Service for All

Three years ago, I had the honor of baptizing a boy named Brennan. At the time, Brennan was six years old. Like most typical six year old boys, Brennan preferred recess and lunch over academics. He gave his mother a hard time when it came to eating vegetables, and he loved Taylor Swift. Actually, when it came to Taylor Swift, Brennan was unbelievable; I am convinced he could pick out her voice one hundred yards away while someone was listening to her on his or her earphones. 
Beyond these few things, Brennan was not a typical six years old. Brennan was born with several cognitive dysfunctions. Once when I asked his mother what his primary issues were, she simply replied, “you name it, if there is a label there is a doctor out there who has diagnosed Brennan as having it.” Brennan’s primary issues were Cerebral Palsy, Autism, and low IQ. Basically what this meant was that Brennan was non-verbal, and physically spastic. It also meant that Brennan, due to his lack of communication skills, was impossible to accurately diagnose.
 Brennan’s first Sunday at St. Luke’s was for his cousin’s baptism. Soon after his arrival, he made his presence known. When we sang, he got excited and would spastically flail and swing in his wheel chair. When the singing stopped, Brennan would continue to make high-pitched noises as he swung his head back and forth. At first his noises were distracting, actually some where so sudden they were startling as every head in the church would turn to see where this noise was coming, and discovered the little boy in the wheel chair with the great big grin on his face. By the end of that first service we managed to become acclimated to Brennan’s noises as I increased my volume.
After the service, Brennan’s mother Nicole, apologized for Brennan’s outbursts. She was quite surprised he was so active in a new place. She explained that Brennan is usually very quiet in new settings and only “dances” and “sings” when he feels at home. Then Nicole asked if it would be all right to come back.
How sad it is that special needs children like Brennan are not usually welcomed in Church. Because they cannot sit still, or keep quiet, their behaviors are often distracting to others, most congregations give their parents strong, non-verbal messages to let them know their child is not welcomed in their church. I originally became aware of this reality after having helped found the Special Education PTA in Camillus. As a priest, I heard everyone’s horror story of trying to worship with his or her child. 
When Nicole asked me if Brennan could return, I assured her we would love to have Brennan as part of our congregation and that I was confident the people of St. Luke’s would make room for him.  
Over time, Brennan did learn the ebb and flow of worship. He accepted we were not going to be singing to Taylor Swift anytime soon. By then, however, he decided our daughter Chelsea was just as good to dance and sing with. He came to understood when I got into the pulpit it was a good time to take a nap and so he would fold himself over in his wheel chair and go to sleep. He loved the peace, as people approached him with hugs and high fives. And he always laughed each week when he would “dis” me and immediately high five Maureen. (Yes, even Brennan thought he was a comedian.)
More importantly, Brennan’s presence helped St. Luke’s to grow and learn as well. It was not long before we realized if we wanted Brennan to part of us, then we had to learn to be part of his world. With his mother’s help, we learned how to relate to Brennan and in time discovered that the little boy who was labeled, mentally retarded, autistic, blind, deaf etc. etc. was actually a very wonderful and clever little boy with a wry sense of humor and a great capacity to show love. We learned to smile when Brennan made his loud noises knowing this meant he felt safe and loved by us. And yes, I learned to laugh every time he dissed me. 
I decided to introduce Brennan this morning because as I read and prayed with this morning’s Gospel, Brennan’s face kept appearing. Honestly, I am a lot like St. Peter; it takes me awhile when it comes to figuring out what God is trying to say. I suspect part of my problem this week was that I related too closely with the disciples. After all, there they were, trying to figure out what was to come next. Just the evening before, Jesus told them he was to endure great suffering. So naturally they needed to create a succession plan if the movement was going to continue once Jesus was gone. And we all know, if you put twelve hard working, ambitious men together to figure who the next leader should be, there are going to be twelve nominations from the floor. Why not? Doesn’t everyone want to be top dog at some time in his or her life? Don’t we all, in some way or another, want to be in charge?
 I can only imagine their astonishment when they found out not only had Jesus overheard their discussion, he had something to say about it. According to Jesus, there is little room for ambition in the kingdom of God. Yes, there is rank and order, but it comes without prestige and entitlement. Leadership in the kingdom is about humility, compassion and caring. To help the disciples understand what he meant, Jesus placed a child on his lap and instructs them that those who lead in the kingdom cannot be above or unwilling to be the servant of a child. . .a child, who I assume, was the lowest of the servants, whose job it was to wash the feet of those who entered his master’s house. 
As I began to relate this story to the church and to us as a community of faith I now understand where Brennan comes into the message. Congregations, as communities of faith, often strive to have perfect liturgies, perfect music, and glorious preaching. It is easy to become stuffy and rigid when it comes to Sunday morning. We often forget that no matter how large or how glorious we may be on a Sunday morning, it is meaningless if we cannot adapt and make room for all kinds of people, especially children and adults like Brennan. For they are often marginalized by our society because they cannot behave in sync with everyone else.
A year after Nicole joined St. Luke’s; she became part of the youth leadership staff. This meant Brennan attended youth group events. One Sunday afternoon, while the youth played crab soccer in the parish hall, Brennan got bored sitting off to the side. Somehow I realized Brennan wanted to play with the kids. So I wheeled Brennan onto the floor, identified what team he was on and began trying to “kick” the ball with his front wheels. In a matter of moments all the kids began to adapt to Brennan’s presence, they brought out roller boards in an attempt to level the playing field. Then suddenly, the goal of the game shifted, as Brennan laughed and squealed with delight, our kids worked together to help Brennan score. 
I don’t think I could have been more proud of those young people that day. In that solitary moment, they demonstrated they understood what the kingdom of God is like by denying themselves, by choosing to lead by serving they became the body of Christ, the Church to Brennan, the least and youngest among them. 
Let us pray,
Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

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