Good morning! If you’re not here, raise your hand. I laugh every time I hear this at the start of a meeting—it’s funny because, if you’re not present, how can you possibly indicate that you’re not present? It sounds like the responsibility for being absent is on the person who is absent. But really, I think the start of a meeting, right there at the moment of roll-call, is a good time to notice who isn’t there, and why.
In good committees or small groups, where the list of members is more-or-less known, the start of the meeting is the time to notice who’s absent and let people share what they know: Susie wanted to be here, but something came up at work. Other times, the absences are prayer requests: Ed had to take his wife to the emergency room, Lisa’s kid is sick at home.
But in worship, where a good many of us might gather, we don’t do a roll call. How often do we, here in the church, look around and notice who’s not here? And then do we start asking why?
Now of course this is a strange time in the history of worship attendance—in the past year, during a pandemic, we haven’t had a large gathering of people at all. At some point, all of us have been “not here,” or we’ve only been present through video live-stream, without any idea who’s present for worship. We can’t see their faces, we can’t necessarily see their names, and because videos can stay online for a little while, we’re not even necessarily all gathered at the same time.
As of recently, some of us are able to gather in person in the sanctuary, and it is a tremendous privilege that I’m sure none of us are taking for granted, right? We’re following the local laws, suggested health protocols, and keeping up with Covid-transmission data as best we can, trying to be good neighbors and serve one another by caring for public health. Many of us who gather have received vaccines, but people who are immunocompromised cannot safely receive a vaccine, and not everyone is eligible for a vaccine—specifically children. Our congregation’s re-opening team has not yet met to make changes to our local church protocols, so that’s why we’re still wearing masks for now.
We are hopeful that the coming months will see an increase in safe gatherings, reunions with family members, outdoor events, and maybe even singing in worship. As we make these steps forward into a “new normal,” can we make it a habit to look around and ask ourselves, “Who’s not here?”
The truth is that Covid has changed our world. Worldwide, over three million people have died, and more than half a million of those deaths happened here in the United States. In the past year, we have had to follow best practices to stay safe, mostly staying in our own homes and not congregating with other people. It has been isolating and emotionally hard. I’ve heard some people saying that this process of returning to social life is much harder than it was to initially go into lockdown in the first place.
That’s why it’s important to give ourselves grace right now, to be patient with ourselves. Some things that used to be ordinary for us, like going out in public, are going to be overwhelming at first. Perhaps you get emotional when you see family members you haven’t seen in over a year, or just going to the gym or getting a haircut. If it helps you feel better, then go ahead and cry!
We’ve started singing the final hymn in worship for those who gather here in the sanctuary—does it make you tear up a little? Me too! It’s okay to be happy and to grieve at the same time: to be happy for the joy that exists, and to grieve for what has been lost.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ—when Jesus ascended into heaven, in view of his disciples. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus ascended forty days after the resurrection—forty days after Easter was last Thursday. But since we didn’t meet for worship last Thursday, we’re celebrating today.
And today we hear the story of the disciples watching Jesus ascend into heaven. Talk about witnessing a big change in life and leadership—the disciples were accustomed to following Jesus because he was present with them. He kept showing up after he died and was resurrected.
And the Scriptures are very clear to point out: the resurrected Jesus had a body. He touched the disciples, he breathed on them, he ate food with them. The Bible isn’t full of unnecessary details—why include these particular details? Does it matter that the risen Jesus had a body?
Well, sure it matters. Bodies matter to God. If bodies didn’t matter to God, why would God have wanted to become human in the first place? But that’s who Jesus is: God in the flesh. God experiences all the things we humans experience: joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure. And when it was time for Jesus to ascend into heaven, he took his body with him. His body didn’t evaporate or disappear; it wasn’t just his soul that went to heaven.
Jesus had a body, and crucifixion wounded his body. He had the scars to show it. Jesus’s body was disabled. He had nails driven through his feet—could he have possibly walked the same way again? Do we really think the resurrected Jesus just floated through the air?
Luke’s Gospel says the resurrected Christ appeared to disciples walking the road to Emmaus—don’t you think floating through the air is a detail that would have showed up in the story if that had happened? Did the crucified and resurrected Christ walk with a limp? Did people get annoyed and frustrated with him for not moving faster? Did people say to him, you’re so young, how can you possibly be disabled?
