Church of the Holy Trinity – March 6, 2005 Homily
by Marilyn Dolmage
It’s been interesting for me to learn more about how worship is planned and shared at Holy Trinity – from this chance to participate. Susie invited a group of us to take part in Lenten worship and we all commented on how much we enjoyed the participatory nature of worship at HT and then had to get busy participating. But that contribution is wonderful.
And I greatly appreciate the support I have received from others in the Lenten worship series – Ian’s offer to coordinate; and meeting with Ian and Malcolm and my friend Betty; with Becca for the music; and Sara checking if I am okay.
Lent is time known for both inward penitence, and outward social action. There are big challenges in each of the week’s readings – to grapple with sin – personal and societal -and to think about change.
And it is Interesting to know that perhaps millions of others are considering the same readings each week.
We concentrate here on the story that John tells – in Chapter 9 – and the message that is behind it. And I choose to relate mostly to the issues of the blind man.
It was Ian’s and Malcolm’s advice to start with something positive (and hopefully keep you with me). Here are some of the good bits:
- Jesus confirms that this man is not disabled because anyone has sinned
- The man can speak for himself and does
- He is no longer a beggar
- Jesus has noticed someone others ignored
- Jesus comes back to him by the end of the story
- Truth conquers all
But I did not start out feeling good about this story at all. I was frustrated when I felt the story had chosen me. I thought: “Why me? Me again! I seem to always have to explain. Why don’t people understand and see it my way? Nothing changes. Why is this necessary over and over again?”
That frustration turned to anger – and then I decided that a discussion of anger is an important thing in Lent, especially considering the problems of the world. Surely anger – personal and societal – is behind most of our struggles for social justice. Is anger a sin, if it is a response to sin?
My life prepares me well to consider the Bible’s treatment of people with disabilities.
I am informed by my life without Robert – my brother. I was four years old when he was born with Down syndrome and he was institutionalized from that moment on. I was thinking this morning, that that was a life sentence for him. But it was actually a death sentence.
I am informed by my life with my son Matthew – and that opportunity to learn from him.
I am informed because I work alongside many others who experience disabilities first hand – over 35 years I have spent in professional partnerships.
Frustration and anger fuel my advocacy for change, and inform all the struggles for social justice that I engage in
I am clearly not a theologian, but I’ve been told John tells this story as part of his larger agenda. Jacqui Knowles said – on the first Sunday of Lent – “the stories were there before theology, and will be there after”. So this is just a story, one of many possible – to make a point. Why is it revered? Why is “the Gospel” considered the truth? I find more questions than answers.
So here I am today giving my perspective – not theological, but personal and authentic. I have run away from other churches because of such issues – so I thank you for staying to hear me!
What are the problems I find here?
1. The man is never given a name
I am inclined to see that as disrespectful. I think of the Easter Seal image of “Timmy”. No matter what his name, he is “Timmy”: so the personal is lost for the campaign.
Others have told me that the fact this man is not given a name gives us a chance to see him as “everyman” – as anyone of us. And that’s helpful
But I see that too many people who have disabilities have been defined by stigmatizing labels. They don’t get to be known as individuals and members of communities, because of those labels.
2. This man was BORN blind – this was congenital; this was the way God made him.
So his blindness was highly unlikely to be preventable or reversed – even today. And I am thinking of a family I know in Hamilton whose beautiful little blonde baby named Scott was born with no eyes
At the age of 4, I was told that my brother Robert was “born wrong” and that’s why he was sent away.
I tried to shield my own infant from those who pathologized him, who saw him as a medical curiosity.
But I have to admit to some of my honest reactions, as a mother, thinking about congenital disabilities and “anomalies”.
Like many other pregnant women of my time – 31 years ago – I read a book by Adele Davis called “Let’s Have Healthy Children”. It was a “Bible” of nutrition in those days. But I reflected: If eating well during pregnancy helps your child, what did that mean for me? Were Matthew’s problems my fault, in any way? Healthy babies flatter mothers – I know that; I’ve been there too, They make them proud. But what do unhealthy babies do? It is understandable that we don’t want our children to have difficulties – but can we want them when they do? Is parenting unconditional?
There is even greater pressure now for “perfect babies”. After prenatal testing, prevention of disability usually means abortion. And if birth proceeds, it has sometimes been deemed “wrongful”. That sounds a lot like the only information I got about my baby brother. And I am told that in the U.S., medical insurance plans may refuse to support through life, the child who is born even though a prenatal diagnosis showed a problem. Countries are spending millions of dollars on genome research; we have to ask ourselves how that be used?
There are two religious approaches to congenital issues of disability – that people are either punished by God or chosen by God. And I think both prepare parents equally badly for life as parents. The other view is that because you have had a “special child”, you must be “special” too. Jane Erin is now a world famous expert on the education of children with visual impairments, at the University of Arizona. In 1991, she researched the “Religious beliefs of parents of babies born blind”. Immediately after birth, 20% saw their children’s visual impairments as a punishment for sin. That dropped to 4% as time passed. And initially, 32% of the parents in her study thought they had been specially chosen by God to raise their special child. And this rose to 45%, over time.
I don’t think either of these attitudes is very helpful to the child or the parents.
So my experience tells me how unlikely it is that the birth of a child with disabilities will be celebrated. And yet I live in hope that will change. Today, I have brought Fran Sowton’s beautiful painting of Another Eden, which is part of that hope and part of that change – in our belief and attitudes – that is necessary.
