Eight years ago in January, I was serving as the associate pastor of a church in Ohio, and it was the night of the Confirmation lock-in. (A lock-in is when you spend the night in a church on purpose. Everybody brings a sleeping bag. Nobody gets any sleep.) After late night pizza but before the movie, the other leader and I were playing a board game with a few kids in one of the classrooms.
Every now and then we heard the other five boys running down the hall and shouting gleefully. Every now and then I thought to myself, hey you should really see what they’re up to. But come on, it was free time; they need their space.
Turns out, they were discovering some important features of the church —like the hallway of the preschool had a well-defined slope, and —we had a whole lot of things with wheels! If I remember correctly, they tied an office desk chair to one of those massive carts that held a stack of eight-foot wooden banquet tables. You see where this is going.
They got a running start from the community room and with one in the chair caboose, and one on the side shooting video, the others jumped on as the cart went careening down the hill of the hall. The crash was spectacular!
First and foremost, no one was injured. Shortly after the crash, I thought to myself, one day, this will be funny. I’m sharing this story now because we have reached the day when it’s funny. But there were many days right after the crash when it was not. The cart had knocked hooks off the preschool wall and damaged the paint. Four tables on the cart were broken beyond repair. Several leaders in the church were understandably furious.
I was upset too. I felt guilty for my negligent supervision and I felt defensive of our kids. The other lock-in leader and I threw ourselves into the work of making the kids make things right. The preschool director invited us to do a service project which we gladly accepted. We helped the boys write a formal apology to the church council. Their families split the cost of purchasing new tables for the church.
I was zealous in making sure we took all the responsibility and made all the reparations. So when the written apology was presented at the next council meeting, I was unprepared for the response of one of the moderators (a moderator is like a council president). He wanted the leaders of the council to meet with the boys. I was thinking it was so they could apologize in person. No.
He had to explain, these teenagers have just given the church an apology and they are buying us new tables. Somebody needs to thank them! We can’t bury their apology in the minutes of the council meeting. They have stepped up, he said. We need to forgive them as deliberately as they have apologized.
Here I had been so intent on making sure the kids did right by the church, until the moderator spoke up, I had forgotten, the church needed to do right by them. I mean, they’re in Confirmation; these are the days they’re deciding whether or not to join the church. What if we have so much more to offer our teenagers than demanding accountability, so much more than blame. What if the church could forgive, imagine if we had that power…
In the scripture George just read, we hear a collection of stories from Mark showcasing Jesus’s early ministry. There’s a party trick miracle where four friends lower a man who’s paralyzed into a crowded house. Jesus pronounces him forgiven, removes his paralysis, and challenges the worried scribes in the room. Next Jesus recruits a tax collector named Levi to follow him. He resolves a debate regarding why John’s disciples fast while his own disciples feast. The collection ends with a parable about patching an old garment and storing new wine.
In the middle of all the action, Jesus sits down and eats dinner with tax collectors and sinners. In the middle of all this teaching, Jesus exposes our impulse to assign blame. Pay attention to where you are flinging your judgement, he tells us.
It simply doesn’t work to use a piece of new fabric to patch an old coat. But get this, it’s not the coat’s fault for being old! How often do we blame the coat for being too old and falling apart…
It simply doesn’t work to pour new wine into an old wineskin, I mean go ahead and try it for science sake, you’ll see, the new wine will cause the skin to burst. But get this, it’s not the wine’s fault for being new! How often do we blame the wine for being too new, too young, and not fitting into the old…
All through this scripture, Jesus exposes our human instinct to make judgements without thinking through them. Once that impulse comes to light, once Jesus perceives the scribes questioning in their hearts, then he presents the question for everyone to hear and see: Do you really mean to blame whom you’re blaming?
You heard me correctly, says the Lord. I said to the man, Your sins are forgiven. What, do you disagree? Do you think his paralysis was his own fault because of his sin? (Now that really was the prevailing idea of the day, but hear how it sounds out loud!) Jesus is making them confront their own judgement.
Fasting and feasting are both practices that bring us closer to God. There’s a time and a place for both, says the Lord. Are you looking to blame my disciples for eating, or John’s crew for fasting, or maybe nobody’s at fault…
Come on then, everybody knows the tax collectors are suspicious. They’re essentially employees of the Roman occupation! If there’s anybody we can all agree to blame, of course it’s the tax collectors and sinners. This is not a snap judgement; this time we have evidence.
Okay… Only thing is, do you know any tax collectors personally? Do you know their names and their stories? Do you know if their parents are sick or if their children are getting bullied? Here, come and find out, says the Lord. Pull up a chair. We’ll fix you a plate.
The first thing Jesus does is challenge us to consider who we’re really blaming, and if that’s all he did, it would be the good news of the Gospel. If that’s all he did, things would never be the same.
Without even meaning to, we human people build a whole world out of blame. If a family is homeless, it must be their fault. Maybe they’re lazy? If a person overdoses, it’s her own fault for being addicted. If a person gets locked up, he must have done something. Maybe he was running with the wrong crowd?
We blame those who are undocumented for being here. We blame older people for being old and self-centered. We blame young people for being young and self-centered. And we don’t even mean to! We’re not sitting around on overstuffed sofas, sipping sarsaparillas, and cackling, and complaining about the people whose lives are harder than we’ll ever know. Most of the time, we don’t go around blaming on purpose.
What Jesus invites us to do is notice where our empathy runs out; know where your limits are. And if that’s all he taught us, we would never be the same. That’s the first thing.
The second thing Jesus does is say, See we’re having dinner and why don’t you join us. Sitting across the table from him, it becomes clear. It’s not just that he sees our instinctual blame or our deep shame. Jesus sees who we really are. Excuse me, says the Lord, while passing a plate of sandwiches, Your compassion is showing. Your sins are forgiven. Your forgiveness is shining for all the world to see.
So okay, the confirmands crashed into the wall and there’s more than enough blame to go around. There is something more important than making them pay, and there’s something in you that already knows that, and I can see it. Everybody can.
If it’s you he’s talking to, if you’re the one munching on chips while the LORD our God just named and called out your mercy, you might feel a certain kinship with the man who got to his feet, and picked up his mat, and went home. You might know something of what it is to get up from the dead.
In the Twenty-Third Psalm, the LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. On the other side of the green pastures and still waters, on the other side of the valley of the shadow of death, in the middle of the wilderness, there’s a table.
In the Lord’s Prayer, before we attempt asking for forgiveness, we say, Give us this day our daily bread. In the middle of the prayer, there’s a table.
In the middle of an Ohio church, there’s a set of new tables that were given by five eighth-grade boys.
In this middle of this collection of healing and teaching stories, there’s a table. At the table, Jesus sees us for who we really are. See the grace of God in the breaking of the bread. Really listen to somebody else’s story and whether they’re a tax collector, or a teacher, or a teenager, you’ll see. There’s more than enough blame to go around. But more than enough blame is mercy.
More than our impulse to assign blame or our zeal to take responsibility, more than our judgement is the grace of God. Imagine if we could build a whole world out of that! Because I think we could. Imagine if the church could lead the charge —if we were the ones who notice the forgiveness in the room, the need for it and the power of it. Imagine if we made it our business to answer blame with grace. I really believe we could try this. And when we do, you’ll know where to find us. We’ll be at the table.