“The Falling Roof”
A Reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For August 6, 2017
Based on Luke 5:17-26
The Pharisees were an advocacy group for middle class Jews. The Sadducees had become a group of rich elite Jews, but the Pharisees related to the common people. And the Pharisees were popular. With popularity came some amount of power, and they really did not want to share power with anyone. That’s part of why they are concerned about Jesus: he has a lot of followers, and that comes with some amount of power. Listen as the Pharisees try to either recruit Jesus to join them or eliminate him from the competition.
Our scripture this morning has three main beats: Jesus in the house; a group of people breaking through the roof to lower their paralyzed friend to Jesus; a debate about healing between Jesus and the Pharisees. All this starts with the house.
The houses that Jesus knew are very different than the houses most of us live in. Think of a horseshoe: all the rooms were arranged around the outside of the shoe. Across the opening of the shoe was a wall that held a door to the street, wide enough for a cart or a couple of animals enter. Animals were usually kept in a large room near the end of the shoe. At the other end of the shoe was a common kitchen. The other rooms were a combination of where different generations lived and workrooms for the shared labor of the entire family.
The walls were made of rock, sometimes covered in plaster or clay. The roof was built on long logs running parallel to the mouth of the horseshoe. On top of that was a thick layer of clay. The rooftop was used as extra rooms of the house. It was an extra place to work, a place for games and eating. On the hottest nights people would sleep up there.
Our scripture tells us Jesus is a guest in a house like this. A crowd has gathered. They stand outside one of the rooms of this house, filling the central patio, spilling out onto the street. No one can move easily.
I once read or heard a storyteller describing Jesus sitting in this room. Jesus understands the thick crowd is preventing access to him. He feels a bit trapped himself. But what are you going to do? The people have come, they have filled the place, people are pushing through the crowd; he’ll meet as many as he can. His hosts are being tolerant.
And then the dust begins to fall from the ceiling. Bugs are falling from the rafters as they are shaken loose. Chunks of clay begin to drop between the joists. Jesus can feel the dirt falling into his hair, see it settling on the people in the room, see the sunlight grow as the hole is widened, wonder at the cost of repairing this house.
The way the storyteller created this image, it was endearing to see Jesus sit here, marveling at the devotion of these friends who are breaking the roof, perplexed by their frustration, inspired by their persistence, concerned for his hosts, wondering what the human heart will imagine next.
But there’s a couple of parts to this story that make me uneasy.
How would you feel if Jesus was a guest in your house and a crowd showed up. Sure, one or two people, but then a dozen, two dozen, coming in wheelchairs and with crutches, pulling their oxygen tanks, bandages visibly soaked in blood and pus and who knows what else and you can smell the open wounds and infections and vomit and other fluids of the body. Now how do you feel about this crowd wanting to see Jesus?
And how will you feel when the roof of your home is ripped apart because the friends of someone who is suffering see it as a barrier to healing? Or let’s shift this to a typical Midwestern ranch-style home. Jesus is sitting inside, people have clogged the front door. Jesus understands the thick crowd is preventing access to him. He feels a bit trapped himself. But what are you going to do? The people have come, they have filled the place, people are pushing through the crowd; he’ll meet as many as he can.
But then the friends of this paralyzed man have decided to get to Jesus by taking down the wall between the house and the porch. Is it still endearing to see Jesus sit here, marveling at the devotion of these friends who are breaking the roof, perplexed by their frustration, inspired by their persistence, concerned for his hosts, wondering what the human heart will imagine next.
That’s two turns. Another turn is around the miracle of healing.
One of my college friends has cerebral palsy. To keep balance, she walked behind a wheelchair. I celebrated with her the day she walked across campus without her wheelchair. She is now a disabilities rights lawyer, and she is no longer able to walk without assistance. The judges she works with have learned to hear her words through the slurring of her voice.
Another college classmate has just this week brought her father home from rehab. She is a pastor, her father a retired pastor. He has Alzheimer’s. About two months ago he fell and broke his arm, breaking his arm – which has meant he cannot use his walker. They have had to rearrange rooms of the parsonage to accommodate a hospital bed that interfaces with a lift to get him out of the bed.
One of my seminary classmates was in a bicycle accident that severed his spine. He is a paraplegic: no use of his nerves or muscles below the waist. He is now a seminary professor.
My father had a childhood accident that broke five vertebrae. My sister has announced on facebok that in the upcoming month she will be undergoing spinal fusion surgery. Other friends have spinal cord injuries or degenerative disorders interfering with the nerves from their spines to their arms, legs, organs.
I come to this story praying that Christ will make it easy and tell them to pick up their cot, their mat, to roll away their hospital beds and then they will walk.I come to this story hearing them say they wish Christ’s healing were so immediate, so direct, so effective. I come to this story wary of promising this kind of physical healing.
