Faith Lutheran Church, Appleton, WI
“Misspelled” words are to make my machine pronounce words correctly.
Bible quotes are from the Common English Bible.
Can everyone hear me?
How do you like my electronic voice?
Grace and peace to you in the name of our risen Savior Jesus Christ. My name is Steve Heronemus, and it is such an honor to be here with you here at Faith. Faith, that is such an appropriate name to me. I was baptised here by Pastor Simon in 1960. Dozens of Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and Wednesday night teachers, along with the entire Faith congregation, were instrumental in nurturing my faith through my first 12 years. For that I am eternally grateful.
Thank you Beth Johnson and Kathleen Lane for inviting me.
I am joined here today by my wife, Suzanne, who works tirelessly to keep up with my needs and to bring me an extraordinary quality of life, our youngest daughter, Claire, who is a junior at Carthage College, my mother, Lois, who lives in Kohler, and sister Lori, from Mequon.
Life is such a ride, with moments of mountaintop grandeur, punctuating years of wide-horizon possibility. Life is a beautiful thing, a gift from God. Life that deserves to be savored, deserves to be honored and not be taken for granted.
Funny thing about life, though. For all its beauty, life is broken. Somewhere on this beautiful ride we all experience bumps and obstacles. Somewhere along the way, we all turn a corner and fall, helplessly, off a cliff.
My cliff came more than 13 years ago in the form of disease. I was a healthy man who played with his children, a man who hugged his wife Suzanne. 13 years ago I liked to cook and garden, I was a volunteer soccer coach and a business consultant who travelled the world. I could do chores, I could enjoy a meal and a beverage. I loved to sing in choir, and I especially loved playing my French Horn, piano, recorders, and many other instruments.
Beginning in 2000 I began accumulating a series of odd, seemingly unrelated and minor, medical issues. An emergency room blood test showed elevated levels of muscle proteins, meaning muscle was breaking down. The most likely cause was a mild heart attack, but my heart checked out fine. I began having sporadic trouble coordinating my fingers while playing piano and recorders. My forearm cramped badly while carving pumpkins, pulling my fingers into grotesque and horribly painful positions. My shoulders and arms began twitching non-stop, and I fell while running on an indoor soccer field.
And so we began a multi-year odyssey of multiple doctors, in multiple disciplines, receiving opinions such as pinched nerves, I don’t know, and my favorite diagnosis, boy, getting old is rough.
Then a local neurologist saw the muscles in my right hand were atrophied, immediately proclaimed I had A.L.S. A fatal illness that paralyzes all voluntary muscles, normally resulting in death by pneumonia, starvation, or respiratory failure.
Th doctor told me I had 2 to 3 years to live. Good-bye, call me when you need a wheelchair. He also used the phrase “get your affairs in order”, which I find so patronizing.
That was a rough day. Suzanne and I were just bouncing back from a long period of unemployment. We had dreams. We had children at every level of education. I wanted to grow old with Suzanne. I wanted to see all my children graduate from high school, college, get married and have grandchildren.
Now because of A.L.S. my arms, hands, tongue and vocal cords are almost completely paralyzed, my neck and legs are weak, and I am dependent on a machine to breathe while I sleep. I must take all my food and water through a tube in my stomach. I am in pain every day.
Worst of all, I have had to relinquish the TV remote control.
I have lost count of how many times I have watched every episode of “Murder She Wrote.
I know, 1st world problems.
While I may be physically and visibly broken, we all experience brokenness. We have lost loved ones, we have illnesses. We are stressed, overcommitted, and unfocused. We suffer with depression, with financial trouble, job loss, and academic trouble. We succumb to addiction, fear and hate. We have broken relationships, broken promises, and broken pride.
In Lent, God calls us to join with Jesus on the journey to the cross. This is certainly a difficult path; already on Ash Wednesday we all took a hard look to our own mortality. We are reminded of how broken this world is, how broken our lyves are.
When I and my family first fell off this cliff, we were scared. What form would our lyves take? How would we cope? How long would I live? How would it feel to die?
