Extraordinary Day (Psalm 116:1-2, 12-15)

I love you God: I love that you hear me when I try to speak with you.

Especially when I try to speak with you but my words fail me because I have been ill.

Because you listen to me and delight to hear me,

I will continue to speak to you and speak with you.

 

And I will listen, in case you want to speak to me.

 

What else can I give you?  What do I have that you don’t have?

What do I have that you could possibly need?

All that I can truly offer you is my desire to receive more from you.

All that I can truly offer you is my desire to love you more,

and for others to love you because they have seen you and known you

as I have seen and known you.

I want my worship to be overheard, not that I become famous as a worshipper

or wordsmith:

but that the content of my worship, the story of my salvation,

the litany of my thanksgiving should be heard;

and that the evidence of that which has not yet been seen by others

should be made audible to them.

 

Your care of me is so apparent to me.

Your love of me has never been more real.

It is truly shocking how intimately you know me and

the degree to which you love me.

 

I have been known by God in the Biblical sense,

and this is what you have desired for each of your daughters and sons.

 

This is an extraordinary day.

But, then every day is when you are near, Lord.

 

Amen.

Through Matthew (Matthew 9:35-38)

Father, through Matthew you tell us that

Jesus went out:

teaching and preaching,

healing and raising,

revealing and praising.

And then he went to the next town and did the same again.

 

Father, through Matthew you tell us that

Jesus had compassion.

Enduing the crowds

and curing the crowded.

Shepherding the lost

and gathering the blest.

 

Father, through Matthew you tell us that

Jesus needs assistance.

Here we are: send us.

 

Amen.

Resurrection Day

This is the text of the message I presented on 16th April 2017, Resurrection Sunday, to the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church.  It was the first time I had preached on Easter Day.

Colossians 3:1-4; Acts 10:34-43; John 20 1:18

One of my favourite songs for Resurrection Sunday is not a hymn or chorus, or even a “church song” at all.  It’s by U2, it’s called “Window in the Skies” and it begins:

The shackles are undone,

The bullets quit the gun,

The heat that’s in the sun

Will keep us when there’s none.

The rule has been disproved,

The stone – it has been moved,

The grave is now a groove,

All debts are removed.

 Oh, can’t you see what love has done?

It may seem strange to begin a reflection on the most foundational of Christian truths with a ten-year-old rock song, but I believe that this song, written by Christian men who work in “the secular realm”, expresses the same sorts of emotion that our reading from the gospel summons.

John’s gospel tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb alone and before dawn.  She arrives to find that the stone – it has been moved, and so she runs for help, believing that the body had been stolen.  When she and a couple of the men return, the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is said to have “seen and believed”, although we’re not told what he believed, and he and Peter having seen what they have seen promptly go home.  They just go home: as you do.

But not Mary, Mary stays there.  She takes another look in to what she understands is an empty tomb only to find that it is not empty at all.  The empty tomb is now occupied by angels, two of them, the same number of angels as there were men who have just gone home.  They ask her who she’s crying for and she tells them.  Did you get that, Mary tells a pair of angels, sitting in an empty tomb, that she’s upset that the dead Jesus has been removed without her knowledge.  There are angels…in an empty tomb…  Something extraordinary is going on here but Mary’s distress is too overwhelming for her to look past the first thing she’d seen; that Jesus’ corpse is missing.

The story goes on, Mary is alone in the garden once more since the men have gone home and the angels have not left the tomb, yet she is not alone and a man is there.  He calls her “woman”, and those of you who were around a few weeks ago know what happens when Jesus addresses a female conversation partner as “Woman”.  Revelation is about to happen.  Something more has happened in Mary’s vicinity, the story is reaching its climax, and Jesus calls her name.

The shackles are undone.

Some traditions put the words “don’t touch me” in Jesus’ mouth at this point, but I like what we have heard here, “do not hold on to me”.  Mary is allowed a hug, but not a long one, as Jesus has a very important appointment to keep.  I just love this moment in this story.  Consider what is happening here in what I believe to be one of the finest, and yet also one of the most under-reported events of that first day of resurrection.  Jesus is in the process of ascending to the Father, he’s heading for Heaven for the first time since he left Heaven at the annunciation of Mary his mother, this is the culmination of the resurrection when the Son of Man is to be vindicated in glory by God the Father, but that can all wait until Jesus has comforted his friend.  The risen saviour of creation pauses in the very act of ascension to embrace his weeping, confused friend to assure her that he is there and that it is truly he who is truly there.  And then, like every other man in this story so far, Jesus goes home.

To every broken heart,

for every heart that cries:

love left a window in the skies,

and to love I rhapsodize…

So sings U2.  So sing we.

The repercussions of the resurrection of Jesus are not limited to the final chapters in Matthew, Luke and John; neither are they evident only in our day and the miracle of today’s salvation in Jesus’ sacrifice.  In Acts 10:34-43 we read the immediate events of the resurrection of Jesus, of how the truth that God has no favourites was revealed to the disciples of Jesus and of how that message was quickly spread to all corners of the known world.  Peter, speaking in a Roman household in the Roman capital city of Judea, i.e. the city where Pilate and the bulk of his army actually lives, tells that pagan yet imperial household the message of Jesus: that Jesus alone is the source of forgiveness of sins, and of fellowship between those who have accepted his grace because they have received the message of his witnesses.   Cornelius the centurion had been searching for God, and God had sent one of Jesus’ moist experienced eyewitnesses to tell him that he was welcome in the family of God.  Cornelius, the gentile agent of an invasion force, is welcome to sit at the table of grace with Peter himself because of the resurrection of Jesus.

