Sharing the Suffering and the Glory – A Commissioning Service for Elders and Congregation

commissioning

1 Peter 5:1-4 NRSV

This morning, I want to us to take a careful look at these words from 1 Peter.

Now as an Elder myself,

Did you know that as the pastor of this church, I am considered to be an Elder? I am. Thus, the responsibilities of Elders in the church are very similar to my responsibilities as the Senior Minister. I have often said that the Elders of the church are best described as “co-pastors.” The pastor and the Elders form a wonderful ministry team of the church.

And did you know, that as a church that has always believed in Martin Luther’s doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers, we believe that every member of our church is a co-minister? When a minister laid his hands on you in baptism, we believe you were ordained or set a part for ministry. We call ourselves Disciples of Christ. We believe we have been called to be disciples just like Peter was a disciple. Thus, this passage in 1 Peter regarding Elders is applicable to every member of this church.

and a witness of the sufferings of Christ.

Now, Peter actually witnessed the sufferings of Christ; however, as Elders and ministers of the church today,

we also bearwitness to the sufferings of Christ, by becoming suffering servants with the congregation.

With the Apostle Paul, we believe when one member of the body suffers, the entire body suffers. We grieve with those who are mournful. We worry with those who are anxious. We are afraid with those who are fearful. We cry with those who are despairing.

as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed,

but at the same time, we share the glory that is coming.

As Paul also says, we grieve, but we do not grieve like those who have no hope.

We suffer, but we know all things will work together for the good.

We are worry but we know that nothing in all of creation will separate us from the love of God.

We are afraid, but we know we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

We cry, but we know that love will win.

Therefore, we are in all times and in all places encouragers.

We possess a spirit of positivity, reassuring others that although we cannot go back to the good old days, good new days are always ahead.

We always work out bring out the best that is in others.

We work to embolden the image of God, the spiritual gifts, and the holy purpose that is within all people.

I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge,

 Elders, ministers, and all disciples are best described as shepherds.

After asking Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Jesus says, “Feed my lambs, look after my sheep, feed my sheep.”

Now, we might hear this in a very individualistic way as it seems like Peter is being sent out on a lone, heroic mission.

However, when Jesus speaks of shepherding, he does not want us to think about a brave, lone shepherd who his sent out to bless the world.

No, with Jesus, ministry is always a communal experience.

Mark’s Gospel informs us that when Jesus commissioned the disciples, when he sent them out into the world, he sent them out in pairs.

Jesus does not intend for us to bear the good news on our own. We are called to proclaim the gospel, to tend to the flock, to meet the needs of others, together, in community.

exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it

Elders and other church members in some churches (not this church of course) only read part of this verse.

They exercise oversight. Which they interpret as being in control.

They believe the congregation should be submissive to their leadership. They act as if they are the bosses of the church.

However, the verse continues: “exercising the oversight…willingly, as God would have you do it.”

In speaking about his own his own shepherding ministry, Jesus says:

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus is describing a ministry that is not only a communal experience. It is also a mutual experience.

In the book that has perhaps influenced my ministry the most, Henri Nouwen writes that Jesus wants us to minister as he ministers (In the Name of Jesus).

“He wants us to feed his sheep and care for them, not as ‘professionals’ who know their clients’ problems and take care of them, but as vulnerable brothers and sisters who know and are known, who care and are cared for, who forgive and are forgiven, who love and are being loved.”

Somehow we have come to believe that ministry requires a safe distance from those we are called to serve. Medicine, psychiatry, and social work all offer us models in which ‘service’ takes place in a one-way direction. Someone serves. Someone else is being served. [And we best not confuse the two!]

But how can anyone lay down their life for those with whom they are not even allowed to enter into a deep, personal relationship?

Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, your own hope and despair, your own joy and sadness, courage and fear available to  [all] as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life.”

Nouwen continues:

“We are not the healers. We are not the reconcilers. We are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for.

The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”

Therefore, ministry they way God would do it, shepherding the way Jesus would do it, must be mutual.

—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge,

We do this not for power or control, but because we are eager to follow the way of Jesus, the good Shepherd.

