Sermon preached at the Mosaic Service, 27 August 2023, a reflection on Mark 2:1-12.
A Closed House.
1989, Waverley. A cold day in winter. The Dandenong’s barely visible in the distance.
On this day, I was invited to the Inner Sanctum. A place so revered it was guarded by two men in striped ties, standing next to a heavy door. Their faces were like stone Easter Island statues. On the door, a sign, Players Only. We showed our small yellow cardboard passes and were let in.
The surroundings were cold and clinical . . . concrete walls and metal massage tables. Barely anyone spoke. Players walked in circles or kicked footballs to each other. I was there with a few friends, and we whispered quietly to each other behind a roped off section.
Collingwood were getting ready to play Hawthorn, and our coach Leigh Matthews, looked like he could have taken the field at any moment. He was pacing the floor.
When the Collingwood players finally ran past, ready for the game, their eyes were completely focussed on the tunnel out to the ground and what lay ahead. Brereton, Dunstall, Dipper. Rugged men from Glenferrie. I imagine what we saw in that room was about the same as it had been for one hundred years of Victorian football.
A closed house.
Fast forward 34 years
And things have changed a bit.
I think for the better.
Collingwood has changed.
We’ve said sorry for the wrongs of the past,
And under the leadership of Craig McRae,
We’ve significantly revised our approach.
A bright brand of football, matched by an openness to learn more from people outside the four walls.
An open house.
And on Mothers’ Day, there in those rooms, in that inner sanctuary, a players’ mother, Julie McCreery, was invited to address the club, and gave an incredible talk.
A link can be found here: https://www.collingwoodfc.com.au/news/1332308/mums-the-word-pies-pre-game-address-with-a-difference
A closed environment opens up and other voices are welcomed in. A bit like our text for today.
At Home with God
Over the past couple of months at Rosanna, we’ve been looking at the theme of what it means to be at home with God. To belong and connect with God and one another. To find God at our place. And here in our text, we find Jesus back at home.
Everyone has heard that the Rabbi has returned to Capernaum, and the place is packed. Standing Room only.
Jesus speaks to them and is teaching about God.
I imagine, there would be that holy sense of silence.
And of wonder.
Everyone listening to every word just as they did for Julie McCreery.
Jesus had just come back from time in the wilderness, and you could only imagine the kind of points he’d be drawing from what he’d seen.
More and more people arrive,
So much so
That the ones who perhaps need him the most can’t get access.
The Scribes were there though, wrestling with every word he uttered.
Outside the house a group of four friends carry a man on a stretcher.
They peer inside and can see no way ahead.
A Closed House.
So they come up with an ingenious plan:
To lower their friend through the roof.
The Gospel of Luke says there were tiles on the roof,
While here in Mark it says they dug through the roof!
Bits of clay and straw would have been hitting the ground inside the house,
and eventually streams of light would have come bursting in from the sky.
Lesson over! An intrusion.
Every eye in that house would now be directed up towards the man on the mat.
Jesus takes it all in his stride,
Stops what he’s doing,
And notices what has happened.
“Jesus recognised the faith of these men.”
Perhaps he recognised some kindred spirits, fellow risk takers.
And he was always taken by love being demonstrated in practical ways. Every single time. Whether it was perfume on his feet or a widow with a couple of copper coins in the Temple. Jesus saw faith and service as being linked.
And with the man laying down he says:
“Son, your sins are forgiven.”
The word forgive here means to let go of or release.
Jesus is setting the man free.
And here’s the thing:
Jesus is always Curious.
He is willing to do things differently.
He is completely open and he allows God’s message to come from many different quarters. This is one of the great themes of Mark’s Gospel where Jesus:
· Eats with tax collectors and sinners
· Speaks of new wine and new wineskins
· Heals on the Sabbath
· Has a radical concept of family
· Heals the daughter of a Gentile
· Is open to the way of the cross being the path of salvation
· Welcomes children
· Changes perceptions of leadership
· Overturns tables in the Temple
And his message to the disciples in Mark is: “Stay awake. Keep your eyes open.”
Be ready for God’s message to arrive in surprising ways, through surprising sources. Be Curious about what God is doing next.
And I think this is a great message for us as followers of Jesus here this morning. To go looking for new openings.
When I first started work as a Baptist minister 23 years ago, I was blessed to follow in the footsteps of Rev Dr Geoff Blackburn. Geoff was still working as a minister well into his eighties and I succeeded him as the pastor of Clarinda Baptist. I learnt a little more about him. He had some CV:
· Country minister at Hopetoun
· City pastorates at Elsternwick and Syndal
· Army Chaplain after WW2 with Prisoners of War
· President Baptist Union of Australia
· Youth Director BUV
· Editor of Sunday School Publications
· His wife Edna sadly died when she was 53
· Extensive travel overseas and support of missions
And here’s the thing, when I first started as a pastor we used to have some Professional Development at Whitley College called the School of Ministry. Geoff Blackburn should have been taking every session! But instead, he would sit in the front row taking notes.
