Sunday, March 30, 2014

Access Over Exclusion: People With Disabilities as Children of God: Sermon, March 30, 2014

This sermon, preached on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, draws on Deborah Beth Creamer's Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, and Jennie Weiss Block, Copious Hosting: A Theology of Access For People With Disabilities, New York: Continuum, 2002. Their work has shaped and inspired me as I reflect on my own disability and theology.

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”

Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.

The man’s neighbors and those who used to see him when he was a beggar said, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”

Some said, “It is,” and others said, “No, it’s someone who looks like him.”

But the man said, “Yes, it’s me!”

So they asked him, “How are you now able to see?”

He answered, “The man they call Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes, and said, ‘Go to the Pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

They asked, “Where is this man?”

He replied, “I don’t know.”

Then they led the man who had been born blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus made the mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes on a Sabbath day. So Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.

The man told them, “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.”

Some Pharisees said, “This man isn’t from God, because he breaks the Sabbath law.” Others said, “How can a sinner do miraculous signs like these?” So they were divided. Some of the Pharisees questioned the man who had been born blind again: “What do you have to say about him, since he healed your eyes?”

He replied, “He’s a prophet.”

The Jewish leaders didn’t believe the man had been blind and received his sight until they called for his parents. The Jewish leaders asked them, “Is this your son? Are you saying he was born blind? How can he now see?”

His parents answered, “We know he is our son. We know he was born blind. But we don’t know how he now sees, and we don’t know who healed his eyes. Ask him. He’s old enough to speak for himself.” His parents said this because they feared the Jewish authorities. This is because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue. That’s why his parents said, “He’s old enough. Ask him.”

Therefore, they called a second time for the man who had been born blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.”

The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.” They questioned him: “What did he do to you? How did he heal your eyes?”

He replied, “I already told you, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

They insulted him: “You are his disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.”

The man answered, “This is incredible! You don’t know where he is from, yet he healed my eyes! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners. God listens to anyone who is devout and does God’s will. No one has ever heard of a healing of the eyes of someone born blind. If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do this.”

They responded, “You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?” Then they expelled him.

Jesus heard they had expelled the man born blind. Finding him, Jesus said, “Do you believe in the Human One?”

He answered, “Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him.”

Jesus said, “You have seen him. In fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

The man said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus.

Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.”

Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”

Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains."

John 9:1-41, Common English Bible

Jesus sees a man who was born blind. And the followers of Jesus ask him, “Who sinned so that this man was born blind, him or his parents?” At that time people believed that disability was the result of sin; if you were blind or deaf or had a physical deformity, it was a punishment for something you or your parents had done wrong. In the story the religious authorities keep repeating that the man must be blind because of sin. They and the followers of Jesus are trying to figure out why disability happens to people, and their answer is that the people must be bad.

Jesus breaks this link between sin and disability; he says that neither this man nor his parents sinned to cause his blindness, and heals him.

We’re still trying to understand how to fit disability into our worldview. And this is important. The chances are very good that each of us knows someone with a disability, or have experienced, or will experienced, some degree of disability ourselves. A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person’s life activities. I don’t know what the numbers are in Canada, but in the United States 18 percent of the population experience physical or mental disability.

I do. Since my late 20s I have had an arthritic disease called ankylosing spondylitis. It’s an arthritic disease which affects between 150,000 and 300,000 Canadians. It develops in men three times more often than women, and usually strikes people between the ages of 15 and 40.

This particular form of arthritis affects the spine, causing pain and stiffness in the back. The course of the disease differs from person to person; some only have short episodes of back pain, while others, like me, have chronic pain as the spinal joints – the vertebrae – swell. Small bony outgrowths can extend outwards from the edges of the vertebrae and can eventually bridge across from one joint to the next. My vertebrae are fused together at the top of spine, so while a normal back is S-shaped, mine is fused like a question mark.

I’m a hunchback, like Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant Igor, or Shakespeare’s character King Richard III, who described himself as:

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me, as I halt by them.

