Something like that happened at Morton Church in 2005. Assisted by a few professionals, the church members completely gutted the two-story wing of the building, totally reconfigured it, and added an addition with a new kitchen and wheelchair accessible restrooms. The whole facility is now on one level. It was a major step towards accessibility, and we are still amazed and grateful.
Here is the sermon I preached in November 2005 when we dedicated the newly-renovated facility. An accessible building is only half the story. We must also let God remodel us as a people.
Making A Way
A Sermon on Mark 2:1-12
Dedication of a Building and of a People
The friends in our gospel lesson today were filled with caring, and filled with hope. Oh, if only their friend with paralysis could see Jesus’ kind eyes, and hear his gracious, forgiving voice and receive the touch of Jesus’ healing hands! Somehow, they were going to get him to Jesus!
The man’s needs were many, spiritual as well as physical. He knew that, at best, most people around him pitied him. In that day almost everybody believed that disability had to be the result of somebody’s sin, whether it was the man’s own sin, or that of his family. It is not fun to be pitied. It is not fun to have to let people help you. But if the man wanted to go anywhere, that’s what he had to do. He was fortunate to have friends of faith. He must have had faith and hope, too, at least enough to put himself into his friends’ hands, and let them give it a try and carry him to Jesus.
“Uh oh,” the friends said as they drew near the house where Jesus was speaking. The place was packed, wall-to-wall people. “Excuse us. This friend of ours really needs to see Jesus. He really needs access. Could you all please make a way for us to get through?”
You’d think the crowd would make a way for someone in obvious need, but they didn’t. I don’t know why. Maybe they just didn’t think it was important. Maybe they just didn’t want to go to the trouble of rearranging themselves. The man could wait until Jesus had finished speaking. He could see Jesus later. The man and his friends consulted with one another. What should they do? Wait? Come back another day?
I’ll always remember our first visit to Morton in 1990, our first interview. John and I came in the side door of the church building, and I remember thinking, “oh, how lovely this is!” And then we went up to the fellowship hall. It was beautiful. I loved it! I had never seen a knotty pine paneled fellowship hall before. But it was upstairs. I wondered, “What about those stairs? How do you help people up the stairs?”
I don’t remember asking you all about it that day. But in one of those coincidences that often happens for the people of God, I had brought a sermon that day to preach for the pulpit committee. It happened to be on today’s gospel lesson, and it was on carrying people to Jesus on our prayers and on helping any way we can to get people to Jesus, including making our church buildings accessible. I am so glad to be here today to see the answer to that question I had that day, and a fulfillment of that very first sermon I ever preached here.
Over the years those stairs became an ordeal for more and more people, and they were an absolute barrier for some. It was a painful reality, limiting our ability to include everybody fully in our congregational life. But we did the best we could. We began setting up tables downstairs on the sanctuary level when we had dinners here.
The water seepage problem in the basement was a barrier of another kind. Coming up here to vacuum water up after a big rain was no laughing matter. And yet we had to laugh at times to keep from crying. We’d chuckle about baptizing people in the basement. When hurricane Floyd rolled through, we actually could have done that.
Water seepage left the basement an eyesore and left the demoralizing odor of decay. How could we reach out to others unreservedly and wholeheartedly with that troubling us? Lord, what can we do?
The four plus friends in our gospel lesson finally decided what to do. They said, “No! We’re not waiting any longer!” Mark makes it clear that four carried him, but others came along. This team took drastic action. The four stretcher-bearers carried the man up on the roof of the house—it was flat and there was probably a ladder or stairway so people could go up there and sit. And the other friends carried equipment. Shovels. Maybe something like a crowbar. Why? It was to dig a hole through the roof. In between the roof beams roofers had placed branches or sticks and packed them with clay. The roof was made of earth.
The man’s friends dug and pulled out the sticks and clay until they had made a hole big enough to fit their friend through. Imagine the buzzing of the crowd below. “What are those guys doing? What’s the homeowner going to do when he gets his hands on them?”
Actually, we think it may well have been Simon Peter’s house in Capernaum. And what is known as Peter’s house now? Right. The church.
We knew we would have to take drastic action to solve our access problem and our water problem. So in 1996 on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the church’s charter, we launched a fund to start saving for the solution. Some really hard work began the next year, in the summer of 1997 when the first of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of plates were served in our “Eat Lunch Out At Church Program”—build fellowship while we build the building fund.
