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“The Bible on Disability”

A sermon by Sid Burgess for Edgewood PC, Birmingham, AL
December 16, 2007, Third Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11

Every year the statisticians up at Cornell University produce a comprehensive report on people with disabilities in the United States. Using data from the Census Bureau, Cornell’s 2006 Disability Status Report estimates that there are some 22 million of us, ages 21 to 64. We comprise 13% of the population in this age bracket. Here in Alabama, the percentage is significantly higher--almost 19% of the working age population has a disability. Ratchet up the age ladder a bit and the numbers literally jump. Nationwide, 30.2 percent of people, ages 65 to 74, have some disability. For persons ages 75 or older, the number jumps to 53%. Live long enough and we’ll all eventually be needing one of those inviting parking spaces reserved for the handicapped.

Now our own Herman Hatch would be quick to tell us that everyone who has disability also has ability--often enormous talent, drive, and intelligence. And Jane Chase, Herman’s colleague in the advocacy group, Partners in Policymaking, likes to say “Normal is just a setting on a dryer.”

Unfortunately, people with disabilities--be they physical, mental, or sensory. . . . Unfortunately, people with disabilities are often overlooked, dismissed, even mistreated. In fact, the history of people with disabilities is a powerful story of discrimination, segregation, abuse, ignorance, silence and good intentions that brought bad results. Even the Bible itself is guilty of blatant discrimination against those who are different. The “holiness code” in Leviticus rules that any person with the least impairment is barred from serving in the priesthood (Lev. 21:17-20) Why, the code requires that animals to be offered in sacrifice must be without blemish (Lev. 22:22)! Of course, we have long since stopped the practice of animal sacrifice, and it is long past time to stop rejecting, mistreating, or ignoring people with disabilities--in the church, as well as, throughout society.

The larger biblical witness demands this. One tenet of the Reformed tradition teaches us to use scripture to interpret scripture. The late Shirley Guthrie used to say when somebody comes pointing his or her finger at you saying, “The Bible says . . . .” An effective and faithful response is to ask: ‘What else does the Bible say?’

Today, the Bible says a great deal about God’s intentions for people with disabilities. We hear this loudly and clearly in our texts from Isaiah and Matthew. Isaiah says we will see God’s glory and majesty as weak hands are strengthened and feeble knees are made firm. This is a sacred promise for those suffering from arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and any condition that weakens hands and enfeebles knees. And there is more.
The divine intention, says Isaiah, is to fortify those with “a fearful heart.” Storyteller Garrison Keillor says “Powdermilk biscuits” will do the trick for shy people. But Isaiah says God will supply the fortitude we need to do what needs to be done. Isaiah urges us to look for the coming of the Lord, when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

Imagine someone being transported from antiquity to our modern age. Imagine them witnessing for the first time the miracles of modern medicine-- eye glasses and contact lens, laser surgery, hearing aids, Cochlear implants, knee and hip replacements, and speech therapy, not to mention heart bypass surgery, effective cancer treatments, antibiotics, immunizations, and other marvelous drug therapies. Surely, the living God is at work through the practice of medicine.

In addition, God is at work in the vast improvements that have been made in recent years in handicapped accessibility to public buildings, to restrooms as well as to parking. Plus, more resources than ever before are available through public education to children with disabilities and special needs

But, says Isaiah, more is coming, “For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert . . . . A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way .” . . .
Imagine if you will that the fast lane of this “Holy Way” highway is reserved exclusively for people with disabilities. All the gifted people--gifted with superior intelligence, exceptional physical strength and ability, youth and beauty, excellent coordination and rich talent. . . ., ‘Ya’ll move on over to the right lane. Make way for us in the fast lane on the King’s Highway!’ No one is going to get lost on this divine route, no reckless drivers will threaten us. Nobody’s gonna be honkin’ at old grandpa on the King’s Highway!

And music! Just listen to the music: “come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness . . . .” For people with disabilities, says Isaiah, “sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

I promise you; I am not making this up. You can look it up: Isaiah 35:1-10, it’s all right there.

And all of the above is just the beginning. Wait till you hear what Jesus has to say. "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Note what prompts this declaration in Matthew’s story. Poor old John the Baptist is in prison, having gotten on the wrong side of King Herod for criticizing the king’s philandering with his sister-in-law. While incarcerated, John has apparently heard about Jesus’ ministry of compassion. This is not what John has in mind for the Messiah. Remember, John has been preaching “fire and brimstone.” As he sees it the Messiah’s mission is “to carry out the final judgment, to see that the ax is laid to the root of the trees and to burn every tree that does not bear fruit” (Matthew 3:10-12).

New Testament scholar Matthew Hare observes, “As far as we can tell from the surviving writings of the time, nobody in first century Judaism expected the Messiah to appear as a healer.”

So John’s question give Jesus, himself, the chance to clarify who he is. Jesus keys on the language from Isaiah, instructing John’s messengers to report what they have seen. They are to testify about what Jesus is doing for the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead and the poor. Not to worry, Jesus is going to get around to the judgment piece in the next few chapters. But for now his primary activity, his principle mission is restoring the disabled to health and wholeness.

Even in our time, there are those of us who want Jesus to get on with the business of weeding out corruption, stamping out crime, and halting the flow of immigration. In the church, some of us are looking for a messiah who will first straighten out the liberals or quash the conservatives, depending on whose side we are on.

But here, at the outset of his ministry, and here in the church, where God has reserved judgment for God’s self, there are other priorities. Namely, ministering to the needs of those in our society, in our communities, who have been marginalized by their situations --pushed to the side by illness or injury, by age, disability, poverty discrimination, or political oppression.

In the months leading up to the 2006 General Assembly, our own Ellen Gillespie served as a member of a denominational task force that developed a remarkable report entitled, “Living into the Body of Christ: Toward full inclusion of people with disabilities.” This report was adopted by the General Assembly as it met here in Birmingham summer before last.

The report calls on pastors, sessions, and congregations to take on these tasks:

1). Work to foster and maintain positive attitudes toward people with disabilities.
2). Encourage the self-advocacy and self-determination and full participation of people with disabilities in congregational life . . . .
3). Seek ways to advocate for the prevention of disabling situations and conditions.
4). Seek ways to advocate for improved quality of life for people with disabilities . . . .
7). Support the effort of caregivers in the congregation.

“Living into the Body of Christ” concludes
with this challenge to the Church, to us:

Our task is . . . to be the welcoming and fully inclusive Body of Christ. In so doing we show forth not only a model of the kind of Church Christ calls us to be but also the kind of community God longs for the world to share, a community where all people are welcomed and blessed.

Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever. Amen.