“We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves at fires we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are ever bound in community."

Rev. Peter Raible (paraphrased from Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ripping the Roof off the House - thoughts on this Sunday's Sermon (input welcome!)

NOTE: So I'm trying something new. I'm posting a couple of stories and thought sketches that I'm thinking about using in the sermon on Sunday. Here they are: 

In the Gospel of Mark, there’s a story that goes like this: Jesus is in a little village called Capernaum (just so we’re all on the same page here, Capernaum is on the North side of the Sea of Galilee (map here; scroll down). He’s in a house and there’s a huge crowd gathered. The doorways are full of people. He’s been preaching, teaching, and healing all day, and a massive crowd has gathered.
The house is packed.
Photo credit
The doorways are packed.
There are even people gathered around the house, trying to see what’s going on.
(It’s probably like a really popular concert or workshop that you've arrived late to...and there's lots of excitement and noise going on in the front, but you can't really see or hear much.)
So in this story, some folks on the outside climb up to the roof and pull off the tiles in order to lower a paralyzed man into the house, so Jesus can heal him. 
Maybe you know this story?
Truthfully, I haven’t thought about it much since seminary.
            But I’ve just finished a book called Tattoos on the Heart, by Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest.  Greg Boyle is the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, located in Los Angeles, the gang capital of the world.  (Their motto and mission of Homeboy Industries is: "Nothing stops a bullet like a job.") Homeboy Industries provides jobs, tattoo removal, and much more, for former gang members.  
In one of the chapters, Boyle tells the story about the roof getting ripped off the house, so the paralyzed man can get to Jesus.  

             But before I dig into this story and why I think it’s relevant to us, let me suggest that first, we become "undone." Let me explain. 
             It seems to me that whenever we approach a story from the Bible (or any where else for that matter), we have to come “undone,” to let go of preconceived notions, of all that would prevent us from hearing the story in new, life giving ways.
We have got to come "undone" first…so that we can be “re-made”/”redone” in a deeper love and understanding, as the story works on us.

            As an example, here's a story about being "undone" from Tattos on the Heart.
“In 1987," Greg Boyle writes, "the church made the decision to have homeless and undocumented men sleep at the church. Once the homeless began to sleep in the church at night, there was always the faintest evidence they’d been there.
Come Sunday morning, we’d foo foo the place as best we could. We would sprinkle, I Love My Carpet on the rugs….but the smell always remained….and the grumbling set in, and people spoke of “churching” elsewhere.
             The smell was never overwhelming, just undeniably there…so we determined to address the discontent in our homilies one Sunday…So I begin with, ‘What’s the church smell like?’”
             People are mortified, eye contact ceases, women search inside their purses for they know not what.
                “Come on now,” I throw back at them, “what’s the church smell like?”
                “Huele a patas” (smells like feet), Don Rafael booms out. He was old and never cared what people thought.
                “Excellent. But why does it smell like feet?”
                “Cuz many homeless men slept here last night?” says a woman.
                “Well, why do we let that happen here?”
                “Es nuestro compromiso” (it’s what we’ve committed to do), says another.
                “Well, why would anyone commit to do that?”
                “Porque es lo que haria Jesus.” (It’s what Jesus would do.)
                “Well, then…what’s the church smell like now?”
                A man stands and bellows, “Huele a nuestro compromiso (it smells like commitment).
                The place cheers" (74).
                Stink, stank, smell. 
                Undone, to be redone in the authority and spirit of compassion, generosity, commitment. 

            Back to the story in the Gospel of Mark.
As Greg Boyle says, ‘Jesus is in a house so packed that no can come through the door anymore…so the people open the roof and lower this paralyzed man down through it, so Jesus can heal him. The focus of the story is, understandably, the healing of the paralytic. But there is something more significant than that happening here:
They’re ripping the roof off the place, and those on the outside are being let in” (75).         
            “If we love what God loves,” writes Greg Boyle, "then, in compassion, margins get erased…and we dismantle barriers that exclude” (75).
            There’s a simpler way to say this: compassion rips the roof off.
Literally, the roof had to be undone, tile by tile, so the circle of compassion could be re-done, wider than before. 


