A HOLE IN THE ROOF

Carl Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

January 28, 2018

2 Samuel 7:1-6; Mark 2:1-12

“And when they could not bring [the paralyzed man]

to Jesus because of the crowd,

they removed the roof above him.”

Mark 2:4a

As most of you know, today is my last Sunday as pastor of this church. More than 27 years ago, Claire and I moved here from Dubuque, Iowa. I’d been working for our Presbyterian Seminary there and Claire had recently finished her Master of Divinity degree. We had with us our son Benjamin, then in the first grade, and our daughter Ania, who was a toddler.

George H.W. Bush was President. East and West Germany had just reunited into a single nation. In Poland, Lech Walesa, hero of the Solidarity labor movement, was elected President.

Film stars Emma Watson and Jennifer Lawrence were born in 1990 and Rex Harrison and Jim Henson died.

General Motors launched the Saturn automobile line. On TV, a new cartoon known as The Simpsons aired for the first time. Popular films were Home Alone, Ghost, Edward Scissorhands and The Hunt for Red October.

The very first digital camera was sold that year — Kodak, one of the mightiest corporations in America, didn’t know what they were in for — and the first web page ever created was published. Who knew, in 1990, how much this thing called the World Wide Web would change all of our lives?

A lot has happened, both in the world and in this church, since those days. The world has changed and we have changed. Now, another change has come upon us, as Claire and I prepare to bid a fond farewell to this community, and this congregation prepares to search for a new pastor.

*****

          I decided a while back, for this final Sunday, to revisit a sermon I’ve preached in the past. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the first time I’ve ever done so in all those years. Some of my colleagues in ministry reach into their so-called sermon “barrel” on a regular basis and dust off one of their greatest hits, but that’s not something I’ve ever felt I could do — at least, not to the same people I’d preached it to before. To me, the only way a sermon feels fresh is if I’ve recently struggled with the scripture text, and have felt the Lord has given me a message to share.

In thinking about what to preach today, I asked myself what one message I felt was of vital importance to this congregation at the time, but which I wish those who were hearing it took to heart a little more than they did.

You could say this is an “I told you so” sermon: but, unlike when people say “I told you so” and are looking mainly to the past, in this case I think this is a message this congregation still very much needs to hear. In fact, I can think of few topics that are of more vital importance to this congregation’s future than this message I first preached in 1996, a message about a hole in the roof.

*****

          I’m not talking about the real hole in the roof.  If you’ve been here in worship in recent weeks, or have seen the photo in the newsletter — or have seen the water stains on the ceiling of the Choir Room, Fellowship Room or Chittick Lounge — you know the hole is there. You also know the Session is actively working to do something about it, and that half the funds needed to put on a new roof have already been raised, in just a few weeks.

No, what I’m talking about is the hole in the roof of a certain stone house in Galilee, more than 2,000 years ago.

Jesus is teaching, one day, inside that house in the town of Capernaum.  True to form, the house is chock full of people.  Not only that, the ones outside are crowding every door and window — standing on tiptoe, straining to catch every word.

Up to the edge of that eager throng lurch four people, carrying a stretcher.  Laid out upon that stretcher, in a hideously twisted position, is a man who’s paralyzed.

The four friends of the paralyzed man quickly scope out the scene.  They realize their friend doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Palestine of getting anywhere near Jesus.  Even if he’d been healthy and strong, he’d have had a hard time getting through that dense crowd; but a man who’s unable to walk under his own power — forget it!

His friends, though, refuse to forget it.  These four just won’t take “no” for an answer.  They hoist the stretcher up onto the roof, peel back the tree branches and thatch — first-century roofing material — and lower him down to Jesus with ropes.

Jesus looks up and sees the man, slowly spinning down from the ceiling like a spider on a web, and interrupts his lesson.  He turns to the man, and says to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

The Pharisees in the room harrumph: “Who does this man think he is, forgiving sins?”

Turning to them in annoyance, Jesus asks, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk.’?”

With that, Jesus turns once again to the pitifully twisted man, and tells him to do just that: take up his mat and walk.  Wonder of wonders, he does!

*****

          A lot of things are happening in this healing story, but one thing you can say for certain: it never would have happened without a hole in the roof.

They say that, way back in a far-off place and a far-off time, a certain church was built.  Construction took place during a year when a deadly epidemic was stalking the land.  So familiar were the people with the victims’ sufferings, they built their church with wide doors, and gently sloping ramps, so the sick could easily be carried in for services of healing.

As the people constructed their church building, they remembered this story in Mark, of the healing of the paralyzed man.  And so, for many years, this particular church also left the dome of its sanctuary unfinished, open to the elements: covered only by a large tarp.

For those Christians, the hole in the roof functioned as a sign, a powerful symbol of their calling to be open to the world, to minister to human need.  For whatever reason people may have needed to get in, that congregation was committed to helping them find a way.

*****

          You know, churches sometimes have a way — quite unintentionally — of excluding certain people.  They have a way of looking askance at those who may be a little different — or who, perhaps, don’t have their lives all together and on display for the world to see.