For many of us who do not live with a physical disability, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to live in a body that cries out from chronic pain, or to live with paralysis, or to need a wheelchair or crutches or a cane or a walker or a rollator to move. We’d rather not think about it because it’s unpleasant. But the risen Christ invites us to consider the possibility that life can be full and meaningful not in spite of a disability but with a disability.
Pastor Jess Harren is a Lutheran pastor in Mount Prospect, Illinois, and on her blog, she describes her experiences living with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which is a rare genetic condition that affects the connective tissues of her body, causing sprained joints and frequent pain. This condition began to show up early in her life, so she’s lived through many injuries and questions and feeling left out at church.
She brings her Lutheran training to the topic of ableism, which is a form of oppression that stigmatizes or devalues people with disabilities. Some things we say in church, like saying “Stand as you are able” put the emphasis on “able.” For her, standing is sometimes fine, sometimes painful, and sometimes impossible. But is she less reverent or less acceptable before God based on her body posture? Pastor Harren suggests instead saying “Stand as you are comfortable.”
A couple of weeks ago, Pastor Harren posted a photo on social media of herself with a new tool to assist her body with walking: a bright purple rollinator she named “Iris.” She challenged her clergy colleagues to consider how we are advocating for people with physical disabilities, making space in the world and in the church and specifically among the clergy. I don’t have a physical disability at the moment, but what if that changes? I brought along a walker to set here just to have a visual, because what if I did use a walker? Would it be harder to listen to the Gospel? Would it be distracting? Or would it be freedom?
On Pastor Harren’s blog, her new rollinator Iris introduced themself as a new member of the family, saying “I’m grateful that with me along, Pastor Jess has freedom of movement and the ability to heal her joints. I know it might be strange for some of you to think of mobility aids as freedom, but that is exactly why I exist. With support, people are free to enjoy life, to think clearly, not overwhelmed by pain, and to be as active as they’d like to be.” Iris also said, “I hope that by having me as part of your congregation, you will get to see the expansive ways that people with disabilities of all ages live in the world around them.”
Iris goes on to explain how they would like to be treated:
1. Consider me a part of Pastor’s body. Ask before you touch. Only move me if Pastor asks you to.
2. Assume that Pastor and I are getting along great and are meeting each other’s needs.
3. Trust that if Pastor needs help, she will ask for it.
4. Realize that there is nuance to healing joints and it is not straightforward. Pastor may use me for some of the time or all of the time. Some days or moments she may need me more than others. Trust that Pastor knows what healing looks like for her.
5. Feel free to say “Hi, Iris” if you want to.
6. Let the focus of Sundays be on worship, especially before worship and when greeting at the end of worship. Save your questions for quieter times or the end of fellowship time, or call or e-mail Pastor anytime.
7. Remember that Jesus was also disabled by the nails in his body both before and after his resurrection. This helps Pastor be close to Jesus.
In Jesus Christ, God came close to humanity, and in some of our most human, and even most painful moments, we can come close to God. People with disabilities have important insights about God, and deep wisdom about grace, and much to teach the rest of us about how to be welcoming. And when we notice who’s here and who’s not here, we can better tend to the congregation as the body of Christ.
How are we making space for those who aren’t here, showing gratitude for those who struggle to show up, reaching out and including those who wish to be here but who can’t be present in the sanctuary for worship at all? We’re livestreaming worship for people to join from their homes, and we plan to continue doing that long after this pandemic is behind us. But what other ways can the welcome be made greater? How can people with a variety of abilities be included in worship? There’s much healing to be done, and Jesus is here for it.
In the story of the Ascension, the disciples are looking up into the sky, at the one who had showed them healing and the one who invited them to the work of healing. I wonder if they’re thinking, there he goes, the one who was going to save us. Sigh. What now? And then two men appear, asking what are you looking at? It’s as if these messengers are holding up a mirror: here are the ones who will do the healing from now on.
Are we left alone to heal ourselves? Nope. That’s why Jesus promised the Holy Spirit. How’s that supposed to work? More on that next week, at Pentecost. To be continued…forever.