Text of my message to Bethlehem Lutheran Church Lenten Vespers Service, March 16, 2016. Our theme for Lent was “Plunging into Deeper Discipleship”.
Hello, my name is Steve Heronemus.
Life is full of plunges. Some we choose to take, while others catch us like the trap door in a Looney Tunes cartoon.
My trap door 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, I could do chores, I could enjoy a meal and a beverage. I loved to sing in choir, and I especially loved playing my many instruments.
Now because of A.L.S. a fatal illness, 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 27 Dresses.
I know, 1st world problems.
Anyway, When I and my family first fell through this trap door, 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 plunge, this fall through the trapdoor, Jesus caught me. Our Savior reminded me that I am in his care. Christ also reminded me that he has lived those same questions.
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. But this Lenten journey doesn’t begin and end with Jesus’ dying on the cross. The journey we are called to includes life, death, and resurrection.
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.
In John 9, Jesus says that a man is disabled, born blind, in order that the glory of God may be revealed. Little did I know, when I fell through that trap door, that Jesus would catch me, not only to save me, but to use me, and continue the plunge with me 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.” In verse 5 of John 9, we reed where the source of that light is when Jesus says “I am the light of the world.” From within this broken body, from within this awful, cruel, disease, Jesus has held me and brought me back toward the path he walked.
Jesus advocated for justice, so I and Suzanne work with the 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.
I am busier than I have ever been, starting 2 companies to help ease the lyves of people with mobility disabilities, writing a book of Bible Studies, building a sailing program for the disabled, and providing advice to the city. But I have been plunged into another opportunity I’d like to share with you.
In John 9, the man who was born blind tries to testify to what has happened to him, but his testimony is 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.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is concerned that 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. John’s Gospel gives a clear picture of what we ought to do when we realize someone is not included. Jesus, 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.
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.
I am blessed to be part of a team committed to help make that happen, and this team is a beautiful thing to see. We come from all over the country, we are clergy and lay people, and we are people with mental health and mobility disabilities. We are people who minister to those with sensory, cognitive and behavioral disabilities.
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.
We are blessed to be part of a church that recognizes that, without the proactive inclusion of all, the body of Christ is not whole. As part of your Lenten plunge, I ask for your prayers for the work of our church’s Disability Ministry team and for all those living with disabilities, their families and caregivers. I ask and pray 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.
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.