In Colossians 3:1-4 which was written before Acts but describes events that occurred following what we read there, Paul exhorts the Jesus-believers in Colossae to be confident in their pursuit of God and the Way of Jesus in life.  In other words, live as if you are already in Heaven because Christ who is in Heaven lives in you.  This is the story of the Reign of God which we have heard about so much in past months.  Live as if God is king and Jesus is lord: as if the world is already God’s own province, and that the influence and governance of God extends to where you live.  You can live like this, even though the roll-out of the rule of God is not yet complete, because Christ has ascended.  Yes, there is evil in the world, and yes there is harmful and difficult stuff which is not necessarily evil but is just not good, but since you are “hidden with Christ in God” as it says in Colossians 3:3 you can rely on the resources of the Kingdom to flourish where you are right now.

Jesus is celebrated by Peter’s testimony as one who went about doing good and healing all who were repressed by the devil (Acts 10:38).  The Way of Jesus was picked up very quickly by the apostles, disciples, and witnesses who followed him across the world.  Enter a place and tell the story of Jesus, heal any sick, expunge all demons, raise any dead, welcome each of the restored, go to the next town, repeat.  What was once a tomb, a dead-end, is now the front door to a well-worn path:  the grave is now a groove.

I have heard it said that a grave is a rut with the ends filled in.  But I’d like to flip that around and say today that a grave with the ends blown out becomes a channel.  Christian life is not about slipping into a rut, at least it is not designed to be:  Christian life is a way; and more than that it is a way where there wasn’t a way before.   Dead-ends become tunnels and channels, high walls become ramps, ridgeways and bridges like the raised track of a train.  The road of the way, just like the recently-dead Christ on Sunday morning, is unstoppable.

And so, we find ourselves where every Sunday finds us: knowing that we are loved beyond our capacity to understand, rescued and restored from terrors we could never fully appreciate (nor want to), and empowered to live a life of unparalleled freedom and joy because of the Spirit of God who lives in us, just as that spirit lived in Jesus, Peter, Paul, all the Marys, and Cornelius.

Two weeks ago, we heard from John 11:25 that whomever continues to believe into Jesus will live into eternity.  This is the story of resurrection day.  Life is assured for you, not just eternal life in the sense that you will live forever in Heaven, but complete and abundant life in that your existence will always be bountiful, extravagant, and well resourced.  Trouble may come and trouble will come, the resurrection power of Jesus did not prevent Peter and Paul each being murdered by the Roman authorities, and I’m sure Cornelius didn’t long in command of his cohort once his conversion story came out, but such trouble will always be temporary.  The grave cannot hold any of us, it is now a groove, and a groove where Jesus walked before us to open the way.

Love left a window in the skies, and to my God, (who is love), I rhapsodise.

Come and see what love has done, what it’s doing in me

Amen.

Liturgy of the Palms

This is the text of the message I preached on Palm Sunday, 9th April 2017 at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11

Palm Sunday is one of those days of which I have specific memories from childhood.  I couldn’t tell you what happened on the third Sunday in August in any given year, or even the second Sunday in April for that matter, but while actual years are uncertain I can recall Palm Sundays from years long past.  I mean there was that year, several in fact, when we(e) Sunday school kids paraded into church waving huge palm fronds and singing Carl Tuttle’s “Hosanna”.  There was the year when “Jesus” actually rode in to church on a mountain bike covered in tinsel, and the year previously when a real donkey had been sourced.  (When said, donkey left behind what donkeys sometimes do, right in front of the pulpit, the mountain bike was substituted in seemed a better option the following year.)  I remember the cool vicar we had in one church where we high-fived each other in passing the peace because it was “palm” Sunday.  (Don’t laugh, I nearly made you do it today.)  I remember the huge palms we had available to us the three years my family lived in Darwin, and how the front of the church looked like a Pacific Islander hut.  I remember processing in to the cathedral one year with a couple of hundred of us, waving the palms we’d collected in the forecourt as we walked the length of the nave, back down the sides to the great doors, and then up the nave again to find a seat.  I remember the palm crosses we had in Hobart, and how those were kept by us as bookmarks in our Bibles and then returned to church the following year on Shrove Tuesday when they were incinerated and used for the ashes of the next day’s Ash Wednesday.  I remember several years hearing the “Hosanna, Hey-sanna, -sanna, -sanna, Ho” from Jesus Christ Superstar as our call to worship.  And I remember last year when there were no palms at all but clay crosses made by a potter in our congregation: I’ve been wearing mine all Lent this year and have it on now.  (Thanks Mark from Yankalilla!)

But what I don’t remember, really, is any of the sermons from Palm Sunday.  Perhaps, like me, you know the story so well that you don’t remember ever being told it, or any specific occasion upon which it is told.  What the other lectionary readings are never really mattered since you know the minister would preach from Matthew 21:1-9, Mark 11:1-10, or Luke 19:28-40 depending upon which year of the cycle we were in.  (And in case you have forgotten we are in the Year of Matthew in 2017.)

My lectionary tells me that for this Sunday, this year, there is no Old Testament or New Testament reading set.  None.  They are blank spaces in my chart for today.  Just a Psalm, and a Gospel.  Looking further into the lectionary I see that the same Psalm is offered each year, actually a choice of two, and one is not a song of celebration at all.  Amidst all the branch waving, coat flinging, song and dance and donkey poo of Jesus’ heralding by the crowd there is a note of distress and depression.  Some are sad when everyone else is celebrating.  Well spotted, I say to the choosers of the lectionary: always someone will be sad whenever a party is passing through, and oftentimes, indeed always I would suggest, there are sad feelings within the party itself.