This is the call of Jesus in Mark, to be lifelong learners. To be open.
Certainty or Curiosity
Now for the tricky part.
Some in that house in Capernaum, simply don’t get it.
The Curiosity of Jesus is met by the Certainty of the Scribes and Pharisees.
They get themselves in a theological twist, over who can and cannot forgive sins. They’ve never seen ministry like this before, and instead of taking the time to discern, they simply judge it as blasphemy straight away. They are completely convinced they have got it right. For them, the life of faith is about holding to your convictions no matter what.
And before we are too critical of these religious types, we need to reflect on why it is that we may also see faith as being more about certainty than curiosity.
This week I was forwarded an article from the ABC which read:
Why the COVID-19 pandemic made some Australians ditch religion and others turn towards it
It told the story of Satara who had been part of the Syndey Anglican Church.
The 20-year-old, a devout Anglican who grew up attending church, suddenly began to question her faith and the existence of God. She says prior to the pandemic, she was comfortable "just believing and going along with the traditions of the church" without questioning anything. But not connecting face-to-face with her church community during pandemic closures triggered her doubts.
"It was the fact that a lot of people's lives [were] being lost. [I thought], 'How could a God have allowed something like that?'" she says. Spending time away from congregations also gave her more time to read spiritual texts beyond the Bible, which sparked questions about the Anglican Church.
How sad that the church is not seen as a place where openness and questions are welcomed. Where we can find humility and openness. A few years ago, when going through a challenging season of ministry, I wrote in my journal:
“I believe there only two categories of faith: open or closed, and I don’t want to be a person who is closed.”
Jesus resists this kind of closed thinking. At the end of our passage, he says to the man: “Get up, pick up your mat and go home.” What a moment for the man on the mat. To have the faith to take that first step and trust what Jesus has said.
To be open.
What does all of this mean for our church?
I don’t know about you, but when I get stressed, I tend to be less receptive towards change. Like the Scribes, I want things to be done the way they always have. When we go through times of uncertainty in church, we can be much the same.
Jesus calls us to something different.
His invitation this morning, is to release the control of our churches to God.
And to simply say: Let’s See.
Let’s See what might happen if we are open to something different.
One Final Home
Last week a Jewish author, Janine Joseph, shared a story from an Aged Care Home in the Sunday Age’s faith column:
One door closes, another opens. It’s a cliche, commonly proved right in retrospect. I’ve been noticing a new door opening of late – surprisingly, it’s a door to an aged care facility.
On learning the care home where I’d placed a loved one was closing, I screamed in despair. Having descended into the shadows of dementia since entering aged care, he’d barely ventured out of his room, his safe place. But relocate him I did. The transition would be traumatic, I was convinced. And yet, gradually it seemed, my anxiety had been misplaced. This move had been a blessing.
It wasn’t the new, shiny building or the amenities – it was the people. Caring staff who worked diligently to make residents feel at home. And critically, an eclectic group of welcoming, warm, interested and interesting residents.
Sitting with Franky, my loved one, and his new friends, I get to hear their stories. There’s Graham, the octogenarian, diagnosed with motor neurone disease. When I ask how he’s feeling, he explains that when he can say ‘‘the same’’, he’s happy. It means on that day he hasn’t noticeably deteriorated.
Next to me, Tony, a gentle man breathing with an oxygen tank, reports the improvements they’ve noticed in Franky. Franky makes them laugh, Tony says.
Tony, with his deep faith, believes God saw the error of his ways in his wild youth that led to the emphysema that almost killed him, but ultimately brought him to a place of peace and gratitude. Next to Tony is Sister Hilary whose eyes convey such compassion, as she reassures me ‘‘Franky is a changed man’’.
Never far is Norma, her lifetime friend.
I used to visit Franky in his room, unable to entice him out. For nigh on six years he’d eat alone, watch TV, lie on his bed and stare out the window.
Now, as he walks me to the lift to go, I realise a weight has lifted because of the kindness of these inspirational people. I leave on this day, looking forward to my next visit. To hear more stories from the residents and immerse myself in this space in which these fine men and women demonstrate the ability to find joy in the moment, regardless of the challenges life has brought.
When something unexpected happens in our lives or our church, like a Mum addressing a football team, or a man being let down through the roof,
May our response simply be: