“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Last week we encountered the risen Christ with palms of his hands and soles of his feet marred by the world’s sin. Jesus was willing to experience the heartache of being dis-abled by the world for the sake of transforming that same world, our world. And we were sent out with this news: Christ calls us to be witnesses to this truth. God submitted to disability so that we might overcome ours.
This same truth made evident in the story of Christ, our Good Shepherd. On his own accord, caring for his flock deeply enough to lay down his life, Christ acts as our advocate, the one powerful enough to insist on fuller inclusion into God’s kingdom, you and me, and those we cannot yet see.
We are a post-Easter people, which means we know that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection fulfills this Good Shepherd analogy; Christ our redeemer, bringing us into the fold. But lest we become complacent in our communities of belonging, hear Jesus again, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. Christ’s power is made evident in his willingness to advocate for forgotten sheep.
The role of shepherd is not a glamorous one, it’s filled with risk, discomfort, and constant vigilance. And the work is worth it for Christ, “for they will hear my voice,” he says. As Christ’s followers, we walk in the ways of the Good Shepherd, caring for and seeking out all who desire to be brought into the fold.The question is- are we prepared for this work?- Are we willing to lay down our own comfort for the sake of fuller inclusion of sheep within our fold? And if we’re willing, what could that mean for our faith communities today?
Last week we learned of fuller inclusion of the deaf community within God’s growing fold, and this week we are inspired by the story of another physically-unique human whom we’ll call Brooks. Brooks is my friend from NJ. He taught me many things, but what sticks with me the most is how much our communities benefit from truly listening to the voices of those often sidelined by physical impairments.
Brooks is unlike anyone I’ve met, truly. He was only 18 years old when we were introduced; having just graduated HS, he was off to college. But unlike most of his college-bound peers, Brooks lived with two major impairments every day. Cerebral palsy and blindness. He’d also bravely faced tough childhood experiences. When Brooks was just a young boy, his father abandoned the family, blaming his son. Brooks carries that weight, in addition to constantly having to explain to people that neither blindness nor CP affect his intelligence. He’s picked on, shunned, ignored, laughed at, and not taken seriously most of the time. Even his HS teachers said he shouldn’t go to college. Despite it all, he continues to shine.
Over the next few years, it became my true joy to witness Brooks shifting the culture around him, simply by refusing to be anyone other than who God created him to be. He’s brilliant and has an incredibly developed sense of self, which is why he successfully self-advocated for his own education on the local college campus. When everyone around him said, “It’s not possible for an 18 year-old with CP and blindness to succeed in college” he persisted and insisted, “not only will I attend college, I’ll live in the dorms, too.”
And friends, he did. He earned himself a spot on the college’s diversity team, he earned his degree in teaching and coaching, and he earned my unending respect and admiration.
But here’s the hard news. For every Brooks in this world, able and willing to advocate for a spot in the fold, so many others remain sidelined by our lack of institutional creativity and support. Most importantly, sometimes within our own church practices. And we ought not rely on the incredible gifts of advocates like Brooks alone, because we can become advocates too! When we hear a story of someone sidelined from full inclusion- we can lift their voice with our own. We can claim a spot at the table for everyone, inspired by Jesus, the Good Shepherd, our noble and ideal advocate:
“And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
I thank God for people like Brooks, a prophet among us who challenges me to be more creative in practicing community across physical difference. I thank God for the ways many of you voice prophetic inclusion in our midst. I thank God that Jesus is not complacent about who’s in the fold of redemptive love. We need everyone to be who they are created to be, in hope this world might be transformed (bit by bit), together in community, into a place that further reflects the goodness of its Creator and Good Shepherd.
Jesus sees every person created in God’s image, worthy of the Good Shepherd’s fold. This is such good news: you and I are witnesses to the risen Christ, no longer beholden to the world’s disabling sin...but made free in the creative Spirit of God. So let’s get to work, expanding our imaginations with fuller inclusion of God’s kingdom come on earth. Amen!
“Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.”
This encounter with Christ could be the most pivotal moment in the life of his disciples. Many of them were not present for his crucifixion; most heard only second-hand about his resurrection; they were left discerning fact from fiction based on information from the grape vine. And you and I all know how accurate that can be.
Jesus knows this too, so he shows up where his beloved friends are gathered. He reveals himself in the flesh. He offers his wounds, a chance to touch the risen Christ and believe in miracles. Christ is also making a statement by showing his scars: “the world around us does not get to define our worth based on outward appearance.” Jesus’ scars emphasise this sobering truth: even God was disabled by sin.
This word disabled has challenged my understanding of human difference over the years. We generally use it to define an aspect of one’s physical or mental being that differs from the typical population. For example, I was taught that being deaf was a disability. Maybe you were taught this too. In fact, I held this belief until I met my friend Jacob in seminary. See, Jacob is proficient in American Sign Language, because he grew up in a deaf community; many of his family experience hearing impairment, including his brother who came to seminary the following year. And because I had the chance to know his brother Noah, I now understand that many within the deaf community do NOT define deafness as a disability.
