Preaching “is a process of transformation for both preacher and congregation alike, as the ordinary details of their everyday lives are translated into the extraordinary elements of God’s ongoing creation” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Company of Preachers, Richard Lischer, ed., 2002). Preaching not only helps us understand God’s Word but to see and interact with God’s world as his representatives. The following article is excerpted from a speech given by Linda Larson at Calvin Theological Seminary. It presents her understanding of how God views disabilities with the hope that pastors will be encouraged to do the same.
The Scripture passages that I will talk about have become treasures to me because they reveal how God, through Word and deed, views disability.
Mephibosheth: 2 Samuel 9
This little-known text is an excellent example, through David, of how persons with disabilities are an integral part of the fabric of life. Mephibosheth had a name and a heritage. His disability was a part of who he was, but not the only part. David gave Mephibosheth social status by returning the lands that had belonged to his grandfather. By giving him the ability to determine how his household and finances were to be run, David restored Mephibosheth’s dignity and assured him of the social status of those who had work to do. David’s insistence that Mephibosheth always eat at the king’s table also reinforced Mephibosheth social status and indicated that he valued Mephibosheth’s counsel and advice.
I often wonder if David started a relationship with Mephibosheth out of a sense of atoning for Jonathan’s death. Was he surprised when he first saw Mephibosheth? Were there gasps or stares at the table the first time Mephibosheth came to dinner? Did anyone get up and leave?
And what of Mephibosheth? He calls himself a dead dog. He views his life as a disabled person as a fate worse than death. Most likely he had lived an isolated life until David called for him. Did Mephibosheth feel that he was going to his death? Was he too scared to say to David, “This is not the way it works.” After all, persons with disabilities were supposed to be shunned, isolated. The only job they could legitimately claim was that of beggar. Why would David insist on setting the world upside down?
The treasure in this story is the transformation not only of David and Mephibosheth and their relationship, but of the entire community. How powerful!
More than any other, this story surprises me with joy every time I read it. It shows a person with a disability as the complex being that he is, that we all are. It demonstrates that those who are non-disabled as well as those who are disabled must do what is just in the sight of God. It reveals that disability issues are complex—they include accessibility, autonomy, work and economic status, socialization, the right to marry and have children. Both the non-disabled and the disabled have an equal place in society. Disability is a part of life that needs to be addressed by non-disabled as well as disabled people. Finally, the story shows that ministry with persons with disability takes place in the practical everyday details of life.
The Man Born Blind: John 9
Jesus forever breaks the tie between sin and disability. Disability no longer can be stigmatized as something unclean. We are not to blame the victim or the victim’s parents for disability. Disability brings a prophetic voice into the body of Christ—it proclaims the power that belongs to God. Jesus is the light of the world that empowers members of the body of Christ to let their light shine. Truly we are all created in the image of God—gifted and called to live in community where all give and receive. Sin is consciously or unconsciously not allowing another’s gifts to be used.
Jesus’ act of spitting and making mud to restore the blind man’s sight reminds us that we are physically created from the earth, and to the earth we will return. Our bodies are clay vessels that contain the treasure of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are given to all. The act of cleansing with water is symbolic of baptism—God making us his own. Through these acts, the beggar is transformed into a whole being and is brought into community. Not only do we see the miracle of a cure, but also the miracles of individual and communal healing.
The entire community sees the healing of the blind man as suspect. By working on the Sabbath, Jesus has broken with tradition. Even the blind man’s parents are afraid and refuse to get involved. The crowd accuses Jesus of being a sinner. The man makes a statement of faith; he knows that Jesus is from God. They drive him out.
Will we, the body of Christ, dare to face our own vulnerabilities that disability reminds us of, or will we reject them as the world does? Will we dare to transform the institutions that oppress and exclude? Will we dare to acknowledge our responsibility in that oppression and exclusion?
