by Ed Saxby
You can watch the sermon here: https://youtu.be/L83xVQl_h-s
MESSAGE PART 1: “Midrash” (Ed Saxby)
Shortly before the strange events we’ve just heard described, there were several friends sitting together in a house on a languid, hot afternoon in that same village. They were eating almonds and goat cheese and enjoying a little wine. One of the friends, Ezra, sat in his customary position leaning against the wall, on his stretcher on the floor. Ezra’s legs hadn’t worked for a long time.
His friends kept an eye on him. Customarily, they would bring Ezra to the edge of the village square in the mornings, where he spent most of the day watching folks from the village and visiting with those who came by. He had no job, nor money, nor apparent value to the everyday work of survival in the village, but he had friends.
So on this warm afternoon of telling stories and napping, suddenly Rachel burst into the room, yelling, “Get up, everybody! Get up now! Right now! Jesus, the healer, is here in town! He’s just two blocks up at Jacob’s house! We need to take Ezra there right now!”
The friends all sat up and looked at one another. Ezra smiled. And Rachel said, “Get up, now! Hurry, help me,” she said to the friends as she ran to pick up one of the edges of the stretcher, “Hurry, everybody grab an edge.”
And so the friends did. They picked up Ezra, maneuvered the stretcher out the door and turned up the street toward Jacob’s house carrying their friend. They shuffled slowly along in the hot dusty street, Rachel leading them, saying, “Hurry, we must hurry.” The friends were having a hard time gathering any speed. They beckoned to others on the street to give them a hand.
“Hurry, come, we’re bringing Ezra to see Jesus!” Others rushed up to help. “We’ve got this. We’ve got your back. Let’s go,” they said.
And so the group continued on towards the house.
Even from a distance, they could see a crowd gathered at the door, several people deep, and they rushed up to try to bring Ezra in.
No one made room for them to get through. A couple of people in the crowd turned around to say, “there’s no room. It’s full. It’s full.” Rachel yelled at them, “But we must bring Ezra in. We want to bring our friend in to see Jesus.”
One of the men turned around, looked at Rachel and said, “Standing room only!”
The friends, still holding the stretcher, all looked at Ezra, who raised an eyebrow and shrugged his shoulders.
Rachel looked up and saw the steps on the side of the house, leading up to the roof. “Come, we need to get Ezra to the roof!” The friends struggled to carry the stretcher up the steps to the flat rooftop. When they got there, they laid down the stretcher and immediately began prying up the edges of one of the roof tiles. It took some effort, but eventually they were able to open a hole in the roof wide enough to let the stretcher get through. One of them had run back to his house and brought back some strong ropes normally used for fishing. Sweating now, they all lifted an edge of the stretcher, secured it with the rope and began to lower Ezra down to the crowded room below, where they could see the top of Jesus’ head as he spoke to the crowd, but not his face.
Somebody in the crowd noticed the commotion above and yelled, “what are you doing? This isn’t right – you can’t do this!”
But one of Ezra’s friends on the roof, straining with the weight of the stretcher now dangling about a dozen feet above the floor, called back, “well, he’s on his way now…”
At that point, the ropes slipped several feet through the sore hands of the friends on the roof. “Whoah!” they cried all at once. Ezra’s stretcher tipped and swayed in mid-air.
“Whoah!” Ezra cried. But the friends once again found their grip and stopped his fall.
The crowd surrounding Jesus, which had fallen silent during this exchange, now let out a collective “Whoah!” as Ezra gently and safely landed on his stretcher at Jesus’ feet.
Ezra looked up at Jesus and said, “Jesus?”
Jesus looked down at Ezra and said, “Welcome, Ezra.”
MESSAGE PART 2: “Vision Story” (Ed Saxby)
As some of you know, recently I have found myself with more time than I’m used to having for reflection. I also recently had a chance to participate in an evening of conversation here at the church in which we were invited to dream about the future of the church. One night not long after that, I found myself thinking about the scripture we’ve been talking about this morning and about our own church community.
The story I want to tell you now came to me as I considered these things:
In this dream or vision, I was walking down the stairs leading from the offices to Guptill Hall to drop off some clothes that my granddaughter had outgrown as donations at the Children’s Clothing Closet. It was a weekday, the lights were off, so the light was shadowy. The room seemed completely empty as I got to the bottom of the stairs. As I walked across the room toward the donation box near the stage, I noticed something different on the floor. There were several stretchers laid out on the floor in front of the stage. I walked over and looking closer, saw that each stretcher had a tag tied to it.