I’m not convinced that Palm Sunday was a completely joyful day for Jesus.

One interpretation of the events of Palm Sunday, offered by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan among others, is that Jesus on his donkey is deliberately making a fool of Pilate.  The whole event is parody. Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is a mirror of and a direct challenge to Pilate’s own entry into the city on the same day as an act of protest at the Roman imperial procession.  Jesus is possibly simmering with anger, perhaps frustrated by the noisy crowds who haven’t got as clue of what he is up to as he calculatingly affirms the alternative way of the Reign of God.  The contrast between the two processions is plain: one, a procession of peasants lead by Jesus on a donkey coming from the East and Bethany via the Mount of Olives, and the other a procession of soldiers lead by Pilate coming from the West and the provincial capital at Caesarea Maritima on the coast.  More than competing parades the two processions indicated competing theologies.  Beginning with Augustus and now in the person of Tiberius the Roman emperor was hailed as “the Son of God”, “lord”, “saviour”, and bringer of “peace on Earth”, terms unwarranted according to Jewish theology and terms later taken by the Christians to refer to the man entering the capital from the mountains.  With Jesus being hailed with “Hosanna” as blessed and Davidic there is a distinct and deliberate political feel to this event: Jesus’ parade is anti-military, anti-war, and decidedly anti-imperial.  It is not a party, not at all.

I don’t remember hearing that message in my childhood, not at all.

But that’s okay, Borg and Crossan might not be “right” in their interpretation, and even if they are not “wrong” there are other ways of looking at what is going on

Jesus acts deliberately on this day, the Bible assures us of that.  In Matthew’s account, which we heard today, Jesus appears to rides two animals, a donkey and a colt and we are told that the disciples put their cloaks on “them” and Jesus sat on “them”, which is to say both animals.  Matthew, and so does John, quotes Zechariah 9:9 as the reason why the donkeys must be present, but in Matthew Jesus explains it to the disciples before the ride and in John Jesus speaks to the crowds after he arrives.  In John Jesus responds to the worship by riding a donkey, in Matthew Jesus orchestrates the worship by arriving unannounced on two donkeys.  Either way, he’s up to something.

I think the clue is found in the Zechariah passage itself where the king of Zion triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on…the foal of a donkey has a few things going on.   He is obviously a victor, both in the tradition of the Jewish Scriptural tradition and the Roman Imperial tradition, but he is also humble.  He’s riding a foal, not a stallion.  Perhaps the parody of Pilate is not so nasty in its intent, perhaps Jesus is humble and is showing a better way.  Yes, he is king, yes, he is returning to his capital, but he doesn’t need to make a big show of it, he knows who is he and his people flock to him because he is their king, not because he is loud and covered in brass and flags.  Real kings, like real men, don’t need to show off; real kings are confident and calm.  Let Pilate have his monkeys, the unruffled Jesus does what he wants to do, and he is so attractive because of it.

This also is missing from my memory of child and youthhood pageant, the chillaxed Jesus cruising in to town.  But I like it.

Open the gate for the righteous to enter so that he might to give thanks to God, demands the Psalmist in Psalm 118:19-20. We read of one man’s public, celebratory thanksgiving for salvation in Psalm 118:21 found in God’s seeing the hidden potential in him and for giving him a second chance to shine in Psalm 118:22.  This leads into delight in recognising God’s handiwork at work in Psalm 118:23, which leads into the day of rejoicing in Psalm 118:24.

The first words spoken by Elizabeth Tudor after she was told that she’d inherited the queenship of England are said to have been Psalm 118:23. For a Protestant, bastard, girl under house-arrest and the ever-present threat of execution for treason (or a simple, quiet murder) to inherit a kingdom from her Roman Catholic, and rather bitter half-sister, the new Queen Elizabeth knew that divine forces were at play.  The same is true of us: let us rejoice and be glad in this day is a fitting response.  Look at how the psalmist goes on, crying out “Hosanna” which means “God save me and look here my salvation comes” all at once.  The hosanna in Psalm 118:25 is the beseeching cry of a woman who knows she has already been chosen for salvation and is waiting with bated breath for God to complete the marvellous work in her.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD says Psalm 118:26, “baruch habar b’shem Adonai” as Jews still yell to each other in worship, and “baruch b’shem” when they’re passing the peace.  The crowds called this to Jesus as he rode past them, indicating that their hosannas were directed towards him.  The one who comes in the name of the LORD is the same one who brings salvation and success, and the one who calls forth the light. These words are loaded with meaning for Jewish worshippers.  In the story of Jesus these are not the cries of an overexcited mob who have lost their minds, the people know what they are saying and that is why the Sanhedrin are so disturbed by it.  Tell this uneducated rabble to stop using worship language, they tell Jesus later.  Jesus responds that they may be uneducated but they know worship when they see it, and it is so obvious that even if they (like you) missed it the geology of Zion itself would cry out.  As Hillsong pastor Darlene Zschech has said “no way!  If Jesus is here I refuse to be out-shouted by a rock!”

