Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 21st, 2016
Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are a lot of people in America today who don’t go to church, or go to church only rarely. But, if you sort them all out by categories and rank them from highest church attendance to lowest church attendance, one group is squarely at the bottom, with the lowest church attendance of any demographic: people with disabilities. Now, there are a lot of reasons for it—for one thing, even today most churches are not handicap accessible, or only barely qualify—but part of it is stories like our Gospel reading today, or at least the way we normally read them.
One of the reasons for this is obvious. After all, Jesus may have healed this one woman crippled for eighteen years, but there are a lot of people out there today with disabilities that bad or worse, who’ve dealt with their condition for longer. Why, many of them wonder, have they not received that healing? Why have miracles happened for other people, but not for them? We believe that God heals all ills, but sometimes—a lot of times—that healing does not happen in this life. Instead, it will happen when Christ comes again and the dead are resurrected and all of creation is remade in the good, whole, sinless way it was meant to be. And that’s great, it’s certainly better than nothing … but it doesn’t change the pain and suffering that people experience in the here and now. And so people who suffer hear stories like this and ask, “why not me?” and turn away from a God they believe has failed them.
But he other reason is because our focus on miracles of healing means that we don’t really see them, or welcome them into the community. Sure, we as a community just love to hear the inspirational stories about disability, the nice, neatly packaged things that make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside and carry messages we approve of, like “if they can do it, so can I!” Or “the only disability is a bad attitude!” As if thinking good thoughts at stairs will turn them into a ramp, or smiling will stop a seizure. And the way we tell those inspirational stories, it’s all about us. Our reactions, our inspiration, turning people with disabilities into mere objects to make us feel better about ourselves. We don’t like to hear about the problems, the ordinary realities of getting through the day—especially not if learning about those problems might require us to change our thoughts and actions to accommodate their needs. Worse, if their story doesn’t fit the inspirational pattern—if they haven’t been able to pray their disability away—many Christians will think it’s somehow their fault. If they had stronger faith, a miracle would happen. If they prayed more, or prayed the right thing, they’d be cured. If, if, if.
One of the professors I studied with in seminary is legally blind. He told a story about an encounter he once had with a faith healer, who asked to pray that his blindness might be cured. The professor agreed. And so the healer placed his hands on him and prayed. Nothing happened. Well, nothing happened to the professor; his sight was not changed. But the healer grew upset as he tried and tried and tried to heal the blind, and failed. Normally, he would have taken it as a sign of some failing on the part of the person he was trying to heal—their faith wasn’t strong enough, perhaps. But he knew that the professor was a good man of deep and abiding faith. In the end, the blind man ended up comforting and consoling the faith healer. The faith healer had been so focused on the cure—on trying to make the miracle happen—that he couldn’t see anything else. He couldn’t truly see the man he was trying to heal; he could only see his disability, and that only as something to be prayed away.
In some ways, he was like the Pharisee from our Gospel reading. He didn’t see the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years. He didn’t see her as she was; he only saw her as she fit into his ideas of what ought to be. He looked at a woman praising God, and saw only a problem. No work should be done on the Sabbath; healing was work; therefore, the Pharisee believed Jesus was wrong to heal her on the Sabbath and she was wrong to praise God for it. She was a problem, because she was too visible—too many people saw her cured, too many people saw her rejoicing, and so too many people might be tempted to forget the Sabbath. The Pharisee didn’t see her, he didn’t see her as a beloved child of God, a daughter of Abraham. He looked at her and saw a problem.
But you know what? I wonder if the Pharisee had ever truly seen her in the eighteen years she’d been bent over, either. Eighteen years. That’s a long time. In all that time, had he ever gotten to know her? Had he ever asked her if there was anything the synagogue could do to help her deal with the effects of her condition—and then really listened? Had he ever asked her what would make the synagogue’s worship more accessible to her? Had he ever asked her what support and help she needed to get through her daily life? Had he ever asked her what she thought about her life? Had he ever taken the time to make sure she was not excluded because of her differences? Had he been willing to change things up so that she could be included in the community instead of left on the outside looking in? Had he ever been a friend to her and her family? Had he ever been there for her to lean on when things were difficult? And when there had been times of rejoicing during those years she was bent over, had he ever been there to celebrate with her? Or had he just ignored her, forgotten about her, except to pity her occasionally, and maybe toss a few coins her way in charity? I think that if he had ever truly seen her before the miracle, if he had ever recognized her as a child of God and descendant of Abraham, he could not have responded to Jesus’ miracle by treating it as a problem.
Too often, we act like the Pharisee. We don’t see people with disabilities, not really. They’re problems to be solved. Or, better yet, ignored. If someone is disabled, and needs accommodations to help them get through the day and participate in society, how often do we think that it’s unreasonable to take the time to help? How often do we discount their needs because they might be faking it? How often do we look at them and assume we know more than they do about the realities of their lives? How often do we look at people with disabilities, and see burdens to society instead of children of God? There was a movie out this summer, Me Before You, that a lot of people absolutely loved. It was a tearjerker, about a man who becomes disabled and chooses to kill himself, which the movie presents as a good and noble thing. It’s the kind of thinking behind the assisted suicide movement, which wou1ld rather make it easier for people to kill themselves, instead of doing the hard work to allow people with disabilities to live full and meaningful lives, as part of the larger community.
And even if we avoid the Pharisee’s viewpoint, we as Christians act like the faith healer. We see people with disabilities as problems to be solved, as things to inspire us and prove the goodness of God. We see them as opportunities to do a good deed and bask in how nice we are, how faithful we are, instead of seeing them as fellow children of God to be included in God’s family. We get so caught up in miracle stories and heartwarming narratives, that we have no idea what to do with the real people around us, many of whom never get that miracle in this life and whose lives are far too complicated to fit into that heartwarming Hallmark movie. And so, even in church, where all people should be welcomed, people with disabilities are still left on the outside looking in.
This whole sermon, I’ve been saying “they” and “them.” But the truth is, I have a disability; I’m autistic, which is a developmental disability, and I have anxiety, which is a psychological disorder. Now, my anxiety is relatively mild, as clinical anxiety goes, and I happen to have a subtype of autism called Aspergers which means that when I am well-rested and my anxiety isn’t flaring up, and I’m in a known environment with no surprises, and I know the right social scripts for the occasion, I can pass for normal if I work hard enough. My disability is often invisible. It means that I’ve faced less discrimination and stigma than others have, and been able to do a lot of things that others can’t. But the fact that I can often pass for normal—and thus let those around me forget that I’m different—doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of extra challenges. It doesn’t make me a better person or more worthy of being accepted by society than those whose disabilities are more visible. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I am more of a child of God! We are all God’s children, whether we have able bodies or disabled ones, whether our brains are neurotypical or not. We all need community; we all need to love and be loved; we all need support, although some of those supports are more obvious than others. And that community starts by seeing people—truly seeing us—not as problems or inspirations but as people and children of God.
Jesus saw the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years. He knew her. And when he saw her, he healed her. We can’t work miracles of healing on cue like Jesus did; when they come, they come unexpectedly. And there are some people with disabilities who don’t need healing; while I would gladly be healed of my anxiety, my autism is a part of who I am that I would never change. But we can build communities where all of God’s children are known and welcome. We can build communities where all people receive the support they need to live the full and abundant lives God promises to all his children. May we learn to do so.