I will admit it took me a while to wrap my head around this. Not a disability? But you can’t hear! Noah and Jacob, and their flawless communication with truly intuitive facial expressions and signing, invited me to reconsider who defines disability. I was reminded again of this significant shift in thinking by Rev. Dr. Sarah Griffith Lund, our UCC minister for disabilities and mental health justice. She co-led our worship online last week, and brought forth this image of Christ with his wounded hands and feet- as identifying with those who have also been disabled by the world around them. See, that’s the difference between an impairment and a disability. An impairment or physical abnormality is a personal experience that society refuses to accommodate, thereby disabling that person from full engagement in the community. I like to think about it like this: what if American Sign Language was normalized in our school systems? Would I have grown up thinking differently about deafness? Not as a disability, but as a difference that adds character to our world?
Noah was the first (or one of the first) deaf students at Princeton Theological Seminary, and I know he challenged all of us to consider how our educational systems (and really all of society) relegate those in the deaf community to the sidelines because of a lack of creativity. An unwillingness or lack of resources to adapt to a different pattern of communication. Of course, none of us can think of all the things all the time, which is why we must value and support the prophets among us who call attention to the ways we are inadvertently disabling people who would otherwise be able to offer tremendous gifts in building God’s kingdom.
Noah and his brother Jacob are prophets for the deaf, continuing in the tradition of the disabled Christ, “The Word made flesh among us,” illuminating the need for transformative work in the educational system. Noah and Jacob offered this same prophetic work in the church I was a part of during seminary, calling on us to create deaf-friendly worship opportunities, participating in the birth of the kingdom of God made new for the deaf community. Shortly after I moved back to SD, Jacob reached out to ask if I’d be willing to support the new ministry he and his brother co-founded birthed called Deaf International. “Deaf International is a community of Christians who desire to follow our Lord Jesus Christ in standing with the poor and oppressed by promoting human rights for Deaf people around the world and proclaiming the Good News of God's Kingdom in Deaf people's heart languages.”
Isn’t that truly beautiful? If it weren’t for my encounter with Jacob and Noah, I might still think about deafness as an inherent disability, not simply a physical difference inviting further creativity and collaboration. I’m still not nearly as creative as I’d like to be around dismantling the concept of deafness as disability, but I’ve been supporting Deaf International Ministries financially now for eight years, because I believe God’s Kingdom is stronger with fuller inclusion of the deaf community.
And isn’t that concept so much more gratifying in the end? Seeing difference not as something to inhibit community, but to expand us all in new ways of making Christ’s presence known? Jesus’ fleshy post-resurrection appearance matters; eating fish among his disciples to confirm his humanity, offering his wounds to confirm the way the world attempted to disable him. Jesus was willing to experience the heartache of being disabled by the world for the sake of transforming that same world, our world. And now he calls us to be witnesses to this truth. God submitted to disability so that we might overcome ours.
Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, another UCC minister, says of this pivotal moment in Christ’s life: “The Word is still being made flesh. That life requires something of us. As resurrection people, we cannot be content to be idle bystanders. We are witnesses, compelled to touch and see the world and participate in its transformation into the kin-dom of God. “The culmination of Jesus’ words to the disciples--’You are my witnesses’—is performative language in which the words do something. This scene is a kind of Lukan ordination. He first names and appoints the disciples as witnesses, literally, in Greek, martyrs. We are witnesses to and of God’s peace in the world. We are called to be carriers of that peace, transmitting it and transforming spaces by it. We are to reside within, finding our rest within the embrace of God. We are to be co-creators of it, providing fresh and new evidence of it to the idle bystander, the curious recorder, and the interested observer so that they too, when encountering followers of Jesus, may touch and see.”
Friends, we need each other to learn how to better accommodate difference SO THAT we do not continue cycles of disabling a-typical experiences of the flesh. If you have a story to share, if you’ve got a fresh idea for inclusive ministry, we need you to be our prophet. And I know some of you already are. Thank you for your voices of witness. If you want to support prophets among us, get involved and advocate for ministries devoted to dismantling the world that disables difference. If you’ve been moved by Jacob and Noah’s story, you’re welcome to google deafinternational.org and find out how you can become a witness on behalf of the deaf community. There is no end to this good work of advocating for the beauty and depth of difference among us.
This is such good news: you and I are witnesses to the risen Christ, no longer beholden to the world’s disabling sin...but made free in the creative Spirit of God. Amen!