The Psalm, when placed beside the gospel, gives us two versions of the events of this day in the life of Jesus:

Version one is that Jesus himself is demanding that the gates be opened to him, so that he may enter and worship the God who has been so amazingly faithful to him.  Let’s not forget how amazing the Father was to the Son; Jesus had a lot to say thank you for.  Even as he set a model for us in receiving baptism, Jesus also shows us that no-one is above the duty to worship God in thanksgiving and wonder.  So, gates, open wide and let Jesus himself cry Hosanna! to the God who will save and is right now saving him.  This might be a less well known version, but when you consider that in Matthew Jesus gets off the donkeys and walks straight into the temple I believe he had worship on his mind.  (That he then throws the noisy farmers’ market stallholders out is even more evidence, he’s here to pray and not to eat jam donuts at 30c each or three for $1, or buy perfumed candles and bric-a-brac.)

Version two is the better known one, that the crowds recognise in Jesus the one who brings the salvation of God.  We bless you, the one who comes to us in person with the authority of God, (coming in the Name, Ha’Shem), to do the work of God amongst us.  Open wide those gates so that when the saviour comes he will not be held up for one second.

So, whether you believe Jesus rode one animal or two, that he came as parody of Pilate or as humble yet confidently beloved worshipper of God, that he was enjoying the moment of the joy of the crowd or silently meditating on the full ontological meaning of the prophetic sign he was enacting, the public entry of Jesus to Jerusalem is significant.  This year amidst our palm branches and our memories of the pageants of decades past, of donkeys, mountain bikes, sword-grass and pottery crosses, High-Church, Low-Church, and perhaps even no-church Palm Sundays of remembrance, that our key duty is to worship God in thanksgiving and awe at what the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem really meant for him and for the world.  One man came to give all that he had in worship of God, and all that he had was taken from him before a week had passed.

Amen.

The Prayer of a Righteous Leader.

(Exodus 17:1-7)

Oh God!
Oh, God these people you have sent to me are dead-set doing me in….
Doing my head in, I’m done in: they’re ready to stove my skull in and rip my tongue out.

Oh God!
Oh, God this message you have sent to me to proclaim is too harsh.
Harsh like this ruddy, rocky, wrathful desert you’ve lead me to, and lead the ones following me following you to too.

Oh God!
Oh, God these people circling me are neurotic in their simplicity.
Simple understandings, literal conclusions, lack of imagination and devoid of the creative response of compassion.

Oh God!
Oh, God this message is as contradictory as a rehydrating mirage.
Rehydration, for a million souls? It’s inhospitable in Horeb, it’s an impossible request to make of me.

Oh Man!
Oh, man strike a rock and do it before the people.
Before the people sup I will provide all good things; in their right time and right place.

Oh Man!
Oh, man you ask “is the LORD among us or not”?
The LORD among you will refresh and support you; quench your questioning when I AM is identified in the overflow of outpouring.

God of Moses, God of us:

Hear us when we call out to you for what only you can provide.
Hear us calling in faith and trust, and not in whinging complaint,
when we ask you for what we cannot provide for ourselves.

Be generous to us and patient when we call on you again.
Be patient and generous in your provision and in our haste to receive,
and remind us that we cannot do anything without you.

Amen.

A Sacramental Community for All

In practising its sacraments the Christian Church finds its deepest purposes reflected.  In the sacrament of baptism a person is brought into relational union with named persons (Father, Son, Spirit) and he or she obtains belongingness with the Church.[1]  In participating thereafter in the sacrament of communion the Christian continues in fellowship,[2] re-membering again her or his entry into and full participation within the ecclesia holy, catholic, and apostolic.[3]  What makes a congregation a church, in other words a bearer of the identifying marks of “The Church”, is found in its participants utilising opportunities to learn and teach the Word, the Sacraments, and Discipleship.    It is to the question of access to giving and receiving ministry in each of the cognitive, emotional, physical, social and spiritual domains that I wish to direct the attention of this essay.

I begin with the question of what might be a positive, inclusive Christian view of disability regarding the Church, its ministry, and its sacraments, and what is discordant about other views.  While liberationist theologies proclaim that there is no such thing as common human experience,[4] I offer that human experience itself suggests the same.  In this way to speak of “the disabled” is to offer a disservice to a broad group of people who are each unique.  Conversely the Church has, at times, considered all disabilities as either the consequence or punishment of sin, or a trial of obedience to be endured and welcomed.[5]  “The disabled” were therefore to be avoided as sinners, or venerated as living saints, but there seemed no place for them to be welcomed as sister-brothers. John Foskett, a mental health chaplain in the United Kingdom, noted that meaning can be found in suffering only through faith, scientific views of suffering cannot address the topic of meaning[6], but that is not to say that the purpose of suffering is meaning-making.  Suffering has no intrinsic purpose.  It is true that pastoral care which speaks of the hope found in Christ, even in the suffering of Christ himself, conveys love that secular forms of advice cannot,[7] but the theological meaning which can be found in mental illness does not mean that madness (to use Foskett’s own term) is a positive trait.

I once heard the story of a young woman who, while she was on her honeymoon, suffered a nerve injury which paralysed one side of her face.  She became frightened that her new husband would not want her any more.  “Perhaps”, she is said to have thought, “if we’d been married for a lifetime he would have that history of love to look back on, but with only our courtship and a few days of marriage what history do we have?”  The story ends with the young husband coming to the hospital and twisting his mouth around so that when he kissed his bride their lips would meet.  The parallels between this story and our received traditions of Jesus are evident, Jesus is the only whole person and he makes everyone feel whole.  But it is not good ministry to say to a paraplegic or a schizophrenic that “all are broken anyway” and each person in need of the Great Physician’s healing.  To say to an amputee that “yes, you are missing a limb but we are all in the same spiritual boat,” is to miss both the possibility of learning from another’s lived experience of life without that limb, and the pertinent story of self-identity of that person who already believes him- or herself whole in Christ and therefore not requiring of condescension or understanding of his or her imperfection.  Rather than speaking to people with disabilities of how “we are all disabled in some way” regarding the perfection seen in Christ Jesus, it behoves practitioners of good ministry to speak of the wholeness of the person who is the fullest possible expression of the imago dei despite a personal insufficiency of serotonin, functioning neural-pathways, or fingers.