Churches develop this unfortunate tendency pretty early in their history.  Unless they constantly work hard to overcome it, they can quickly become an exclusive club, serving the needs of their members first, reaching out to the world for which Christ died only as an afterthought. The resources of the church — financial, human (in terms of volunteer hours) and physical (space in the buildings) are devoted primarily to taking care of members’ needs. Resources devoted to mission are doled out sparingly from what’s left over.

You may remember Jesus told a rather scary parable about that sort of thing. It’s the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

“There was a rich man,” Jesus says, “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table…” How piteous is that beggar Lazarus — and how self-satisfied is the rich man, with his gourmet meals and fine wine!

Think about the meaning of that phrase: Lazarus “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” He got only the crumbs.

If you know that parable, you know of course what happens next. Both the rich man and Lazarus die. In the world beyond, they meet their Maker. Their Maker turns the tables on them: giving Lazarus a seat by his side, but consigning the rich man to a place of punishment.

The rich man cries out for mercy, but the Lord’s answer is stern — and, frankly, terrifying: “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

There had been a great chasm fixed on earth as well, between the proudly self-made man intent on indulging his own pleasures, and the poor man whose basic human needs were barely being met. In the next world, God keeps the chasm in place: but switches around the personnel who are on either side of it.

Sometimes, Christian churches lose touch with the essential mission to which Christ calls them. They become more of a club than a mission organization.

At the time Superstorm Sandy struck, I was worried that this church was moving in that sort of direction. I was feeling frustrated that my sermons on the importance of mission weren’t having so much of an impact. I guess the Lord proved me wrong on that, because this congregation responded to that emergency in a mighty way.

Last week, I shared some statistics from five years or so of the Volunteer Village: 1,600 volunteers who worked approximately 50,500 hours on 250 storm-damaged homes. It was our hosting operation that brought those good people to the Jersey Shore and allowed those groups to just keep coming.

Well, that mission outreach has run its course, as we knew it would, eventually. Now, we’ve got a short-term housing facility that’s lost its reason for being.

What will this congregation and its leaders decide to do with that space? Convert it back to its former function as a full-time church fellowship hall, that primarily serves our members’ needs? Or, try to envision some new, mission-oriented use — like a summer retreat center for youth groups from other churches, as has been suggested. Or, maybe something else altogether.

*****

          A pastoral vacancy can be a scary time. Worship attendance typically drops off a bit; as do financial contributions. It’s harder to attract new members, when much of the preaching and worship leadership is — admittedly — temporary.

But a pastoral vacancy can also be a creative and important season in a church’s life. We’ve already undertaken the first steps toward a self-study process — known as the New Beginnings Program — that can lead to a new vision for mission. It can only do that, though, if a lot of you sign up for the four-week series of small group meetings that will take place later this spring. Before those meetings take place, the Session will need a number of you to go to a two-day training retreat that will be held right here in our church — on a Friday evening and Saturday — and then go on to either lead one of those groups or open your home as place for a group to meet.

The New Beginnings groups are not a huge time commitment: just four meetings. But it’s vitally important that a great many of you come out for them — offer the precious commodity of your time for the sake of your church — and cultivate your hopes and dreams and visions for what this church can become.

When a common vision emerges from that small-group process, the pastor nominating committee will then know what kind of person to look for as your new pastor. And that person will arrive here, eventually, with a clear vision for what the Lord is looking for him or her to do in this place.

*****

          By the time that new pastor arrives, I expect the physical hole in the roof — the one that’s been causing all sorts of water damage in parts of this building — will long since have been repaired. But, as I mentioned earlier, I also hope you will keep a hole in your roof for that most vital spiritual purpose: allowing a way in for those who are in need of a transforming encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ.

As the year or two of interim ministry proceeds, I urge you to keep first things first: program before property, people before polity, Jesus Christ above all and through all and in all. Allow space and time for the Holy Spirit to lead you.  If you do these things, I know the Lord will bless your growth for many decades — and many generations — yet to come!

*****

          The hymn we’re about to sing, “Will You Come and Follow Me,” has a subtitle. It’s also called “The Summons.” The one issuing this summons is, of course, Jesus Christ. Each of the first four verses of the hymn summons us — we who would call ourselves disciples — to move beyond our comfort zone in some way, to make ourselves radically available to meet the needs of others. Verse 5 is our response to what our Lord commands.

It’s not my summons. It’s his. May you and I continue to heed it, wherever we may go, whatever we may do, in this Christian life of ours!

But first, let us pray:

          Lord, we thank you for this precious gift you give us,

          this gift called “church.”

          Between these walls,

          many have labored long and hard

          to bring into reality a vision:

          a vision of welcome,

          of arms stretched wide,

          of ears attuned to listen,

          of a cup of cool water

          given to refresh parched souls.

          You, Lord, have been with the people of Point Pleasant Presbyterian

          every step of the way.

          Go with your people, still.

          Keep alive the vision of a hole in the roof.

          May this place always be not a club for saints,

          but a hospital for sinners.

          Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.