We tend to see disability in medical, or functional, terms. We emphasize what people with disabilities can’t do – what body parts or mental processes don’t work. We think of “normal” and “disabled” as opposites. And we use labels: “cripple,” “handicapped,” “retarded,” even though these terms, which originally referred to a loss of function, now convey the idea of lack of worth.

Now I need to switch so that when I say we, I mean people with disabilities. We, people with disabilities ourselves, have come up with alternatives to this viewpoint. We may argue that disability is not so much about what you can or can’t do, but about how individuals with disabilities are treated by society. To have a disability is to experience prejudice and exclusion - ableism, the stereotypes about people with disabilities. I know about these assumptions. People will ask me, “What’s wrong with you?” Yes, they are usually that blunt. I respond that I have an arthritic disease, called ankylosing spondylitis. And often people will say, “Oh, I think my cousin’s brother in law has that! You must know him!” Now, ableism here is well-meaning. I could go on about the much nastier prejudice directed at people with disabilities, and particularly people with mental disabilities – and how we have to constantly be aware of how we’re perceived, every moment of every day.

In the story, the religious authorities and the followers of Jesus base their assumptions about disability in their theology: This blind man sinned, or his parents sinned. And religious interpretations of disability continue today, coming out of our theology. The idea that disability is a punishment for sins still persists. And people with disabilities may hear things like this: “Don’t worry about pain now, in heaven you will be made whole.” “Thank God it isn’t worse.” “You’re special in God’s eyes. That’s why you were given this disability.” A theologian named Deborah Beth Creamer demonstrates that is sung and said in church frequently depicts people with disabilities as objects: We are symbols of sin – to be avoided – of saintliness – to be admired – of God’s power – to be pondered – or of suffering – to be pitied. We are almost never considered first as people.

Most congregations now realize that church buildings need to accommodate ramps, elevators, chairlifts, hearing assistance, and so on, all of which are necessary and welcome. But churches have been removing these barriers of architecture much faster than barriers of attitude. A friend of mine, Carol Howard Merritt, wrote the other day about a friend of hers, who announced that she had stopped going to church. “I just can’t take the dirty looks any longer,” she said. She has two children with autism, and the congregation just didn’t appreciate having them in worship. Since then, my friend says she has become increasingly aware of the times when the parents of a child with Downs syndrome or autism drops out of a community of faith, because the congregation does not accommodate people of all abilities worshipping together. These obstacles to welcome and acceptance are even greater barriers than stairs or other physical impediments to full participation of people with disabilities. I should add that there are many examples of congregations that do practice full inclusion of people with disabilities - Carol's article has a great story about one - but there aren’t enough.

In the story, even though the blind man has his disability removed, he isn’t able to tell his story. People talk about him. The religious authorities don’t believe him, so they call for his parents to tell his story for him. Churches today still don’t engage with people with disabilities – we are spoken to, or spoken about, but not included as partners in conversations. I am in a small group working on a theology of disability for the United Church, and I've been wondering whether we are supposed to concentrate mainly on physical issues of accessibility, or delve into what reflection on disability can tell all of us about what it means to be a child of God.

And that is really the point here – not to make anyone feel bad about how people with disabilities are treated, for all of us are caught up acting out the script that our culture writes in us. The point is that all communities, including churches, have members with visible or hidden disabilities, who are not objects of charity or pity or fear, but children of God. And when we think this through, and what this story of Jesus and the man born blind shows us what God is like and we are to be like, we see that our God of justice and love is committed to the full inclusion of all of God’s children. And so all of us need to ask: How can we be more inclusive? What actions do we need to take? How must we change to make the message of Jesus, that all are welcome and all have a place, a reality in our congregation?

Brothers and sisters, the Good News of Jesus Christ is good news of access for all, including people of disabilities. All of us are called to be on the side of justice, of access over exclusion.

1 comment:

Ginger Hanning said...

Amen. As someone with severe arthritis, I have to use a cane and have handrails where ever I go. It is also difficult to stand for a long time which makes the standing/kneeling that most people do in my church impossible. I usually just sit but I can feel that people do not understand why I do not kneel. ( I decided that God did not require you to use Vicodin to go to church. Good post.