In The Disabled God Nancy Eiesland prescribes accessibility for all to the rites and sacraments of the congregation: those who have been disenfranchised through disability have a personal responsibility to access the socio-symbolic reality of faith.  Inversely the congregation is obliged to pursue access to the socio-symbolic reality of those of its members who live with a disability.[8]  Kate Swaffer, who was diagnosed with Young Onset Dementia at age 49 speaks of “prescribed disengagement”[9] and of how she was directed by her diagnosing doctor to retire from all forms of life including her job and her tertiary studies, to put her affairs in order, and to start attending sessions at her local high dependency aged care facility in preparation for a permanent move due to her immanent senility.  Kate rejected this advice as unsuitable for a woman of her age, and proceeded to do all that she could to remain active and alert, albeit with the help of her husband and the disability support service at her university.  Eight years later Kate has completed an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree, written two books about her lived experience of dementia, two further books of her poetry, and is a passionate speaker and advocate for the human rights of people with dementia.

In her essay “Enabling Participation” Ann Wansbrough writes of feeling alienated in church by prayers and messages which seem ignorant or denying of her lived experience of disability.[10]  This saddens me since, as Wansbrough has observed, the participation of all members of the congregation must matter to leaders of worship if collective worship is to be a worthwhile activity of the church.  Worship which is self-centred on the part of the worship leader,[11] or the majority, is disempowering to others and excludes their full participation in this central activity of the Church.  Wansbrough understands that the key to inclusive worship is engagement in real life between those who lead worship and the congregation;[12] I suggest that Kate Swaffer might agree with the sentiment.

Hallinan suggests that it is central that the local congregation defend its members with disabilities against the medicalisation of their spirituality[13].  My experience as a person with a mental illness was to value the medical treatment of my symptoms of depression and anxiety, but to match that with a personal desire to protect my capacity for spiritual ecstasy and my exercise of pastoral empathy from being pharmacologically dulled.  This is not quite the point that Hallahan was making (she’s more interested in the desire of some to add spiritualisation as a treatment) but her phrase rings true for me.  I am not “sick” just because I am an introverted mystic, but neither is Christian meditation and/or exorcism the whole solution to my physical lack of serotonin and my disequilibrium in gut flora.

The question might then be asked how a church can include people with disabilities as members.  A simple solution is to treat all Christians as brother-sisters and not as objects of mission.  Subjects of love yes, with consideration for their humanity (we don’t ignore their unique needs for accessibility), but never as “cripples” requiring only charity.

However, the unique experience of living with a disability must never be overlooked or assumed by the community seeking unity by inclusion.  As an example, I offer the story of one member of a congregation to which I belonged struggled with the language of the Eucharist.  She would decline the invitation to receive the elements if she heard the servers using language along the lines of “the body of Christ, broken for you” since she understood from scripture that Jesus died without any broken bones.  She confided tearfully to me one Sunday that to speak of a broken Christ was heretical to her.  Yet for others, including me in my emotional and cognitive disability, to speak of that which was whole, the living, functioning physical body of Jesus, as “broken for me” on the cross speaks of Christ’s redeeming all brokenness by adopting it.  The one who had healed the infirm and had restored sight, mobility, and even life by his touch, dies in the depth of despair of exsanguination and exhaustion.  The perichoretic Son of the Father dies alone and forsaken.  I understand that this is what the Eucharist can recall for somewhat permanently broken people.  For some the dis-abled, rendered-incapable Jesus is a necessity because he identifies with disabled people.  Because of my broken mind, I have no trouble speaking of a Jesus who dies with his bones intact, but his flesh pierced and torn and his heart broken (and ultimately impaled), even as I acknowledge my friend’s literal attention to scripture.

Stookey describes the sacraments as utilising the real stuff of the earth as a sign that all hope is not lost and redemption is possible.[14]  All that exists, and all who exist, are bound by existence to the purpose of Creation which is divine self-expression: Stookey observes that humankind was made by God to be shared with.[15]  This should involve all of humankind and include, without qualification, those members who are less able than the rest in some facet.  It is my opinion that such earthiness in our view of the sacraments speaks of universal belonging.

Hauerwas wrote that in baptism all Christians belong to each other, thereby all children belong to the congregation of parents[16] such that the burden of care is the vocation of all members, not just the biological parents.  I suggest that the same is true of the brother-sister relationship between adult believers.  In the work of the congregation to seek to include the disabled man or woman I must begin with the understanding that he is my brother, (she is my sister), my own.

At this point it is pertinent to ask how a church can best minister to people with disabilities.  I understand the Church to be a foreshadowing fellowship of the now and arriving Reign of God, especially within the New Creation, words borrowed from Volf.[17]  Volf went on to describe how the City of God is the people, not the place nor the infrastructure of the place.  The city is the people amongst whom God dwells: a local church is a body of neighbouring believers who practice the sacraments and are in community with other congregations.[18]  Indeed Volf has said that “where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, not only is Christ present among them but a Christian church is there as well”,[19] and this speaks to me of inclusion of all believers by their involvement.  Since the time of the first churches the mark of the Church has been participation in baptism and Eucharist:[20] a woman or man becomes a Christian through baptism[21] and practices his or her faith through publicly accessing the Lord’s table.[22] Volf offers that ecclesiality requires communion and that any church is only a part of The Church for as long as it is ecumenical.[23]  A church which excludes any Christian (someone professing faith in Jesus Christ) from the practices of the Church is no church and has no part in the Church.[24]  To minister to any believer, including the believer with a disability, is therefore to enable and encourage him or her to practice the faith by participating in the practices of the Church.