Somewhere during this fall off the cliff, Jesus caught me. Our Savior reminded me that I am in his care. Christ also reminded me that he has lived those same questions that were on my mind.
So how did Jesus respond to those questions? Knowing he was going to die, what form did his life take? How did he cope?
The Gospels are very clear about how Jesus lived, knowing he was going to be executed. Jesus advocated for justice in the temple. He testified to the truth that he is the Christ, the one and only Son of God. He showed his mission was one of service to others by washing the feet of his disciples. He gathered with his friends, he prayed, and he healed.
Jesus also reminded me that this journey doesn’t begin and end with Jesus’ dying on the cross. The journey we are called to includes life, death, and resurrection.
In Easter we are invited to join with Christ in the Resurrection. This is perhaps an even harder teaching than joining Christ on the cross. We are so broken that we are used to it. We know how to do broken.
How do we respond to that invitation? How do we get beyond all of our brokenness and enter into a life where all is healed, even death?
We can’t just leave those broken things in our lyves behind and ignore them, can we?
Let’s see how one person handled his encounter with healing.
Does any one here have a Bible?
This is one of my favorite scenes from the week before Jesus was crucified .
Would you mind reading John 9, 1 through 5?
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
In these verses, Jesus says that a man is disabled, born blind, in order that the glory of God may be revealed. The disciples wanted to drag this man’s condition into the dirt and brokenness of this world, but Jesus wasn’t having it.
As he did over and over, Jesus took life in all its brokenness and showed how it pointed to God.
Would someone please reed verses 6 and 7?
After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.
OK, so I’m trying to imagine something like this happening to me. I’m hanging out on the patio like I try to do on nice days, when some strange dude from the country back water comes by on the sidewalk.
He and his friends stop and gawk at me and talk amongst themselves while I get more and more uncomfortable and awkward. I’m thinking, please, please, move along, as I try to ignore them.
Then the strange dude traipses onto my patio and rubs some dirt on my neck, legs, and arms. I’m horrified, I mean, I’m not a very outgoing guy, and I wish there was a hole to drop into.
Then the backwater guy tells me to go drive my wheelchair into the retention pond to wash off.
You can laugh at me if you want, but we’re all broken. Imagine someone telling you out of the blue to rub some dirt on it and you’ll be fine?
It sounds like Little League.
So the question is, what would I do? What would you do?
We reed many times in the Gospels of Jesus healing people and saying things like, “Get up”, “Go”, or “Rise”. I may be biased here because I don’t like to be told what to do, but I don’t reed these statements as commands.
I believe Jesus isn’t telling us what to do. I believe he is inviting us to make a decision of faith.
He is inviting us into a better life, a life defined, not by the cross of our brokenness, but by the empty tomb of a healed life.
I have made my decision. I accepted the backwater guy’s invitation.
I rolled this chair into the retention pond.
Well, not literally.
Here is what happened to me. From within this broken body, from within this awful, cruel, disease, Jesus has held me and brought me back toward the path he walked.
It may not look it, but I am telling you that I have been healed.
There may be skeptics here and that’s ok and normal.
Listen to what happens when we try to make sense of lyves being put together by Jesus:
Would someone please reed:
John 9 verses 8 to 17.
The man’s neighbors and those who used to see him when he was a beggar said, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is,” and others said, “No, it’s someone who looks like him.” But the man said, “Yes, it’s me!” So they asked him, “How are you now able to see?” He answered, “The man they call Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes, and said, ‘Go to the Pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and then I could see.” They asked, “Where is this man?” He replied, “I don’t know.” Then they led the man who had been born blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus made the mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes on a Sabbath day. So Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see. The man told them, “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.” Some Pharisees said, “This man isn’t from God, because he breaks the Sabbath law.” Others said, “How can a sinner do miraculous signs like these?” So they were divided. Some of the Pharisees questioned the man who had been born blind again: “What do you have to say about him, since he healed your eyes?” He replied, “He’s a prophet.”
How did the the community react to the disabled man being healed?
What did the man born blind do?
He testified to the truth as he experienced it.
Here is my testimony.
