Something I’ve never done before – posting a sermon

This is a sermon I wrote for preaching class last fall. It’s a bit confrontational and not something I’d necessarily preach in a parish. It was a bit too confrontational for some members of my preaching lab, but I still stand behind what I said.

I’ve been repeatedly writing, and then deleting, a post about a bad experience I had in ethics class presenting a group paper on disability and the church. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a month now, something that keeps nagging at me. I don’t really know how or what to write about the ethics class experience or my disappointment at how many people thought it no big deal (and my incredible gratitude to the few folks who, perhaps due to realities in their own lives that few understand, made a point of letting me know that they understood my distress.)

So instead I’m posting this sermon. It represents my only other attempt at seminary to address my experience of disability in any sort of public way. I know it’s out of the blue and out of season but it somehow makes me feel better to post it.

Third Sunday of Advent
Year A
Matthew 11:2-11

“Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.”

Advent speaks to me. It seems in tune with so much of the desperate reality of life. Somewhere among the generic happy holiday cards and banners, the way too soon decoration of malls and streets, and the cheesy, secular Christmas music, I find moments to ponder the meaning of this season of waiting and preparation. Despite the tinsel and glitter, I notice the creeping darkness and the paralyzing cold. I see the shivering of the guests of St. Martin’s Closet and the starkness of the 24 hour news cycle proclaiming anything but peace on earth, and I too wonder how long, oh lord?
In the reading we just heard, we have John the Baptist expressing some doubt and confusion about who Jesus is. Jesus sends a reply to John describing miracles that are traditionally thought of as heralding the coming of the kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, this is where my appreciation of the text comes to a screeching halt.

Many of us have personal hang ups with one Bible passage or another. Often these are passages that just bother us, even though we try to be rational and remind ourselves that context is important and that the Bible is not about political correctness. Maybe we cringe every time we hear about the near-sacrifice of Issac. Or perhaps Paul’s advice about women keeping silent in the church really gets under our skin. There are many, many other examples I could mention, but I think you get the idea.
I too have a biblical hang up. As a person with a visual impairment and the official government label of legally blind, there have been times when the Sunday lectionary has made me wish I had stayed home in bed. Anytime disability in general or blindness in particular comes up I groan inwardly. I know I am going to have to sit through not just the reading of the text but usually some supposedly sensitive sermon where disability is discussed. I can almost guarantee that regardless of whether it’s dealt with literally or figuratively, it will be dealt with in a way that is at best insensitive or at worst, ridiculous.
My experiences over the years with people who thought of themselves as incredibly kind and pastoral have rarely been better. I have had people tell me that they pray for me to have a miracle. Once when I was a teenager an older woman handed me a card with a saint on it and a prayer for vision. Somehow she never noticed that the saint on the card was the patron saint of those seeking not physical sight but instead vision of God’s plan for their lives, or perhaps more accurately, what we would call discernment. None of these people ever asked me what I wanted. They never considered that maybe I don’t see myself as in need of some sort of Biblical healing.
As students of the Old and New Testaments we know that illness and disability was deeply problematic for ancient people. We know that physical disfigurement rendered one unclean and ineligible for service in the Temple. We know that sin was strongly associated with physical ailments not just in the Jewish world but in the larger Hellenistic world. One who was not flawless in body could not possibly have divine favor.
One day last fall in Professor Koenig’s New Testament class I had a moment of incredible clarity about the apostle Paul. We were discussing the evidence that Paul had some physical or medical problems, including the likelihood that he had poor eyesight.
I was suddenly overwhelmed with the warmest, fuzziest feelings for St. Paul. I suddenly wanted to hug that crazy, egotistical, acerbic celibate from 2000 years ago. It all made sense to me. Paul may have had physical issues, but he did not receive healing from God. Healing of physical ailments wasn’t what mattered in Paul’s life. Paul’s miracle was his conversion to follow Christ, his change of heart, his incredible calling.
Once in a while someone tells me how courageous they think I am. Often I want to hide while they go on to say things that they might think are flattering but I find embarrassing. Sometimes I want to say “you have no idea” and tell them all the little details that I have to pay attention to in order to make things look easy. Other times I want to tell them about truly brave, or depending on how you look at it, stupid, things I’ve done. I want to tell them how I learned to drive a stick shift (let’s just say that it doesn’t happen sitting in the driveway!) or what it’s like to jump over fences on horseback when you have no depth perception.
But you know what? The most courageous thing I have ever done had nothing to do with what I could or could not see with my eyes. The most off the wall, out of the box thing I’ve ever done was to answer the call the led me on this journey towards ordination, that led me to seminary, that led me to believe that something I share from this pulpit might be used by the Holy Spirit to benefit another.
Answering the call to use my life in this way was far crazier than getting behind the wheel of an orange 1970 mustang ever was.
Someone once said that life is a terminal illness. We are finite. We are born, we live, we die. This is the inescapable reality of our existence as creatures. No matter what physical condition we are in now, someday we will be in worse shape. Someday our bodies will fail us and nothing we can do will change the situation. This does not mean that there is no benefit in pursuing research and expanding the availability of medical care. We are commanded to take care of the needs of our fellow human beings in their hunger, thirst, and illness. What this does mean however is that our physical limitations are part of who we are, whether we acquire them through genetic mutations as I did, or through an accident, or simply through aging.
Miraculous healing of our bodies is not our ticket to wholeness and life in God’s kingdom. What we need is Paul’s conversion of heart, mind, and spirit. We need to live as the John the Baptists of our era.