Nouwen points out:

When another cannot know someone who is caring for them, “shepherding quickly becomes a subtle way of exercising power over others and begins to show authoritarian and dictatorial traits.”

The ministry and leadership of Jesus is radically different.

To use Robert Greenleaf’s term, it is a “servant-leadership,” in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as the people need her or him.

but be examples to the flock

We are to live as mentors to one another. When we see something that needs to be done, we do not wait for others to act. We do not sit back saying, “I wished the pastor would do this or address this.” But as servant leaders, as shepherds, as a priestly people, we take the initiative.

We model for others what the prophet Micah calls the requirements of our God. We love kindness. We do justice. And we walk humbly.

This is especially important as we live in a culture where the exact opposite is often modeled, and oftentimes modeled in the name of God.

I cannot think of any other time in my ministry where the words of another prophet have been more applicable:

Ah, you who call evil good

and good evil,

who put darkness for light

and light for darkness,

who put bitter for sweet

and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)

 

We must model for the world what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

We give sacrificially. We serve selflessly. We love our neighbors. We confess our sins. We trust in God’s grace. We offer grace to others. We liberate people who are oppressed. We welcome children. We proclaim the gospel, and if necessary, we use words.

And when the chief shepherd appears,

When we proclaim the gospel with our words and deeds, we have the hope that we will see Jesus, our chief shepherd, our chief Elder.

In Matthew 25, we read a parable where people are asking Jesus when they saw him: “Lord, when was it that we saw you?”

He answered:

“I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

 you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.  

When we shepherd, when we tend to the sheep, when we minister to God’s children, when we love our neighbors as ourselves, not only do we see Jesus, but we participate in something divine that is eternal, something holy that has no end, something sacred that is forever.

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On the Side of Children

Florence Track

Mark 9:30-37 NRSV

Hurricane Florence was first predicted to come ashore in southeast North Carolina and then take a take a northwestern path. This was a dire prediction for my friends and family who live in northeastern North Carolina as they were prepared to experience the most dangerous quadrant of the storm. It looked like Florence was going to take the same path of Hurricane Floyd, the storm that flooded our home in 1999.

However, just a couple days before the storm made landfall, the prediction changed. It was still going to come into southeastern North Carolina, but then it would take a turn towards the south before moving westward before heading North. It was this change that spared my friends and family living in the northeastern part of the state.

Last Sunday, I read the following post on facebook:

It is not that the weatherman missed the prediction. It is that God spared us from the worst.

The statement immediately received nearly 50 likes and drew comments like:

Amen.

God answers prayers.

God answers prayers. And not just prayers, but prayers in numbers.

God protected us.

We are blessed.

I understand in part why they posted it. Things could have been so much worse, and they were grateful, and they were grateful to God..

However, I could not help but to think: “I hope no one in Wilmington, Fayetteville, New Bern, Lumberton or Kinston reads this.”

Then came obvious, disturbing questions:

Were the prayers from the people living in those devastated cities not answered? Or were there was just not enough people in those cities praying? Did they have a higher number of people praying in northeastern NC?

If God could spare northeastern NC by turning the storm, why didn’t God just turn the hurricane out to sea before it made landfall and spare everyone? Did God favor one side of North Carolina over another?

I suppose many would tell me that I am not supposed to question God. “God has God’s reasons,” they say. “It is just God’s will and we have to accept it,” they say.

But I am not the first one to ask such questions. In Luke 13, we read people asking Jesus if the Galileans who were massacred by Pilate were killed because of some sort of sin in their life. Or if the Jews were killed when the tower of Siloam fell, perhaps during a storm, because of something they did or did not do.  Jesus emphatically answered them: “No, I tell you.”

Throughout time, it has been very popular to believe that it is always God’s will if someone comes to power, no matter how horrible that person is. It is God who causes earthquakes, sends tornadoes, and steers Hurricanes, sparing some while destroying others.

This very popular but what I would call very “twisted” theology becomes even more disturbing when one considers the children.

