Here is the scene: Jesus eating at the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisee’s; an academic mainstream righteously religious crew-the cultural arbiters of ‘right religion’ if you know what I mean. They were watching Jesus closely. In live time a man appeared who had ‘dropsy,’ and Jesus quizzed the Pharisees: ‘Is it legal to cure this man on the Sabbath, usually a day to do no work and no healing?’ They were silent, because usually the Pharisees were the ones quizzing Jesus. So Jesus cured the man and sent him away, saying to them: ‘If your child, or an ox fell in a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you reach in and save them?’ Silence again.
As people continued to pour into this leaders home, the most important people sat at the head of the table. So Jesus spoke to them about humility; ‘when you come to, say, a wedding banquet, sit in the lowest place, so the host can tell you, come in close, move to the head of the table. “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who are humbled will be exalted.”’ Jesus says.
Realizing people like the man with ‘dropsy’ weren’t even invited to this dinner, Jesus gave them more dining instructions, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your rich friends who could repay you, but invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. But you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” For this is what God would do if God were hosting a dinner party. Yet everyone respectable has an excuse about why they can’t make this dinner party.
In late October of 1957 Skip went out with a group of his 12 year old friends to make mischief on all hallows eve. That year the state built a new highway through the small town of Hamburg, Pennsylvania. So the boys went to the edge of town and dared each other to run across. Skip, being the bravest, went first, and not familiar with the speed of vehicles, ran in front of car- and was struck, his body flung like a rag doll to the side of the road.
Skip’s parents were devastated. Emergency teams did the best they could, Skip was left in a coma for 6 weeks. When he woke up, he had no speech because of severe brain damage. His legs were paralyzed. His family did the best they could to rehabilitate him- bringing him to the best hospitals, in NYC for a year, in Philadelphia for a year, and then a year at home with 24 hour care and a hospital bed in the living room. When they realized that rehabilitation was impossible, eventually Skip’s family made the heart wrenching decision to relinquish care, financially and emotionally, and to allow Skip to become a ward of the state of Pennsylvania, taken care of at the Hamburg State Hospital, with other people who were severely physically disabled, where he lived the rest of his life.
Every Sunday after church the family visited Skip. Hopeful he might return to his former self, but still encountering this new human who couldn’t communicate much. As he grew up, Skip kept the body of a 12 year old, but had the matured and disfigured face of a 20, 30, 40, 50 then 60 year old man.
I met my Uncle Skip for the first time when I was two years old. My dad plopped me down on Skip’s wheel chair tray; introducing his first child, me, to his oldest brother, Skip. As a child growing up visiting Uncle Skip in the hospital, I gripped my father’s hand tighter when we walked into the sterile building, just as my father had done every Sunday after church with his parents. We heard hooting, yelping, groaning as we walked into the ward. It felt abandoned; the outcasts of humanity fitting in nowhere but here.
Uncle Skip would light up when we saw him. I’d see the art work I sent him years before still up on his wall. We would help the nurses and aids move Skip’s body from the bed to the wheel chair. We would wheel Skip outside and my dad would sneak him an O’Doul’s non-alcoholic beer and a mild cigarette- sinful pleasures Skip would delight in.
During my last year in Seminary, my Uncle Skip passed away from pneumonia. My father and uncle asked me to officiate Skip’s funeral. The nurses and aids from the hospital who had cared for Skip and known Skip for much for much for his life came in van-fulls; they had been his family; there for him in every moment. They loved him, and saw him in a way his family never could: not the result of a tragic accident, but as a beloved child of God.
After the funeral service the nurses and aids told me in tears, “He loved Jesus so much. We never knew anyone who loved Jesus more than Skip.” They told me that when the chaplains and ministers came into the hospital and spoke about Jesus, Skip would sing, and laugh, he would emote and glow with love upon hearing the Gospel message. Perhaps the chaplains would read scripture like we read today, where Jesus says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.” Skip knew that Jesus was for him, that Jesus scooped people like him into the central seat. He loved Jesus.
After reading this scripture today, I felt called to preach about my Uncle Skip- to tell his story, to remind myself that Jesus seeks us out after what seems like tragedy, yet does not leave us where we are- but loves us into wholeness. That our God is a God of continuous life and resurrection, in moments that feel like death. That Jesus repeatedly goes to the unexpected places in society- he doesn’t hang with the cool kids, he doesn’t seek approval from the appropriate leadership- he ruffles everyone’s feathers by inviting and loving people like my Uncle Skip to the most honored seat at the banquet table.
Today I want to share a note of gratitude about this church. For being a place for me to tell a story like this of tragedy from my family. Because this isn’t a happy story in the end; it is one that tore my grandparent’s marriage and lives apart- and events like this have ripple effects throughout generations. But I believe with my whole heart, that its events like this, its people like Skip- that Jesus would heal; not by restoring to normalcy, but by shifting the narrative by saying the things and people on the margins are those who God loves centrally.
We too, as this beloved steeple-less church, living counter-culturally, a little off Main street, a church whose people are eclectic, generous, honest, full hearted, proud, humble, have a call to continue to walk with Jesus and one with another, to make the people, the places, the experiences of church that are on the margins, central. Thanks be to God. Amen.