delivered on July 24th, 2011 at Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ
I looked at Connie earlier this week and asked her, “Who the heck came up with this week’s theme?” For I chose what I thought was a Summer theme of celebration, one that matched our values as a progressive Christian covenant community, I chose Summer of Love, but some of these Sundays are, quite frankly, a challenge. Its easy enough to find Christian prophetic witness in the struggle against slavery, what stronger grounding can you have than the story of the Exodus people fleeing slavery? And its not so hard to find a Christian basis for equality and justice for women, for despite the centuries-long efforts by some traditions to deny it, women were clearly important equal partners in the ministry of those who followed Jesus, patriarchy be damned! It’s not even that hard to find scriptural support for worker’s rights, and therefore for the Christian commitment to labor justice, something Scott Walker and the Koch brothers might want to keep in mind. But it is pretty difficult to find a direct connection between the Christian faith and disabled rights. There are historical reasons for this.
One obvious reason why Christians have a conflicted relationship with disability is the fact that we celebrate Jesus’ ability to heal. And boy could he heal… the crippled, the blind, the mentally ill, even the dead! That’s some serious healing! And so we have woven wholeness of body into the Christian message of wholeness of spirit.
And at least once Jesus told the person in need of healing that his sins were forgiven, which seemed to create a causal link between disability and sin, at least in the minds of some. It is not entirely clear that this is what Jesus meant, but it was part of a broader cultural context.
It is a fact that while the Hebrew people evolved in their understanding of God, we tend to reach back into early points on the theological trajectory and take up primitive beliefs. The idea that forgiving sin was connected to healing is based on one of these primitive systems of belief, one that the prophets, from Ezekiel to Jesus, seem to reject. It is the primitive idea that your fortunes in this life are directly tied to your fidelity to God’s law, a belief that Joel Osteen and the hucksters of prosperity theology are still trying to pass off as gospel. Of course, much of what passed for God’s law in ancient Israel was a complex legal code designed by the Temple bureaucrats and had nothing to do with God, and, through Christ we are offered all sorts of grace, so this whole be holy and healthy, be holy and get rich thing, well, it’s sort of completely, totally… bogus. Anyone with their eyes open knows that sometimes bad guys win in the ways of this world, and sometimes good guys lose. We know that the connection between fidelity to God and worldly health, wealth and happiness simply isn’t real. But as followers of Jesus, we also know that it isn’t the ways of this world that matter. But, somehow, generation after generation believed, continued to believe long after Jesus, continued to believe despite the new covenant with Christ, that disability equaled sin, and that those who had disabled children had committed grave sins, and so a disabled child was a sign of shame, and so was to be hidden away… all of this grounded in terrible theology and creating great suffering…
I can at the very least say in celebration that those who struggled for justice for the disabled were inspired by the civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties that was itself inspired by our faith. So at least we get secondary credit. And I can say that loving Christians have always served the disabled, have served the vulnerable. We can celebrate that bold Christians challenged centuries old dysfunctional and wrong beliefs about disability. At the start of the 20th century, Queen Elizabeth’s uncle, John, was hidden from public view and largely separated from his family because he had epilepsy, dying at the age of thirteen a sad and lonely child. Just a couple of decades later Ambassador Joseph Kennedy Sr. would present his daughters at the Court of St. James, including his disabled daughter Rosemary, to that very same British royal family. Rosemary’s sister, Eunice, would go on to found the Special Olympics and to be a powerful Christian force for rights and for care.
So there is some good news to report after all, and, just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked a legal turning point in the battle for racial equality, so the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 marked a legal turning point in the battle for access and justice for the disabled. And Christians did play a role. But we still have a long way to go.
The real joke here is the notion that there is such a thing as being “abled.” Now back in the old days when most folks died young there were some individuals who were healthy and able right up until they died. Then came a sword, a virus, a farming accident, or in the case of Sampson a woman, a barber, and a temple that fell on his head. Today, with our ability to prolong life and to overcome previously fatal conditions, more and more of us are living with some form of disability. We have a schizophrenic cultural narrative around bodily health… Jesus as a wimp with Breck shampoo hair cavorting with lambs and the “muscular” Christianity of the early 20th century, faith healers and shame, people who still think disability is connected to sin, and Christians who recognize that those with disabilities are not always helpless, who empower those who are able and protect those who are vulnerable.
We are vulnerable as children and vulnerable as we extend the length of life, and sometimes we are vulnerable at other points in our lives, so surely we must start to think about the very concept of bodily wholeness and health… I know Paul seemed to be at war with the flesh, but we’ve come a long way since Paul, and we have bodies and minds and they are beautifully imperfect, and they are a part of who we are, these bags of skin and bones, and so we should, just maybe, work on a theology of living in imperfect bodies with imperfect minds. We should all consider ourselves differently abled and less than perfect because we are!
Let us remember that even God, when God took on flesh and walked with us as Jesus of Nazareth, was broken of body. The great healer with the power of the divine, surely he could have healed the wounds inflicted by the forces of the Roman government? God chose to be broken, like so many of us are, in fact, chose to die in a most brutal fashion. Remember, under the Law, code for under the complex purity laws of the Temple regime, pretty much everything about the flesh was unclean, blood was a serious problem, and here is Jesus, broken, brutally broken, and yet holy. Holiness and so cleanliness pours into the broken flesh. The being of the Christ is not sullied by the broken body of the man Jesus, but instead, God sanctifies the flesh, even the broken flesh. The resurrected Jesus, as mentioned in scripture and in today’s reading from a disabled theologian, is broken in body, but is God. The broken has been transformed. This is not that oh so easy “pity the broken and vulnerable.” In Jesus we find that the broken is holy, that God has poured holiness on humankind, reversing the flow of impurity.
Maybe, just maybe, this is our theology of disability, this is our theology of the body and the enfleshed, not that flesh is the low-down dirty enemy that Paul battled, but that flesh is the resurrection, is the ability to be sanctified and holy in who we are as we are as a part of God’s amazing and holy creation, even with missing parts and parts that don’t work and parts that are wearing out. As a person who has had a painful and at times crippling disability, I certainly would like to embrace that theology. Doesn’t that sound lovely? Not some miracle cure in the waters of Lourdes, but a miraculous transformation in which our imperfect bodies become signs not of our sin, not of our shame, not of impurity and uncleanliness, but become signs of sanctification, are made holy because God hallowed a broken body, and in so doing, hallowed us.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we break the bread that is Christ’s body at the table of fellowship and we are made holy. We are made holy. Blessed be our wounded and broken savior! Amen.