(This first appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on August 8, 2014)
Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on (Mark 2:3-4, NRSV).
It has been clear for some time that the Church in the United States is in so-called “decline.” Church attendance has been shrinking in some Protestant denominations since the late 1960s. People are less religious as a whole than they were in previous decades. The number of those who are non-affiliated with a faith tradition (either atheist, agnostic, or “spiritual, but not religious”) is higher than it has ever been and is on the rise. Information found on the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project (http://www.pewforum.org/) is enlightening if you are interested in such things.
But here’s the thing. I do not believe that people care less than they ever have. I do not believe that people are any less compassionate at their core than they have ever been. I do not believe that people are any less aware of the gross and horrifying injustices in the world than they have ever been. And I don’t think that people are any less desirous of an end to war, poverty, racism, sexism, ageism, economic injustice and other systemic sins. And I don’t believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is any less relevant, powerful or needed than it has ever been.
In fact, I often say despite the sobering situation, “If it is the Church that you are worried about, then you are worried about the wrong thing.” Why? Because the Church belongs to God, not us. The Kingdom of God is ruled by the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of the universe and all humanity, not anyone else. So if you are worried about the Kingdom not coming, you mustn’t be. The Kingdom is going to come, because it belongs to God. That is a promise.
So what is the problem?
The second chapter of Mark shows us a systemic problem. There is a paralyzed man on a mat that needs to get in the hands of Jesus in order to be forgiven of his sins and empowered to walk again. What prevents him? Well, it isn’t an individual. It isn’t a lack of desire on behalf of the paralyzed man or his friends. It is the crowd. Ironically, it is a group of people gathered around Jesus -who love Jesus- who fail to realize that their job is to provide access to those people that need Jesus’ healing. Instead, they are a barrier. This is a systemic problem. It is the crowd’s lack of communication, collaboration or cooperation. It is the crowd’s misunderstanding of its purpose.
Have you ever been in a church where the crowd of people gathered around Christ prevents people from getting to Jesus? Have you ever been in a church that fails to recognize that there are people standing at the door need healing, love, forgiveness, food, jobs, morality, family, friends, grace, mercy and community of joy? And instead we stand around in a crowd arguing over hymnals, organs, guitars, the color of the carpet? Instead, we erect a barrier of less-important issues that give rise to a wall of judgmental-ism that has forgotten that we, the church, are a body of sinners saved by grace? Are we surprised when those people blocked at the door walk away?
Well, let me tell you why I shout every Sunday morning. The Church is going to make it because it belongs to God. Period. And the reason that we are going to make it, the reason that 100 years from now, people are going to look back at this era and see that this was the time that important, yet painful choices had to be made, is because of those four bold friends in Mark’s story that are so determined to get to Jesus by any means necessary, that they are willing to tear a hole in another man’s roof! Those four friends are the reason I shout and they are the reason I have hope. And here’s the thing: there are people like that in our communities. I know, because I have met them. They are unafraid to break down walls and tear off roofs because the gospel is simply that important.
The question is whether or not the rest of us can come together as a community of faith and put our less important differences aside (not unimportant, just less important), and recognize that even though the vision and mission of the Church is currently lying paralyzed on that mat, we know that all we need to do is get them back into the hands of Christ, where their sins will be forgiven and they will walk again. We must open our eyes and acknowledge those bold visionaries who are willing to do anything to get the Church back to Jesus so that we can empower them. And rather than gather around dumbfounded in the crowd while they tear a hole in the roof, we need to join them with joy and celebration in tearing down the walls.