Jesus on the Roof (Mark 2:1-12)

 

So this afternoon I saw this Tweet:

The idea behind it is a riff on Mark 2, when a group of friends tear up the roof of the house where Jesus is staying so they can lower down their paralysed friend. If you’re the guy on the mat or one of his friends, it’s a story of loyalty and determination. That’s where we like to position ourselves in the narrative; we like to see ourselves as the people on the roof, doing whatever we need to do to get people to Jesus.

Alternatively we see ourselves as loyal followers of Jesus, anticipating a miracle and admiring the commitment of those roof-breakers. What we don’t do is picture ourselves as the homeowner whose roof now has a hole in it.

(Incidentally, it’s likely that homeowner was Peter, which puts a bit of a twist on things. I wonder if Jesus the ex-builder helped fix the hole later?)

See, for all we like to say we’re outward looking, for all we like to believe that we want people to find Jesus through our churches ad services and congregations, too often that only extends as far as our own particular comfort zones. The moment disruption starts, the moment we have to spend some money on structural alterations, the moment we have to turn down the volume on our rockin’ worship, the moment things have to change…

Well, there are emergency church council meetings. There are concerned emails to the minister and whispers in corners, and meanwhile there’s a hole in the roof and instead of us welcoming those vandals in, they’re left outside in the cold while we set up a Special Purposes Committee to quickly clean up the thatch and the roof tiles. God bless the rare people who brew up cups of coffee and then get the ladders out.

And yes, this is directly true of people with disabilities. Look at it this way, is it ‘normal’, in your church, to buy a job lot of hymnbooks, but ‘disruptive’ to buy a couple of large print editions?

Is it ‘normal’ for people to sit in pews, but ‘disruptive’ to remove one of those pews to allow wheelchair access?

Is it ‘normal’ to play loud worship music, but ‘disruptive’ to modify that to support those with sensory processing difficulties?

Of course, this isn’t limited to the church’s relationship to people with disabilities, although that’s the original context of the story and a theme of this blog. It’s every time we seek to limit disruption for the sake of keeping things as they’ve always been, it’s every time we reinforce the roof so that people can’t break through and cause us ‘problems’.

But here’s the thing – Jesus welcomed the man on the mat and his friends into the house, even if they came in through an unconventional entrance. And if they hadn’t been able to make a hole, if they’d just been up there shouting for help, I believe Jesus would have climbed up there to meet them.

But we’ve had two thousand years to get used to Jesus’s grace for those on the margins, we’ve had centuries of church history to learn Jesus-heals-paralyticthat the most disruptive people in our communities are often the prophets. Just once it would be nice to preempt the disruption by going out to find those who need our help before they feel forced to break out the ladders in the first place.

And if you’re struggling to see the real, powerful presence of Jesus at work in your church…

…Maybe it’s time to go outside and look for him up on the roof.

 

 

How the Parable of the Banquet Should Mess With Our Imagination (Luke 14:15-24)

NeumeisterVosAs the lectionary today has been orbiting the Parable(s) of the Banquet, there’s a fairly obvious question we can ask – why is the Kingdom of God described as a banquet in the first place? It’s a good biblical theme, with roots in Isaiah 25, and a banquet is a picture of fellowship and acceptance, which speaks of God’s grace. However, all that said, I wonder if we need to embrace the picture in order to give us a more powerful vision of what God’s Kingdom is. It’s been said that people find it a lot easier to picture hell than they do heaven, and that’s a shame, because surely it’s better to focus our imaginations on the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, both in the future and right here and now.

So why not take some time to picture how and why God’s image of a banquet should capture our imaginations.

Because God’s great banquet isn’t quiet, God’s great banquet isn’t serious and dull. There’ll be laughing and singing and dancing, there’ll be joy and hope and tears of gratitude. For those who’ve been hungry there’ll be food to eat, and not just rationed portions but an all-you-can-eat buffet you smell as soon as you walk through the door, cuisine from France and Italy and China and India and the best fish and chips you’ve ever eaten.

For those who are heart-broken, there’s the chance to sit with someone in the kitchen and talk it through, but when you’re ready there’ll be music you can dance to without any guilt. Those who’ve been down on their luck are still invited in, even if they’re wearing an old pair of trainers and jeans from Oxfam, and the angels on the door may even dig out a tuxedo or a Ralph Lauren evening dress for you.

And for those who are ashamed, who feel like they don’t deserve to be there, who feel like their sins and their past are too shameful for them to even step over the threshold, Jesus himself heads straight for them, he takes their coat and pours their drink because they need to know that the King of Kings who hosts this party wrote their name on the welcome list himself, because he loves them and wants them to be there, he wants them to be there so much that he went to the cross to make sure the door to this great banquet could be thrown open to all who want to come.

