St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

Sermons

  • Sermon for Lent IV – The Rev. Dr. Gene Bourquin, Deacon

    March 27, 2022

    Here we are . . .  in the middle of the season of penitence moving to the most holy time of Christ’s sacrifice for reconciliation. And Luke, our Gospel writer today, the master of the parables, provides us a favorite for many. Luke is by far the most prolific teller of parables – 24 with 18 unique to him. But I have to admit, this one is not my favorite – a spoiled son of a wealthy man, taking dad’s money, squandering it on unspeakable “dissolute living,” who hits his bottom in a pig pen. I’m not denying there’s a great message of welcome and forgiveness, and perhaps I’m just too familiar with the story, but when I thought about it . . . about preaching on . . .  the reconciled pig feeder . . .  like a good New Yorker City deacon, I said to myself . . . Oy vey!… and I checked out the Epistle.

    Like Luke, Paul also speaks to us this morning of reconciliation, but I think in bigger way, that carries the deeper messages and the truest passion for . . . reconciliation. Paul says, “Christ . . .  has given us the ministry of reconciliation . . .  in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

    And unlike Luke, we can note that Paul makes it clear that God is judging by the spirit, not according to the flesh. God does not evaluate us for our bodies, or how well they work or do not. Not how beautiful we are. Not how different we are in mind or body, but by our spirit. Hmmm. Interesting. Is this how we see the world working. For some people – those marginalized by race, poverty, disability, differences of all sorts – THOSE OF US BROKEN – does it seem as if we are being judged – being connected and RE connections – by our essence, our souls, our intentions . . .  by our spirit?

    We are wise recall that Paul, maybe the most neurotic of the Apostles, was literally struck blind, and then went on to work on the greatest reconciliation in the Church’s history . . . the reconciliation of the Jews and the gentiles.

    And I do have one other reason today to ruminate on Paul’s letter. It’s that he was not only blinded at the beginning of his ministry, but Paul suffered from a long-term disability, what he called a ‘thorn in the flesh.’ He never gets specific about what this thorn is – but it’s fairly clear this was a physical disability.

    (skin in the game: hearing loss aids, 80% vision is gone to glaucoma, and am I in recovery)

    Let me see if I can get to my point.

    When we speak of reconciliation – an end to estrangement from God – we Christians – or at least our Church – might just have a problem. So often in the Bible, especially the Hebrew books, disability is viewed as sin. The view from the Old Testament writers is that God brings disability for original sin, retribution for transgressions and rule breaking, or as an expression of God’s anger for people’s disobedience. The examples are too many to list and we wouldn’t have the time today to look at any one of them, but the legacy is real and impactful. None other than Father of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, proposed that the existence of physical impairments is the result of human sin—specifically, of the original sin of Adam.

    The problem is surely not scripture alone — ancient and contemporary secular societies, the sciences, and medicine aren’t much better. To scientists and doctors, differences need to be cured. And our mythology? In what fairytale is the princess less than gorgeous, what beast is not turned from bad to good, from ugly to handsome? When do we see a Disney story where the teacup is okay with a chip in his china? What does this tell us about the relationships between institutions of the church, government, entertainment, and education, between abled-bodied people and people with disabilities.

    Let me illustrate with an example that most, if not all of us, are familiar with. Perhaps the epitome of disability – the person with the non-standard body – since the early 20th century until today, is Helen Keller. Although she was not the first deafblind child to be educated – she was actually the fourth — living a century after the first deafblind child was educated by religious teachers and clerics, in Paris – Helen became and remains world famous. She got the Broadway play, the hit movie, the famous water pump – a modern shrine of sorts in Alabama – and is a hero to countless school children who read her story and often learn to spell silently with their fingers.

    Brave, facing a life in darkness and silence, Helen was made the face of disability – pure, unstained, a perfect secular saint for overcoming adversity. But this was hardly the entire truth. While Helen was indeed a brilliant and amazingly strong woman, she was also the product of a system that would only allow her agency when she conformed to the standards of the non-disabled. Helen was blind, but she never gained independent movement. She never was taught to travel the world without being on someone else’s arm. She was deaf, but never taught or used sign language. She never socialized with other deaf people. Even though her voice was literally unintelligible, she was educated to express herself only with speech – not to use sign, the language of the deaf. Before she had her tilted and imperfect eye removed and replaced, she was only photographed on her good side, and her letters sent to people around the world were all checked and edited so that her writing appeared without flaw. She was prevented from marrying to maintain her unearned virginal public image, and to be certain she would continue to bring in funds to promote and support charities, and in order to keep her household financially viable, she even toured as an entertainer, taking to the stage and becoming a popular vaudeville act despite her Radcliffe College degree.