On Monday of this week, in Union County, North Carolina, where Lori and I both attended college, the body of 1-year old Kaiden Lee-Welch was found. According the sheriff’s department, she was swept away in rushing waters from a creek that had overflowed.

Last Sunday, in Dallas, North Carolina, just a few miles from where Lori was born and raised, 3-month-old Kade Gill died after a tree fell into a family’s mobile home and struck the boy and his mother as they sat on a couch.

The very first death I remember being reported occurred soon after the Hurricane made landfall on that Friday in Wilmington.  A 7-month-old baby was killed, also by a tree that fell into a home.

What kind of God steers a hurricane on a path that kills little children? It is certainly not the God that is revealed in words and works of Jesus, the one who welcomed the children, the one who said that it was better for one to tie a millstone around one’s neck and be cast into the sea than to cause any child to stumble.

So, why do so many still insist that God is the reason that some are spared from Hurricanes and others, even little children, are not?

I believe this morning’s scripture lesson possibly holds the answer.

Mark 9:30: “They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;”

He didn’t want anyone to know the truth. Perhaps he was afraid that like so many Christians today, they could not handle the truth. The truth that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him….”

Verse 32: But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

One reason some of us insist God is sending and steering Hurricanes is that we still have a difficult time accepting the truth that God suffers. We do not understand the suffering of God, and we are afraid to ask him. We are afraid, because if God is a God who suffers, then those of us who are created in the image of God, are also created to suffer.

I believe that God’s hand can be seen in the desolation of Hurricane Florence; not causing or controlling the storm, but in those who suffer while responding to the storm—the firefighters, police, paramedics, soldiers, doctors, nurses, pastors, counselors and utility workers; those who have left the comfort and safety of their homes to give of themselves to serve their neighbors in need. The hand of God can be seen the suffering servants of God who are doing all that they can do to bring healing, peace and restoration.

Verse 33 & 34: Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’

But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”

And there it is.

Perhaps this is the true reason that people are quick to say God controls the path of Hurricanes. People still like to make the argument that they are the greatest—

“I am great, for God hears my prayers. I am great, for God spared my house. I am great, for my home did not flood. I am great, for no one in my family was killed. I am great, for am not suffering.”

Verse 35: He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’

Jesus says, “No, I tell you, avoiding suffering is not an indication that you are great. No I tell you, being in a state of comfort and safety does not mean you have God’s stamp of approval on your life. No, I tell you, being spared from a storm is not a sign that you are blessed.”

No, I tell you, if you want to be great, if you want God’s stamp of approval, if you want to be blessed by God, you must be willing to sacrifice, put yourself last, place the needs of others ahead of your own needs, be a servant, suffer with those who are grieving, agonize with those who feel forsaken, betrayed and powerless.

Verse 36 & 37: Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

In other words, Jesus said: Do you want to be great? Do you want to be on the side of God? Then, don’t take the side of the powerful, the privileged and the protected. Instead, always take the side of the most vulnerable among you. Take the side of children who are so precious and fragile, whose lives are threatened or lost. Take the side of women who have been unheard, whose lives are disregarded and degraded. Take the side of victims who have been blamed, whose lives have been disrespeceted and diminished.

As the Proverbs declare:

Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9).

So, where was God in Hurricane Florence? Contrary to popular theology, God was on the side of those who experienced the worst of the storm. God was on the side of the children who were swept away. God was on the side of the babies who were crushed. God was on the side of the elderly who drowned. God was on the side of forty-two of God’s beloved who died in the storm.

Where was God in the storm? God was on the side of Windy Newton and Nicolete Green who drowned in the back of a sheriff’s van as they were being transported to a mental health facility. God was on their side feeling their fear, knowing their terror, experiencing their confusion, tasting their deaths.

What was God doing during Hurricane Florence? God was suffering. God’s self was being broken. God’s self was pouring out. God was grieving with those who lost their loved ones, hurting with those who lost property, agonizing with those whose homes were destroyed, distressing with those whose livelihoods were lost.

And the good news is: because God was present, so was life—life—hopeful, abundant and eternal.