Eating together, sharing a meal together, is how the Bible shows acceptance and fellowship, and that’s why the central ritual in Christianity isn’t a hymn or sermon, it’s a a simple meal of bread and wine that reminds us of what Christ did for us, and of God’s great love for his people.

The realisation of that can change lives: Zacchaeus is a tax collector hated by all, but one meal with Jesus and he’s giving away a fortune just to make amends; a woman gatecrashes a party just to anoint Jesus’s feet, and he ends up telling her that she’ll be remembered forever for the beautiful thing she did. Parties with Jesus aren’t about vol au vents and a few glasses of wine, they’re an opportunity for grace, and when you end up partying with Jesus…

…Life is going to change forever.

The Great Banquet of God Has Wheelchair Access

20121019-114225.jpgJesus was a storyteller.

He composed stories and remixed parables and turned tales on their heads, and he did all this to teach us about fundamental cosmic realities, things like salvation and redemption and atonement.That’s why we still love these parables, because we never truly get to the bottom of them, but yet the core truths contained within them dig deep into our bones.

But while the parables have a spiritual message for us, some of them can’t be left there. After all, we can take the theological insights from them and leave the parables trapped between the covers of our Bibles instead of taking them out onto our streets and into our communities. Some of the parables need to be embodied – incarnated – into the world around us and into the lives of our church. After all, the Good Samaritan teaches us to help whoever needs help; the Prodigal Son teaches us to always be prepared to offer forgiveness. And the Parable of the Banquet teaches us to create welcoming communities.

Long story short – Jesus tells the story of a king who holds a wedding feast, but when the big day arrives, the guests decide they can’t be bothered to attend. In the face of this rudeness, the king orders his servants out into the streets to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame”. In other words, the people who weren’t normally at the top of anyone’s guest list. Of course, this was a picture of how the Kingdom of God wasn’t limited to a privileged religious elite, but let’s not limit this to a nice metaphor of our spiritual salvation – what if this was a description of our churches?

Look, let’s be honest – churches aren’t always the most accessible places when it comes to disability awareness. But in the parable, there’s a specific invite to those who have a disability. Why? Because when Jesus was originally telling this story at a polite dinner party, the disabled were often left on the fringes of society, begging on the margins just to get enough to eat. Jesus is throwing the doors open, and two thousand years later, we should be doing the same. Because the Kingdom of God isn’t just about heaven and the afterlife, it’s about the here and now.

So we have a responsibility to ensure that God’s Great Banquet in the here and now is accessible. Think about those servants in the parable – if you’re sent out to those who can’t see, then you need to have some invites written in Braille. If you’re sent out to those with mobility issues, then you’d better be sure that the party venue isn’t at the top of three flights of stairs and a broken-down lift.

Then there’s the party itself – are the chefs able to cater for different dietary needs? Is there sign language interpretation on hand for the speeches? Is there a chill-out room for people getting sensory overload when the band gets loud? Has anyone involved those guests in the arrangements in the first place?

God expects his Great Banquet to have wheelchair access. Because otherwise people will be left on the outside, and God is very, very unimpressed when that happens.

We’re called to be a church that welcomes all but that goes beyond simply issuing an invite and expecting everyone to fit in. Instead, we should incarnate that Great Banquet and proactively find ways to make sure that everyone is truly welcome and able to participate, volunteer or lead to their fullest. What if, in other words, we treated the parable of the banquet not just as a story that’s spiritually true but also as something that’s lived out in our church communities.

If the gospel you preach isn’t good news for everyone then a piece of it is missing. If we’re not proclaiming jubilee for those who’ve been imprisoned by a lack of resources and a lack of understanding, by the ableism of the fallen world around us, then we’ve reduced the words of Jesus to a get out of jail free card. And if the love of Christ only extends as far as the edges of our comfort zones, then it’s not the love of Christ.

We carry with us invitations to the heart of the Kingdom of God. After all, he wants to be known by all his people, no barriers.

Do we work with him on this?

Are we loyal and eager servants, preparing the feast so that all can participate?

Or are we bouncers?

 

 

(There are more posts on this subject here.)

Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 21:8-21)

I recently read a fascinating post by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg which offers a different slant on the story of Hagar and Ishmael, paticularly how this relates to what happens with Isaac and Abraham later.

