Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Seeing the Image of God in Disabled People

2 Timothy 1:1-14
preached for Milwaukee Mennonite Church
September 24, 2017
© 2017

I have noticed that a number of you open your worship messages with the prayer from Psalm 19:14, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you our rock and our redeemer.” I feel the need to do a little more today. With the instability of our situation since leaving Dallas, I have not felt I had the spiritual equilibrium to speak in worship yet. A few of you have asked me when I would take a turn at preaching, and when I saw the plan of the worship team for this fall, I told myself I wasn’t ready to handle any of these. But in my morning meditation and prayer later that week, I was drawn to today’s concern for disabled people. With our experience in the L’Arche Daybreak community for mentally disabled adults 25 years ago, I began to feel I do have something to share with you. As I have been praying about and assembling today’s message, I have had a personal encounter that has tested my ability to live out what I am going to say today. I have no great triumph to report, but my praying for what I say and what you hear has been intense.
Michael Arnet was one of the “disabled” core members at Daybreak who lived at Stevenson House, which was our home base in the community, though we lived off campus.
In our first week or two there, a group of a dozen or more went for an outing at the lakefront in Toronto. Michael had already gravitated to me and wanted to hold hands as we walked by the lake. I’m not sure I would have used the word ashamed, but I felt some embarrassment holding hands with a grown man with an obvious disability in public. Not wanting to let on to Michael, I worked this through in my mind and grew more comfortable.
My relationship with Michael developed over our four months at Daybreak. Thursday nights I accompanied him on his bedtime routine. Make lunch and lay out clothes for his next day’s work in a sheltered workshop. Change into pajamas and put dirty clothes in the laundry. Wash up and brush teeth. Pray with Michael before tucking him into bed. He knelt by his bed and stared at a Latin American cross as he prayed usually for 15-20 minutes, sometimes a half hour. This man who could not read or write, whose speech was halting and slurred, whose movement were awkward, prayed for people and crises all over the world. He knew where all of the Daybreak members were from and who was travelling. I never heard him pray for himself but for people he knew were hurting.
At one afternoon worship, the community was commissioning one of the assistant members to move to the L’Arche community in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. About 30-40 of us gathered around her to lay on hands and pray. I was standing next to Michael as he seemed to restlessly lift his hand as though trying to find a place to make contact with someone. When the rhythm of the prayers subsided, with his hand raised over his head, Michael said with a firm, confident voice, “Go with God to Antigonish!” With that the prayers ended and hugs were shared all around. Michael could not have told you what an apostle was, yet he fulfilled the apostolic calling, and the whole community recognized it.
I learned from Michael Arnet how my contemplative aspiration to see God is available in the people with disabilities God brings across my path.
Just a few weeks ago my meditation on the Hebrew Scriptures brought me to Moses at the burning bush. Exodus 3:6 says that Moses was afraid to look at God. I never want to lose the awe, even terror, of seeing God.
In Matthew 5:8 Jesus said that the pure in heart would see God. So my contemplative ambition is not achieved by trying to become a spiritual elitist but through disabled people whom God brings to me.
In his book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Søren Kierkegaard explains that Jesus was not speaking so much of moral purity, though that is important, as having a single, pure desire uncontaminated by even good distractions. If the only thing you want is to see God, you will see God.
The 19th century Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse wrote that “The principal thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.” That does not mean dropping out of life to gaze at God, but to intentionally live all of life aware of standing before God.
If you have ever looked at Eastern Orthodox icons, you know they are different than the religious art we are used to. They are not intended to be pictures to look at but windows to look through to see a deeper spiritual reality. Michael Arnet was just such a window, an icon, through which I learned to look for Christ for all the hurting people of the world when I encounter disabled people.
You may recall that in Matthew 25:37-40 Jesus said of those who reach out to people who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, and sick, “as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story about Martin the Cobbler to illuminate this passage. Martin believed Christ had promised to visit him on Christmas Eve, and he cared for several needy, hurting people who passed by his shop, but didn’t think he had seen Christ until when reading the passage he heard Christ say he had come in all those folk.
As early as the 4th Century John Chrysostom wrote, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the Church door, you will not find Him in the Chalice.”
In ­Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote that “to love another person is to see the face of God.”
In our time Mother Teresa looked for Christ in the faces of the people dying in the gutters of Calcutta.
So when you feel ashamed, embarrassed, or awkward with someone’s disability, even if it is your own, Jesus invites you to look through that person as an icon, a window to see him.
Disabilities come in many forms and should not be ranked against each other. Some folk don’t recognize in themselves what others consider a disability. Others plead for sympathy with their disability that people around them don’t acknowledge. Some disabilities are physiological, psychological, sociological, and still others spiritual.
Looking for Christ in our own disabilities may be most challenging of all. Candy and I have experienced this in the past year and a half since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Loss of autonomy and control looms large, as does anxiety about the pace of progression. In the current Christianity Today, Matthew Loftus reviewed John Dunlop’s book Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia, which affirms the image of God even as our minds fail.
So the next time you feel ashamed, awkward, embarrassed about someone with a disability, whether you yourself, someone close to you, or someone you observe at a distance, pay attention and you may just catch a glimpse of Jesus.
I invite you to respond today by praying together the L’Arche Prayer that we prayed together after supper every evening at Daybreak.
O Father, we ask You to bless us, and keep us in Your love. May L’Arche be a true home, where the poor in Spirit may find life; A place where those who are suffering, may find comfort and peace. Lord, give us hearts that are open, hearts that are humble and gentle, so that we may welcome those You send, With tenderness and compassion.
Give us hearts full of mercy , that we may love and serve; And where discord is found, may we be able to heal and bring peace; And see in the one who is suffering, the living presence of Your son. Lord, through the hands of Your little ones, we ask You to bless us. Through the eyes of those who are rejected, we ask You to smile on us.
Lord, grant freedom and fellowship, and unity to all the world; And on the day of Your coming, Welcome all people into Your Kingdom.

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