January 22, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Many Abilities, One Spirit
(second in the series Many and One)
Today we’re continuing our winter worship series on diversity and unity, how we are many and how we are one. There’s a certain splendid radiance in the notion that our many gifts and abilities pour together into a glorious expression of creation. You have heard the metaphors before. It’s like we’re all playing different instruments in the same symphony. It’s like we’re different parts of the same body. Many gifts, many talents all drawn together in concert. In the moments when this happens, and it does happen, we see what we could not see all on our own. Behold the image of God.
So it would be one thing if we could just stick with the metaphors, if we each bring our own gift to the great potluck of life. The thing is, we live in a world that won’t let us forget: It’s not just that we all have varied abilities; it’s that we’re also a people who have disabilities, and the world won’t let us look past this vividly present prefix… For all the things you can do, there are things you cannot do. If you are living with a disability, chances are, the world won’t let you forget.
Over the course of my lifetime, I have seen our world make progress toward becoming more welcoming to people with disabilities. I remember when the entry way to my home church was renovated in order to install an elevator. I’ve seen new buildings come affixed with internal signage in braille, so a blind person can find their own way through the halls.
School districts have engaged in challenging conversations about the best model for including and supporting students with disabilities. We’ve transformed our language from outdated words like “retarded” or “handicap,” to then saying “the disabled,” to now saying “people with disabilities or different abilities.” If you think back to how things were thirty or forty years ago, it is clear the world has made real progress. Of course it is clear, the world has a long way to go.
Something that concerns me is the question of who is expected to change… How much of our progress toward being more inclusive really means that a person with a disability has to do all the work of fitting in? For example, is there an expectation that people on the Autism spectrum will develop skills that will appeal to employers, or are there ways that jobs can be redesigned to be more accommodating? Is the expectation that people with hearing impairments will get top-of-the-line hearing aids and become adept at reading lips, or could more hearing people learn sign language?
Who has the responsibility to adapt? Who has the power? And what if the church could become a community that challenges some of the world’s expectations and instead introduces a vision of the kingdom of God that nobody can see all on their own…
Our Gospel reading is the famous Sunday School miracle story of the friends who help a paralyzed man get to Jesus by hoisting him up to the roof, then digging a hole in the tiles, then lowering the man and his bed down through the ceiling in front of Jesus. It makes you wonder about this crowd, right? What kind of crowd can’t hear the “Excuse me’s” and move over a little to make a path for the paralyzed man and his friends?
Now it’s a great Mission Impossible moment when the crew lowers a man down through the ceiling right in front of Jesus. Literally over-the-top action builds to a miracle center stage, so it becomes easy to overlook the problems in the story. But the problems are there.
For one thing, this story is acting on the premise that having a disability is a sign of being punished by God for doing something wrong. That was exactly the prevailing notion of the ancient world, nobody in the crowd would raise an eyebrow, and this notion is exactly and terribly untrue. I cannot see all of God all on my own, but I know enough of God to know that she is not sitting in heaven shooting down disabilities on people to teach them a lesson. That is not God. Disabilities are not punishments. But missing from our story is anybody in the crowd who stands up to Jesus and says that.
Also missing from the story is the name of the man who is paralyzed. Now this man helps Jesus prove a point to the Pharisees, but in some troubling ways, the story treats him like a prop more than a person. He is changed to fit in with the rest of the people who can stand, then he goes home glorifying God, but we don’t get to hear how things look from his perspective. What does the sky look like when you’re being lowered through a ceiling? How does his authority matter?
This story is not without its problems, but it’s also not without hope. And the man on the mat isn’t the only one who changes. Jesus also gets to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. At the beginning this group of critics had come from every village and from Jerusalem to gather nearby. Then they got a little closer and became part of the density of the crowd. Then they got so close that Jesus could hear the questioning of their hearts. The danger in sitting that close to the Lord is you might get seized by amazement, you might get filled with the awe of the Spirit of God. (Which is exactly what happens to them.)
The Pharisees and the teachers are in need of healing, and it’s not because they can’t walk. It’s because they are tangled up in this question: how does Jesus have the authority to invoke the forgiveness of God? Who does this guy think he is? Because can you imagine if all us human people had the power to forgive?
Oh by the way, this man just got up and is pushing through the crowd glorifying God, and how can we not? All we can do is give glory to God and wonder how is this possible… Because they don’t understand. They really don’t understand, and they were filled with awe, and praise poured out of their being.
At the last General Synod in Cleveland, Reverend John Dorhauer was elected to serve as General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. There were murmurs of opposition to his candidacy because some were hoping the next UCC president would be a person of color, or a gay person, or a woman. In response to these concerns, Reverend Robert Molsberry offered a moment of reflection and talked about the limits and power of our particularity.
I’ve met Reverend Molsberry a few times because he had served as the Conference Minister in Ohio. He uses a wheel chair, and on this evening at General Synod, he mentioned that he was not doing a wheelie on stage to show off. The problem was, the ramp to get onto the stage had a pitch that was too steep. He had to rock back in order to safely descend. He explained, the ramp was not ADA compliant, and then he said something like, “If you’re not in a wheel chair, you might not realize how this is a problem.” I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember the shudder that went through the crowd when he said that. “Look, you really don’t understand.”
He let that ring in the air for a full beat.
Then he said, “That’s why you’re going to have to trust my authority.”
It was an amazing moment in the convention hall, because the first part of that sentence named a barrier between us “You don’t understand” and the next thing he said knocked the barrier down. He’s not saying, “You’ll never understand unless you are also in a wheel chair.” He’s saying, “If you want to understand, you’re going to have to trust my authority.”
I don’t think I had ever thought of authority like this. This authority did not come from his office in the United Church of Christ, or his credentials, or his expertise. This authority comes from lived experience, from the deep side of authenticity. This authority comes from the truth of God. As though maybe all us human people have the power to speak with authority, as though all of us have the power to trust each other, to believe a person who is telling the truth.
Now if you don’t understand, if I don’t understand, that doesn’t mean we have to give up and go home defeated by the barriers of our own guilt and defensiveness. Not understanding is what invites us to trust each other’s authority. So don’t believe in the barriers; they don’t stand a chance. You know we will climb up to the roof and go down through the ceiling if that’s what it takes for us to reach each other. You can see something of God that I cannot see. We all can see something of God that somebody else can’t. We all can change. And behold the City of God.
The man got up from his mat and went home glorifying God. I love to hear this story from the perspective of the Pharisees and teachers because I can relate to them. I can imagine being part of that crowd so perplexed by Jesus and so oblivious to the fact that I’m blocking the door from the people trying to get through. If I were there, I’d probably be questioning in my heart. I get that.
What I don’t understand about our story is how God worked through Jesus to help a paralyzed man rise up and walk. I can’t explain that to you. So of course it’s tempting to file this away as a Sunday School miracle and go on with our lives. Or maybe this not understanding could provoke us to stick around and trust the authority of God. You know if we do this, we’re signing up to get seized by wonder and amazement. We might find ourselves glorifying God, perplexed by our own power to forgive. See the barriers between us keep coming down.
May it be so. Amen.