Cahalan describes practices as bodily acts, suggesting that they must be embodied to be enacted:[25] practices are only such if they are done,[26] and to be done they must be learned.[27]  Since it is the role of the minister (clergy) to teach the practices it is pertinent that these Christian leaders ask how the practices can be modified to fit modified bodily forms.  In the same way that a teacher must consider the needs of a child who cannot fully engage in PE so the leader of the congregation must look for creative ways of engaging and ensuring participation of all worshipping disciples.  How this might be orchestrated in any given circumstance is beyond the scope of this paper, other than to say that the consideration of the person with a disability as a complete brother-sister in faith is paramount.  The person with a disability is no less a Christian for his or her diminished capacity in one area or another.

Eiesland speaks of her own experiences of stigma and practical excommunication due to her physical incapacity to participate along with the congregation.[28]  Eucharist became for her a “ritual of exclusion and degradation” where she “felt like a trespasser among the whole-bodied”.[29]  I too have lived experience of  what Eiesland describes as “the default initiation for the disabled”,[30] the laying on of hands, and the stigma and exercising of coercive shame of not being healed of a disability.[31]  Yet she writes also of the great strength she has received and been able to offer at other times through this Charismatic offering; Eiesland and I have each been ministered to by being invited to minister to others.

When author John Swinton was asked how he would wish to be treated if he were diagnosed with a cognitive disability Swinton responded that he would want to be cared for and loved just for who he is, even if who he is had become difficult to handle.[32]  This is the nature of the gospel and the way in which God responds to us.  Swinton went on to say that when wellness is thought of within a theological framework it can be described as life in the presence of the relational God rather than the simple absence of illness.[33]  With his focus placed firmly upon the person rather than the person’s condition or behaviour I believe Swinton gets to the heart of the question of ministry.  More so in the situation of a person with a dementia, Swinton speaks of dementias as an erosion of the self,[34] and asks that if salvation is given freely to those who call on the LORD (Romans 10:10) what happens when the LORD is forgotten through cognitive diminution.[35]  I understand that to be ministered to is to be reminded of one’s value as imago Dei and as an integral constituent of the community of faith: even if all that one can bring is one’s self that is enough. (We are remembered by the LORD even if we forget God.) By faith we are brother-sisters alongside people who have disorders, not people who are each a disorder (or disordered persons).  In this regard the maintenance and development of relationships is central to the congregation’s work in conveying the message and reality of hope[36] which is the very centre of ministry.  Where Swinton has observed that the primary loss of people with a disability is not the loss of ability but the loss of value accorded to them by a society frightened by the presence of the disabled[37] it is the role of the local church to subvert this tendency.  The offer of friendship on equal, not patronising terms, is imperative.[38]

As a final investigation into the ministry of the church to people with disabilities it is requisite to ask how a congregation might empower those same people to minister to the Church.  LaCugna offers that to do what is true, (which is how she chooses to define “orthopraxis”), requires that each Christian engage meaningfully in relationships which serve God in word, action, and attitude.[39]  The question I would like answered is what this looks like in practice, and that if it is a true statement on the part of LaCugna then how might each Christian be made welcome and assisted to participate in ministry activity.

In Paragraph Seven of its Basis of Union the Uniting Church assumes responsibility for the discipling of its members, which is to say those it has baptised, and Cahalan believes that disciples have a communal and a personal relationship to Jesus and to each other.[40]  In agreeing with Cahalan and mindful of the Basis of Union the necessity of the (Uniting) Church offering opportunities for all members to act as ministers toward each other seems obvious.  This is the meaning I take from the Biblical understanding of a “priesthood of all believers”, not that there is no need for a paid clergy but that each Christian can be of help to his or her friends, neighbours, and encountered strangers.

From such an understanding I see two paths, the first of which is open to all disciples.  Christians as Christians, without prejudice to their uniqueness, are gifted in ministries by God through the Holy Spirit, and are accountable to God and the Church for the employ of those gifts.

The second path, which is not distinct from the first, is the recognition of the unique gifts provided within the lived experience of disability.  My experience of physical and mental illness[41] has provided me with an enhanced awareness of my kinaesthetic and emotional self, and Eiesland writes of a similar understanding suggesting that people with disabilities understand that they cannot take their being for granted.[42]  Where daily life is more challenging for the person with a specific disability than for people with a more complete ability the awareness of that specific element of personhood or existence is enhanced, not as simply as heroic overcoming but as a deep knowledge to be shared and taught.[43]  To use a Biblical example we might think of the greater insight of Job in the final chapter of his tale regarding what he knew of God and personhood in the first chapter.  Through his experience of loss and renewal it is fair to say that Job came to know God far more intimately: the sense that he came to know God “in the Biblical sense” does not seem inappropriate to me.

Those who have experienced disability are very often knowledgeable guides to the alternative pathways.  They (we) are the regular users of roads less travelled because of blockages on the expressway, we are the knowers of the alternative exits (which may be behind you) since our aeroplane really has crashed and there is fire outside the most obvious door.  As a one-time Londoner who hosted Australian tourist friends I know that anyone can read a Tube map, eventually, but I know the way so well that I can cross London in four different, instantaneously flexible ways, if required by line closures.  As a traveller of alternative pathways my experience of God and the Church is similarly broad and lithe, but no less orthodox for being so.