In the years since we have struggled to find an answer. We have prayed and learned, and discussed and argued and considered all kinds of options, from installing an elevator to tearing the whole wing down and starting over. We worked to get ready, whatever the answer turned out to be. We sang “Be strong in the Lord, and be of good courage” a lot!
And God finally led us to a decision in 2004. God gave us the courage to decide, and then God worked out a way to do an “extreme makeover” kind of renovation, with a bit more complicated demolition than making a hole in the roof.
God provided every thing, and every person we needed all the way through the process. Everything. Even somebody that wanted the old brick we couldn’t use, and he was willing to haul them off. And now look what God has done! God has completely rebuilt this building. And it honors God in both function and beauty. Thanks be to God! No more worrying about people struggling on the stairs. Now the whole family of God can eat together in one room. Praises be to him!
But making the hole in the roof wasn’t the end of the story of the determined team of friends. The whole point of all that effort was to get that man into the presence of Jesus. His friends lowered him as easy as they could until he came to rest in front of Jesus. Jesus’ eyes shone when we saw the determined faith and trust of that group of friends. He told the man, “My child, your sins are forgiven.” It was a deep spiritual healing, releasing him from guilt. Releasing him from shame. What’s more, Jesus claimed him as his own, a member of his family, healing the isolation. And Jesus went on to heal his body, too.
Making this building accessible isn’t the end of the story here, either. It’s just the beginning. The point is to make a way to Jesus, to bring people into his arms by opening ours. Another hymn we sang a lot during this process is called “People Need the Lord.” It speaks of lonely people filled with cares, people with all kinds of pain, wandering through life, and of how they need the one who can take them beyond their broken dreams. Oh, if only these folk could see Jesus’ kind eyes, and hear his gracious, forgiving voice, and receive his healing touch! Oh, if only they could come into his arms, find healing, salvation, a reason to live, and a mission!
Hasn’t helping people get to Jesus always been our calling at Morton? Over a hundred years ago a group of Presbyterian friends in the City of Rocky Mount grew concerned about the many people in the countryside needing the Lord, needing his word, needing his touch, needing to serve as his disciples.
Now in those days, very few rural folk had cars. They could not easily drive five miles into town the way we can now. Led by Pastor William D. Morton, those friends considered what to do to make a way for them. They decided that they would take Jesus out to where the people were. They planted three mission Sunday schools that eventually became Second, Bethlehem and Morton Churches. Ours began in 1903 in a school building across the road from here. Our church came into being because a group of friends cared about the people out this way, cared enough to try to make a way to Jesus. That first group of friends passed the call on to the people who became Morton Church, and it is still our call.
We Morton folk need to ask this question, and you friends need to take this same question home to your own churches: what does God want us to do now to help people get to Jesus?
As you enter the fellowship hall you will see a picture of Jesus looking straight at you, with his arms held out to say, “Come.” And around him are smaller scenes of his ministry. That picture sums up the whole meaning of the building project. What do we need to do to be those arms? How can we use the building to welcome to the left out, the poor, the sick, the troubled, people of all kinds, sinners all, just like us?
The building is ready. Are we ready? Surely Christ calls us to draw nearer and nearer to him ourselves, so we can be his open arms. If it means letting God do further renovations on us as a people, we can trust him to do what is right. We can trust him to renovate our hearts where needed: whether it’s letting him reorder priorities or letting him change thought patterns and habits that might pose barriers to others. In other words, allowing ourselves to be rearranged, doing the rearranging of ourselves that the crowd at Peter’s house was not willing to do. Behold, God is doing a new thing, making new points of contact with the community around us, making new openings in our hearts. You are already a loving congregation. Christ’s light shines in you. Now let’s go deeper with him.
We need prayer more than ever. “Lord, make us a community of determined friends like those friends in the story, determined to bring people to you.” Friends and family, we ask you to keep carrying us to Jesus on your prayers, and we’ll do the same for you. Let us all recommit ourselves this day to being his disciples, to being his kind eyes, his gracious, forgiving voice, his healing hands, his loving arms. Let us offer him all our church buildings and all that we have and all that we are.
In the name of the one who made a way to heaven for us, in the name of the one who opened the way to eternal life for us, we will make a way for others. We will do this in memory of the friends, many faithful friends.