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People First: Disability Inclusion Sunday

May 29, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Disability Inclusion Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mark 10: 46-52

So, something happened to me when I climbed into the pulpit last week to read the scripture. For the first time, I couldn’t see the words. It had happened before, but always, if I took a deep breath, the words would come back into focus. Last week, however, they did not and I was grateful that I know my Bible well enough that I could “read” the Word, though it was blurry.

I have, of course, known that the day would come when I would need assistance to read. I’ve had glasses for a number of years, but I avoid using them. You see, I had a colleague once who got his first glasses in his 40s. Only for reading, mind you. But when he was in the pulpit, as he would look down at his text and then look up over his glasses at the congregation, it gave him an overly stern aspect. Looking over his glasses and out on the congregation created an image of arrogance, of looking down on the congregation, the sermon more of a lecture. And it created problems. It was all about perception, of course, but I have long said that when “I” began wearing glasses on Sunday morning I would tell this story and try to head off the perception.

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No one who wears glasses thinks of him or herself as having a disability. We don’t say we “have a problem” reading.  We just say we “need glasses” to read. Well, some people need a wheelchair or braces to move around. Others need a clear routine in order to feel safe. Some kids need to be able to move around if they’re going to pay attention in a classroom. These are just needs like other needs, not special needs. Certainly not “problems.” They are simply real needs, not unlike our universal needs for friendship, food, and love.

When we define certain people’s needs as problems, or label people according to their needs, we have lost sight of the whole person, the person God made, the person God loves, the person who bears God’s image.

Take our Gospel story today. In our pew Bible it is called the story of “Blind Bartimaeus.” Do you see the problem?

Then Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd came to Jericho. As they were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When Bartimaeus heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered Bartimaeus to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

This has long been one of my favorite stories for teaching. I used to act it out dramatically with my confirmation classes. I would assign one student to be Bartimaeus, several to be the crowd and others to be followers of Jesus; and of course one to be Jesus. I would give a blanket as a cloak to the young Bartimaeus to wrap him or herself in and to serve as something the crowd could toss coins into. I would instruct this student to call out in a loud voice, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me,” with permission to get as loud as needed until Jesus responded. I would instruct the followers of Jesus to do whatever they felt they needed to do to keep Jesus on his mission to Jerusalem without interruptions. And my Jesus I would instruct to respond to Bartimaeus only when his cry could no longer be ignored. And so we would proceed with the drama:

  • Bartimaeus crying out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me,” and the crowd shushing him.
  • Bartimaeus crying out, and the crowd telling him keep quiet.
  • Bartimaeus crying out, and the crowd shouting him down.
  • Bartimaeus shouting out, and the crowd pushing him, or mocking him.
  • Bartimaeus at the top of his voice, and the crowd trying to silence him.

And by then, my Jesus would stop.

“Call him to me,” he or she would say. And the crowd would invite Bartimaeus into Jesus presence, “Hey, he’s calling you,” as if they had just been trying to prevent this.

You see,

  • those from whom Bartimaeus was begging only saw his disability, a ‘blind beggar,’ and responded with charity (if they responded at all);
  • those following Jesus saw only a man shouting, a problem to be avoided, and responded by trying to silence him and move quickly by; while
  • Jesus says that he saw a person of great faith, such faith as to make one whole.

What did Jesus see? Jesus saw a man calling out. He saw a man calling out and refusing to be silenced. He saw a child of God insisting on being heard and paid attention to, and willing to do whatever it took to make that happen. Faith in this story is just this insistence in standing up and speaking out for oneself.

And then Jesus does what Jesus does so well. He assumes nothing, but stops and asks Bartimaeus “What would you like me to do for you?” He lets Bartimaeus define himself and his need, to speak for himself. Jesus does not presume that he knows anything about this man just because he is known to be blind.

Friends, if we are to be like Jesus, when someone calls out to us our job is to stop, ask good questions, and listen.

Today is Disability Inclusion Sunday in Presbyterian Churches everywhere. Kathie Snow writes,

People with disabilities constitute our nation’s largest minority group (one in five Americans has a disability). It is also the most inclusive and most diverse: both genders, any sexual orientation, and all ages, religions, ethnicities, and socioeconomic levels are represented. Yet people who have been diagnosed with disabilities are all different from one another. The only thing they have in common is being on the receiving end of societal misunderstanding, prejudice, and discrimination. Furthermore, this largest minority group is the only one which any person can join at any time! You can join at birth or later, through an accident, illness, [and on this Memorial Day weekend we must mention war, affecting both citizen and soldier], or the aging process. If and when it happens to you, will you have more in common with others who have disability diagnoses or with family, friends and co-workers? How will you want to be described? And how will you want to be treated?[i]

Too often when someone is given a medical diagnosis of either a mental or physical condition, we tend to think we know something important about that person. He has Asperger’s, she has cerebral palsy, mom has Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, ALS, bipolar disorder, depression, Parkinson’s. But we really haven’t learned anything about the person. I have found it helpful to think about the term disability as simply a social and political passport to services and legal status. “The disability criteria, of course, is different for early childhood, which is different from vocational-rehabilitation, which is different from special education, which is different from worker’s compensation, and so on.” Disability has to do with access.

Thus there is also a difference between impairment and disability. Impairments are the bodily limitations we carry. And they are as diverse as we are. Disability, on the other hand, is the result of societal barriers that exist in fully welcoming individuals with impairments. This reminds us that the disability is a social construct and points to a societal lack (not individual!). And this lack is something our community can work to remedy.

Think again a Bartimaeus. What he cries out is: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” Most people hear the word mercy and think of something akin to pity. But just a few weeks ago I pointed out that in Hebrew the word from mercy is the same word used for a mother’s womb. It refers to an environment of protection and care, a place of nurture where life can grow and thrive. We also describe the waters of baptism that mark our entry into the community of the church as a womb, because this describes the kind of care and attention we are to provide to one another. This care includes the particular needs of each individual. I find this quite beautiful.

I’d like now to invite a member of the congregation to come up to the pulpit. She is going to share with us this morning her own story of being the mother of three children, all of whom were baptized here, and how she has learned, like Bartimaeus, to speak up for and advocate for them until she has been heard. In the context of our gospel story today, this is truly a story of faith.

 

 

[i] Kathie Snow, “People First Language.” Much of my information (the quotations) and many of the images in this sermon come from this article and conversations with parishioners over the last couple of weeks. I thank The Rev. Sarah Henkel for the distinction between physical limitation and social disability. Those interested in learning more should do a web search for Presbyterian for Disability Concerns.

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