Everybody was drawn to Jesus—everyone from the whole region came. Matthew’s Gospel is focused on conveying Jesus as the fulfillment of the promised Jewish Messiah—we hear that the quotation of the Isaiah.
But even so, Matthew also lets us know that it was not just the Jews who were immediately drawn to Jesus. All kinds of people came from everywhere—Gentiles, foreigners, people from the Decapolis which were the ten cities to the southeast of the Sea of Galilee. Everyone came—people who were paralyzed and disabled and suffering from all kinds of afflictions—people whom Jesus will call “blessed” in the next chapter in the Sermon on the Mount.
It was as if Jesus put out a banner and said, “All Are Welcome” to come and hear the good news of God’s love.
For several years—well before I became the pastor here—this congregation has worked at becoming inclusive and welcoming to everyone. Today at the Annual meeting, we are going to consider another small step forward in being even more clear about what we mean when we say, “All Are Welcome.”
We started out the Epiphany season talking about the importance of testimony, so I have asked Joe Rowe to share some his story with us today. Joe has lot of experience of what it feels like to be both excluded and included.
Because of his experiences, he serves on the “All Are Welcome” Team to ensure others really do feel welcomed at St. Luke’s, and that we continue to do everything we can to ensure that people know our welcome includes them:
I’ve been a member here for over a year. I’m going to tell you some things about my life because my experiences with exclusion have made me hate the idea of excluding anyone from anything. Bear with me. I’m not having a pity party. I’m a happy person, but I think my experiences with exclusion are relevant to our mission as the church. It really doesn’t matter why others exclude us, it hurts just the same.
I’m seventy-two years old. As a person who’s been physically disabled since I was five when I had polio, I know all about being excluded. I never physically attended school until I went to college. The doctors were afraid I’d catch something and the schools at that time were totally incapable of accepting someone like me. “Cripples” were expected to stay home out of site, and I did. My parents, however, wanted me to have the same opportunities as other kids. Some years, my mother taught me herself, some years, I was connected to a classroom by a newly invented speakerphone, and, some years, I had a homebound teacher who showed up an hour a week to give me assignments.
What I didn’t have was other children in my life. I never had a friend from school until I was in college. I never went to a prom or a pep rally. I never had a locker. It hurt. I was excluded. Sometimes for practical reasons, but more often because I just wouldn’t fit in. I loved science. I turned half our garage into a chemistry laboratory when I was eleven. When I was in high school in Dallas with a homebound teacher, the superintendent of schools ruled that I could not be allowed in a science lab because of the danger and that since science was a required subject, I would not be allowed to graduate. My parents uprooted my family, and we moved to Arlington where they had agreed to let me graduate.
I did graduate and decided to go to college at UT Arlington. I pretty much aced the SAT exams and qualified to skip the first semester of English and math. I selected physics as my major. Then, I was told there was a problem. Science was out of the question, and they weren’t sure they could admit me at all. I would have to convince a specially appointed panel of three deans to admit me. The inquisition was brutal. It was determined that I could be admitted conditionally only if I majored in business with my status to be reviewed every six months. I didn’t like the terms, but I accepted them. I eventually graduated as the first business student with a 4.0 grade point average and did the same when I earned my MBA. There had been many obstacles for disabled students at the University, so I helped lead student protests that resulted in positive changes. (To read how Joe helped make UT Arlington a barrier-free campus, please click here.)
When I finished my MBA, I thought I’d have the world on a string. The college had publicized my accomplishments, and I had a letter congratulating me from the President of the United States. The economy was booming. My classmates were getting multiple offers for jobs paying five thousand a month or more. I applied to over two hundred companies and was not given a single interview.
My brother worked for Ross Perot’s company, EDS, and persuaded them to talk to me. They hired me at $850 a month. To make a long story short, I was no longer excluded, I finally “fit in.” I was judged by what I could do rather than what my limitations might be. I was surrounded by people who came from totally different backgrounds. Most of them were veterans recently returned from Vietnam. Somehow, though, they fully accepted this socially immature crippled egghead as one of them. We worked our butts off together, and we drank way too much together. For the first time in my life, I felt not just welcomed but invited and appreciated. I had a second home. I worked there for twenty-nine years until I took early retirement to stay home with my mother, who had developed Alzheimer’s and needed me. When she died, and EDS was failing, I began looking for a job elsewhere. I’m still looking. I’m excluded again.