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and sisters and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
A debate exists among biblical scholars regarding Mary’s identity. Various gospel accounts of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany (that is, Martha and Lazareth’s sister) pose this question: Are Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany the same Mary? Fascinating commentaries exist on either side of this debate. Lucky for you, I won’t be going deep into that rabbit hole this Easter, but I do think Mary’s identity is important. Why? Because Mary is the first evangelist known on earth. The first to see a vision of good news and spread it to others. The first to say, “I have seen the Lord!” Her purpose in this story is powerful not only as the first evangelist, but also as the woman who lingered long enough to see things clearly. Mary’s patience is what gives us all a first glimpse of resurrected vision.
It’s easy for us to read this story backwards. We know the ending. We have the ascension story in mind- so we often race to the finish rather than linger in the emotions of uncertainty Mary must surely have felt.
Mary is the only disciple in this gospel account who comes early and stays late; The other disciples saw the tomb was empty and left, but Mary remains; her presence at the tomb makes this story what it is today: a story of resurrection vision. Who knows how many tears she has shed by the time her eyes catch a glimmer of white from inside the tomb! Who knows how many fears have crossed her mind before she sees two angels, who accompany her grief! Who knows the depth of sorrow and pain she holds, before Mary’s vision begins to clear! Who knows the patience in her soul as she waits on her Lord!
Patience is precisely what Mary teaches us from the first time she enters the gospel. For today, let’s run with the theory that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are one and the same. Do you recall the story early this Lent of Mary and Martha? Martha, an enneagram two, was upset with her sister for her lack of productivity. And Jesus takes Mary’s side. Mary exudes patience and presence. Willing to enter the moment with someone, never too busy to linger. And it pays off.
It’s in her lingering at the tomb when Mary sees Jesus. It’s in her patience that Mary encounters Christ. It’s in her willinging to live into the unknown, to not have all the answers just yet, that gives Mary the first human experience of resurrected vision. Mary is good at lingering, and because of it, she is the first to spread the good news: Christ is alive!
This past year has been filled with opportunities for lingering (that’s the positive spin); we’ve had challenges that require patience; pain that involves a deeply felt uncertainty. Which is why Mary the Evangelist is the perfect person to point us to Christ this Easter. Mary shows us the way to receive resurrected vision. How? We wait.
How do we see life beyond pain? We wait for a vision.
How can we envision hope for a life-affirming future? We linger in the unknown.
How might we trust what we cannot see? We practice patience today, and tomorrow, and every day.
This could be the hardest part of a life of faith- waiting.
In her lingering at the tomb, I wonder if Mary thought back to the moment Jesus revived her brother Lazareth- and clung to what Jesus had taught her and Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
I think she did, I think resurrected vision had become a part of her identity, and I bet that belief gave her the fortitude to see beyond her own pain.
I wonder: was Mary the kind of believing heart Christ was waiting on to reveal himself resurrected for the first time?
At once she turns around to face the one for whom she weeps. And Jesus addresses Mary, the first human on earth to hear the voice of the resurrected Lord. It’s the intimate moment in which Jesus calls her by name that Mary proclaims, “Teacher, it’s you!” All that waiting, all the weeping, are worth it in that single moment.
She knows it's him. She knows that the person she places her faith in hasn’t abandoned her after all. He's really alive! Not only does she hear the voice, but she sees Jesus' risen body! “I have seen the Lord!”
Do you know this truth in your life? Have you been able to see God at work, even in the difficult parts of life? Make no mistake, resurrected vision is not seeing life through rose-colored glasses. In fact, resurrected vision is often curated in environments of deep grief, IF we are willing to linger long enough to see things clearly. To see ourselves reflected in the life of Christ.
This is hard work, especially when pain clouds our vision. If you’re in that position today, I invite you to rely on the faith of others. The next time you feel out of touch with your Lord, whatever the reason may be, remember Mary weeping at the tomb. Remember Mary lingering, insisting on hearing good news. Remember the new life Mary receives when she utters this profound truth: “I have seen the Lord.” That is the moment Mary the evangelist gives a testimony of new life, both Christ’s and her own. Hope made real in connection with a redeemer who can be counted on to show up. This is resurrected vision: seeing hope beyond our pain.
This Easter, you may feel the relief and excitement of Mary- bearing witness to a beloved teacher and friend who has not abandoned you after all. Or perhaps you are one of the disciples who see the empty tomb and believe, but are still waiting for another encounter with the living God. Maybe you’re like many of the disciples who stayed home from the tomb in grief, and are relying on the faithful testimony of others to embolden your own. Perhaps you're a bit confused, because this living God sure hasn’t been showing up lately in your life. It could be you know this story so well- that you’ve become dull to the truth that it matters for you- TODAY! Wherever you are in your story with Christ- TODAY we are all offered resurrected vision…the chance to both receive and give the Good News like Mary, “I have seen the Lord! Guess what! He came back from death to bring new life to us all."
No matter what burdens this earthly life may hold, we are not beholden to them! The power of the resurrection is that we belong to Jesus, our identity is secure in faith that he is a God of new life! And our vision is resurrected by this truth: there’s real hope beyond our pain. Amen.