Sunday, April 27, 2014

Being Restored Through a Differently-Abled Christ

I preached in the Princeton University Chapel on Sunday April 27th on John 20:19-31. This sermon relates to the sermon I preached on April 1st, but it is not a follow-up per sé because the two sermons were preached in front of different audiences. 

Last week, we celebrated Easter with the glorious news that Christ was missing from the tomb, the sign that He had indeed risen. This Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter, we hear of the Disciples' encounter with Christ after His resurrection.

As someone who has felt like an outcast much of my life, I find a lot of hope in the resurrection. For years I have been struggling to find my place within the Christian body. As someone with a pronounced speech impediment, I have felt more often like an outcast than a beloved Child of God. I would frequently wonder: Does God really love me if God gave me this difficulty? Why am I not perfect like others around me?

Yet, as we look at the Gospels, Jesus does not have an easy life. From day one, people want him dead. But during his ministry he is defiant to the authorities and the upper class, yet loving towards the downtrodden. He meets with the outcasts of society, to the dismay of His own Disciples. He is clear that they are Beloved too. In the end, Christ is put to death for challenging the political and religious powers of first-century Israel. Yet, He rise again. His persecutors did not have the last word.

Looking back on my own life so far, I was tormented by taunts, treated unkindly and unfairly. But my tormentors do not have the last word either. I am using my voice, which has been mocked and discriminated against, to bring you this word of God today. That is one of the hopes that the Resurrection shows us. Good will always prevail over evil.

I also find hope in how Christ is embodied after the Resurrection. He did not come back with a pristine, wound-free body. Yet He bore the wounds He had suffered on the cross. Others expected this to be the case.
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio c. 1601-1602

One of the disciples, Thomas, was dismayed by not seeing Jesus when the others first had. He doesn't even believe the others that they had actually seen him, so he says in verse 25: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

After seeing what horrors Jesus went through on the Cross, Thomas was under no illusion that Christ would appear without wounds. Furthermore, Thomas expected Jesus to bear the wounds He had suffered on the Cross. If he didn't, then he would not be convinced that Christ had actually appeared to the others.

When Christ appears with his wounds, showing his imperfect body, Thomas readily embraces him as Lord. Thomas was not grossed out by the wounds and Christ asked him to reach out and to touch the wounds. This scene is reminiscent of all the times in the Gospels where Christ would reach out and touch the emotional and physical wounds of the outcasted. By Christ bearing these wounds, we see a new take on what it means to be differently-abled, and that we worship a differently-abled Christ.

Often being disabled in our society has been a taboo topic. Until recently people with disabilities would be discarded from society and locked away in hospitals and schools, away from the larger society. Things are improving for people with disabilities. But still today disabilities are still regarded more as a sin than a blessing. Still largely outcasted, people with disabilities are often on the fringes of our society and are often treated more with pity than respect. People with disabilities faced much discrimination, especially within the Church.

In her book Disabled God, the late theologian Lisa Eiesland tells the story of Diane who was born without lower limbs and above-elbow upper extremity stumps. Shortly after Diane was born, her family
moved across the country to avoid Diane's grandmother, who accused her daughter, Diane's mother, of sleeping with the devil. She called Diane “the devil's daughter”. That was just the beginning of the torments she would face throughout her life.

But, like my tormentors, her grandmother was wrong. Diane and I are both beloved children of God, just as we who are gathered here today, are all beloved children of God.

Ascribing disabilities as sins is largely due to misinterpretations relating to passages in the Gospel where Jesus seemingly cures people of their ailments, of their disabilities. Instead, I see Jesus' witness in the Gospels as more about restoring outcasts to their communities, not about healing. The Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network contends that “The healing stories in the gospels, are primarily concerned with restoration of persons to their communities, not the cure of their physiological conditions

Later in her book, Eiesland writes that: “The disabled God repudiates the conception of disability as a consequence of individual sin... Our bodies... are not artifacts of sin, original or otherwise. Our bodies participate in the imago Dei, not in spite of our impairments and contingencies, but through them.”

Christ bearing those wounds proves this; we are whole just as we are, just as we are made.

Growing up with a speech impediment was not easy. Often I did not feel whole, because others treated me as if I was not whole, as if my speech impediment was a form of punishment for a past sin. I frequently dreamt about overcoming my impediment. But I see that longing as futile now, because I have been whole all my life. Because God made me in God's image.

We are each made in the image of God, yet we are each shaped differently, with different genders, with different abilities, and with different skills and talents. I thought about this concept when I was baking bread for communion last weekend. Over the last couple months, as I have been baking the communion bread, I have tried my hardest to shape them so that they would all look uniform. I could not! They each turned out to be their own unique shape.

This last time, I took another approach. I let them take shape as I pressed them out from the balls that I had formed. The balls themselves were similar in size and made out of exactly the same ingredients, but each one took a different shape and yet each one was just as good as all the others. They served well as the bread of Life, but none of them were exactly alike.

