Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Room Without a Roof

A Room Without a Roof
A Sermon Presented to St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church
By Stephanie Little Coyne
April 27, 2014

·   In the 1930s, Louis Armstrong told us why he was happy in the song, “I’ve Got the World on String:”
I’ve got the world on a string, I’m sittin’ on a rainbow, got the string around my finger, what a world, what life, I’m in love!
·   In the 40s, Disney told us that we could be happy with a simple wish and dream:
When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are.  Anything your heart desires will come to you. 
·   In the 50s, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds expressed their collective determination to be happy as they danced and sang:
I’m singing in the rain, just singing in the rain.  What a glorious feelin’, I’m happy again! 
Nat King Cole crooned to us words of encouragement:
Smile, though your heart is aching, smile even though it’s breaking.  When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by.
·   In the 60s, Jimmy Durante suggested,
            Make someone happy, make just one someone happy, and you will be happy too.
Linda Ronstadt had us all yearn for begotten days of happiness, praying that they would one day return:
         Where the folks are fine and the world is mine on Blue Bayou.
And George Harrison helped us to move from underneath the clouds,
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun and I say, it’s all right.  Sun, sun, sun, here it comes.
·   In the 70s and 80s, we were carried on a wave of happiness with the Allman brothers urging us to
   walk along the river, the sweet lullaby, it just keeps on flowing; it don’t worry ‘bout where it’s    going, no, no.
Kool and the Gang pressed us to
         Celebrate the good times, come on!
and Bobby McFerrin insisted that we
         Don’t worry, be happy.
·   In the wonderful music world of the 90s, the great band from Athens, GA, R.E.M., affirmed that we were all “Shiny, Happy People,” thereby promoting world happiness with the message
   Everyone around, love them, love them.  Put it in your hands, take it, take it.  There’s no time to    cry, happy, happy.  Put it in your heart where tomorrow shines.

·   All this brings us to the song that is popping up all over the place.  Pharrell Williams’, “Happy,” is a request on his behalf to find out what it is that makes you happy.  The song also carries some sense of arrogant indifference—“I’m going to be happy regardless of you.”  But with the call, “Because I’m happy, and the response, “clap along if you feel like a room without a roof,” Williams suggests that world is a place of limitless possibilities if you can just be happy.

Decade after decade, we have been invited to chase after happiness, sometimes portrayed as an elusive state of mind, and other times portrayed as easily and quickly attainable.  Pharrell’s line, “a room without a roof,” has prompted me to look at a story that I believe contains true happiness.

Join with me as we read together Luke 5: 17-26.
17One day, while Jesus [he] was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 
18Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed.  They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; 19but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus.  20When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” 
21Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies?  Who can forgive sins but God alone? 
22When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?  23Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 
24But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the one who was paralyzed—“I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.” 
25Immediately, he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. 
26Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today.”

A roof opened and light rushed inside.
What a scene of revelation and joy!  The story of the paralyzed man just reeks with happiness! 
Early in Genesis, we are told that humans are made in the image of God.  Theodore Clark, author of Saved by His Life, a wonderful gift to me from Paul Powell, instructs that this image of God, the “imago dei,” combines with the earthly part of humans and creates what is the ultimate possibility in us as children of God.[1]
Friends, I am certain that my calling is deeply imbedded in the notion that I am happiest, freest, most loving, and most living up to the “imago dei” in me when I am able to help someone else or make someone else happy.  Sure, there are a pair of black leather shoes that I think would make me happier and I am sure that on more than one occasion a bag of peanut M&Ms has made me smile with satisfaction.  But truly nothing is as lasting and as fulfilling as living out that calling.
I am also certain that this notion is not just my own to consider.  And what Jesus says is the greatest commandment is not my own to follow.  I believe that when we, all Christians, truly tap into that image of God within us, we find that our happiness and our fulfillment is in direct correlation with what we are doing for and with other people in this world.
The paralyzed man goes home, presumably dancing and singing all the way; the crowd is dancing and singing in the aisles and they can’t even fathom why they are so happy!  Hear again the last part of the story translated for us by Clarence Jordan in his Cotton Patch Gospel of Luke,  
Jesus [he] said to the paralyzed man—‘Get up, pick up your stretcher and run along home.’  Right away he got up in front of everybody, picked up the stretcher he had been lying on, and went home shouting God’s praises.  The crowd went into ecstasy and started shouting God’s praises too.  They were filled with awe, and said, ‘We’ve seen something today so wonderful we can’t understand it.’[2]
The scene on the ground must have been something else!  But can you imagine what it must have been like on the roof?  Or what was left of the roof?
I believe that in each of the paralyzed man’s friends, the earthly human connected with the “imago dei” in the human, and light streamed through those friends and into that house. 
In “The Divine Comedy,” Dante’s poetry speaks beautifully about his character’s path out of purgatory with images that I think are befitting to our connection between humans and God:
So keenly did the living radiance pierce into me that I think I had been undone had mine eyes faltered from the light averse…Verily I think I saw with mine own eyes the form that knits the whole world, since I taste, in telling of it, more abounding bliss…Already on my desire and will prevailed the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.[3]

