A sermon by Tony De La Rosa (Interim Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of New York City), delivered to the 220th General Assembly on July 6, 2012. Texts: Mark 2: 1-12 and Acts 8: 27b-39
Before beginning, I need to acknowledge and thank three special women who mean the world to me. The first is former General Assembly Moderator Cindy Bolbach who last year approached me about preaching here this morning. I was bowled over by her invitation – and I still am – especially I am the sole ruling elder to be invited to join an amazing team of preachers at this Assembly. I am exceedingly grateful to God for her leadership of our denomination during the past two years, and I ask that we continue to keep her in our prayers as she focuses on her recovery.
The second is seated somewhere in the observers’ seats here this morning, next to my partner Michael. It is his mother, Sandy. Although she has never attended a General Assembly before, and indeed she is not even a Presbyterian, she flew all the way from Southern California to be here in worship with us this morning. While Moderator Presa’s parents may merit the distance prize for their travel from Guam, I believe Sandy’s level of faithfulness on her part merits a special acknowledgment from us. Would you please join me in welcoming Mrs. Sandy Bendgen?
And finally, there’s my mother, Amelia, who is seated with Michael and Sandy. She is a Presbyterian, and she has raised two ruling elders among her three sons to show for it. She taught me to read using the Psalms as my primer and thus set me on the path of embracing God’s Word as both affirming and enriching. Her presence here today is a culmination of her efforts -- and perhaps a vindication of sorts. She has been the best Christian educator one can hope for in a parent. Would you kindly welcome my mother, Amelia De La Rosa?
Thank you. Please pray with me. “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.”
You’ve been introduced to a few of the members of my family who are here today. One who is not here is my late father, Fernando, who passed away in 2003. Even if he were alive, however, he would not have likely made the trip to be here. He was lifelong Roman Catholic, and by the time of his death, he was a proud Fourth Degree member of the Knights of Columbus. In light of his staunch Roman Catholicism, Dad did not quite know how to handle the fact that the rest of the family were equally staunch Presbyterians, with two of his progeny ordained as ruling elders, no less. He would occasionally bemoan this sad state of affairs and wonder how it could be so. He even jokingly referred to his three Protestant sons as his “infidels.” Despite his disappointment, he grudgingly accepted the fact that we were intractable promoters of Calvinist heresy. Some parental lessons just do not stick, I guess.
My father was a carpenter, and among his lessons that did stick with me were insights he shared with me from his experience in the trade. (And yes, I am a carpenter’s son; all other analogies stop there.) Dad showed me how to use hand tools, and taught me about the character of different types of wood, the basics of building techniques, and how to avoid common mistakes when doing simple construction projects around the house. Among the most important principles of construction he stressed was the importance of maintaining the integrity of a structure. Floors had to be level, walls had to be plumb, but most important, was that the roof had to be impermeable.
As the most crucially exposed part of a house, little else matters if the roof is damaged. A compromised roof can allow all manner of destructive elements into a home: heat, cold, or vermin. But by far the most destructive element is water. Water seeping through a roof rots timbers, promotes mold, and rusts iron rebar. Left unfettered, water can even infiltrate porous concrete and leach out the lime, causing it become brittle and eventually crumble into dust. Water from above entering a building will hasten its ruin and can bring the entire structure crashing down.
Roofs from New Testament times were nowhere near as sophisticated as they are today. Carpenters in Capernaum lacked the artificial rubber-based barriers and weatherproof shingles we have today. They were left to construct their roofs with little more than sticks and dirt. Even though rain in that region was in short supply, it nevertheless did fall occasionally. So when the friends of the paralyzed man in Mark’s Gospel dug their way through the roof to lower him to see Jesus, they may well have known that they were committing an act of seriously destructive vandalism. Whoever’s home this was – and it just might have belonged to Jesus’ extended family -- surely the owner did not welcome the prospect of an unanticipated skylight in their living room. But how else was the paralyzed man to see Jesus? The crowd prevented him and his friends from entering the confines of the home. And those very confines form the object lesson on access that the Church needs to hear this morning.
The roofs and walls of buildings do more than just keep out natural elements. They also serve to define and delimit spaces for persons to occupy and serve as a barrier to those who might not otherwise be welcome within those very spaces. All types of undesirable elements can be excluded when a room is demarcated and a presumed capacity is reached. Access can be restricted – either with or without intent to do so – when there are edifices constructed that keep ostensibly precious things in and certain people out.
The paralyzed man knew this all too well. Leviticus 21 forbade anyone lame from entering the temple because the unwholesomeness of a lame person would otherwise profane God’s holy sanctuary. It is the kind of the categorical exclusion that Jesus called out when he declared that the man’s sins were forgiven because of his faith, the very faith that denied the paralytic full admission and relegated him to wait outside. No walls or crowd were going to deny him entrance in this sacred space, were going to confound the alleviation of his current condition, or were going to undermine his belief in his ultimate salvation. Digging through the dirt on the roof, the paralytic and his friends secured a new mode of access to the divine presence of God Incarnate within. Jesus himself blessed their efforts, much to the chagrin of the murmuring scribes.