The Healing of a Boy with Epilepsy: Mark 9:14-29
This passage reveals a person living with an invisible disability. In Greek culture, demons were not necessarily evil or good but spirits of the dead, or ghosts. Certainly a person with an invisible disability must have been a mystery. In this case, the disability was attributed to “an unclean spirit” (v. 25). Somehow we have meshed together three separate concepts: the Jewish view of cleanliness/ uncleanliness, disability, and evil. We equate “different” behavior as odd, unpredictable, even threatening.
I fear that if disability is seen as evil or a lack of faith, instead of what it is—a natural outcome of life and living—we may fail to give persons with such disabilities the care they need. We now know that invisible disabilities have physical causes, including diabetes, epilepsy, mental illness, brain injury, learning disability, emotional/behavioral disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, and many others. But because we do not have anything visible to relate to in the case of invisible disability, we are afraid. We do not want it in our midst, and we will act to ensure that it stays away. This creates a tremendous social stigma on the person with an invisible disability, especially that of mental illness.
This story shows us a father who is desperate to find help for his son. Did the crowd blame the father for his son’s condition? Was the father made to feel guilty and ashamed about his son’s condition? Was the father lonely, because he, with his son, was a social outcast, as in the case of those who had leprosy? Did the crowd go about its daily life, ignoring the elephant in their midst? Did their fear ever turn to anger? Were father and son forced into homelessness, like many of those who live with mental illness? When did the father ever receive respite in taking care of his son?
The Elephant in the Room
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
Disability happens as a result of genetics, illness, or accident. It is not uncleanliness or evil or sin. It does not prevent us from the love of God or of fulfilling God’s purpose for our life. Healing is not cure. Instead it is being brought back into the body of Christ, having a place at the table.
That has implications for the body of Christ. Ministry is with, not to persons with disabilities. Ministry takes place in the practical details of everyday life: providing a meal, providing respite, making appointments, caring for a sibling, cleaning, keeping medical and insurance records, to list a few examples. Ministry is complex. We are called to do what is just, advocating for housing, employment, recreational opportunities, and adequate health care as well as inviting all God’s people, including the disabled, to participate not only in worship but in all aspects of the life of the church.
Disability is the elephant in the room that we may all wish to ignore. We may be frightened by disability because it reminds us of our own individual and communal vulnerabilities. But our task is to embrace disability as the prophetic voice that reminds us of the full inclusion of all God’s children in the body of Christ.
Other Preaching Passages
- Jacob: Genesis 32:24-30
- Moses: Exodus 4:10-16
- Paul: 2 Corinthians 12:7
How Inclusive Is Your Church?
Note: The following ideas for making churches more accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities are offered by Nella Uitvlugt, director of Friendship Ministries (for more on Friendship Ministries, see RW 68, p. 24; www.friendship.org).
- Recessed rugs. Rubber mats can trip people who are visually impaired or who use walkers. Make sure rugs at entrances are recessed.
- Water fountains. If they are not low enough to be used by people in wheelchairs, mount a cup holder next to them.
- Projection screens. Use blue or black backgrounds. Do not add pictures behind words. Use a large, clear font; skip italics.
- Bathrooms. Make sure towel dispensers are hung low enough that people in wheelchairs can reach them.
- Entrances. Be sure they are accessible and well marked; add yellow striping for breaks in the walks.
- Large-print bulletins. Include notices as well as the worship service outline.
- Valet parking. Offer this service to seniors or people with disabilities. Use seasoned drivers; this is not the place to use the gifts of the young person who just got her driver’s license!
- Handicap parking. Are all the spaces used up? If so, add one or two more.
- Tables. Make sure these are usable by people in wheelchairs. Many are too low to accommodate wheelchairs.
- Environmental disabilities. Eliminate scented candles, soaps, and air fresheners. Ask people to refrain from using fragrances.
For Further Reading
- Kathy Black, A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability (Abingdon Press, 1996)
- On the Web: www.calvin.edu/worship.worshipers/index.htm.