If the Christian Church is identified in any local place by its proclamation of the Word, its public celebration of the sacraments, and by its modelling and practising discipleship, then this can be no less the case if some of the Christians in any local place are people with disabilities.  There is no reason why people with disabilities should be excused or excluded from participation in ministry as practitioners or recipients simply because of their deficiency in one area.  To suggest otherwise is to subvert the meaning, and the purpose, of the Christian Church.

Bibliography:

Cahalan, Kathleen A.  Introducing the Practice of Ministry. Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2010.

Eiesland, Nancy L. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994.

Foskett, John.  Meaning In Madness: The Pastor and the Mentally Ill. London: SPCK, 1984.

Hallahan, Lorna. “On Relationships Not Things: Exploring Disability and Spirituality” in Ageing, Disability & Spirituality: Addressing the Challenge of Disability in Later Life edited by Elizabeth MacKinlay. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2008.

Hauerwas, Stanley.  Dispatches From The Front: Theological Engagements With The Secular. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

Stookey, Laurence Hull. Eucharist: Christ’s Feast with The Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Swaffer, Kate, Lee-Fay Low. Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s Or Another Dementia. London: New Holland, 2016.

Swinton, John. Dementia: Living In The Memories of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.

Swinton, John. “The Importance of Being a Creature: Stanley Hauerwas on Disability” in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton, 512-545.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.

Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.

Wansbrough, Ann. “Enabling Participation” in Worship In The Wide Red Land edited by Douglas Galbraith, Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1985.

[1] Catherine Mowry LaCugna. God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) 404.

[2] ibid. 405.

[3] ibid. 406.

[4] Rebecca S. Chopp. “Forward” in Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994) 9.

[5] ibid. 11.

[6] John Foskett. Meaning In Madness: The Pastor and the Mentally Ill (London: SPCK, 1984) 163.

[7] ibid. 166.

[8] Nancy L. Eiesland. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994) 20.

[9] Kate Swaffer and Lee-Fay Low. Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s Or Another Dementia (London: New Holland, 2016) 47.

[10] Ann Wansbrough. “Enabling Participation” in Worship In The Wide Red Land edited by Douglas Galbraith (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1985) 38.

[11] ibid. 39.

[12] ibid.

[13] Lorna Hallahan. “On Relationships, Not Things: Exploring Disability and Spirituality” in Ageing, Disability & Spiritualty: Addressing the Challenge of Disability in Later Life, edited by Elizabeth MacKinlay (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2008) 98.

[14] Laurence Hull Stookey. Eucharist: Christ’s Feast with The Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993) 15.

[15] ibid.

[16] Stanley Hauerwas.  Dispatches From The Front: Theological Engagements With The Secular. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994) 182.

[17] Miroslav Volf. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) 128.

[18] ibid.

[19] ibid. 136.

[20] ibid. 152.

[21] ibid.

[22] ibid. 153.

[23] ibid. 158.

[24] ibid.

[25] Kathleen A. Cahalan. Introducing the Practice of Ministry, (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2010) 108.

[26] ibid. 109.

[27] ibid. 110.

[28] Eiesland. The Disabled God. 112.

[29] ibid. 113.

[30] ibid. 116.

[31] ibid. 117.

[32] John Swinton. Dementia: Living In The Memories of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 2.

[33] ibid. 7.

[34] ibid. 9.

[35] ibid. 10.

[36] ibid. 139.

[37] John Swinton. “The Importance of Being a Creature: Stanley Hauerwas on Disability” in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 517.

[38] Swinton. Dementia. 141.

[39] LaCugna. God For Us. 383.

[40] Cahalan, Introducing the Practice of Ministry. 5.

[41] I have lived through Chronic Fatigue Immunodeficiency Syndrome and an Anxiety Disorder alongside Depression.

[42] Eiesland, The Disabled God. 31.

[43] ibid.c

The Adventure of Doing Good

This is the message I preached at Delamere Uniting Church on Sunday 27th November 2016, Advent Sunday in Year A.

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

“I was overjoyed, alleluia, when they said ‘come with us to the House of the LORD’.” Do you remember that song? I was reminded of it when I read Psalm 122 in the carpark this morning in preparation for writing today’s sermon. There is great joy in the company of believers approaching the great city of God; that place of gathering where God has chosen to be worshipped.

Earlier this week I re-read a Christian author by the name of Miroslav Volf, and he said, or rather wrote, that The Church is a ‘foreshadowing fellowship’ of the now and arriving Reign of God, especially within the New Creation. I really like that idea, a ‘foreshadowing fellowship’, it means that what we see now in the gathered saints in our sometimes small and sometimes large congregations is only a preview of what we will see and experience at the end of our days. That really gives us something to look forward to, eh? Well I think it does. Volf went on to say that ‘The City of God’ is actually the people and not the place nor the infrastructure of the place where God is: the city is the people amongst whom God dwells. I also like that because even though we read in Revelation that there is a city which descends from Heaven, a New Jerusalem, and we celebrate with the Jewish pilgrims their entry to Jerusalem in Psalm 122, what we are actually celebrating is the bringing together of living people into fellowship and not just the bricks and paths which enclose them. At the end of our journey there is a party, that is where we are going, and that is why we say ‘alleluia’ in response to that invitation.

