I am just returning from the 10th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea! I was honored to serve as a North American representative to the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network (EDAN) Pre-Assembly Event and a Untied Church of Christ Delegate to the General Assembly. I hope to post a series of reflections on the events of the last two weeks as I process this unique experience.
I was asked to preach at the closing worship service for the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network’s Pre Assembly Event in Busan; below is the sermon I presented.
Dr. Arne Fritzon serves as liturgist at EDAN Pre-Assembly event
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 1 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (1)
“Exiles for Peace and Justice” sermon by Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas for theEcumenical Disability Advocacy Network (EDAN) Pre-Assembly, WCC 10th General Assembly, Busan, South Korea on October 28, 2013
Brothers and Sisters in Christ it is an honor to speak with you today. As we worship together now, let us consider God’s word for the context of our own lives.
Our text for this evening comes to us from the Book of Jeremiah.While I admire Jeremiah faithfulness I have always felt that much was asked of him. The prophet Jeremiah’s unenviable task was to convince the people that going into exile was the only way for their community to reestablish right relationship with God. We understand that his message that people needed exile likely did not make sense to those around him, but Jeremiah also gave hope. Indeed our text comes from the portion of Jeremiah in which the prophet is seeking to give hope to the exiles, hope that peace and justice would still come to the world.
Like the people that Jeremiah sought to console—we too have traveled far from our homes too seek justice and peace. However we are different than those Jeremiah spoke to. Not only are we far from home but we are people with disabilities, and we are allies who have had that conversion moment in which through the depth of friendship and solidarity there is understanding that people with disabilities experience the world and society differently than persons without disabilities.
The experience of disability is as varied as the people in this room. Disability is a social location experienced by living in the world in an individually unique way, and yet that experience of being uniquely different from everyone else is an experience that is shared by all people with disability. This solitary nature of living with disability intrigues me, for we may be individuals but collectively PWD are the largest minority in the world.
The North American theologian, Thomas Reynolds has written that disability “entails involuntary impairment and real suffering, much of which is the consequence of social alienation and exile”(2). As a person born with mild cerebral palsy which manifests as a speech impediment and as one who has acquired chronic pain, the suggestion of disability as exile speaks to me. Most of us have had, at some time, an experience in which our day to day life is so different from our friends and colleagues without disability, that as people with disabilities we may easily relate to the experience of exile in our text today. Perhaps from our social location of disability it is clear to us that we are currently living in a world that is not just towards persons with disability. A world in which all God’s children are not living in peace.
In my American context we have a perplexity. The ADA made many public spaces accessible but churches were exempt. As a result in America faithful persons with disability still find themselves exiles of faith communities, either because local churches lack accessibility or social stigma and social inaccessibility leads to a lack of opportunities for PWD to fully participate either as lay members or employed as clergy with disability—it is a lack of justice and of peace.
So what are people with disabilities around the world to do when the Body of Christ is not accessible to them or excludes them? Brothers and sisters, I want to suggest today that we are to take encouragement from the words that Jeremiah spoke to the exiles. We are to build the foundations of a new inclusive church, within the current church—we are to plant our hopes, and teach these ideals to the children. We are to seek the welfare, of the community in which we find ourselves.
As persons with disability we seek the justice not only of physically accessible churches but inclusion in the ministry of the church and opportunities to serve the church. We seek the peace of full social inclusion in the church so no person is made to feel less than the fearlessly and wonderfully made child of God that they are.
The words of Jeremiah call all of us to speak out about who we are, to be willing to be exiles for peace and for justice when we are called to do so. This is not easy work, particularly when the work of inclusion is ever widening the circle of God’s community. Indeed this work asks much of us, calling us to do new things to bring God’s justice and peace to the world.
For the past few years the disabilities ministries and mental health ministries in my denomination have been working together. It has not always been easy for the two exiled groups to act as one, but it is effective. We continue to teach the church, and we continue to learn from each other. One of the things I have learned from our partnership, is that as far from justice as the disability community is there are still others who need the disability community to welcome them into the church , into the pews, and into ministry together. We are a sprout of justice.
As we go forward into this week, discussing all manners of the ministry and work of the Church universal, I ask this group—the advocates and associates of the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network, to be attentive to how we may be called to use our perspective—to call the assembled body of Christ to new ministries of inclusion, even if in doing so the way to the future is, yet, unknown.
May God Be with Us and Meet Us as we work for justice and peace!
(2) Thomas Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, (BrazosPress: Grands Rapids, MI, 2008) 21.