Basically, through a complicated series of domestic events, Sarah’s slave Hagar has given Abraham a son, Ishmael. Later, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, whereupon Sarah wants Hagar and Ishmael sent away so that Isaac won’t have to share the family intelligence. This is where things get messy, because when Sarah insists that Ishmael goes away, God agrees – because he’s going to make Ishmael into a nation just like Isaac.

Which, given that Abraham is told about this destiny, it seems suspicious that he gives Hagar and Ishmael a limited amount of food as they disappear off into the desert. Could have dropped them off at the next available city but no, they run out of food as they head deeper and it looks like they’re about to starve to death under a bush until God intervenes to save them.

Ruttenberg’s treatment of what happens next is what made the article so interesting to me. Because I’d never appreciated how close this story is to the passage in which Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac. And while the idea that this is a test of Abraham’s faith is the traditional interpretation, maybe the form that this test takes is linked to the fact that he’s just ‘sacrificed’ his other son… Only with Isaac he’s going to have to look him in the eye while he does it.

God intervenes again and Isaac goes on to be the forefather of another great people. But given the treatment of Hagar, the article’s suggestion that the binding of Isaac doubles up as a punishment is compelling, a confrontation with the sins of the past. I wonder if Abraham thought about whether Ishmael had survived while he prepared to sacrifice Isaac?

Hagar is a victim of the power structures within the story, an inconvenience who is expected to disappear once her usefulness is at an end. But by linking Ishmael’s fate with Isaac’s we see how the consequences of Abraham and Sarah’s actions influence and inform events. It reminds us that the ‘fringes’ of our narratives are full of people falling beneath the wheels; the margins are full of people who’ve been abandoned in the wilderness. And yet God meets them there; a great people can emerge from the fringes as well as the centre.

But only if recognise people’s humanity; only if we stop the sacrifices.

Gotta Kick at the Darkness ‘Til It Bleeds Daylight (The Feast of the Transfiguration and World Humanitarian Day)

Once, long ago, four men climbed a mountain, they climbed a mountain and at the top one’s face shone like the sun as he was transfigured in front of his friends. It’s a moment of revelation, and it points to Jesus’s identity as the Son of God incarnated here on earth, but I’m never sure what to do with it. It’s liminal and mystical, and we don’t live in a particularly liminal or mystical world.

But the Eastern Orthodox Feast of the Transfiguration and World Humanitarian Day both fall on August 19th, and so it feels like the two should be in conversation with each other. After all, the Transfiguration states that not only is another world possible, not only is another world out there, but that another world is here. And it may be hidden and it may be slow in being revealed, and it may be wearing sandals and tired from the climb, but it’s present, incarnated among the shouting and the weeping and the chaos.

When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, the disciples didn’t see an alternative reality, they saw something that’s already here, often invisible but always present, the light of the world breaking through the walls we build around it and the veneer we paint over it. And it drove them to their knees, because in the face of occupation and oppression, poverty and prejudice, Reality broke through and they never wanted it to end.

But they had to come down the mountain, had to go back into the world, had to watch the One whose face shone with the glory of God get nailed to a cross, had to watch the Divine fall victim to state sponsored violence. “Gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight,” a wise man once sang, but sometimes all you do is kick, kick until you’re exhausted and frustrated and your foot hurts like hell,  kick until you’re bleeding but the daylight isn’t.

Maybe that’s still part of the same thing though, a refusal to quit, a conviction that the light will break through, eventually, that if Christ is enthroned on a cross then there’s a Transfiguration of sorts in the kicking too, because it also points to a different world that may be hidden now but that eventually breaks through.

What does it mean to live in a world where we talk about Glory on the mountaintops but down in the valley kids stumble through the rubble, dusty and bleeding and crying for their mothers?

It means that we can’t remain silent.

It means that we can’t remain complicit.

It means that we can’t ignore the image of God in the refugee, or the wounded, or those who lie in bombed-out hospitals as the power cuts out.

It means that sometimes we shut up about the righteousness of our politics and allow ourselves to weep.

It means we let the sun get in our eyes so that we see something more than the raging and the rubble around us.

It means we honour those who go out there and try to help, it means we offer them support here at home, it means we all peer into the darkness looking for the light, because while sometimes that light is salvation, other times it’s a beacon towards which we’re being called.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John talks about this in the opening of his gospel because it shapes everything that comes after it. And it should shape us, because it means we can live in the awareness of that light, we can see it on the mountaintop but also let it sustain our hearts and hands when we’re down in the valley. And we carry it with us, and sometimes we’re the ones who have to allow it to shine through into the dark corners of the world, the war zones and refugee camps, the politics and the prejudice. And be conscious, also, that the light is already there, that we witness a reality rather than create it. And the light of that reality will not be overcome.