We might each have hang ups about one thing or another, whether in the biblical text or in our daily lives. It might seem that being the “voice crying in the wilderness” is not about prophecy but about despair, despair that is certain that we will be drowned out by the noise of the world or fear that our own shortcomings and uncertainties will defeat us before we can ever proclaim “prepare the way of the Lord.” Like John the Baptist we might want to send out a message demanding to know if there really is a coming kingdom, a messiah to serve at all.

In our text, Jesus answers that the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is brought to those who are poor. The focus on physical disability may not sound politically correct, but the writer of Matthew’s Gospel is trying to tell us that the signs of the kingdom are all around us, if we will only look for them. John was expecting something different than what Jesus was doing in people’s lives, and we might have been expecting something different than what Jesus has done and is doing in our own lives. We might be surprised to find that we are the signs that God is working among us.
We are called not to be healed of our flaws and limitations, but to be those heralds of whom it is said “see, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”

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~ by Sophia on June 3, 2008.

6 Responses to “Something I’ve never done before – posting a sermon”

  1. <>It’s a bit confrontational and not something I’d necessarily preach in a parish.<>Why not? This is not confrontational, this is real. Confrontational is the letter I sent out to my congregation telling them to start taking financial responsibility for the place before you decide to close it.And if you don’t preach this in a parish, they will be less for it.<>It was a bit too confrontational for some members of my preaching lab, but I still stand behind what I said.<>Again, if this was too confrontational for your classmates, I would say, bluntly, they need to grow up. Being in a parish isn’t all cookies and cream. Nor are we called to preach some mealy-mouthed, pie-in-the-sky theology where we know we are blessed by the BMW in our driveway.We are called (not always, but probably more often than not) to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.“Opening the eyes of the blind” may mean allowing people to see themselves as others see them.Go get ’em.

  2. I picked up a similar sort of theme in my preaching class and managed to annoy each of the other people in there. Which, I figure, took it’s own sort of talent. The theology is sound and I agree with Reverend Ref, people need to hear this side of the Gospel. I would polish it a bit, but some of that is my preaching style.

  3. I like it! It’s definitely preachable.

  4. What they said…Seriously, it’s clear and unambiguous, and if it makes people squirm in their seats a bit, that’s a good thing. More squirming, less snoring – that’s what I say.Go get ’em.

  5. Seems a good message to me…After all, Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable

  6. Nothin’ but net, Cap’n. Anyone who thinks that’s “confrontational” has issues.

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