Obviously, I'm still working on this...it's no where near a final product..it's a work in progress. And because a sermon is a living thing, I'd love your thoughts and reactions to what's here, if you have a minute.

Here are some potential reflection questions to jump start your thinking: 

*How does this story speak to your life and or your faith? 
*What does commitment "smell like" in your life?
*What scares you about the kinds of commitments that kindness and compassion call you to?
*What makes you come "undone?" How are you different when you're put back together?

Thanks for reading and engaging! - Justin


Jessica Wicks said...

When I lived in Houston, I attended an MCC, an outreach congregation for lgbt. At one point I signed up for a retreat. The folks running the retreat came to me to ask a favor. A transgender woman was being given a scholarship to attend the retreat. Would I be willing to let her room with me. More detail is needed about this woman however. She had begun transition, but smack dab in the middle, with her body already changed significantly, she was given a mental diagnosis and all hormones etc were stopped.

When she was "up" she always looked nice and was a pleasant person in spite of the fact she was homeless living out of her truck. When she was "down" she stopped shaving, bathing, and pretty much everything associated with personal grooming. She'd wear the same dress day after day, sometimes for weeks at a time.

As fate had it, at the time of the retreat she had been "down" for a time. The story about the stench immediately rang a bell with me. For two nights I literally stayed on the edge of nausea the entire time no matter how hard I tried. I'd excuse myself and slip over to the chapel and lie down and catch catnaps because I could not sleep it was so bad.

But something happened over that weekend. I got to know this woman not as that homeless person or the person who stunk to high heavens, but as a person. She shared how she had begun transition and suddenly they took it all away, leaving her stranded somewhere in between. She told of losing her home, family, friends. She could not hold a job, and the social security disability she received was not sufficient to survive and maintain a home.

Yet she demonstrated for me how to make lemonade of lemons. She said she had the truck and she put it to use. She made the rounds at different food establishments and got donations of food, and took clothing donations from other church members and anyone else she could connect with. She'd take those goods and share them with the other homeless people on the streets.

As so often happens, reflecting on the story, was I the healer, being sought out by those in need? I'm more inclined to believe I was the cripple being lowered through the gaping hole in the roof. My church community opened that hole in the roof, lowered me down so I could be healed.

Justin Schroeder said...

Jessica, this is such a powerful story. Thank you for sharing it.

I am particularly moved by your closing paragraph: "As so often happens, reflecting on the story, was I the healer, being sought out by those in need? I'm more inclined to believe I was the cripple being lowered through the gaping hole in the roof. My church community opened that hole in the roof, lowered me down so I could be healed."

Isn't that the paradox and the beauty of a faith community? We heal and are healed in the oddest of ways.

Thanks again for sharing this story.

In gratitude,

Chris Bremer said...