When he encountered the paralyzed man, Jesus focused first on the man’s apparent existential condition before addressing his physical maladies. Here was a man deemed cursed, deficient, rejected and ostracized, but Jesus declared a different truth to him: “Son, your sins are forgiven.” In that one sentence, Jesus tore down the Levitical walls that had denied the man’s fundamental humanity. The paralyzed man was a child of God, after all, no less and no more than any of the others crowded into those overly tight quarters of the house in Capernaum.
Perhaps that is why much of the remainder of Jesus’ ministry in the Book of Mark occurs out-of-doors. Whether on a mountaintop, in an urban marketplace, from a boat in the sea or on the side of a road, much of the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus’ audience needed no ticket or registration badge for admission. There were no impediments to access him. All were welcome to see, hear and touch the Holy One of God.
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts offers us a similar model of free access to God’s grace. The story actually begins in middle of a longer, almost tragic narrative. Luke simply writes that the eunuch was returning home after worshiping in Jerusalem. However, like the paralyzed man in Capernaum, the eunuch would not have been permitted to enter the sacred spaces of the temple under the strict mandates of Leviticus 21. He too would have been seen as a blemished and profane presence unfit to visit the holy confines of the Temple mount. So here was a foreign government official of some high rank, having traveled well over a thousand miles in pilgrimage from his native Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel at the Temple, only to be denied entrance because he was anatomically maimed. Make no mistake: the religious impediment that prevented the eunuch from reaching his final destination were no less a social construct than the jam-packed house in Capernaum. Exclusion – whether by concrete or constraint – often seeks to deny divine blessing to those deemed socially unfit or unclean.
But there’s a twist here: after all the adverse treatment, after the monumental disappointment of traveling miles through the desert only to be turned away at the Temple courtyard, after being labeled a defiling blemish within the sacred precincts, the eunuch persists in his spiritual quest. Rather than tossing the Scriptures away after his sorry experience in Jerusalem, the eunuch is reading aloud from the Book of Isaiah about a suffering servant – a suffering servant just like himself. He holds on to what he knows and loves, the God of Abraham and Isaac and all of Israel, who he has come to know in the Word written. In their roadside encounter, Philip uses this opportunity to give witness to Jesus, yet another suffering servant who has come to proclaim good news to all humankind. Responding to this transforming message, the eunuch finds a roadside pool and poses that most important of questions: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
It is a challenge, really. After all, the hierarchs of the Temple had deemed the eunuch unworthy of admission. What theory of cursedness or blemish would Philip now cite in the face of a clear opportunity for a sacramental right of entry? None. So they stepped into that undoubtedly fetid pool (roadside bodies of water are never pristine, either now or then), and Philip baptized the eunuch. From that point on, the eunuch went on his way back home to Ethiopia rejoicing. An unexpected turn of events had given him the spiritually intimate experience for which he had traveled so far, and it wasn’t in Jerusalem but in an ancient wastewater treatment pond.
Here’s water again, though now it is the water of baptism; water that still confounds the boundaries that hierarchs hold so dear and “lesser mortals” so persistently challenge. Water that brings down walls of human manufacture and lifts up the overarching grace of God. So powerful was this baptismal experience for the eunuch that when returned to his homeland, he converted an entire nation. For centuries thereafter, while Europe worshipped other gods, the faithful in the Horn of Africa proclaimed the crucified and risen Christ, and they continue to do so to this day.
Limiting access to the holy is not without its consequences. The gracious welcome of the outcast may be viewed by some as a corrupted permissiveness at best, or a shameful descent into syncretism, at worst. Yet Jesus at Capernaum and Philip on the road from Jerusalem offer two examples of how a willingness to risk violating the letter the law promotes the very Spirit behind it. The paralyzed man and the eunuch – the lame and the maimed of Leviticus – are sanctified in Christ for their enduring faith in the face of religious hostility to their given natures. In Christ, those barriers to grace are removed once and for all.
My executive colleague, Dana Lindsley from Southern New England Presbytery, makes this point most succinctly, I think. In looking at the changing nature of the Church today, Dana says that our Church is transitioning “from a time of temple and into a time of tabernacle.” And so it is. Our physical and institutional edifices are shifting. Our roofs are coming down and walls are being razed, exposing us and according access to new and uncertain elements from without. Maybe we will find in this anxious time the awesome power of water to wash away the barriers that preclude the blemished and profane from gaining such access. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” By God’s grace, nothing of human fashioning. So be it. Amen.