2 A few days later Jesus went back to Capernaum, and the news spread that he was at home. 2 So many people came together that there was no room left, not even out in front of the door. Jesus was preaching the message to them 3 when four men arrived, carrying a paralyzed man to Jesus. 4 Because of the crowd, however, they could not get the man to him. So they made a hole in the roof right above the place where Jesus was. When they had made an opening, they let the man down, lying on his mat. 5 Seeing how much faith they had, Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” He rose up, took his mat and walked out.
I want to interrupt your morning with four stories. Four reasons why to rise up each day.
For whatever reason, throughout history, what drives people to rise up is a response to the narrative we call war. The first story starts with a teenager who lived long ago. He was no different than us—feeling restless, unfulfilled. He lived a routine life in central Italy, longing for purpose so he trained, became a knight and joined with the Christians in the Crusades against the Muslims… he was captured and imprisoned a year. That experience changed him, and he became a priest.
Fifteen years later, when the Pope called for the Fifth Crusade to take Jerusalem from the Muslims, Francis was no longer a teenager, but 30 years old. But this time he pleaded not to join the Crusades, but begged church leaders not to wage war against the Muslims in Egypt. They refused his request. So passionate to bring peace between the Christians and Muslims that Francis set out on a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt where the two armies faced one another with only the Nile River separating them. Thousands were brutally killing each other in the name of God and Francis was deeply grieved at the carnage of death. When he attempted to preach peace to the Christians, they laughed at him. He thought maybe the Muslims would listen. At risk to his own life, Francis crossed into enemy lines and asked to meet the Sultan. Miraculously, Francis was not beheaded, but given audience with the Sultan who also desired peace. Neither spoke the same spoken language, but both men recognized the spirit of compassion and desire for peace. They met for over three weeks. Both men left changed from their encounter. Francis desired to learn more about Islam, and the Sultan desired to learn about Christianity.
For years, the church did not want this story to be known and covered up this encounter between the Sultan and the priest we now know as St. Francis.
For whatever reason, throughout history, what drives people to rise up is a response to false narratives. Our second story takes this past November. Maria Brown grew up celebrating Thanksgiving, believing it was a holiday to commemorate the partnership between the indigenous people of America and the colonists. Yet she had a friend who was a Native American descendent and he shared that Thanksgiving was a time of grief for his family, because to them it was a day to remember all those who were massacred and stripped of their sovereignty. This past Thanksgiving, Maria responded to the call from the Sioux tribe of Standing Rock. She would no longer accept the narrative of Thanksgiving. And so she and three others from sunny San Diego set out in a camper, painted with large letters, STAND WITH STANDING ROCK, and drove north. At first, they were met with enthusiasm, but as they drove north, affirming honks and raised fists of solidarity turned to negative responses. When the four friends arrived to the Oceti Sakowin (Ochayti Sawconi) camp, a woman from the Sioux tribe gave them a bottle of milk of magnesia to help calm the effects of the pepper spray the police reigned on the camp. The camp was full of people from all over the world protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, and while the atmosphere was very charged because of the police also inundated the camp with water cannonballs, even though temperatures were below freezing, the main energy of those in the camp was peaceful. Maria Brown and thousands of others were compelled to rise up and stand with the water protectors of Standing Rock, who have a sacred obligation to the ideology that water, not oil, is life.
For whatever reason, throughout history, what drives people to rise up is a response to an accepted interpretation of the Bible. What if there is a different interpretation? Looking at our Scripture story, I think of the dedication of the four friends carrying their paralyzed companions to see Jesus, who they’ve heard heals the broken. Something moved them to get out of bed that morning and carry their friend to Jesus. I wonder if each friend heard the legion of voices shouting the unanimous permission to believe that it was impossible to carry their friend that far, that Jesus really could not heal him, that others would laugh at them. But those four friends didn’t ask for those opinions. The voice they chose to listen to was the voice of love, compassion, perseverance, and action.
Friday, I received a letter from my seminary mentor, Peter Storey, a retired Methodist Bishop in South Africa who has been very thankful to the role that the Methodist Church played in helping end Apartheid, the system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa from 1948 until 1991.
But for whatever reason, throughout history, the church goes back and forth from helping the oppressed, to becoming the oppressor. Seven years ago, Reverend Ecclesia de Lange fell in love, and her congregation welcomed her partner. But when she was honest with her church that she was intending to marry the love of her life and became her wife, a union which the South African Constitution has honored since the 1990s, the church suspended her. And so the United Methodist Church discriminated against her based on biased interpretations of Biblical passages the same way the church had at one time interpreted the Bible that led to the discrimination that led to Apartheid. The Rev Peter Storey, former President of the Southern African Council of Churches, represents her in an arbitration battle in her trial this week.
We all hear voices leading us towards a path of comfort than discomfort. But within us we have voices compelling us to rise up and be the church.
Sometimes we can make the Bible so boring. But did you hear what was in our Scripture reading? I’d love to act this one out in church—imagine if on Easter Sunday when this place was packed, all of a sudden plaster begins falling down right here and a paralyzed teenager was lowered right here. Would the damage to the church ceiling be of concern? Would the color of his skin be of concern? Or the way he smelled? Are we the church when we comfort the afflicted, or when we are afflicted by issues that come crashing into our sanctuary?
What do you think church is? A Pope calling out to take back Jerusalem, or a priest disobeying the Pope to make peace? What St. Francis did took quite a bit of love, perseverance, compassion and action. Why did the church want to silence this story between Francis and the Sultan?
What do you think church is? Upholding treaties that took land from a people who just want to respect one another and the earth? Those who journey to Standing Rock show love, perseverance, compassion, and action?
What do you think church is? Embracing Biblical interpretations that discriminate? Those who testify against church discriminatory doctrine show quite a bit of love, perseverance, compassion and action?
What profound concerns must come crashing in through the roof to awake us, to stand witness and in solidarity with those who are hurt because they have a different faith, who come from a different country, who are paralyzed because of what corporate greed has done to their culture, who desire to be the people God has made them to be?
Many came that day to hear Jesus speak. He was interrupted. He was interrupted by four who journeyed to Capernaum–four friends who had Love, Perseverance, Compassion, and Action. And Jesus responded. May we respond as well.