Some random ramblings:
I work in a U of MN center that focuses on disability issues. Some of my colleagues are like me, with little or no personal experience of disability. Others are parents or siblings or children or spouses of people with disabilities. Others have disabilities themselves, including cerebral palsy, autism, and intellectual disabilities. Through them I have been opened up in some small ways. My everyday contact with my colleagues with disabilities has made me acutely aware that they are not looking for a cure (from Jesus or Mayo), or sympathy, but rather inclusion and a fair shake.
People with disabilities are often used (including in the Bible) as a foil, a stand-in character whose role is to allow us to help them, so there can be a moral to the story. Their situation may be portrayed as so desperate that a roof needs to be wrecked to help them. It is almost like a charm -- e.g. maybe if I help people like this I will ward off such disasters for myself and my family. For me, my experiences at work has meant that helping out is, over time, becoming an imperfect, sometimes awkward dance instead of “doing the right thing.”
I'm not sure if this qualifies as "scary," but a compassion challenge for me is taking the time to stop for a casual chat with a colleague whose speech is slow and extremely hard for me to understand. His face becomes quite contorted when he talks. To understand him, I have to watch his lips. To watch his lips is to stare at his vulnerability and he does not want to be seen as vulnerable. And yet my heart goes out to him with a sense of, well, pity, which I don't want to feel and which I know he does not want me to feel. And then to have to ask him to repeat something feels like a personal failure on my part, though I imagine he feels it is a failure on his part. To watch his face in order to understand him is to show my own, with all its incorrect emotions that he and I can't talk about.
On another note, the theme of smells is challenging in itself. Smells go straight to the limbic system, the oldest, reptilian, part of our brain. Our memories and emotions are stirred by smells like nothing else. Whatever our intentions, if a smell seems disgusting, the only hope is to associate it with something positive that happens when you smell it. But honestly that seems like a long shot. As much as I am committed to my church home, if it smelled like cigarettes or McDonalds or smelly socks, I'd be gone. They also serve who give money or write letters to politicians instead of putting up with stinky-feet smell.
Finally, our desire to be loving towards others should not lead us to put aside reasonable reservations about someone whose behavior raises red flags. For example, homeless people sometimes have mental health issues that can make them dangerous to themselves or others. When we understand not only that others are like us but that they can be unlike us too in important ways (making our rip-the-roof-off empathetic responses unreliable guides to action), we have a basis for honestly connecting with their inherent worth and dignity. This is not the traditional religious message, but it is where I have come to in my own life. I guess that means that while compassion leads me to action, particularly in the area of human rights, I’d just as soon the roof stay put. Because if we think it’s cool to rip the roof off, we may need to respect, say, Michelle Bachmann’s desire to rip off a different roof. Unless we think we have the inside line on what God loves.

Justin Schroeder said...

Hello dear readers...I'm adding a comment here that was posted over on my Facebook page. I think it adds to and deepens the conversation. Thanks, all, for reading and sharing your reflections.

From the Facebook page: "First of all, a commitment is not just what we agree to do, it goes much deeper. Sometimes I think people use the term too lightly. Commitment entails making a conscious decision to bear the burden (small or great) that's associated with what you've taken on as a duty to a person or a cause. Like many people, I've remained committed to some things and have also abandoned commitments.

This story makes me ponder why that is so. Abandoning a commitment is difficult and painful and is done only after a lot of contemplation. Perhaps the difference in keeping or abandoning commitments has something to do with how we may feel strongly and deeply that it is the right thing to do and it helps accomplish a worthy goal. And in other circumstances the commitment may feel like an obligation or something expected of us that is not accomplishing anything. Perhaps we weren't involved in making the commitment in the first place. Without that inner, genuine sense of commitment in our gut perhaps we can't sustain it. In short, I think we have to know what we're fighting for.

In the story, the people of the church were reminded of what led to sheltering homeless there in the first place; to fight (so to speak) against people sleeping on the street. Once they had clarity about what they were fighting for they were willing to bear the burden with renewed commitment and tolerance of what comes with it. A good lesson for us all to dig down inside ourselves and discover what's really important to us and what we're really willing to commit to."

ginny said...

This sentence is wonderful and I hope it makes the cut!

Undone, to be redone in the authority and spirit of compassion, generosity, commitment.

That's all - less profound than others but it seems to me to be the essential piece of your ponderings!


Chris Bremer said...