The gift of that storyteller I encountered long ago is this image of Jesus sitting in the room as the ceiling collapses, dust in the air, increasing light filling the room. Other storytellers have left the gift of other images that also bear on this story. Today, history invades my imagination, giving this story yet another turn.
Seventy-two years ago today the first nuclear bomb was used at Hiroshima. It was 8:16 AM in Hiroshima, 6:16 PM here in Illinois. That event changed warfare, changed international diplomacy.
I am imagining Jesus sitting with the people of Hiroshima as Little Boy descended through the atmosphere above the city in the moments before that bomb detonated. A crowd has gathered, people have clogged the front door. Jesus understands the thick crowd is preventing access to him. He feels a bit trapped himself. But what are you going to do?
And then the dust begins to fall from the ceiling. Bugs are falling from the rafters as they are shaken loose. Chunks of clay begin to drop between the joists. Jesus can feel the dirt falling into his hair, see it settling on the people in the room, see the sunlight grow as the hole is widened, wonder at the cost of repairing this house. I imagine Jesus sitting in Hiroshima, marveling at the devotion of these friends who are breaking the roof, perplexed by their frustration, inspired by their persistence, concerned for his hosts, wondering what the human heart will imagine next.
I also imagine Jesus sitting among the people of Hiroshima in the seconds after the bomb has exploded, after the nuclear light has dimmed. Now the entire crowd is begging for mercy, begging for healing, screaming for understanding. No longer are there are walls or a roof, but dust still falls.
Jesus can feel the dirt falling into his hair, see it settling on the people, see the sunlight grow as the hole in the world is widened, wonder at the cost of repairing this house. Jesus is here, marveling at the devotion of these friends, perplexed by their frustration, inspired by their persistence, concerned for his hosts, wondering what the human heart will imagine next.
And all this will be repeated a couple days later at Nagasaki.
I understand the rationales used for these weapons, that billions of lives were saved at the cost of about of quarter of a million – understand, but disagree.
I am not trying to begin a debate with you about just war theory or preemptive strikes or the need for standing military as a diplomatic resource. I am mourning the violence humans do to one another in the name of justice. We say “whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, it is a joy to welcome you here …” Would we welcome the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from 75 years ago? Would we welcome Syrians, Afghans, Iranians, Egyptians, Pakistanis? Would we wonder if they were from ISIS, if they might harbor resentment and hatred for us because we are light-skinned folk from the US? Would we welcome people from North Korea – I don’t mean Christian refugees trying to escape but members of the North Korean military, the ones who are testing ICBM’s capable of delivering nuclear bombs to the continental US?
I’m not picking a fight with you, I do not mean to be insulting. Forgive me if I come across as accusatory. I’m frustrated at how intolerance is so deeply embedded into our cultural values, our cultural assumptions. These are not issues that have erupted in just the past 2 years or 5 years or 20 years or since the Civil Rights movement or since World War 2 or since immigrants arrived in the early 1900’s or since reconstruction or the Civil War or Emancipation Proclamation or since slaves were brought to North America by Europeans or anything you can list from before that. These justifications for intolerance are part of the culture we keep perpetuating and passing onto our children and grandchildren without a thought because we just accept them as part of how we expect normal to be.
Christ, heal our blindness. Christ, remove our infirmities. Christ, forgive us for what paralyzes us.
I am having trouble working within these normal values, especially as the new normal is so much more offensive. We just dismissed a presidential press secretary whose public statements to the press could not be reproduced because they violate the standards of the Federal Communications Commission. We have an attorney general who has been on the watch list of the Southern Poverty Law Center for the racist ways he enforces some laws but not other laws. We have an education secretary who advocates that public education be made a private business, and that wealthy families receive financial support to go to whatever school they want without paying the taxes that keep public education available to all citizens.
I’m having trouble with economic justifications for hatred, racism, homophobia, cultural genocide. I’m having trouble with how easy it is to dismiss people because we disagree, how quickly I become irritated by disruptions to my plans, how irritated I find myself because someone has crossed some perceived boundary.
All these things are as destructive as those bombs from 72 years ago – but in very different ways. All of these things are as destructive as those friends ripping apart the roof. In all of these circumstances which I find so troubling because of their destructiveness I am trying to imagine Jesus sitting there, observing the dust falling, seeing light brighten as holes widen, assessing the cost of repairing this house. In all of these situations of confusing motives, I am asking Jesus to help me better understand the devotion of these friends who are breaking the roof, to appreciate their frustration and be inspired by their persistence, and to find ways to express my concern for those who host me as I wondering what the human heart will imagine next.
It is in trying to better understand those who are different than me that I encounter God’s grace for myself.