I was invited to do a talk for a local church’s Flower Festival and I said, “I talk about inclusion and church, is that ok?” and they said “Yes! You’ve got 10 minutes”.
So here is a copy of my talk (with names taken out). If you’d like to use it when you have 10 minutes to talk about inclusion and the Gospel, please do (and I’d love to know what you think or how it goes.) I also used a large and a small cardboard box as my visual aid. I’ve put pictures in and hope you can see how they might have illustrated the point about putting people in boxes.
You have all come together this week to display your community spirit through these wonderful flower arrangements. I’m sure you have enjoyed coming together and contributing. I hope there hasn’t been any near disasters or arguments about what should go where! But how do you keep that going? How do you continue to make your community work, to be inclusive and to reflect the gospel here in this town? How do you find those that are unable to join you because of disability and ensure that they are enabled to be part of it?
The Bible says We are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:14-27 ERV)
“And a person’s body has more than one part. It has many parts. The foot might say, “I am not a hand, so I don’t belong to the body.” But saying this would not stop the foot from being a part of the body. The ear might say, “I am not an eye, so I don’t belong to the body.” But saying this would not make the ear stop being a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, it would not be able to hear. If the whole body were an ear, it would not be able to smell anything. If each part of the body were the same part, there would be no body. But as it is, God put the parts in the body as he wanted them. He made a place for each one. So there are many parts, but only one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you!” No, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are actually very important. And the parts that we think are not worth very much are the parts we give the most care to. And we give special care to the parts of the body that we don’t want to show. The more beautiful parts don’t need this special care. But God put the body together and gave more honor to the parts that need it. God did this so that our body would not be divided. God wanted the different parts to care the same for each other. If one part of the body suffers, then all the other parts suffer with it. Or if one part is honored, then all the other parts share its honor.
All of you together are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of that body.”
I love these verse because it speaks powerfully about who is included in Christ’s community.
Our society has its own way of including people or not. It judges people and in doing so declares that they are worthy or not. So it says if you are ‘normal’ you are accepted, if you are disabled or autistic, well, that’s not normal so you’re not acceptable. If you are able to contribute to society, then you are worthy, but if you are disabled or autistic, then you can’t (which isn’t true) but then you’re classed as unworthy. Just look at how the government are using the DWP assessments. People have died, lost the ability to survive and have to endure incredibly complex and undignified interrogations – just to decide if they are worthy of enough money to live on.
So our society puts people into boxes, and then says these here are worthy, acceptable, included….these over here are not. They are unworthy, unacceptable, excluded. And most of us fear that one day we will be judged and thrown into this box, and the truth is – we are all vulnerable. We all grow old, we are all limited and any one of us could be ill, disabled, cast out at any time.
There is a real danger that the church we echo what society is doing. We can’t pretend that there aren’t many people who have been hurt and excluded by church. I know families who have been asked to leave a church because their disabled child has made too much noise, or they cannot access the children’s work because it is upstairs and their child is a wheelchair user. Adults with autism have been told that they have no place in a church…by a vicar. These things have really happened and are just a small list of the many ways that people with disabilities are being told that they are not as normal, worthy or included in God’s kingdom.
But what does the Bible say? This book that we believe carries the words and authority of God? Let me share with you the essential facts of the gospel that are plain and simple.
Romans 3:23 says; “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”
That means every human being that ever lived is not worthy or acceptable to God. We have all sinned, we have all ignored and shut him out. None of us are good enough. We cannot save ourselves. We all belong in this box –
We need a Saviour…
But it goes on…. “and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.”
So God gave us a Saviour in Jesus Christ. John 3:16 tells us that “He loved the world so much that he gave his one and only son – that WHOEVER believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
So all of us that realise we are really in this box, can now be worthy and accepted by God because of Jesus’s death on the cross. We do need to ask..is there anyone who isn’t a sinner? No. we are all in the same boat…or box when it comes to that.
But we also need to ask…. Is there anyone who is excluded from being part of God’s family? What if you murdered someone, what if you worshiped another God, what if you were a proud bully, what if you were ‘religious’ and thought to yourself that God would surely accept you? What if you are disabled, what if you are mentally ill…. what if you are just… different?
And what about those who cannot speak? What about those who are intellectually disabled? Can they declare their faith in Jesus Christ? I can tell you for certain, those who are the least, are often the quickest and most faithful believers.
We have a church service every Wednesday evening that is open to all, and 25-35 people with learning disabilities and their carers come along. We have had to find different ways of communicating; we use signing, pictures, drama and puppets. We’ve learned from scratch, asking the Lord to teach us. And we see people who were previously excluded from church because it was too complex, or because they couldn’t read, or they couldn’t get there or they were too noisy….they are the ones who teach us about the reality of faith. My friend S who has Down’s Syndrome is a faithful prayer for anyone who is sick and troubled. G who cannot speak very much, prays and worships with loud delighted vocalisations. K who cannot leave his wheelchair without being hoisted up in a huge harness, who relies on other adults to take him to the toilet, knows the Bible inside out and writes hymns and songs to express his love of the Lord. J who has cerebral palsy and walks with difficulty is a computer whizz and could write sermons that would blow us away. But he has slow speech…would we listen to him I wonder? Or would we dismiss him as not being able to say anything important?
Repent and believe is the message of the gospel for all. Anyone can do that.
And the challenge for us then is to be the community that Christ designed. An inclusive and accepting community where everyone is worthy. Where we make a special effort to honour the less honourable parts of the body and enable them to share their gifts amongst us.
One thing I have learnt and become very passionate about is ENABLING children and adults with disabilities to flourish in their faith and gifting. To see them as co-workers and fellow believers rather than people we do charity to. I long to see a church where we are all enabled to develop and flourish in our gifts so that we can share the gospel in so many more creative ways and when people do come to join us, they join an inclusive and loving community like no other.
It’s a bit like this, we try to put everyone in the ‘church’ box…but I believe that God never intended any of us to be in a box. (The big box is opened out flat to reveal the inside as above).
God planted a garden. We are the flowers, and there’s no boundaries except to love our God, love others and preach the good news of the gospel to everyone. Not knowing how to go about it is not an excuse…we all know how to pray, and I know from experience that God will guide and enable us to do his work. I’ve learned much more about faith from those who would normally be seen as having nothing to contribute. This has been the joy of my life! It can be yours too, let’s not forget those who are the least in our society, let’s raise them up and honour our Lord Jesus as we do.
My prayer is that we can be God’s garden, allow him nurture those seeds, those buds and see them grow and blossom. Let’s shine his glorious light through our communities in the name of Jesus. Just as these flowers are shining for your community this weekend.