A sermon preached April 21, 2013 at Peakland United Methodist Church the Sunday after the Boston Marathon bombing. The texts for the sermon were Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, and John 10:22-30.
For many people, Wednesday night is church night. I don’t spend my Wednesday nights in church, but I spend it where we have church.
Nestled in the a nearby neighborhood, behind a strip mall, are two houses where those with and without disabilities live together. Sheltered by the tall tress on the hillside, this little community seeks to eliminate the stereotype of people with disabilities.
Every Wednesday evening, I take some time to sing, ponder, and pray with the L’Arche community in Lynchburg. L’Arche – The Ark – is a community home for intellectually disabled individuals. There are 135 L’Arche communities in 36 countries around the world.
Drawing on the Biblical narrative of Noah and the Ark, L’Arche is the place where those with developmental disabilities go to be safe from the storms of life. In 1964 the Canadian humanitarian Jean Vanier founded L’Arche. He was deeply troubled by the institutionalization of people with developmental disabilities, that too often resulted in isolation and loneliness. He invited two men with disabilities to live in his house and he called it “L’Arche.”
The L’Arche community in Lynchburg has welcomed me to join them on Wednesday nights for their Spiritual Life Night.
We sing a lot. Each of the core members have a favorite song that we try to sing. But we also teach a few new songs every once and awhile. Most recently we had a Christmas Carol Sing-along.
We take a few moments to recall a Biblical story and talk about it. Then we each share a joy or a concern. Sometimes I pray, and sometimes the core members take turns praying.
And the night is not complete unless Gordon sings a song.
Some people can’t believe that I do this as often as I do. When I was first asked to consider leading Spiritual Life Night, I’ll admit I wasn’t too sure. But every Wednesday night, when I’m sitting with my friends and singing and praying together, I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
I see it as fulfilling my call as an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church. The deacon is called to Word, Service, Justice, and Compassion. The image most often used to describe the ministry of the deacon is that of a bridge. The deacon is a bridge between the church and the world. All this happens at L’Arche on Wednesday nights.
There are places in our society where the core members are not treated like adults. They are spoken down to. They are looked passed. L’Arche creates a community where these things do not happen. A community where they are valued and loved. And I have the honor of being a part of this community.
On August 17, 2012 we lost a great saint, Ira Andrews, III to a four-year battle with cancer. Ira was the dean of students at Randolph-Macon College for 35 years. In addition he was a graduate of R-MC (class of ’59), a United Methodist minister, and a religious studies professor. Ira was a beloved member of the R-MC community. His memorial service was yesterday in Ashland, and I was unable to attend.
From 2001-2004, he was one of my professors and mentors. Ira taught me in a number of church history and theology courses. Ira’s classes were always popular. Ira had a gift for asking questions without giving answers. I have a clear memory of Ira leaning back in his chair, hand on his chin, listening intently to what was being said, and then he would ask the most unexpected question, yet a question that was guaranteed to make you think. I remember working on a group project for Liberation Theology, where we took the time to think through all the questions Ira might ask. Of course, there was really no way of successfully doing that. Ira would do the same thing in my interviews with the Ashland District Committee on Ordained Ministry. When I admitted that I was slightly nervous about the theology committee, Ira quickly started shooting rounds of questions at me, which would give me strength for the interviews.
Ira had a gift of getting young people to think. At times it wasn’t so much the answer that mattered, as much as the process in answering the question. This could have easily been the time and place in which I came to love questions. It was easy to feel intimated by his presence and knowledge, but there was no need to be. He asked open-ended questions while being non-judgmental. Ira was a kind, loving, and compassionate person, which is what made him a great teacher. In seminary and beyond, I have found myself endless times commenting, “I learned that in Ira’s class.”
Ira was one of those teachers who was able to bring out the best in his students. You did the work in the class, has heavy loaded as it was at times, not because you HAD to, but because you wanted to. You wanted to be as prepared as you could to be in dialogue with Ira during the next class. And at the end of the day – at the end of the semester – you were a better person because of it. I think this is one reason why I came to love theological discussions, and engaging young people in them today.
It was during college that I began to first write about theological connections in film and television. I recently pulled out some of my papers that I wrote during college. There was one paper where I put Augustine and Charles Schultz in dialogue with one another. But, my favorite papers were the ones in which I quoted Buffy Summers from the television show Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. I will be honest, I was a bit nervous the first time I did this. I had written a paper on Paul Tillich’s Theology of Culture, and somehow I had worked in Buffy. Ira was a big supporter of this. After that Tillich paper, he encouraged me countless times to continue to this, including sending me to be in conversation with a professor who was working on a writing project on Buffy.
Ira also encouraged me, as he did so many others, in my call to ordained ministry. In fact, he was consistent in casually talking to me about it. He was never “in your face” about it, that just was not his style. I can recall conversations he had with me in the halls, in the old chapel, or on the campus grounds about ministry, assessing in his own way where I was in my discernment, and offering words of encouragement that one the roughest days kept me going.
I had the privilege in recent years to serve on the Advisory Board for the R-MC Bailey Scholarship program with Ira. This included a chance to interview high school students for the scholarship. It was an honor to sit at the table with Ira and observe him do what he does best, ask questions, listen passionately to young people, and be the great encourager. He was one of the few people who could gracefully see you as a student, a friend, and a collegue, without any of them getting in the way of the other. In one of these interviews, after the interviewee left the room and we were to discuss the interview, I spent more time picking Ira’s brain about his past experiences. Even after all of these years, Ira was still so fascinating! Even though he had been fighting cancer, Ira was still sharp and still had the ability to get you thinking, even – especially – when you didn’t see it coming.
A month ago, Megan and I went to R-MC for the SERVE retreat, a retreat for high school students exploring a call to ordained ministry. We stayed in the new Ira Andrews dorms. As a student at R-MC I did not live on campus. In early August I got the chance to stay in an RA room in the Andrews Hall. During the retreat, high schoolers worked an eight hour day on a home in the Ashland area, seconds from R-MC campus. The event was a tribute, in a way, to Ira. Service was an essential piece of who Ira was. The College’s Provost, Dr. William Franz, was quoted in one article as saying, “Ira’s life made manifest the scriptural value that greatness is achieved by becoming the servant of all.”
Ira will be missed, there is no doubt about that. But, in each of us who knew him, learned from him, and worked with him, there is a little bit of him still around.
God bless you, Ira, and the lives you had changed.
From the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What do you think? Leave your comments/thoughts/ideas on this page under “Leave a Reply”.
There is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting experience of genuine Christian community at least once in his or her life. But in this world such experiences remain nothing but a gracious extra beyond the daily bread of Christian community life. We have no claim to such experiences, and we do not live with other Christians for the sake of gaining such experiences. It is not the experience of Christian community, but firm and certain faith within Christian community that holds us together. We are bound by faith, not by experience.