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.
--Mark 2:4 NRSV
In my sermon this past Sunday, I shared some stories from one of my favorite books, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle. Boyle is a Jesuit priest who has spent decades working with Latino/Latina/Latinx gang members in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Boyle and the church he serves, Dolores Mission, began a ministry called Homeboy Industries which gives those wishing to leave gang life jobs, life skills training, addiction counseling, mentoring and spiritual direction. Homeboy Industries grew to include a bakery (Homeboy Bakery), a café (Homegirl Café) and a silkscreen and embroidery shop (Homeboy Silkscreen & Embroidery). The inspiring story of this work is told in Boyle’s writings. You can also find documentaries about the story (Father G and the Homeboys and G-Dog) on numerous streaming services as well as many interviews with and speeches by Boyle on YouTube.
This week, I will be sharing from Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart, because I think it offers inspiration for where Park Hill Christian Church finds itself in 2020.
In the Gospels, there is a story of Jesus healing a paralyzed man. Jesus is in a house filled with people wanting to hear his teachings. Some men have a friend who is paralyzed and want to bring him to Jesus but they can’t get past the crowds and into the house. So they climb onto the roof of the house and break through the roof. They lower their paralyzed friend down to Jesus who forgives the man’s sins and heals him.
Boyle uses this story as an image of how all of us as individuals and as communities of faith must expand our understandings of compassion. “In Scripture, Jesus is in a house so packed that no one can come through the door anymore. So the people open the roof and lower this paralytic down through it, so Jesus can heal him. The focus of the story is, understandably, the healing of the paralytic. But there is something more significant than that happening here. They're ripping the roof off the place, and those outside are being let in.”
As a Jesuit priest, Boyle was sent to Dolores Mission in the 1980’s; it was considered the poorest church in the diocese. Could there have been a church considered less likely to have the resources to provide the resources necessary to minister to the overwhelming needs of their impoverished and violence-ridden community? Yet, Boyle says God provided the means for the church to help transform the community around it, once the church began to “rip the roof off” the church and let those on the outside in. Once the church stopped seeing the young gang members as someone else’s children and began to see them as “our” children, God began providing resources to minister to the young people involved in gangs all around the church. Once the church began to see that it was their responsibility to make up for the generations of adults who had failed their children, something changed and God began to bless them with donations, allies, connections with non-profits, partnerships with government, private sector and non-profit agencies that enabled transformation to occur. What had seemed like a hopeless situation was transformed when Dolores Mission ripped its roof off and no longer saw itself as somehow separate from the world around it.
I’m not sure when churches in America began to operate like little islands unto themselves, but whenever it happened, we now are reaping what we have sown. Churches stopped being a part of their own communities; they began existing of and for their own members, little clubs that offered little of value to the world around them. Churches began to care about new members only for the sake of keeping their own club houses alive instead of offering anything to others because it was simply the right thing to do according to Jesus. The result is a whole lot of dying churches.
Sure, churches have tried every which way they can to attract people to come in their doors, but that’s a losing game. The churches with the most shiny objects (the best light show, best musicians, nicest facilities, etc.) attract the most people—but what for? I’m convinced that churches that dare to “rip the roofs off” will find willing people in their communities who want to find lives of meaning and purpose, people who are looking for more than just another shiny object. After all, our culture has no lack of shiny objects for us to get distracted by. There is no shortage of people outside of this church and every church who long for something real to show them there really is a different life possible. Those people will only come to a church when that church really cares more for the people around it than they do for their own membership rolls, annual budgets and buildings. When a church chooses to really love the people around it, God will provide the resources to make that love take concrete form.
Boyle writes, “God can get tiny, if we're not careful.” By that, he means that our ideas of scarcity, our belief that the problems in our communities are too big to change, and our deep down suspicion that we have nothing to offer to others result in us believing in a God who can’t and won’t really change anything. If we dare to believe God is really bigger than we can comprehend, can do more to transform the world that we can imagine and can change our individual lives as well as the lives of others, then God really will provide what a church needs to do the ministry God wants done.
In the Gospel story, people break in to find healing from Jesus, but in today’s world, I believe it is churches who must break out and rip their own “roofs” off to get outside to where Jesus is already at work. It’s almost like Jesus got tired of waiting inside church buildings and went ahead of us out into our communities. Now he waits for us to catch up to what he is already doing outside our church walls.
Grace and Peace,
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