers to stave off the frostbite. I sometimes play guitar for the services, and I have to admit that as the temperature drops, so does the quality of my accompaniment. So, why do we insist on doing this outside?
Well, the simplest answer is this: We worship outside, because that’s where outsiders are. It’s the one place where they know they belong. On any given Sunday, our street corner congregation may include people who are living in poverty, people who are homeless, people in the grip of alcoholism and other addictions, people who are illiterate, people with disabilities or illnesses or other traits that place them outside of the mainstream, and people whose personal histories have forced them to the very edge of their community. On any given Sunday, our congregation may also include those who are housed, employed, able-bodied, educated, and esteemed by their communities. We gather on the street corner, because it’s a place where no one is really an outsider, because no one is really an insider. It’s the place where the edge meets the center.
This is why we worship outside: We’re trying to tear a hole in the roof, and everyone who comes to worship with us, is helping to rip up the tiles.
So this story is by way of thank you, and also by way of invitation. As you go through your week, look around, and ask yourself, who is missing here? Because who knows? Maybe you will be the friend to raise the roof for them.
(Originally preached at “Center Church,” a.k.a. First Congregational Church, UCC, South Hadley, MA, on March 25, 2012.)