We live in and we get stuck in the dichotomies of life through our culture.  Yes, R.E.M. sang “Shiny, Happy People,” but they also sang “Everybody Hurts” and their words convinced you that it was okay to hurt.  We are told to be confident and to be humble, to lean in and to lean out.  We are told that being healthy is beautiful and then we are pummeled with images of bodies that in no way can be healthy.  Youth, you are told to relax and enjoy your youthfulness and you are also told to maintain your best and grow upWe live in a society that is unrealistic, demanding, and intrusive.
And the church (at large) is, at times, no different than society is about letting the gray areas of life exist.  The church is confused and is thereby confusing.  We are desperately trying to fit into culture, to make church-going more appealing to culture, and we are manipulated by our egotistical belief that we can make everyone happy.  But is that why the church exists?  Are we here to make people happy?  Is that our sole product?  
When we see the life of Jesus and we pay attention to his counter-cultural instruction—fish on the other side of the boat, lay down your swords, turn over some wrongly placed tables—we see that Jesus was only concerned with making God’s love accessible.  He wasn’t interested in making people happy with social clubs or church basketball leagues, though he undoubtedly valued the fellowship of believers.  Jesus’ investment in people was through teaching, healing, and loving them in ways not seen before. 
When we study the life of Jesus, we see Emmanuel, God with us, and we see Jesus living in and experiencing the dichotomies of life.  We see that “imago dei” played out for us in what is an incredibly difficult concept to understand.  I don’t get it.  I don’t know how Jesus was both human and God.  I would have been a terrible Chalcedon council member.  The important thing to me is that God thought it was important to know what it was like to be human, mortal and tempted by sin, and all the while, in the midst of that dichotomy to teach and heal and love. 
When we act according to the life of Jesus, we act like friends leading their paralyzed friend through a crowd.  When we act faithfully in that life, we bring others to hear the teachings of Jesus and to experience the healing Jesus offers, all through showing love courageously enough.  Happiness may not be our initial goal, but it can often be an awesome byproduct of our faith.
In our story today, the joy of the moment is nearly dulled and dominated by the presence of the Pharisees and the scribes.  They are seated in the front, presumably up close to Jesus, and while this seems harmless and perhaps an even good move on their part—they got to the gig before everyone else—Justo Gonz├ílez points out that they are blocking the way to Jesus for the paralytic man and his friends and anyone else who might need Jesus’ words and Jesus’ touch.[4] 
Are we so caught up in our own needs and desires that we block the way to Jesus for others?  Are we so worried about holes in the roof and our subsequent risk of exposure that we inadvertently close off ways for people to get inside?  Are we so busy with questions and confusion that we nearly miss scenes of joy and miracles? 
Reverend Christopher Henry recalls a story told by Fred Craddock at one of his preaching workshops in Cherry Log, Georgia.  Craddock spoke of an opportunity he had to meet Albert Schweitzer, theologian, biblical scholar, doctor, and humanitarian, after Schweitzer’s book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, was published.  Filled with questions and debate, Craddock rode a bus to an organ recital Schweitzer was to give in Cleveland, Ohio, in hopes that he could discuss, perhaps even challenge Schweitzer on his conclusions. 
Henry writes, “Craddock wasn’t interested in the beautiful architecture of the church or the sacred music masterfully played.  All through the recital, Craddock was anxiously waiting for his moment to take Schweitzer to task for his paper-thin Jesus.”  But at the end of the recital, when all were gathered together to hear Dr. Schweitzer speak, Schweitzer stepped to the podium and said, ‘I appreciate the hospitality of you all and of this church.  I’d like to stay longer and take questions, but I can’t.  My patients in Africa need me.  They are dying, children and their mothers and fathers, dying at home.  I have to go.  But if you have the love of Jesus in your heart, maybe you will come with me?”  With that, Schweitzer left and Craddock looked down at his legal pad full of criticism and felt it all to be irrelevant.[5]   
Craddock missed the beauty of the place he had been given opportunity to enjoy; he missed the inspiration of the music; and he missed the “big point” in his own effort to find the historical Jesus.  Schweitzer redirected his eyes toward Jesus, the man of love and healing.
My pastor in my home church, Dr. Jon Appleton, would sometimes move out of the pulpit during his sermons and down the steps of the platform.  It was in these moments of movement that he conveyed that he wanted you to sit up a little straighter and listen a little more intently.  So, imagine my doing that now.
Why these words on Youth Sunday?  Why draw you in with pop culture references only to then reference old theologians and Dante?  Because this will fall to you.  This will become what you make of it.  This is both your inheritance and your responsibility.  Hard, huh?  But I believe in you.  I believe in you even though I know that there are moments and days and longer days when you aren’t sure that you believe.  Maybe you just want to be a nice person.  Maybe you just want to a have a good job that is fulfilling.  Maybe you just want to see what crazy things life has to offer you, outside of this crazy-enough city.  And all of that is fine…within reason. 
But I do believe that the “imago dei,” the image of God that most certainly resides in you, will be reflected for you in the mirror of your soul and that at some point, you will be struck with the desire to find out more about this Christian life. 
It’s not going to come without some demands—you will have to make some demands of the current church—to teach you, and we do have some things to teach, to share with you, and we do have some things to share, to start making the “now” better, and we do have to make some things better, we have some tables to overturn.  You will also have to make some demands of yourself.  This life is not always easy and a church that tries to make it easy and make it yummy and happy isn’t telling you the whole story.  And the church that tries to scare you into believing in God’s grace hasn’t heard the true story themselves.
Go see what you can do.  There is goodness in you.  Go make someone happy.  Go feel like a room without a roof and go lower someone through that open roof.  And then watch out—you will get to see Jesus too, you’ll have a perfect view—you will get to see miracles that will have you dancing and singing and clapping your hands, saying, “We have seen some crazy things today!  Alleluia!” 

[1] Clark, Theodore.  Saved by His Life.  New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959.
[2] Jordan, Clarence.  The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts.  New York: Association Press, 1969.
[3] Translation found in Clark, Theodore.  Saved by His Life.  New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959.
[4] González, Justo L. Luke. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.  
[5] Henry, Reverend Christopher A. Henry.  “Left Behind.”  A Sermon given to Morningside Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA.  2010.