God was there to begin the holy work of transforming the anguish into peace, the despair into hope and the deaths into life.

And God is with all of us who choose to follow the Lord in this holy work. God is with us when we become suffering servants, putting the needs of others ahead of our own, giving sacrificially to Hurricane relief through our church, planning or supporting mission trips to the devastated areas.

And God is with us at this very moment. Because as we gather around this table in communion with Christ, we are joined with the trials and sufferings of all people.

This morning we pray that through Christ we too would be with those who endured the wind, rain, and flooding.

As we come to this Table, may Christ’s presence be known to all those who are suffering from the storm, just as He makes His presence known in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup – at this Table and around the world, in every nation, among every people.

These are the gifts of God for God’s people! After we sing our hymn of communion, let us receive them with joy, gratitude and hope.

Words Create Worlds

words have power

James 3:1-12

I try to talk to people every week who never attended church, or who no longer attend church. And when I ask them why they are not a part of church, they often tell me that they have been deeply hurt by the church. “How?” I ask. “By words,” they say.

The truth is: words have tremendous power. The Epistle of James says it well. Allow me to read it again:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so (James 3).

Nathan Parrish, a friend of mine and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said that one Sunday after worship, he asked a father how football practice went that week for his son who was playing Middle Football for the first time. He said that his son came home after the game Thursday night really upset. He said that the coach said that “he hit like a girl.” My friend Nathan responded: “The message starts early doesn’t it?”

He asked: “What do you mean?”

Nathan said: “Our children learn it while they are young, don’t they? That females are the weaker sex and need to be kept in their place.”

Laura Johnson, the former pastor of Broad Street Christian Church in New Bern, North Carolina, an area that has been devastated this weekend by hurricane Florence, has said that as a female pastor people give her qualified compliments all the time: “Laura, that was a great sermon…for a woman.” “Laura, you are a good pastor, for a girl.”

The message starts early, and it is pervasive. The words are heard in school and in many churches. Through patriarchal language, through the exclusive use of male pronouns to refer to God, the insinuation is made that men are somehow closer to God than women. Thus, in many churches, only men can be the leaders, as women are pushed to a more subservient place in the church.

Words indeed have great power.

This is why alarm bells should go off in our moral consciences when we hear people with power use words like “infestations,” “animals,” “aliens,” “dogs,” and “illegal,” to describe groups of people. Words have power to degrade, demean and dehumanize those made in the likeness of God. Adolf Hitler knew this when he referred to Jews as “rats” in Nazi Germany.

As we read this scripture in James, we can realize that James is making a fascinating connection between speech and creation. In verse nine, we reminded that we were created according to the likeness of God as revealed in the first chapter of Genesis. James is making the comparison that as God created the world with speech, we, like God, also have the power to create with our speech.

In verse seven we read that the “beast and bird, reptile and sea creature” are tamed by humans. This echoes Genesis creation account where human beings are given the power of speech to name all of the living creatures. James reminds us that the first and most important gift distinctive to humans is this power to name, this power to create language.  James is saying that with language and speech we are given to power continue God’s own creative activity in our world.

The truth is, with speech and language, we possess a world-creating power. New Testament scholar Luke Johnson put it this way: “the world as it emerges moment by moment from God’s creative energy…is reshaped and given its meaning by human language, whose symbols enable us both to comprehend the world as meaningful and to interpret it.”

Thus, I believe a very important question for us is this: How are we as the church creating, how are we reshaping and how are we giving meaning to our world with our language?

What about when we say:  We’ve never done it that way before, or worse, You are in my seat?

When these words are spoken at church, they almost always mean “new ideas, new ways of thinking, new approaches to ministry, and new people are not welcome here.” There was a great book written nearly forty years ago that many churches that are closing their doors for good today failed to read. It was called The Seven Last Words of the Church: We’ve Never Done It that Way Before.”

The Bible clearly says…

Whenever I hear this expression, I get a little nervous, especially when I hear it from politicians who would like to transform the United States into a Theocracy. They want to take the laws of God found in the Bible and make them the laws of the land.