    Helen remains heroic – reconciled, I could say – because she is the prototype of the overcomer – and so assimilated in her contemporaneous culture, that she believed and promoted the pseudo-science of eugenics in order to eliminate the propagation of people with disabilities. Even as Helen was lauded as nearly a miracle, in real life the focus was on ridding herself of the outward signs of difference and handicap. And perhaps not incidentally, Hellen was a progressive Christian.

    Themes in popular scholarship and culture and the bible demonstrate the obstacles encountered by ordinary people with disabilities – people like me and maybe you – who seek inclusion and justice as themselves within the Church.

     We are living with the knowledge and wisdom of Jesus . . . author, scholar, and advocate Nancy Eiesland, in her 1994 groundbreaking book, The Disabled God, challenged notions of sin and difference, boldly. She asked us to live into a belief system where difference does not mean incomplete, heroism and perfection are not the necessary prerequisites to the elimination of injustice, and disability is part of life and salvation. She called for an end to the stereotypes and one-dimensional saints that too often make up what I might call the desirable disabled. Do we welcome the fidgety child with autism, the adult with Down Syndrome, the person in the wheelchair, or the worshipper with schizophrenia into the nave and at the table? Do we understand that not all people want, need, or can be healed – or should be – healed? That some people pray for healing and some people identify as an individual with a disability or a difference as part of their personhood? But this should never be because physical or mental difference or disability is meant to be sinful or shameful.

    Jesus was sometimes seen to forgive sins and heal people’s physical difficulties at the same time, BUT I am pretty sure one was not dependent on the other. I looked at all the healings in the three synoptic gospels. . .  First, Jesus never rejected a PWD . . .  not a leper or a person with a speech impediment or mental health issue. Except in the case of disability caused by demonic possession, Jesus only healed when he knew the individual wanted to be healed or Jesus was asked to heal. Jesus always acted respectfully, always allowing for the dignity of the individual, and most importantly, Jesus always always always healed to bring back the connection into family and full membership in their communities.  In a time when accommodations were basically impossible, when for example, before a sign language ever existed, He removed the barriers – physical and social – for those sidelined and ostracized.

    I don’t mean to say we have not made progress in our churches, especially in the past few decades, but I could tell you the many stories — of the family made to leave their parish because their son had an intellectual disability, or when a daughter with cerebral palsy – dismissed from her bible study class because she drooled, or the Deaf person who sat in a pew for years with no interpreter, or the mentally ill gentleman asked not to return the next Sunday, or the priest with low vision openly disparaged by other clergy because she used a tablet to enlarge the prayerbook text at the altar. Maybe we’ve made progress in the last 2000 years, but sometimes it feels as if Christ isn’t here, that are living in old testament times, and reconciliation is a gift for the privileged, the pretty, and the able-bodied.

    Paul told of a new beginning, where we can be reconciled, re-connected, not because we have a perfect body, or mind, of intact senses. And the Jesus whom he spoke of …. The Jesus we worship . . . we should remember, died with a broken body. Nancy Eiesland reminds us, “The symbol of Jesus Christ, the disabled God, has transformative power . . . It is the disabled God we remember at the Eucharist table – the God who was physically tortured, arose from the dead, and is present in heaven and on earth [ . . .  ] disabled and whole.” Physical perfection . . .  spiritual perfection – they are not quid pro quo for forgiveness.  We are all already – Adonis or disfigured – worthy and reconciled.

    The church is broken by sin, not by physical or sensory differences. WE ARE made in THE IMAGE OF GOD, we are the hands, and feet, and voices of the Christ on earth.

    So today my proffer . . . my request from Paul’s missive, is for you to heal someone. Paul said it. God was reconciling the world to himself . . .  and Jesus was entrusting the mission of reconciliation to us. Reconciliation is the one ministry we are all have been called to. You are here to perform the signs and wonders. You can, like Jesus, be the cause for reconciliation … When you and I welcome someone into the body of Christ and the community of the church, without reservations and with the every grace of accommodation, acceptance, and love ….  Then we have embodied the Good News for today.

    Amen.