I joined St. Luke’s because I felt truly welcomed, and because I felt this was a place committed to doing the same for every other human being that God has made. That is not the case with all ELCA churches. In the early eighties, I was a member of Christ Lutheran when they totally remodeled the sanctuary at great expense, only to find that they had not provided a single place for a person in a wheelchair. I left.
People who are different in obvious ways make all of us a bit uncomfortable. I led multiple local organizations working for the rights of people with disabilities in the seventies and eighties. I discovered, to my own dismay, that I was uncomfortable around people with disabilities different from my own. I was guilty of the very thing I was fighting, but I got past those feelings. Now, it is 2020. The Americans with Disabilities Act is thirty years old. Being excluded because of my disability ought to be over, but it is not. I love music. I was a season ticket holder of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Dallas Summer Musicals for decades. I’ve always had a ventilator on my chair. Three years ago, the symphony made it clear that they would prefer that I only attended certain concerts they would select because people were complaining about the noise of my ventilator. They were very nice and polite about it, knowing that they could not just exclude me because of the law. Early this year, the Dallas Summer Musicals did the same thing, relegating me to the lobby to watch on TV. In my younger days, I might have defied them, but at this point in my life, I never go anywhere I don’t feel fully welcomed.
There are words on the altar behind me that state, “All Are Welcome.” The word “all” doesn’t leave us any wiggle room. I am glad to be part of a church that is willing to let people know that the “All” includes me, and it includes them, no matter who they are. Jesus was not welcomed by the church and its leaders. He was so unwelcome that they had him killed. I also know that he defied the rules of his society to welcome the unwelcomed. Whether they were Samaritans, beggars, lepers or anything else, He invited them to join His kingdom and be his disciples who fish for people. I am glad to be a part of the church who does the same and makes sure everyone knows that “All” includes them.
One of the harshest words when we’re struggling with grief and the death of someone we love is, if. “If’s” can haunt us in the throes of grief: "If he had tried a different medicine...If I had one more chance to talk with her…If I would have done what I said I was going to do before he died…If we would have found out about the tumor sooner…" If, if, if.
My husband, Dan’s sister, Cynthia died of a congenital heart defect at age thirty-five. Last week we marked the 25th anniversary of her death. Today, doctors would have fixed the hole in heart in utero, but Cynthia didn’t have heart surgery until the age of 7, and her system was compromised. It turns out she lived to the exact life expectancy of someone with her condition. Even so, my mother-in-law, Joan was so troubled by “if’s” after Cynthia died. “If only I helped her more with the directions she got from her different doctors. If only I had gone to all her appointments with her. If only I had been with her that day.” And there were so many times we heard her lament, “If only I had thought of diuretics to take the pressure off her heart. Why didn’t I think of diuretics?”
No one expected Dan’s mom to have come up with the right medical answer for Cynthia, even if there was one. But that’s the irrationality of grief. We bargain, negotiate and imagine different outcomes if—if only we could go back and change the past. If only we were omniscient and omnipresent, we would have seen what was coming and made a different choice before our loved one died. We grieve the physical loss of the person, and then we lament our powerlessness to prevent death. If there is one area of life where we must confront our own powerlessness, it is in the face of death. Imagining “if’s” and ways we could have prevented death is like standing on the beach and shouting at the ocean to stop the waves.
At the death of her brother Lazarus, Mary falls at Jesus’ feet, lamenting his absence and her powerlessness in the face of death. “If” is the second word out of her mouth, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha said exactly the same thing earlier, “If you had come right away, Jesus; if you had made a different choice—things could have turned out differently.”
When Jesus learns that Lazarus is ill, he waits two more days before coming to Bethany. Mary and Martha had good reason to be mad. Jesus could have come sooner. He could have prevented Lazarus’s death. But instead of coming early for a miracle of healing, Jesus comes later, explaining that it is to show God’s glory. Jesus repeats this to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
We might jump to the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection as the real sign of God’s glory that Jesus has in mind, but I think God’s glory begins a little earlier with Jesus’s emotional reaction. He is greatly disturbed and moved and begins to weep, to weep for his now dead friend. And so, the beginning of God’s glory is in God’s identification with, and participation in our suffering and grief. What does it mean for you that Jesus weeps with you in your grief, is moved deeply in your sadness, and joins with your family and community in your lament? Is this not the very reason the God of the universe pressed down into human DNA—into finiteness and limitation—so that we might know that God knows what it is to weep, to rage against death, and to be caught in the swirling “if’s” of what might have been? Isn’t Jesus’ expression of emotional pain a sign of the immediacy and intimacy of God’s glory, as are a stable and a bed of hay, the rough hands of a carpenter washing his friends’ feet, the simplicity of bread and wine and blessing?