While a theocracy may sound good to many Christians at first, it really all depends on who Theo is, doesn’t it? Who gets to pick and interpret the laws that they want others to obey? Whenever people talk about enforcing or legislating biblical morality, they are almost always thinking: “There is only one interpretation of the Bible, and it is mine!”

Love the sinner and hate the sin.

 These words infer that we can somehow separate the sin from the sinner; however, sin is so much a part of our DNA, so much a part of who we are in this fragmented world, that it simply cannot be avoided. And when we think that we have reached some sort of spiritual pinnacle that we can somehow avoid sin, we contradict who Jesus calls us to be by becoming arrogant, proud, snooty and judgmental. And we drive people away from the church in droves.

If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?

When we infer that following Jesus should only be done for purely selfish reasons, to receive some reward instead of some punishment, then we miss the whole point of who Jesus is and who he calls us to be. Jesus calls us not to save our lives, but to lose our lives. Jesus calls us to live a self-giving, self-expending life rooted in radical selflessness. Jesus never said, “Follow me and go to heaven.” He said, “follow me and carry a cross.”

And then there are the classics:

God has God’s reasons.

God does not make mistakes.

God will not put any more on us than we can bear.

It’s God’s will and we will just have to accept it.

This language has probably caused more people to leave the church, and leave God, than any other spoken words. There is no telling how many people have reached the conclusion: “If God is the one who caused my baby to die, if God is the reason behind my divorce, if God created my loved one to suffer, if God put all of these financial hardships on me, if God send this hurricane, if God is sending these flood waters in my house then I would be better off living in Hell for all of eternity than with a God like that.”

I believe many Protestant churches, in an attempt to distance themselves from Catholicism, have tried to follow Jesus while avoiding the pain and suffering of Jesus. We look at the crucifix and say, “My Lord is not on the cross! He is living today in heaven! However, when we we do that, we miss what may be the most important tenet of the Christian faith: that our God is a God who suffers.God is not seated on some throne far removed from the creation sending hurricanes to North Carolina or blowing up houses in Massachusetts. God is not pressing buttons, pulling levers, causing human misery, but our God is here in the midst of human pain, suffering with us, alongside us. So, in a way, our God is still on the cross today. As long as there is human life, our God is still emptying God’s self, pouring God’s self out. Our God is a God who grieves, agonizes, and bleeds. Our God is never working against us, but always for us, creating and recreating, resurrecting, doing all that God can do to wring whatever good can be wrung out of life’s most difficult moments.

Our language has the power to paint a Christ-like portrait of God, and our language as the power to paint an anti-Christ portrait of God.

Our language has the power to create a world where people are oppressed and cursed, and our language has the power to create a world where people are treated with equity and are blessed.

Our language has the power to create a world that dishonest, deceitful, and despairing, a world that is mean, cold and dark. And our language has the power to create a world that is honest and sincere, a world that is kind, empathetic and hopeful.

Let me illustrate this. Joyce Williams was a member of one of my churches who used to always greet me with the following words: “I love you Jarrett Banks.” She would always say it just like that. When she passed away, almost everyone who knew her said the same thing, that she would extend the same greeting to them: “I love you…” and then said their first and last name. So, that is how we concluded her memorial service. I had everyone who was present to turn to the person next to them, introduce themselves if they did not know them, and then say, “I love you,” followed by saying their name.

Let’s do that this morning.

Let us pray.

O God, help us all to realize that like You, we have the power to create worlds with our words.  We thank You for this gift, but ask that you help us to always remember that with this gift comes a great responsibility.  As Your sons and daughters, may we use our language to create a world of peace, justice, love and respect. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

 

There is a word that I always use at this time to invite you to share the meal from this table. That word is “all.” Sometimes I even define that word by saying, “all means all.” It is my hope that this simple word, all, is helping too create a brand new world: a world of acceptance, a world of grace, a world of inclusion, and a world of love. May we prepare to live in such a world, to eat and drink in this world, as we remain seated and sing our hymn of communion.

COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION

Go now into the world remembering that every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.