Commitment = promise, duty, obligation, choice, mission, burden, joy? All of these?
What strikes me is the social role in commitment to issues and actions (I'm leaving aside commitment to family and friendships here). While some people are committed to reducing carbon emissions or stopping torture, others are committed to unrestricted gun rights or repealing Obamacare. All of these can be strong and deep commitments, and all seem strongly mediated by group identity and not just a personal sense of what is right and worthwhile (there must be some good social psychology papers out there on this). Perhaps the important distinction is commitment grounded in love versus commitment grounded in fear.
"Undone to be redone" sounds like a conversion experience of sorts. I do think people can have the kind of life-changing experience that causes them to redirect their efforts with new and deep commitment. The experience may be a visit to an African village, or seeing Earth from space, or losing a child to a distracted driver, or growing up with a sibling who has a significant disability. It seems the experience has to be deeply emotional to result in commitment, and then needs to be supported (if not shared) by a community.
It would perhaps be best if we could also develop strong and deep commitments without these conversion experiences, as they can have a dark side (given that some will inevitably be based in fear). George Bernard Shaw said that "it is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics." This will sound very geeky (guilty!) but maybe the best answer is choosing to be guided by love AND statistics, so we can be committed not only to in-our-face issues like homelessness, but also to climate change, human rights, food policy, and a host of other critical issues outside of our immediate view.

Chris Bremer said...

Hold the phone, I'm a hypocrite. I realized this afternoon that when I do things that reflect my commitment to environmental issues, especially climate change, my commitment is not about loving polar bears. Essentially it is fear-based. I'm afraid of what the world will be like for my children and perhaps for me, too. Maybe I am not so different from the person who wants to repeal health care reform because they fear that they and their children won't be able to access the latest top-drawer treatment for a future serious health issue. Still, the motivation for a commitment seems important. Perhaps the accompanying emotions also merit examination (resignation to duty, anger at opponents who wave signs at us, pride in making a change, joy in seeing another's condition improved, etc.).

Anonymous said...

"...joy in seeing another's condition improved."
Chuck Coskran told me today about one of the new homeowners of a house being built by Habitat for Humanity...a man from Ethiopia, who is so grateful that at last, his daughters will be safe, when he moves them into the completed house.
To be "undone" is to think of my children not being safe at any time...and to live in wonder about what this new home will mean to a family that has suffered unimaginable hardship. In this case, members of our congregation have nailed a protecting roof on for this family.
I live in gratitude.

Michael said...

On June 1 I bought a bike and all the gear necessary to aid in my 11-mile commute from Uptown to my part-time job in St. Paul. Nearly three months later and I've biked close to 1,000 miles! I feel great to be: setting a positive example for others considering going-by-bike, doing something good for the environment, my body and wallet...there's just one small thing that's not so perfect: I'm sweaty and smelly. However, that's part of the commitment I made to myself when I bought the bike: to be sweaty and smelly and to take pride in riding a bike in America's "best bike city." Commitment isn't glamorous, it's honorable.

Quick anecdote: On August 5 I was biking home and I heard a woman screaming. The closer I rode to the sound the less I questioned whether or not I’d get involved. Helping people/standing up for what's right is something I'm committed to doing. So I stopping at Lyndale & 33rd and hollered half-way down the block to a woman and man, “Are you okay?” The woman responded no. “Do you need help?” She sobbed yes. “Please walk over to me right now.”

That night I was scared about what I would find if I stopped long enough to discover it. I didn't know what the situation was at the time, but someone needed help or a friend or a phone or a witness and there I was. Scared or not, we're all in this together and if I meet my demise attempting to help someone: so be it. That's not up to me to decide.

Michael said...

If you're curious how the story with the woman ended, here's the rest...

The woman walked over to the corner where I stood straddling my bike. She said that she was homeless and that the man offered her a place to spend the night. However, as the man and woman walked south from Lake Street the man began hinting that the "payment" for allowing her to stay with him was sex. Hence the screams of anger and frustration from the woman.

As the woman and I spoke a group of 20-somethings happened upon us. The group of friends walked by twice gathering the information they could overhear. As it turned out the best solution for this situation was removing the upset women from the equation. The 20-somethings offered her a ride to where she needed to go.

I left and slowly continued on my way; uncertain how to process everything that happened at the corner of 33rd & Lyndale.

Justin Schroeder said...

I am grateful for these honest and real comments that you all have left. Thank you. I'll see many of you on Sunday, at First Universalist. - Justin