So, I wonder if any of you have been on a pilgrimage, and have experienced the anticipation of the gathering ahead. I have had the experience of participating in two pilgrimages, although I can’t claim to be a pilgrim because I didn’t actually walk very far. Recently two friends of mine completed, on foot, ‘The Camino’ which is a pilgrim trail across Spain. They did the whole thing, stopping at hostels and so forth along the way. I have only been to the end point of the Camino, the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia; I was there in 2004, so at least I was at the party.

The other pilgrimage I have attended, and I did arrive on foot for this one, is the Festival of St Alban the Martyr. I attended twice, in 2003 and 2004. In this case people had walked for hours from their homes to gather at the shrine of St Alban on his saint’s day (21st June) to celebrate together and to remember the cause of faith in England and in other parts of the world. I walked from my home, a distance of at least 800 metres. The suffragan bishop of Bedford walked from Bedfordshire, (but not from Bedford), and he and his little team took about three hours to do that. Again there was a party in the sense of there being collective worship in the great Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, as well as a barbeque and a fun fair. Since, however, Alban died a martyr his festival often takes the theme of remembering suffering and in 2004 the feast celebrated, (if that is the right word), ‘Faith Against Torture’. I am wearing my badge today as a reminder of that, in the same way that Christian pilgrims of old would wear shells.

Pilgrimage toward a gathering, at a significant place of gathering, is a foretaste of victory and a sign of great faith located within the very real experience of death. To walk a long distance can cause pain, it can be dangerous and a struggle, and even if not beset by bandits and muggers the road surely consists of mud, sweat and the stink of animals. To have been a pilgrim, as I was to St Alban’s, or to simply gather in the piazza as the pilgrims arrive, as I did at Santiago, is to participate in a dress rehearsal of the gathering of all nations.

In today’s Psalm we read four, perhaps priestly, petitions.
1. In Psalm 122:6 we read a blessing upon all who love Jerusalem and who love what Jerusalem signifies.
2. In Psalm 122:7 we read a petition for the peace and security of the city itself.
3. In Psalm 122:8 we read a petition that the peace and security of the city, prayed for by the gathered congregation, would also be evident amongst their loved ones back home.
4. And in Psalm 122:9 we read a petition and a hope that the people who are praying would also get involved in the work of peace-building and bringing about this good in the world.

In other words, bless the place where we have gathered, Lord, and bless us as we seek to increase the good in this place.

When our focus is upon our brother-sisters in the congregation and we pray for their peace we are also praying for our own, since we are here with them. To pray for the peace of Jerusalem is a great idea when you are actually in Jerusalem, and to pray for peace among neighbours is a wonderful thing to do, and a pragmatic one, when it is amongst your neighbours that you are praying.

In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life, and we had 24:36-44 read for us this morning, we find some perhaps troubling words of Jesus. This passage speaks specifically about a coming time when God’s judgement upon unrighteousness will roll out, and some people will be removed from the earth in a purge of the wicked. Make no mistake; this is not a foretelling of the rapture, far from it. The context of the story, which is the link to Noah, makes it clear that the righteous people remain while the unrighteous are removed. Where two are working together and one is taken you want to be the one left behind.

Those who are taken away, by whatever means, are removed because they have not participated in the community of faith. By that I am not saying that God will simply disappear away everyone who doesn’t go to church, because the ‘community of faith’ is not the same thing as the congregation of the local fellowship. Remember that it is the Son of Man who is coming, and when he comes it is those who are not obeying the call to righteousness who will be swept away (Matthew 24:39) even as those outside the ark were swept away by the flood.

So if not the church, then who will be saved? Well of course the church will be saved, I’m not saying that it won’t be, just that the “us and them” is not that simple. Remember that the city of God is the people of God gathered in one place rather than the physical structure of Jerusalem or Rome? The same applies here. It is those who are part of the movement of prevailing grace and hard-fought peace that God chooses to maintain, not simply those located within the buildings with pointy rooves and arched windows. Paul’s letter to Romans (13:11-14) makes it a bit clearer for us. The ones who are ready for the return of the Son of Man are those who:
1. Recognise that the time is at hand. (13:11-12a). The Magi knew that the birth of Jesus was at hand, even though they knew nothing of Jesus himself or perhaps even of God. But they read the signs, knew the times, and were ready for the cosmic event because they were awake.
2. Live with regard to God and seek light in life. The Biblical narrative of Noah reads as though his family were the only righteous people on earth and everyone else was drunk and disorderly 24/7. Paul says the same sort of thing here in verses 12b-14. I don’t think this is a metaphor, but I do think it to be an over-exaggeration. The point is, however, well made. Live within the peace of Jerusalem, wherever you are. Pray for the prosperity of your neighbours, not that they would win Lotto and then share a sneaky half mil with you, but that things would go well with them. Pray that there would be nothing but fat sheep and rich clover in this valley, that every cow would give A2 milk and every bull Wagyu beef and the softest of leathers. Pray that you and your neighbours would live in harmony and fellowship, not merely tolerance, but genuine brother-sisterly love and concern for one another. Pray that having asked God to do all of this for you, and for them, that you would make yourself available to God to bring this about through your own welcome to friend and stranger.

“I was overjoyed, alleluia, when they said come with us.” Even if the Son of Man were not soon to return there would still be joy in the hard work of pilgrimage and fellowship. The city of God, the people gathered in community, compels us toward the goal of rich and inclusive unity in worship of God our loving Father, and deep celebration of each other.

Isaiah saw this in 2:2-5. Read.

So, how about it?

Amen.