So go and speak only wonderful words of life that point others to the love and the grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And may the love of God, the grace of Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with us all. Amen.

Mercy Triumphs Judgment

Nouwen

James 2:1-17

Inclusion. Acceptance. Mercy. Kindness. Compassion. Love. We know that God wants it. We know that this is God’s will for the world.

Exclusion. Discrimination. Prejudice. Meanness. Indifference. Hate.  We know that God disdains it. We know this is not what God wills for this world.

And we know that if we do not live like we believe that mercy always triumphs judgment, then we do not live like we really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. We do not live like we believe in the one who lived and died extending mercy to the poor and the marginalized.

We know we are not perfect. We know we are going to make mistakes in this life. Therefore, to please our God, to live as believers in our glorious Lord and Savior, if we are going to err, we have decided to to err on the side of mercy. To please our Creator, we have decided to err on the side of grace. We have chosen to err on the the side of love.

But do we know whythis pleases our God so much? Do we know whyJesus lived and died showing us that mercy always triumphs judgment? Do we know why he directed his ministry toward those who were in the most need of mercy?

I believe one word in our scripture lesson reveals the answer. It is in verse 5.

”Listen, my belovedbrothers and sisters…”

Did you hear it?  Beloved. We are God’s “beloved.” God loves us. God loves us; and therefore, God wants what is best for us. God loves us and wants us to live lives that are full, whole and blessed. As the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed: “For thus says the Lord, …surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

And what is that plan? What is God’s plan to bless us?

The plan is what Jesus called the greatest commandment: that we love our neighbors as ourselves; and as the prophets, as Jesus and as the apostles like James teach us, that we love especially our poor neighbors.

Because as much as we might be tempted to believe it, as much sense as it might make to our flawed minds, James says, our hopeful future is not found by showing prejudicial treatment, extending a prejudicial welcome to our rich neighbors.

If we want to experience the promise of the Kingdom that God, if we want to experience life as God intended it, if we want to be blessed, then we need to love those that God has chosen to be heirs of that blessed Kingdom.

If we want to be blessed, we need to welcome and accept, include, those our culture disses. You know the dissed: the disenfranchised, the disrespected, the disqualified, the disheartened, the disdained, the disowned, and the disabled. For God uses those the world disses to bless us, to give us a future with hope.

This is the reason I no longer believe in using the word “disability” to describe persons who are living with blindness, deafness, quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, or other syndromes.

Consider the definition of “dis” in our English dictionary: to “have a primitive, negative or reversing force.” Discredit. Disengage. Disavow. Disappoint. Distrust.

Therefore, when we call a person disabled, it is like we are saying that they have an inherently negative ability to bless us, to make our lives better, to contribute to society, to have a positive impact on our word, to build up the body of Christ, to give us a future with hope.

This is why we have historically and literally pushed them to the margins. We have institutionalized them, separated them, ostracized them. Nazi Germany euthanized them.

And by excluding them from our lives, we’ve missed our loving God’s plan to bless us.

Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite Christian writers, was a priest, an esteemed writer and brilliant teacher in prestigious universities like Harvard and Yale.

However, he says that it was a desire to follow his Lord which prompted him to leave the Ivy League to spend the rest of his life serving as a chaplain to a wonderful community of people with different emotional, mental and physical abilities in Toronto.

In one of his many books, Nouwen tells a story about Trevor, a man in that community who was dealing with such severe mental and emotional challenges that he had to be sent to a psychiatric facility for another evaluation. As the chaplain, Henri wanted to visit him, so he had his secretary call the hospital and make an appointment.

When the higher-ups in that hospital discovered that it was the infamous Henri Nouwen, the renowned author and teacher from Yale and Harvard University who was coming, they asked if they could set up a special lunch with him in the “Golden Room”—this special meeting room at the hospital. They said that if Nouwen could come and say a few words, they would like to invite some of their most respected doctors and some esteemed clergy from the community to the special luncheon.

Nouwen thought to himself, “Oh Trevor has never missed a meal! He would love that!” So he agreed.

