Instead of prayers today, I thought I would share with you the text of the sermon I gave as part of The Ordinary Office Sunday service this week. I wish I could say the exclusion and abuse of disabled people within churches was a thing of the past, but sadly these issues are still commonplace across western society today. While awareness of physical and safeguarding issues grows, mental and spiritual abuse, neglect of needs and misunderstandings abound while attitudes are rarely challenged; when they are, those doing the challenging are often tone policed, patronised or ostracised. We don’t want to upset, offend or be divisive. We just want parity, reasonable treatment and fair access, as equal children of God. I invite you to read on.
I wonder at our Bible reading today (Acts 3:1-10), at the people who took the man to the outskirts of the temple gate in Jerusalem called the Beautiful Gate every day, but never within. The people who left him there begging because that was the only way a man who couldn’t walk could get money. The people who didn’t take him to a local workshop to whittle spindles with his perfectly good hands, because his legs had a weakness so that rendered the whole of him useless. The people who placed him outside of the temple but not in it so he could hear the teachings of the Rabbis, because his legs couldn’t hold his strength so his brain mustn’t be able to hold the words. I’d like to say that in 2000 years attitudes have changed. I’d like to say that.
What is it about disability that we find so threatening as a society? Is it that seeing disability in another brings us face to face with our own vulnerability? That to accept disability and embrace it would be accepting and embracing our own fragility? That we are only as strong as our weakest element? That the topsy turvy kin-dom of heaven Jesus preached to us in the Sermon on the Mount is a challenge to our very personhood?
I look around our community, at what some of us have to live with every day, at the experiences and the prejudices and the refusal to give up that our lives are testimony to, and I challenge the view that disability equals weakness. When a daily existence involves enough pills to make a person rattle, enough physical, mental or emotional pain to make it a challenge to get out of bed, and the guarantee of misunderstandings, discrimination and institutional ableism that is nowhere near as close to being recognised as its sister ‘isms’ are; when that is what life involves before a person even starts to meet the day where a person living without disabilities does, how dare anyone dub us weak…
And the emphasis on healing. We must change to be accepted. This man could access the Beautiful Gate once he could walk, of course he could! Peter and John even decided for him that would be a greater gift than money – at least in the parallel story of Jesus healing a physically disabled man in John’s Gospel, Jesus asked him first. As an aside folks, always, always, get consent from a person before you minister to them in any way, praying for healing however well intentioned if it is not consensual or fully wanted is spiritually abusive.
The Bible tells us this particular man was joyful to be healed, and walking, and entering the Beautiful Gate. Praise the Lord. But we must be careful of applying the story of one man in one scenario to all disabled people across all time and space. Would I want to be healed of my neurodiversity, of the way my brain is wired which makes me uniquely who I am? Absolutely not. Do I ever want anyone to pray for me to be healed of this? That would be grossly offensive. Another individual would feel different about their own individual circumstances. So we must always ask.
Had this man ever considered healing before? What lies after healing? So many of us find our identities and our disabilities inextricably linked, in our own eyes or the eyes of others. What happened to this man a week after his healing, when he could no longer beg but had no trade? Did society embrace him as a miracle and therefore support him? The records we have of the early church would indicate they did exactly that. But what does this story say about the community judgement of this man’s worth before God had transformed the strength in his ankles, and then after, when we know God was sat there outside the Beautiful Gate with him all along? God’s presence with him hadn’t changed, God’s value of his life hadn’t changed, so why had societies?
We here at The Ordinary Office, for many different reasons, sit outside of the Beautiful Gate. But we’re not begging for coins, and we aren’t here waiting to be healed. We may have people who have placed us here, but we’ve made something more. Because we believe in better than what society believes in for us. We believe that God is out here with us, not just in there waiting for us when we are ready, conforming, healed. We believe that we can make things with our hands even if our legs can’t carry us, we can use our brains even if our ankles are weak. We believe in celebrating what we can do, rather than what we can’t. If we heal, we heal in our own way, at our own pace and with consent, because it is what we want, not because someone comes along and decides it for us. Peter and John were led by the Spirit to enable a miracle of God for one man. Let us be led by the Spirit to enable a miracle of God for the Church. A miracle in the way Disability is viewed. A miracle where we are not left outside of the Beautiful Gate any more, but where the boundary of the Beautiful Gate for disabled people is no more.
Peace be with you.