In my office at BNA, where I work when I’m not off on church business, I have a small poster, actually more post-card sized, nicely framed.
When you first look at the poster, you think it’s one of those inspirational photos – you see this grouping of hands all clasped together, like a basketball team just before they’re about to break the huddle. And of course the hands are in all different colors – black, brown, white. So your first thought is, “Isn’t this nice – an inspirational moment celebrating people coming together in all their rich diversity.”
The poster has a two-line caption. The first line, in large, bold letters, says simply, “Meetings”.
Under that is a second line, in much smaller letters. That line reads, “None of us is as dumb as all of us.”
“None of us is as dumb as all of us.”
It’s a description – let’s face it – that could surely be used to describe many church meetings – although certainly not those here at Forest Hill.
And given the reality that it can describe many church meetings, what does that mean for us as Presbyterians – we who believe that we best discern the will of God when we come together, yes, in meetings?
If the caption on my photo is right – even just occasionally – what does that say to us as Presbyterians?
The first thing for us to note is that the reality captured by that caption is not something faced only by 21st century Presbyterians.
The apostle Paul himself had to deal with the reality that, sometimes, “none of us is as dumb as all of us.”
Look at Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. Paul founded that church, he put 18 months into establishing a Christian community there. Imagine the emotional investment he had in making sure that the community continued to thrive and to grow.
And so, when we read parts of his letter to the church there, his frustration, his pain, fairly leap off the pages at us. “It has been brought to my attention,” he writes, “that there are quarrels among you.” Not only are there quarrels, but Paul goes on to tell them that “your meetings tend to do more harm than good.”
It’s almost as if Paul himself wrote that caption – “None of us is as dumb as all of us.”
Except that Paul knows, better than any of us, that no one – not the folks living in Corinth in the first century, or Presbyterians living in the 21st century – none of us can follow Jesus in isolation. None of us can retreat from the messiness, from the difficulties, that happen whenever individuals come together to do the audacious task of trying to discern God’s will for us.
We might wish that we would always agree. We might hope that we wouldn’t always be quite so argumentative. We might fantasize about giving up the hard work of deciding difficult issues together and instead go off and try to be Christian on our own.
That’s an attractive fantasy, but the reality is that none of us can be Christians alone. As much as we’d like to avoid the squabbling, the disagreements that come about in meetings or whenever people gather together, we can’t. We need to come together if we want to be Christians.
And as proof I offer the Gospel lesson. A paralyzed man wants to see Jesus, wants to hear him preach. But because of the large crowd that had gathered at the house where Jesus was, the paralyzed man can’t get through the crowd. Left to his own devices, he would not, could not, see Jesus.
But he is not left to his own devices; others are there to help him. They lift him up onto the roof of the house, cut a hole in the roof, and then lower him down. By their action, the paralyzed man sees Jesus.
The paralyzed man could not have seen Jesus on his own. And, let’s be honest, neither can we.
Every one of us is paralyzed in some way. Maybe we’re paralyzed by fear that faith in Jesus Christ will cause us to be ridiculed or not taken seriously in a post-modern age. Maybe we’re paralyzed by the sobering reality of what humans have done to other humans ostensibly in the name of following Jesus. Maybe we’re paralyzed by the untimely death of someone we loved, wondering how a God of love could allow something like that to happen.
And just as individuals can become paralyzed, so too can a denomination.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is perilously close to paralysis, paralysis caused by many factors, including:
• Our weariness over fighting continuing battles about who can serve as ordained leaders in our church;
• Our uncertainty and fear over what the future of a denomination is in a time that has been called not just post-denominational but post-Christian;
• Our grief over the possible loss of the kind of church that many of us have known and loved for all of our lives – a grief that is no less real even though we know that the church must change if it is to survive;
• And our anxiety over what, exactly, that change should be.
How can we, as individuals or as a denomination, overcome our paralysis?
The Gospel tells us: we have to rely on others to help us. We have to rely on those who we know and on those who we don’t know. We have to rely both on those with whom we agree on ordination standards for our church and on those with whom we don’t agree. We have to rely on anyone who is committed to following Jesus and who can think creatively, like those in the Gospel story, to help us see Jesus.
There’s a lot we don’t know about this story of the paralyzed man. We don’t know what motivated those folks to step out of the crowd and take action. We don’t know if they knew each other, or if they liked each other. We don’t know how long it took for them to punch that hole in the roof. We don’t know if they had to deal with an angry homeowner.
But it’s what we do know that matters. We know they came together. They stepped out of the crowd. They did what they had to do to get the paralyzed man into the room where Jesus was.
The paralyzed man saw Jesus. And so did they.
Twenty centuries later, they challenge us:
• Can we step out of the crowd?
• Can we allow ourselves to rely on those we don’t agree with, on those who are different from us?
• Can we work with each other despite our disagreements, despite our differences?
• Can we start breaking some holes in some roofs?
• Can we help each other see Jesus?
If we can’t, if we let our disagreements define us, if we as a church don’t come together as faith-filled friends and start breaking some holes in some roofs, if we don’t start thinking creatively and imaginatively about how to do ministry in the 21st century, then that caption on my poster – none of us is as dumb as all of us – will come true.
At the first General Assembly I attended, in 1997, I heard Frederick Buechner, the noted Presbyterian pastor and author, say that he wasn’t going to church much anymore because he “couldn’t find God there.”
I don’t know if he still feels this way.
But we don’t come to church to find God. We come to church, we come to our community of faith, whether it be our local congregation, our presbytery, our synod, or the General Assembly, to help each other overcome our paralysis, to help each other see Jesus.
We come so that, together, when we see Jesus, we can confess, with Peter, that he is the “Christ, the son of the living God.”
When we make that confession, we set out on a journey, together. A journey to break as many holes in as many roofs as possible in order to allow other people to see Jesus. People who we might not choose as our friends. People who might not agree with us on ordination standards. But people who want, and who need, to see Jesus. Just as we want, and need, to see Jesus.
When we set out on that journey, we don’t know exactly how long, how contentious, how messy, or how difficult it will be.
What we do know, though, is that eventually our journey will lead us to the foot of a cross.
And then to an empty tomb.
And it is there that God finds us.
God finds us, in all of our diversity, in all of our disagreements, in all of our messiness, but also in our togetherness as friends seeking Jesus.
God finds you. God finds me. God finds the church.
Thanks be to God.