When he arrived, they took him to the Golden Room, but Trevor was nowhere to be seen. Troubled, he asked where Trevor was.

“Oh,” said an administrator, “Trevor cannot have lunch here. Patients and staff are not allowed to have lunch together. It’s too risky. Besides, no patient has ever had lunch in the “Golden Room.”

By nature, Henri was not a confrontational person. He was meek and very gentle. However, guided by the Spirit of the God who has chosen those the world has dissed to inherit and share the Kingdom of God, the thought came to his mind: “Include Trevor. Whatever you do, you mustinclude Trevor. Trevor needs to be here.”

So, Henri swallowed hard, he turned to the administrator and said, “But the whole purpose of my coming here today was to have lunch with Trevor. So, if Trevor is not allowed to attend the lunch, I will not attend either.”

Well, the thought of missing an opportunity for a lunch with the great Henri Nouwen was too much for them to bare, so they quickly found a way for Trevor to attend.

When they all finally gathered together, what the administrators had feared came to fruition. At one point during the lunch, while Henri was talking to the person at his right, he didn’t notice that Trevor, who was seated to his left, had stood up, lifting his glass of Coca-Cola in the air.

“A toast! I will now offer a toast,” Trevor said to the group.

The administrators were embarrassed, but had this look like “we knew this was a bad idea.” Everybody in the room got quiet and very nervous. What in the world was Trevor going to say?

Then Trevor, this deeply challenged man in a room full of PhDs and clergy, started to sing, “If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass. If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass…”

No one knew what to do. It was all so awkward. Here was a man with a level of challenge and brokenness, they could not begin to understand, yet he was beaming! He was absolutely thrilled to be there. He was so happy!”

So they started to sing. Softly at first, and then louder and louder until all of the doctors and all of the clergymen and Henri Nouwen were practically shouting, “If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass.”

Henri went on to give a talk at the luncheon, I am certain his words were brilliant, as they always were, but the moment everyone remembered, the moment that blessed them the most, the moment God spoke most clearly, was through the person they all would have said was the least likely to speak for God.[i]

In his first sermon Jesus preached it. “Blessed are the merciful.” Blessed are those who believe and live as if they know mercy triumphs judgment.

This is the reason I no longer use the word “disabled” to describe persons with different abilities.

However, I still believe in using the word “disabled.”

But, it’s not the palsy, the syndrome, or the genetic anomaly that is disabling.

It is the exclusion that disables. It is the fear and the judgment and the prejudice that disables. It’s the constant stares, the negative remarks, the looking away, the shunning and the indifference that are disabling.

We are disabled when we disable others.

Our ability is “dissed” when we are unable to see the holy worth, the divine light, and the image of God in another. Our ability is “dissed” when we are unable to recognize the many gifts and different abilities that another has been given by our loving God to bless our lives and make this world amazing.

The good news is that our God loves us and wants to bless us, not diss us. God loves us and wants us to live full lives with meaning and joy. God loves us and wants us to have a future with a hope. And God has a plan to accomplish this divine will.

This is why the prophets, the apostles, and Jesus implore us over and over again to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, especially those who we characterized as poor, poor in cash, poor in health, poor in status, and poor in ability. This is why God commands us to live lives of inclusion, acceptance, kindness, and compassion, knowing that mercy always triumphs judgment.  Let us pray together.

O God, help us to do your will. Help us to live lives of inclusion. acceptance. Fill us with your mercy, kindness, compassion and love. Help us to live lives blessed by your love.  Amen.

After we sing our hymn of communion, all are invited to share a meal from this table, especially those our culture dissess. We will eat and drink and be blessed and transformed together.

Commissioning and Benediction

Go now and find those the culture disenfranchises, disrespects, disqualifies, disheartens, disdains, disowns, discredits, disengages, disavows, disappoints, distrusts and disables.

Go find them and love them.

See the the holy worth, the divine light, and the image of God in them. Recognize the many gifts and different abilities that they have been given by our loving God to bless our lives and make this world amazing.

[i]John Ortberg, in the sermon, “Guide.” Preachingtoday.com.