From this stance of solidarity with human sadness and powerlessness in the face of death, Jesus moves toward the tomb, and more than any other miracle story, Jesus asks for help. Jesus asks for the participation of the community. First, he asks for someone to “take away the stone”—a foreshadowing of his own resurrection (well this whole story is a foreshadowing of Jesus resurrection!).
After offering a prayer of thanksgiving, Jesus then calls Lazarus forth by name, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man walks out. In this moment we see that in Jesus, we have life with God now and later—we have life with God on this side of the grave, and we have life with God beyond the grave—God’s glory is seen on both sides of the death. Jesus stands with us, weeps with us, and strengthens us in this life—and Jesus prepares a place for us in heaven through his power over death.
But the miracle doesn’t end there. Lazarus is bound with the grave cloths of death, wrapped around his hands and feet and head. Jesus asks for help from the community once again, “unbind him and let him go!” Lazarus’s resurrected life does not begin until the community unwraps him and releases him. Why does Jesus wait two days until after Lazarus has died? Maybe, just maybe, Jesus wanted to focus Mary and Martha’s attention, and ours, not on scrambling to prevent a death over which we have no control, not on swirling in regret, and not agonizing over “what if’s,” but instead, on participating in life, aiding in resurrection, and helping with the miracles God is working in the midst of life’s grief. And there’s the fullness of God’s glory—in the community who joins Jesus in completing the miracle of new life by unbinding another.
Grief is real and expressing its emotions is essential, but that’s not where God calls us to remain. Jesus calls to participate in life, even in the midst of our sadness. This is what eventually happened with my mother-in-law, Joan. She never got over the sadness of Cynthia’s death, of course. But she let go of the “if’s” because God called her and Dan’s Dad, a Presbyterian minister, to new ministries, even in retirement. Through this bigger heart of compassion created by her grief, Joan helped unbind others whose hearts were broken. God called her to keep participating in life, aiding in resurrection, helping the miracle of healing for others, and thereby revealing God’s glory and Jesus’ presence.
How do we help unbind those caught in the stench of death, “what if’s?” and the “if only’s?”
For our Jewish neighbors in the aftermath of the anti-semitic murders in Pittsburgh, we can bring the gift of our own sadness and worship with them, stand with them, praying with and for them. In so doing, we can help unbind them from the grave cloths in which hatred has tried to wrap them. Jesus calls us to keep participating in life, aiding in resurrection, helping with miracle of healing for others, so that God’s glory and Jesus’ presence shine through.
Two weeks ago, St. Luke’s hosted a training for Building an Inclusive Church that is fully and unconditionally welcoming of our LGBTQIA+ sisters and brothers. For generations, so many have lived and continue to live in fear of rejection by family, judgement by the church, being fired from their job, denied medical care, or worse, being victims of hate crimes. To make an explicit, public welcome and to hold fast to this banner on the altar that All Are Welcome, no exceptions, is to begin unbinding those grave cloths, and affirming that like Lazarus, there is life and community when you come out. Jesus calls us to help him unbind them from fear and rejection by affirming they are loved by God and welcomed by us, revealing God’s glory and Jesus’ presence.
Today we remember the saints who have gone before us. As we give thanks for the witness of their lives and hold fast to the promise of their resurrection with Christ, we remember that Jesus is life for us here and now, and in the life to come. We cannot stave off death, and we cannot change the past. But we can trust that Jesus weeps with us, and then calls us from larger hearts of compassion, to participate with him in bringing life, aiding resurrection, and helping the miracle of healing as we unbind others. There are “no if’s, ands, or buts about it,” God’s glory and Jesus’ presence shine through us as we help others unwrap life anew.
Image: Unbinding of Lazarus by Anthea Craigmyle (1933-2016)