Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Story of Weakness…

Community, of course, is an ancient Christian practice. I wanted to tell you this week about a Christian community whose witness resides deep in my spiritual center, and offers a stunning example to our world about what’s possible if we all loved our neighbors as ourselves. If you were in church last week, you heard about these folk in my sermon. They’re called “L’Arche.” Their founder, Jean Vanier, published a small book about L’Arche called From Brokenness to Community that, when I first read it in 2002, changed what I believed about my religion.

L’Arche began in 1964 in southern France, when Jean Vanier (a priest and theologian, well known in his day within the church and the secular academy) and a friend invited two men to live in their apartment. These men previously resided in an institution for adults with mental disabilities, and when they first came to live with Vanier, life was difficult. New patterns needed establishing. The ‘disabled’ men required much physical and emotional care, particularly because their society had pushed them aside for so long. Vanier struggled initially, but knew their makeshift community was God’s call. Soon he learned, however, that although these men were assumed ‘broken’ by many in town, Vanier among them, he too had unacknowledged ‘brokenness’ in his life. Specifically, the great lengths he had taken to achieve fame in his scholarly profession and the respect of more ‘worthy’ individuals came at a great cost. He preached about Jesus, wrote of God’s love, and yet had been unwilling to ‘suffer’ the company of the so-called disabled, since they might get in the way of his ambitions. Indeed, ambition, he saw, was a doubled-edged sword that, when wielded for the sake of his ego, cut hard and deep, often to the detriment of others deemed less valuable in his culture’s eyes.

His life soon changed. He stayed in his community, and invited more to join. Soon, L’Arche began planting similar communes the world-over, numbering today 133 on five continents. But don’t let the numbers distract you; L’Arche prides itself on weakness. They testify, you could say, to a Christian truth enshrined in 2 Corinthians 12:9, when Paul heard God say, “My grace is sufficient for you, because my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Southern France, of course, isn’t the only place where weakness is shunned, and women and men with disabilities aren’t the only people looked over in our world for being, in the estimation of too many, ‘weak.’ Poor people, young people, elderly people, folk not ‘pretty enough’ or ‘sophisticated enough’- there’s enough spite around for the ranks of the disenfranchised to remain full for the foreseeable future. And yet, L’Arche and many others claim a different reality, that we’re all afflicted with brokenness, in some fashion. For some, that’s because powers beyond their control have contrived keep them poor and voiceless, and Christians of all stripes should act to counterbalance these injustices of our world. For others, our brokenness is often the result of a flawed self-understanding. We believe we’re capable enough, rich enough, beautiful enough to go it alone and conquer anything that stands in our way.

But what happens, L’Arche dares to ask, when our best efforts fail, or when our brokenness and weakness become too glaring to overlook any longer? Or even if that never happens to you, should Christians tolerate a culture where ‘weakness’ is a bad word, and where ‘the least of these’ are scorned? That’s when ‘community’ becomes so crucial, if you ask me, not only for others to assist us when life becomes difficult to manage, but also to provide support for living lives that buck the trends of society when its values conflict with Christ’s priorities. And if we’re being fair, I think many non-Christians in our neighborhoods are uncomfortable with scorn and disenfranchisement. I believe people long for communities of courage and wisdom, that dare to consider weakness a shared and precious resource, that speak boldly about ‘brokenness’ being transformed by new life. Because that’s what Jesus does, gather friends and disciples to heal our pain and sin, to act in solidarity with folk at society’s margins, to embody justice, compassion and holiness with deftness and grace. Or to put it succinctly, Jesus loves when we love ourselves, our neighbors and our God. With hopes that more and more we understand together that enigma of our faith, which Paul coined, “When I am weak, then I am strong,” I wish you,

Grace and Peace,


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