[Sermon delivered June 23, 2019 at St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Waldorf, MD]
King’s College in Cambridge, England holds Choral Evensong each day that school is in session and on Sunday evenings. They have done this for hundreds of years. The Chapel at King’s College dates back nearly to the beginning of the institution in the 1400’s.
This week, I ran across this letter addressed to the Dean, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Cherry from a Dr. Paul Rimmer, a father who took his family to an Evensong service on Father’s Day.
Let me read you his letter.
Dear Reverend Dr Stephen Cherry,
I would like to apologize for bringing my autistic son to Evensong at your chapel. I am a resident of Cambridge and a member of the university, and my family and I have attended services at the chapel from time to time. I have always been inspired by the beauty of the building, the worshipful attitude of the service, and the hospitality you have extended to the wider community, as stated in your most recent welcome letter which expressed your “hope that, whenever and however you share in the life of the Chapel, you will be inspired, encouraged and refreshed.” I am proud to worship within a communion that is “asking the question, how can we enable disabled people to be at the heart of our communities, explore their vocation and realize their gifts?” (https://www.churchofengland.org/…/church-resources/welcomin…).
I chose to attend Evensong on Trinity Sunday, also Father’s Day, with my two sons, one of whom is autistic. Tristan is nine years old, and is a clever and joyful child, who loves church buildings, services, and choral music. He is also non-verbal, and expresses his excitement by calling out and laughing. His expressions are often loud and uncontainable. It is part of who he is, so there is no realistic way for him to be quiet. Many autistic people are like Tristan in this way. Right before the Kyrie, one of the ushers informed me that you had instructed him to remove us. Tristan’s expressions were apparently interfering with the enjoyment of some of the other visitors, which was very inconsiderate on our part, because tourists come from all over the world to hear the Evensong. The usher seemed embarrassed but insistent as he asked us to leave, though I’m not sure if it was because of my son’s vocalizations, or because of the nature of the directive you had given him.
As a Christian, I believe that worship is primarily intended to glorify God, and may have misinterpreted your Evensong as an actual worship service, at which my son’s expressions must surely be pleasing to God, the experience of other worshipers being secondary. Our removal makes more sense if Kings College’s Evensong were simply a concert held in a building that used to be a chapel. Then my son’s expressions would frustrate the purpose of the event, which is primarily performative; lessening the satisfaction of certain tourists around the world who attend, but not those kinds of people you deem to be too distracting. If this is so, I apologize.
Might I suggest that you place a sign at the front of the chapel, clearly identifying which categories of people are welcome and which are not? I can only imagine how terrible it would be if autistic people, others with disabilities, those with mental illnesses, and people with dementia, were all equally welcome to attend Evensong, how this would get in the way of the choir’s performance, how it would distract the choristers, and how upsetting seeing these sorts of people at the chapel would be for the tourists who have come such a long way.
My son might not be able to talk, but he knows perfectly well what is going on around him. This is not the first time my family has been asked to leave a church on account of his being “too disruptive for other worshipers.” This is, however, the first time we have been forced to leave by a member of the clergy. He isn’t even ten years old and he knows that he is unwelcome. If only places like Kings College made it clear what kind of spectators were acceptable, my son wouldn’t be subjected to rejection, and the other people there, to his unpalatable presence.
I have forwarded this letter to the Provost of the College, the Vice Chancellor, the Bishop of Ely, Archbishop Justin Welby, and to the Committee for Ministry of and among Deaf and Disabled People, so that they may advise you on how to better prevent people like my son from attempting to attend chapel in the future. I have also made this letter public, so that others can know what sorts of people you welcome at King’s College chapel, and will not make the same careless mistake I have.
Dr Paul B Rimmer
CC Prof Michael Proctor, Prof Stephen J Toope, Rt Revd Stephen Conway, Most Revd Justin Welby, CMDDP
There are, no doubt, many reactions to this situation. I know I had my own. While your reactions are not unwanted or unwarranted perhaps, I would ask that you suppress them for the time being.
In the reading from Luke, we recall the story of Jesus arriving in Gerasenes. [jer-a-seens] Gerasenes is opposite Galilee, across the Sea of Galilee.
In the story, Jesus steps out of the boat on to land and was met by the man who had demons who we learn is names Legions.
So here is a man, with seemingly an uncommon name, who lives in the tombs and wears no clothes.
Think about that for a second and put it into context of your life.
What if you met this man?
What would your reaction be?
Would you shake his hand?
Would you stop to find out his story?
Would you look the other way?
Would you cross the street and walk on the other side?
Or, perhaps more likely, would you pull your phone from your pocket or handbag, and call the authorities?
In our world, it is not realistic to think that there is a man with no clothes living in the tombs. Or, is it?
A few months ago, I was sitting in 30th Street Station in Philadelphia waiting for my train to come back to D.C. I had been to the Prét a Manger. This establishment is often referred to as “Pret” too. Likely because no one is confident they really will pronounce the real name correctly.
So I had been to ‘Pret’. I had a sandwich and a cup of soup. A man came over to where I was sitting and asked to share the table. There were other places to eat in the dining area. I could have, no make that I wanted to invite him to sit at any of the empty tables. But, instead I consented and the man had a seat.
It is important to note in the story, that the man had no food, cup of coffee, bag of chips… nothing. He did not have the trappings of a traveler either; no suitcase, backpack, briefcase… nothing.
He offered his hand and said to me, “Thanks for letting me sit with you. My name is Paul.”
I replied, “Nice to meet you Paul,” and took his hand.
The rest of the story is predictable. He was homeless, hungry and had a story about his life that he shared with me. I bought him lunch, took him to the machine to get him a subway pass so he could get around from the shelter he was staying at and to his new job that he was starting in 4 more days. We had a fascinating conversation and I learned about his life, his service to our country, his son and grandchild, and the death of his father just 6 months before.
An autistic boy is asked to leave a service of Evensong because he is different. Even though the Dean apologized publicly, damage was done. And, in a place of worship, Christianity failed because no one stopped to hear the young boy’s story.
In Gerasenes, a man was outcast by his community and forced to live in the tombs. He was different. He didn’t wear clothes. He was possessed by demons. Until Jesus came, the love of Jesus that we are called to, failed because no one would hear his story.
In a train station in Philadelphia, a veteran of our country was living in a shelter and going hungry. And how many days or maybe weeks or months had this been going on because no one would bother themselves to hear the man’s story.
Our lesson about Legion and his demons perhaps is often overshadowed by the miracle of casting the demons into the pigs.
Or by our imagination of the a herd of pigs running into the Sea of Galilee to their death. Or by the people of the country asking Jesus to leave because they were afraid of him.
Or perhaps even, by our imagination of what happened to Legion after Jesus told him to go and tell of what Jesus had done for him.
Did anyone want to listen to his story?
Our lives are full. Our schedules often jammed pack. The pace is maddening.
These are excuses friends.
Jesus has time for your story.
Jesus has the heart for your story.
Jesus has the love for your story.
No matter what.
There is a ‘Legion’ waiting for you.
There is a child in a church service that needs your love and acceptance.
There is a man or woman in a train station, at Panera, on the sidewalk at the Safeway; that is waiting for you to buy them a soup and sandwich and to hear their story like Jesus did with Legion.
Will you stop? Will you listen?