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Sermon on a T-Shirt

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This week is the kickoff of football season. Many of us know which Sundays we need to get out of church early to catch the 12 o’clock football game. Many more have dug out their football bling—the hats, the t-shirts, and the jerseys of our favorite teams. What we do, who we are, (of course) goes much deeper than what we wear. Yet articles of clothing have come to mean something more than a friendly(ish) sports game.

You know what I am talking about. When a red baseball cap with 4 words emblazoned on it becomes a rallying cry. When a green jacket with the phrase “I don’t really care, do U?” is worn, we bristle and talk about the potential underlying meaning. When the swoosh on a tennis shoe suddenly becomes the face of a struggle… images around us become something. A movement.

As we celebrate the United Church of Christ’s Disabilities Ministries today, I would venture to say that this t-shirt is a t-shirt of the resistance for those who seek more, but often just get the crumbs thrown under the table. With the UCC cross on the right, the large letters representing “United Church of Christ Disabilities Ministry” is “a nod to large print as part of accessibility for persons with visual impairments.” Below that are five icons representing “various disabilities”:

  • In the red box is the word for “I love you” in American Sign Language, “as an aspect of accessibility and inclusion as well as a reminder that God loves persons with disability….
  • The second icon is a box with no symbol which signifies all known disabilities unable to be included in (the) logo design due to space limitations, as well as disabilities that do not have a known associated symbol; it is a reminder that God has created more than we can anticipate.
  • The third icon includes a human head with the brain highlighted. This symbolizes disabilities related to the brain including mental health related disabilities, developmental disabilities, and intellectual disabilities. It is a reminder that we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
  • The fourth icon is of a human figure in a racing wheelchair. This icon was developed by disability activists… for the public domain as a means of challenging traditional ideas of disability…
  • The fifth and final icon is the icon for hidden, or invisible, disabilities. You cannot see, or discern, invisible disabilities by looking at individuals who have them.  People with invisible disabilities are often marginalized for not appearing ‘disabled’. This reminds us that only God sees all things.”[1]

Images around us become something. A movement.

What we need is a prophet. A prophet in the tradition of Isaiah.  The book of Isaiah as we know it in the bible is a collection of writings over time, most likely from three different people. Today the prophet that speaks to us is the Second Isaiah. Susan Ackerman tells us that, “Second Isaiah wrote nearly two hundred years after First Isaiah, ca. 540 B.C.E. The people of this time had witness a calamity of almost incomprehensible proportions: the fall of Judah and Jerusalem… at the hands of the Babylonian empire.”[2]

Isaiah writes in images of hope and transformation:

The eyes of people who are blind shall be opened,
The ears of people who are deaf unstopped;
Those who cannot walk, or have challenges walking shall leap like a deer,

The people who cannot use speech to communicate will sing for joy.
Instead of the hot, dry sand of the desert, there will be an oasis of cool pools and beautiful springs. (Isaiah 7:5-6, adapted from the NRSV)

This is, as Ackerman notes, is “a promise of restoration.”[3]

Throughout the year, we have mainly been hanging out in the book of Mark. Before today, we were with Jesus in familiar places: Jerusalem, Nazareth, along the Sea of Galilee. But suddenly today, we are not in Galilee. We are not in predominately Jewish territory. We are waaaay north, in the land of the Gentiles.[4] This is not Jesus’ home turf. Here Jesus is an outsider, as is the unnamed woman who challenges Jesus’ understanding of his ministry. Mary Ann Tolbert describes this woman as “…a Phoenician from Syria (even farther north than Tyre)… a Gentile or a ‘Greek’ (deeply Hellenized)… to this foreign woman, Jesus expresses his refusal to… her request (with) a disdainful metaphor, which compares her and her daughter to little dogs who are not to be fed the children’s bread.”[5]

And this woman expertly utilizes the images around her to become an individual with worth and dignity. A transformation from the unseen, to small, hopeful crumbs scattered on the floor—to a person fully and radically welcomed into God’s story. This woman boldly steps into forbidden space. Tolbert lifts up the woman who “dare(d) to approach a strange man in behalf of her family, (this) was an unconventional and, evidently to Jesus, (an) unacceptable act…drawing both Jesus’ refusal and his disdain.”[6] But this woman caught Jesus in his own teachings: “Jesus has already taught others that religious customs should not stand in the way of doing good for those in need. “ Now she teaches him “… that social conventions should not (stand in the way) either.”[7]

Images around us become something. A transformation. A restoration. A movement. A change in Jesus’ understanding of his ministry from “feeding the children first,” to expanding the gospel, the Good News, to all people.