I noticed that is how humankind works. We are made out of the same mold, but we come out looking different, with different abilities and insights. We are all children of God that God can use as God see fit.

In celebrating a differently-abled God, we can recognize that the Resurrection is not about resurrecting perfect people but allowing us, imperfect people in an imperfect world a chance to be redeemed together through Jesus' ultimate sacrifice and ultimate victory. We do not need to be perfect to be in this community; instead we need to be faithful to the best of our abilities.

Our insistence on perfection is one of our greatest sins in our modern world. We strive to be perfect: To have straight A's, to have successful careers, to be the perfect spouses, to be perfect believers. But I do not see that as what God intends for us.

As I am ending my ministry among you in a couple weeks, I see that we are a beautiful diverse community. We are not uniform, but yet we are all children of God. Christ has formed us out of the same mold, but we are not same. None of us are perfect, but we can all strive to be faithful in an imperfect world.

Also within the Resurrection, I see a challenge within this hope. I see a challenge to love others who are different from me, who hold different beliefs from me, who have different interests from me. Yes we are not made the same and a lot of the conflict in the world comes out of the differences that exist between people. The hope is also the challenge. If we admit that we are imperfect people, we will mess up and make mistakes. We will fail to love our neighbor fully, we will fail to see another person's humanity when they cut us off on Route 1, and we will fail to see the light of God within someone when we feel betrayed by them.

But our imperfectness does not prevent us from being in a relationship with God. It proves that we are humans, who are called to be faithful, not perfect.

On this Sunday we, people of different abilities, are being resurrected as a community into the differently-abled body of Christ to have another chance to live out God's Kingdom here on Earth, where differences are celebrated and embraced.

Let's go forth from here today striving to be faithful, in celebration of our differences, and let's remember we are given this chance today only through Christ's Resurrection. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Worshipping a Differently-Abled Christ

Each Masters Senior at Princeton Theological Seminary is eligible to give the message during the weekday service. I gave my message on April 1. If you want to listen to the sermon or the whole service, you can. Here is the link to the sermon and the service before and after the sermon.

The passage for this sermon is John 9:1-5

Throughout my life I have been trying to understand why I have a speech impediment. Why did God do this to me? At first I thought it was a curse done to me because of past sins; just as the Disciples ask Christ about the man who is blind. Then I wondered for some time if it was a prank on me. One day, I would wake up and this impediment would be gone. Jesus would be appearing more like Buddy Jesus from the movie Dogma and He would say “April Fools!”

Most of my life, I longed for that day to be whole, to feel whole. Why God? Why am I not whole? Then throughout seminary I have tried to reconcile my speech impediment through looking at it as a gift, as Jesus seems to proclaim in John 9. Christ must have meant for this to happen. A way to use me in the world. In wrestling with this, I have come to see that this too is not true. Being a person with a disability is not a gift nor is it about sin. I have realized the reason that I have felt like an outcast has nothing to do with my relationship with Christ. The source of my pain has been the reactions of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ here on Earth.

Part of Jesus' witness in the Gospels is about restoring outcasts to their communities. The Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network contends that “The healing stories in the gospels, [like John 9] are primarily concerned with restoration of persons to their communities, not the cure of their physiological conditions.” This man who was blind was not welcome in his community and is only restored to his community after the miracle.

Furthermore, at the end of this story, Christ proclaims that people who can physically see are spirituality blind. Then the inverse must be true: People who have disabilities can be spiritually whole. This speech impediment is just a part of who I am, not a sin, not a gift. Our collective sin have been trying to reach an unrealistic perfection while living in an imperfect world.
  • Let's remember: We are asked to live faithfully, not sinlessly. 
  • Let's admit: We as humans err a lot. 
  • Let's confess: We will not be perfect as it is currently defined in the modern world. 
Lent is an ideal time to think about this restoration. The theologian Lisa Eiesland writes in Disabled God that after the resurrection in Luke, Christ appears with injuries to His hands and feet. By doing so, she claims that Jesus' disability indicates not a flawed humanity but a full humanity. 

By acknowledging this truth that we worship a God who is differently abled and yet still whole, we can admit that our faithfulness, not our perfection, bring us into the body of Christ. Therefore, the resurrection in two and a half weeks is a collective restoration for all of us. We each have different abilities and struggles. We all have gifts to offer each other and the world. 

Let me caution you all today too: People with disabilities are not here for abled body people to feel blessed or feel lucky. We are not here for others' self-realizations. We are here to be active parts of the body of Christ and to offer our own gifts and talents to the world. Attitudes of pity, judgement, and fear of people with disabilities interfere with this restoration. 

 This is the Good News! On Easter, we, as an imperfect people, will be restored back into this whole living differently-abled body of Christ.