With all the difficulties, all the emotional and physical pain of this disease, I testify to you that my life is better, and happier, since being healed by Jesus the Crucified, Jesus the Resurrected, living, Christ.
Let’s find out what happened next.
Would someone please reed verses 18 through 34.
The Jewish leaders didn’t believe the man had been blind and received his sight until they called for his parents. The Jewish leaders asked them, “Is this your son? Are you saying he was born blind? How can he now see?” His parents answered, “We know he is our son. We know he was born blind. But we don’t know how he now sees, and we don’t know who healed his eyes. Ask him. He’s old enough to speak for himself.” His parents said this because they feared the Jewish authorities. This is because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue. That’s why his parents said, “He’s old enough. Ask him.” Therefore, they called a second time for the man who had been born blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.” The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.” They questioned him: “What did he do to you? How did he heal your eyes?” He replied, “I already told you, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” They insulted him: “You are his disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.” The man answered, “This is incredible! You don’t know where he is from, yet he healed my eyes! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners. God listens to anyone who is devout and does God’s will. No one has ever heard of a healing of the eyes of someone born blind. If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do this.” They responded, “You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?” Then they expelled him.
Now what happens to this man?
His testimony is to the healing power of Jesus, but his case gets litigated by the Pharisees.
The man who was born blind tries to testify to what has happened to him, but his testimony is dismissed. Why was his testimony dismissed?
Because he was born, with, a, disability.
He was looked down upon. He was insulted. Finally, he was driven out of the temple, expelled from the community of faith.
Now, if anyone wants to challenge my testimony of healing, please, bring it.
I love chances to tell what God has done for me, and I enjoy a good debate.
I don’t think I will get expelled, though.
With all the difficulties of this disease, God has given me many gifts within it.
My broken life isn’t easy, for I am dependent on others for most of my needs. Just getting out of bed and getting dressed is difficult and carries a risk of injury for me and for whomever is helping me. I grieve for the life this disease has given to Suzanne and my children. Yet through God’s grace and healing I live most days with a sense of peace, wonder, thanks and joy at all God’s riches in my life. I am before you in a broken body, but a healed heart. I ask you not to pity my condition because I am here to tell you that my life is better now than before this disease. I am home with my family instead of constantly travelling for work.
I don’t know anyone who has died wishing they had spent more time at the office.
I have time to recognize the beauty that is everywhere in God’s creation, from the plants and animals in our yard to Suzanne’s eyes.
God has led me to a more purposeful, meaningful, life.
I have developed friendships with some truly extraordinary people who are real blessings in my life.
I have even stopped biting my fingernails.
I have found this broken body, this broken life, has created cracks through which the light of Christ can shine.
While we have made great strides as a society in how we view people living with disabilities, there are still preconceptions about what we can do and, unfortunately, some people, especially those with cognitive or behavioral disabilities, still face insults and prejudices from the general public.
Another thing we who live with disabilities still face is a lack of inclusion. We may not be actively expelled from community life, but barriers do still exist.
Fewer than 20% of people with Disabilities are employed, despite ample evidence that we are more loyal, more productive, and take fewer days off than able-bodied employees.
Despite the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, access to public places is still hit or miss. We often get into restaurants through the kitchen, parking lots are frequently dangerously designed, public rest rooms often inadequate, and hotel rooms designated as “accessible” sometimes simply have one grab bar over the toilet.
Our churches, being exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, and hampered by real funding, struggles to make disability-related improvements. We ought to be the center of inclusive community, but that goal is often hampered by the reality of finances.
Many of these things may sound minor, but, for those for whom virtually everything in everyday living is a struggle, facing these additional physical obstacles, combined with uncertainties of acceptance, create barriers to overwhelming to overcome.
In this way we lose access to the gifts God has given these people.
Being thrown out of the temple is not the end of the story for our man in the Gospel of John.
Would someone please reed from verse 35 to the end of the chapter?
Jesus heard they had expelled the man born blind. Finding him, Jesus said, “Do you believe in the Human One?” He answered, “Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him.” Jesus said, “You have seen him. In fact, he is the one speaking with you.” The man said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped Jesus.
Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
What did you learn from this section of the Gospel?
This is my favorite part of the reeding. John’s Gospel gives a clear picture of what we ought to do when we realize someone is not included.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, when he learned that the man was expelled, “went and found the man born blind.“ Jesus listened to him, and allowed him to speak his faith. Jesus gave him the opportunity to worship.
How does the example of Jesus relate to our inclusion of people with disabilities?
We, as a church, have perhaps dismissed or excluded the gifts of people living with disabilities, not by action, but by a lack of action.
We have created reserved parking, built ramps, and installed elevators. But have we proactively gone looking to invite our brothers and sisters living with disabilities into our midst as equals?
Have we asked these brothers and sisters what they need to be included, to hear their voices of worship?
Jesus says that those who see will be blind. If we think we know what people need and what the testimony of people with disabilities is, our assumptions and arrogance will blind us. Part of being truly included into community is to be allowed your own voice.
Even if you can’t speak.
As a church committed to the Gospel of Christ, we are called to find and welcome all people in all our congregations into full, just, and equitable participation in the life and ministries of our congregations and in society.
The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has a great success story to build on. You may not know this, but you were the third denomination to build ministry in American Sign Language. There is a more than 125 year history of ministering to the deaf.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has just released their book of worship in Braille.
I am also working with a team at the national Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to proactively find and welcome those with mobility, sensory, cognitive, and behavioral disabilities. We are working to include everyone, in all our congregations, into full, just, and equitable participation in the life and ministries of our congregations and in society. This Disability Ministry team is building a network of people and of resources to share experiences and knowledge. We are developing and holding workshops at our seminaries about ministry to and with those with disabilities. We are raising up people with disabilities, adult and youth, for leadership development and participation in the wider church. We are building a fund, targeted at $4 million, to provide scholarships to individuals and grants to congregations for program development or accessibility improvements.
Back to our personal story.
Little did I know, when I fell off that cliff, that Jesus would catch me, not only to save me, but to use me.
Jesus continued that plunge with me , not to destruction but in a totally different direction.
Somehow he plunged me right through my baptismal waters, again washing away those things in my life that kept me from seeing the path Jesus showed us. He reminded me of the baptismal commission to “Let my light so shine that others may see my good works and glorify my Father in heaven.”
When that doctor gave me the diagnosis of A.L.S. And told me I had 2 or 3 years to live, that was in 2005. All our children have graduated from high school, 2 are married, and we have 2 beautiful grandchildren.
We have no idea why I have held on so far past my expiration date. All we can do is be grateful for every day we get to open our eyes.
The Gospels are very clear on how Jesus lived, knowing he was going to die.
Jesus advocated for justice in the temple, so in addition to my work with the national Disabilities Ministry team, I and Suzanne work with our congregation to see and solve accessibility problems in our property and ministries. We also work with our hometown City of Batavia to highlight and find solutions for barriers to accessibility and inclusion.
Jesus testified to the truth, so I am very public about the faith God has given me and how God comforts and strengthens me, in my book and in my daily support of others with this disease. That support has also brought spiritual healing and comfort to many, even making space for the Spirit to bring faith to a few who didn’t believe before.
Jesus healed, so I am busier than I have ever been, starting 2 companies to help ease the lyves of people with mobility disabilities and building a sailing program for the disabled.
Jesus taught, so I am writing a book of Bible Studies and I am happy to speak to groups about what God has done in my life.
Jesus prayed, so I ask that you join me in prayer that our hearts are opened to finding and seeing those with disabilities, that we may welcome and include all, for a more whole body of Christ.
I ask for your prayers for the work of our Christ’s church in ministering to those with disabilities and for all those living with disabilities, their families and caregivers.
Most of all, I ask that you let God carry you through whatever life brings you. With all the difficulties, all the emotional and physical pain of this disease, I testify to you that my life is better, and happier, since being caught by Jesus the Advocate, Jesus the Teacher, Servant, and Healer, Jesus the Crucified, Jesus the Resurrected, living, Christ.
To God be all glory, honor, and praise. Amen.