Friday, January 17, 2014

The Holy Huddle: Mark’s Critique of the Church

Mark 2:1-12
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

This gospel story opens with an image that pastors, priests, and preachers love: a packed house! A packed house is a sign of success; a sign that good things are happening here. “How was the service?” “Oh, it was PACKED!” We love being able to say that.

But Mark does not take this back-slapping, self-congratulatory approach. Instead, Mark invites us to experience this story not from the cozy inside, but from the outside. We are to take our place with the outsiders, unable to reach Jesus “because of the crowd.”

Imagine what that must have been like: you have heard about this rabbi named Jesus and how an encounter with him changes lives. You want that for yourself, and your friends, too. So, you decide to meet Jesus. But upon arrival, you and your friends encounter only walls and people’s back-sides. The group gathered is so tight, there’s no hope of getting in.

Disappointment. Frustration. Anger. Resignation. I think those are the feelings I would have felt. I very well may have turned around and gone home. OK, I would have stomped home. But that’s not what Mark’s group of outsiders did. They did not give up. Something stirred in them that caused them to persevere, to be bold, creative, and to risk!

And they ended up doing the unexpected: they entered through the roof!

The roof of a house like this one would have been made of beams, dried mud, and thatch. Mark tells of their physical effort: they “dug through it.”

So now imagine, from the inside of the house: dirt begins to fall from above, then chunks of dried mud. Imagine the faces of those inside the house: looks of concern, puzzlement, and surprise as a hole appears in the ceiling and is then filled with the faces of the outsiders peering in. I can imagine an annoyed voice from within the crowd asking, “And who is going to pay to repair that?!”

Now imagine the face of Jesus: with his eyes turned upward, his look of concern breaks into a tender smile “when he saw their faith.”

Mark 2:1-12 is a healing story, for the paralytic is healed. It is also a controversy story because tensions between the scribes and Jesus are introduced. But this story is also a critique of the church: Mark challenges us to examine our tendencies to become (what a colleague of mine calls) a “holy huddle.”

A congregation, like the one in Mark's story, engaged in a holy huddle presents walls and backsides to guests and newcomers. “Walls and backsides” can take the form of greeting and talking only to friends, instead of also reaching out to the unfamiliar person or the one standing alone on the perimeter at coffee hour. It can also take the form of insider language and assumed knowledge in print and electronic communications. For Episcopalians, it can also be perpetuating the mindset that inspired that most unfortunate saying, “Everyone who should be an Episcopalian already is one;” instead of realizing that the encounter with Jesus within the Episcopal tradition is something for which many in our lives are longing for and simply need to be invited.

So let us engage Mark’s critique and challenge. May we allow it to change our perspectives and our habits. Instead of a holy huddle with back-sides to the world, let us turn outward. Let us be a thousand points of connection and create pathways between us that lead to the center. For, at the center of our Church — just as it was on day when the paralytic and his friends arrived at that house — is the love of God in Christ Jesus.

May God grant us the will and grace to live into our identity as children of God who welcome the stranger and the outsider. And when we do, Jesus will see our faith.

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