The Communion of Compassion: A Sermon for Disability Awareness Sunday

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paperchainwheelchairThe Communion of Compassion
A Sermon for World Communion and Disability Awareness Sunday, October 4, 2015, First Olympia UMC

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4, NRSV)
So today is an interesting day. Downstairs we are hosting our annual health fair. Jeanne Kirkpatrick and the health ministry team have worked hard to bring together a lot of different resources to help us all live healthier lives. I hope you will stop in downstairs following the service.
Today is also a day we have designated as Disability Awareness Sunday, a day in the United Methodist Church that affirms the responsibility of the Church to be in ministry with all persons, regardless of their physical and/or mental conditions.

And finally, today is World Communion Sunday, a day when we celebrate the diversity of the Body of Christ and the common table we share across every border and boundary we can possibly imagine. We use this day as a day to receive a special second mile offering in support of many of the horizon-broadening justice ministries of the church, as we support scholarship programs, community centers, educational events, accessibility grants, and much more.

The challenge for me this morning is to help you all see how all of these things are connected, and why it matters.

We are a part of the Body of Christ! Each of us individually has a responsibility to care for ourselves so that we might thrive and grow and be better able to extend the love of God in the world. We live in a culture that celebrates perfect and strong bodies, a world that far too often bases social acceptance on appearance. We are made in the image of God, but it is not our physical appearance or ability that is like unto God. That God-like image is in here. Yet this world of ours pushes us to look good, be strong, be perfect (as defined by who?). The social scientists tell us that vast numbers of women AND men struggle with body image issues, believing that we fail to live up to the cultural standards of beauty and strength and well-being. What you won’t see reported in the popular press is that these body image concerns point toward a spiritual problem into which we easily fall.

Let me offer an analogy (from Tim Keller’s, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness). When your leg is healthy, you don’t give it much thought. You walk, run, and jump on your leg without a care in the world. It is only when you break that leg that you give it much attention. In fact, your entire body must adjust as you compensate for the injury. Whenever some part of us is injured or unwell, it consumes our attention, and thus a broken view of the body results in a preoccupation with the body, with our physicality, robbing us of time spent on things of the spirit. Rather than living life oriented toward God, many become oriented toward our outward appearance and ignore our deeper being, our spiritual being. True health, you see, isn’t just about our body, but about the balance between body and soul, between the physical and the spiritual.

Most of us could probably develop healthier habits of eating and exercise, certainly I know that is true for me. When we do these things, when we “take care of ourselves,” we will feel better physically, and when we feel better physically, we may be find ourselves better able to work on spiritual matters. It is all interrelated… mind, body, soul.

I remind you at this point that one of the more poetic names of the church is “The Body of Christ.” This institution, First Olympia, is part of the Body of Christ. Now, the Body of Christ is made of churches big and little, churches in big cities and little cities, churches in big countries and little countries. It is made up of predominantly black churches, and churches that are predominantly white, Korean churches, Japanese churches, Spanish language churches, Filipino churches. It is made up of churches that have experienced fires and earthquakes and other natural tragedies. It is made up of broken churches where abuse has happened, churches where money has been stolen, churches where the youngest person is 45 and the trustees have turned the nursery into a closet because there are no children. The Body of Christ is made up of churches in communities where unemployment is 50%, churches where 1/3 of the husbands are in prison, and churches that can’t afford to pay a pastor. It is made up churches that have never seen a hymnal, and others where a guitar is considered a tool of Satan. It is made up of churches that meet in grass huts and others with sanctuaries made of steel and glass. The Body of Christ includes store front churches, great cathedrals with stone and stained glass, and one room country chapels with crooked steeples and peeling paint. It is made up of churches where there is dancing in the pews and churches where clapping is reserved for only a few very special occasions. The Body of Christ looks different every time you look at it. It is beautiful in its diversity, like a rainbow of many colors stretched out across an infinite horizon.

But as diverse as the Body of Christ may be on a global macro scale, we sometimes struggle to celebrate true diversity on the more particular micro scale. Today you saw the premier of our inclusivity statement video. (Friends, it was that statement, adopted by the church council a few years ago, that convinced me to come to this church to be your pastor.) I’ve had a few people come to me over the last 15 months and ask in various ways if that statement is true. Do we really welcome all people? Is this statement of inclusivity and welcome actual or aspirational? Is this who we are or who we want to be?

I try to respond honestly and say that the answer may depend a bit upon who you ask. I know that not everyone always feels welcome. Ironically, for some it is the statement of welcome that makes them feel unwelcomed. I know that some find the statement controversial because of the reference to sexual orientation and gender identity, and that is an issue that gets a lot of air time in our world and in the church as global United Methodism struggles to find direction in a culture that is evolving in our thinking about human sexuality. But today I want to point out another phrase in the welcome statement that sometimes makes me wonder if we are as welcoming as we believe we are, as welcoming as we aspire to be… and that phrase is “all abilities.”