“Big church. Small endowment” (said one tag)
“Radical hospitality to the poor and the outcast.”
“A caring community for those at the end of life.”
“A carbon-neutral church.”
“Bridge from yesterday’s church to tomorrow’s church.”
Off to the right, on the floor, I saw a stack of more stretchers. When I looked up, as my eyes adjusted to the light, in a corner of the room, I noticed for the first time that there were other people here. I saw Vinton and Xander standing together, as well as Scott and Terry and Deb and Anne – and there were others. They were standing in a line leading up to the stretchers, talking quietly.
That’s when I noticed, in the dim light, something I had missed before. Or rather, someone. It was Cindy, standing in front of the stage, next to all the stretchers, watching, talking, listening. Taking in the whole scene, but also giving everyone individual attention.
Then I felt a tingle at the back of my neck. And I realized more people were emerging, walking down the steps from the stage, walking down the steps from the Discovery Center. The elevator bell rang and the doors opened and more people emerged. There were people coming down the big steps from upstairs at the end of the room. And more people were coming out of the kitchen.
I caught Cindy’s eye. She started to say something to me, but I raised my finger to my lips, and I said, “We’ve got this. We’ve got your back.”
And so we do.
MESSAGE PART 3: “Prayer” by Cindy Maddox
When Ed first told me he wanted to preach, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All he said was: “I have things I want to say.” But I trusted him and knew that whatever he wanted to say to us, I wanted to hear. And I knew you would, too. So here we are, having heard maybe not what we expected, but what we need.
Ed’s creative narrative around the biblical story brings it to life, helps to make it real. Through his story we see the importance of perseverance, not giving up in the face of impediments. We see the value of creative thinking, creative problem-solving to get the job done. But most of all, we see the importance of friends, of community, who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
And haven’t we all been there? Or if we haven’t, we will. The time has already or will come when we depend on others, when we lean on their support, when we don’t know how we would survive without them—or at least we wouldn’t be made well without them. We might survive without community, but it takes the community to make us whole.
Often when we hear someone is seriously – or even terminally – ill, we pray for healing. We might even find ourselves praying for a “miracle.” But what people who have been on that journey into serious illness may be able to teach us is that there is more than one way to define “healing” and more than one way to experience a “miracle.” In the Biblical sense, “healing” means “restored to wholeness.” When Jesus miraculously heals people in the Bible stories, it always means they are also restored to their dignity as individuals, restored to a place in the community and restored to relationship with God. It takes the community to make us whole. And that wholeness can feel like a miracle.
The vision Ed had—of stretchers in Guptill Hall—takes the story even further, for through that story we are reminded that we’re not just the ones on the stretcher. We’re not all Ezra, or at least not all the time. We also are called to carry the stretchers—to pick up our corner, to do our part, to be part of the solution.
Sometimes, we’re called to go even further: to leave our accustomed place, to risk something that may seem a bit outrageous at first. Sometimes we even find ourselves out in the dusty street, walking with others, breaking through barriers, not knowing exactly how it’s all going to turn out, but knowing it’s where we’re meant to be.
Notice that the tags on the stretchers weren’t people’s names; they were concerns:
–our need for endowment gifts to assure our longevity
–radical hospitality to the poor and the outcast,
–a carbon-neutral church
–a bridge from yesterday’s church to tomorrow’s church
These are the stretchers we are asked to carry, the work we are called to do. We do it by joining the Environmental Justice committee or the Social Witness committee. We do it by displaying lawn signs announcing our commitment to justice. We do it by supporting efforts to be a more “green” church. We do it by offering a friendly welcome to newcomers (even if they sit in our pew!). We carry the corner of the stretcher nearest to our hands and hearts.
But I have to say, that last one Ed mentioned may be the hardest: a bridge from yesterday’s church to tomorrow’s church. That’s hard because we like yesterday’s church! We liked when the pews were full and the youth group had fifty kids who came every Sunday and the women’s guild had youth and energy; and sometimes we long to “make the church great again” by returning to the 1950s.
But those days are gone. Yesterday’s church will not survive because yesterday’s church does not meet the needs of today, not to mention tomorrow. It’s scary to move beyond yesterday and into tomorrow because, by definition, tomorrow is unknown. But we start by being open—open to change, open to some metaphorical roof-tearing. And there may be times when the stretcher tips and we say “Whoah!” But we trust the community. We trust the ropes and the hands that hold them.
Prayers are answered by those who show up. Let’s show up.