I would venture to say that some of us (Many of us? … All of us?) identify with one of these boxes in the UCC logo. I identify with the green image. That image of that which is unseen. The hidden. The invisible disabilities box.

So this is my t-shirt. My t-shirt of resistance. The resistance to being invisible. To the crumbs tossed haphazardly to those on the margins. For I have a hidden disability. A chronic neurological condition that causes constant burning on my face, hands, arms, and feet. I often describe it as having a really bad sun burn.

Without sharing this information, most people would never know I have physical challenges. Years ago I was diagnosed with small fiber neuropathy, a sensory disorder that negatively impacts my ability to sense pain, heat, and cold. It affects my balance. It means that outside temperatures and stress impact how I feel, and can cause flare ups – days of increased pain and fatigue. It means that touch can hurt, and I am careful about what I wear and where I sit. It means that I go home and put ice packs, or anything cold, on my face to calm the burning sensations. It means that daily I must be aware of my mind/body/Spirit balance.

As I share this with you, please know that I am very open to discussing my health concerns in more detail if you are interested, for I believe that this life experience is also a very important part of my ministry. Initially, I had no idea what to do with the overpowering sense of call that I felt from God to serve the church, for my searing nerve pain seemed to make the idea of becoming a pastor ridiculous. Yet the timing of my call also seems to have been perfect. As church shifts, as technology shifts, as seminaries began to offer courses online, the path for me to respond to the Spirit’s presence in my life became clear. I took half of my seminary courses online, and half on campus, which was a perfect balance for my disordered body.

So this t-shirt is a sermon. Know that if you are person with a visual deficit, a hearing loss, physical challenges, cognitive differences, mental health concerns, sensory processing differences, and/or dietary concerns – I see you. God sees you. God sees all things.

Remember that Isaiah wrote to a people in despair. People who had experienced a calamity of almost incomprehensible proportions. There Christine Valter Paintner points out that in despair:

“Lament declares that something is not right in the world… Lament opens us up to a new vision of how God is present to our suffering. We call on the God who weeps with us… (Yet) Lament is (also) a form of resistance: We allow ourselves to be present to God in our brokenness and resist the cultural imperative to be strong and hold it all together… We stop pretending everything is okay and put an end to worshiping the status quo… in the prayer of lament we help give voice to the oppressed, to hidden suffering, and to the suffering in silence that happens because pain takes our language away. Gathered together we say that the pain is heard, that it is valid.”

This is my t-shirt of resistance. A message of hope. Transformation. Restoration. A movement. A hoped for change in the understanding of our ministry as followers of Jesus from “feeding the children first,” to extravagantly expanding the gospel, the Good News, for all… and to all.

THAT is radical welcome. May it be so.


~Pastor Kris


Reflection on Isaiah 35:4-7a and Mark 7:24-37 offered on September 9, 2018


[1] United Church of Christ Disabilities Ministries. Accessed September 07, 2018. https://uccdm.org/blog/what-does-the-uccdm-logo/.

[2] Ackerman, Susan. Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition with Apocrypha. Edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. 173.

[3] Ackerman, Susan. Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition with Apocrypha. Edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. 173.

[4] “Sermon Brainwave.” Sermon Brainwave #622 – Ordinary 23 (Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost)- Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL). Accessed September 07, 2018. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx.

[5] Tolbert, Mary Ann. Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition with Apocrypha. Edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. 356.

[6] Tolbert, Mary Ann. Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition with Apocrypha. Edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. 356.

[7] Tolbert, Mary Ann. Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition with Apocrypha. Edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. 356.