In my Friday Bible Study we are reading the Acts of the Apostles, and in Acts 3, there is a powerful story about a man who has been lame since birth. He has people who bring him to the Temple every day to beg for alms from those who are going into the Temple to pray. Now unless you are reading quite carefully, you may miss the fact that the man is always placed OUTSIDE of the Temple. Why? Because, in the first century, in Jerusalem, as a person who cannot walk, this person is considered unclean and is not allowed in the Temple. In those days, there was an assumption that physical disability was the result of sin. This man, or his parents, had sinned and he was unwelcomed in the Temple. Along came Peter and John, and they heal the man in the name of Jesus Christ, and then for the first time ever he goes into the Temple along with the apostles, walking and leaping and praising God!

Now, Jesus has assured us that disability and sin are not so clearly connected as the tradition of the time taught, and the welcoming inclusive spirit of Jesus made room in every holy place for every person… those who could not see, those who could not hear, those who could not walk, those who could not bear children, those who could not speak, those who bled, those who were young, those who were old, those who were different in any way. Jesus welcomes them all… he heals some of them, but he welcomes them all.

Perhaps this Christ-centered welcome arises from the realization that most of us are broken in some way. Some disabilities are obvious; others quite hidden. I suppose almost all of us have experienced circumstances in life that limited us, or changed the way we move through this world. Our “affliction” as this morning’s scripture refers to our human condition is universal though variable. Paul offers up a doxology and the reminder that God is a God of compassion and consolation, consoling us so that we may console others.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4, NRSV)

You see, friends, we are all in this together, no matter what our abilities or disabilities may be. And we all are part of the Body of Christ, and we all are called to the life of discipleship. It may be harder for some than others to hear the sermon, to read the scripture, to walk down the aisle to receive communion, but we are one body in Christ Jesus, and we will do all that we can to accommodate and welcome each and every child of God.

Many years ago my mother was paralyzed from a back injury, and she was confined to a wheelchair. She could use leg braces and a walker to transfer and to move small distances. She and Dad all of us kids began to look at our homes with new eyes. We rearranged furniture, removed doors, and built ramps, all to make sure that mom could be part of the family. Her home was transformed, but mom dreaded going out. She believed that everyone was staring at her, feeling sorry for her, and she hated that idea. The place she was most embarrassed to go was church, in part because our home church was not very wheelchair friendly. To enter into the sanctuary one had to come through a side gate from the alley, through a children’s playground, and in a side door that was at the very front of the church, right under the lectern. Mom was the ultimate church lady, beloved in her church, and her friends wanted her there, and they told her so, but it was never the same for her. Though she drew strength from worship, she was never again comfortable entering the sanctuary. As her son, and as a pastor, I felt her pain. Prior to her disability, I cognitively understood the need for accessibility in the church. After her disability, I understood that need on an emotional level.

Let me tell you about Patrick. Patrick is a member at Saint John UMC, the congregation I served in Anchorage, Alaska. Patrick is 21 years old now. Every year of his life is a blessing as he has far exceeded his life expectancy. Patrick lives with a disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. His bones and muscles didn’t develop like yours and mine, and he spends his time in a gurney, with machines that help him breathe, but Patrick has some amazing parents who have been his muscles and his bones so that he can live a fulfilling life. Patrick is smart. His mind is as sharp as a tack, but he cannot speak and communicates by blinking and by making a few noises, and with a computer that he controls with a trackball mouse placed under his fingers. About three years ago, Patrick let me know that he really, really wanted a job at the church. Like some of the other youth in the church, he was interested in running our tech booth for our worship services. To be honest with you, I was dubious at first. But Patrick convinced me he could do it. With two fingers and a bit of help getting set up, Patrick can maneuver his way around a computer screen, and that’s all it takes to run the worship slideshow. We had to rearrange the monitors just a bit, but twice a month Patrick serves as a worship tech, and honestly, he does a great job.

I share these stories in the hopes of increasing our awareness that in the Body of Christ one of the forms diversity we seek has nothing to do with color of skin or gender or family structures. In God’s church, in the family of the Body of Christ, our physical limitations have no bearing whatsoever on our welcome here. We must provide access and opportunity to all. Just as we would do that for our family, for our mother or father, for our child, or for our sister or brother, we do that for each other in the family of God.

Cuts outs in our pews, accessible bathrooms, Handicapped Parking spaces, hearing assist systems, large print bulletins… those are some of the easy things to do. The spirit of welcome, the sense of personal connection to every child of God, the willingness to see the world through the eyes of another who does not see, to hear the word God through the ears of one who cannot hear, to walk with one who walks with God without legs that move… that is harder to do. Yet that is the spirit of welcome we seek, and God willing, it is the spirit of welcome we will always extend not only in this church, but also in our daily living in this world that so often understands body in a less than Christ-like way.

You are the Body of Christ, perfect or imperfect, whole or broken… you are the Body of Christ and you are welcome here, in this family and at this table. Amen.