3. Getting back to John’s Gospel: Jesus clearly said no one sinned. That is his message – loud and clear. But the references to sin are repeated, over and over again. And there are metaphors in this story that very strongly perpetuate the connections between sin and disability – quite horribly. Spit and mud? Now maybe – and I have looked this up – some cultures may actually value this, but ours clearly does not. So why do we keep the story? How do we tolerate that image? And then the man is sent to ritualistically wash away the spit, the mud… the sin? The message pervades.
4. But the central problem for me is that this is a story about HEALING.
John had another agenda – why is this aspect necessary? We can imagine that, in those days, there were not other ways to accommodate blindness. But Jesus didn’t even ask the man if he wanted to be healed. And this man’s life was in some ways worse after he was healed; he was more vulnerable and isolated.
It is true that he did not have to profess his faith in order to be healed, but he did so afterwards.
The story makes it seem as if life is good only if healing is possible – and thus, disability is eradicated altogether. I think such stories have contributed to the harm people with disabilities have faced – over the ages and now. Think of pilgrimages to Lourdes, or Ste. Anne de Beaupre. I remember TV shows with Oral Roberts sweating and healing. But I also think about the pressures that Matthew faced. Therapists seldom listened to what he wanted, and the help he got depended on how “ready” and deserving they judged him to be. There was pressure for compliance, through behaviour management. Lee Creal’s brother Norman Kunc thinks of “therapist” as two words (the Rapist”) because of the pressures he faced in his life. Matthew used to walk with crutches – and school therapist was very annoyed that he was holding his hands wrong in the crutches and was resisting walking. We found out months later that the pressure had meant that his elbows had dislocated and his shoulders had both separated. And he’d learned no one would listen to his pain. There is pressure on the individual to gain skills even in the face of a system and of communities that refuse to accommodate.
Matthew played his own amazing keyboard compositions – but loved the very first synthesizer he received. He would relax to repetitions of its pre-programmed song. It was really only after Matthew’s death that we realized the song we heard – seemed like millions of times in our home – was “I Love You Just the Way You Are”. You will not find that message on unconditional love in most of the hymns that our hymnbook suggests should accompany this Gospel reading.
5. I found an article entitled: “Physically Challenged, Spiritually Lost? Examining the Blind in the Gospel of John” (by Jennifer Koosed, Albright College, and Darla Schumm, Hollins University). It examines how John uses double entendre to connect two meanings of blindness. On the one hand, there is the man’s physical impairment – literally. However, by the end of the story, this disability is equated – metaphorically – to spiritual ignorance or faithlessness. I think such stories pathologize and stigmatize blindness and other disability. The authors of this article argue that John thereby links spiritual perfection with physical perfection – through a very exclusionary metaphor.
They write that: “depictions of broken bodies in the Gospel of John perpetuate a situation where persons with disabilities are excluded from full membership within the Christian community.”
I was intrigued to find there is a website for something called the “John 9 Children’s Ministry” at a church in California. Sure enough, this is a segregated Sunday school – where kids with disabilities – and their parents – are welcomed very “specially”. But I think that means they are not made welcome in the rest of that church.
We have a book in our Holy Trinity library with a title that has appalled me: Unexpected Guests at God’s Banquet: Welcoming People With Disabilities into the Church. Guests? Unexpected?
So I react to John Chapter 9 as – excuse me – a “Gawd awful” story. I think such stories have done great harm over the years, and perhaps that is being perpetuated this very day in many churches.
So no wonder I am angry. I have fought against segregation and exclusion most of my life – for my son and others. But I don’t face that stigma, that harm directly. So I am not even aware of some of the exclusion others experience.
Audre Lord wrote about anger as the legitimate response to racism in Sister Outsider – a collection of speeches and poetry from the early 1980s. She said: “I know the anger that lies inside me like I know the beat of my own heart and the taste of my own spit.” She calls anger “a molten pot at the core of me”; “an electric thread in the emotional tapestry”. She writes: “Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger – potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being”. “Focused with precision, it can be a powerful source of energy, serving progress and change” – by which she means “a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives”.
I was so unsettled and angry when I first considered this reading. I got home and opened the co-ordinator’s envelope, and it was quite surreal when today’s Psalm dropped out of the envelope, that night. The 23rd. Psalm – such calming words: God as kind shepherd and host – especially considering the pain expressed in Psalm 22.
But one line in Psalm 23 stops me up short – “in the presence of my enemies”, or “my foes”. It is written in Ian’s version, these words: “My enemies watch as you set a table for me”. I am not sure what that means: are we gloating, that they are there? are they forced to make amends, in any way? Enemies also surrounded Jesus at the Last Supper.
It’s one thing to talk about anger, but it is frightening to talk about having enemies. I’d rather not think this way – and yet work for social justice often means confrontation. I remember those people who did harm to Matthew – and sometimes it seemed deliberate. In my work every day, I hear stories of harm done to people with disabilities by schools, services and government – even by their neighbours, as in the recent CBC Radio documentary about the families in Rimouski, Quebec who pulled their children out of school, to protest the mild-mannered little girl with Down Syndrome they saw as impeding their children’s education.
Audre Lord writes that converting anger into action helps us know “who are allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies”. She says hatred and anger are very different: ”Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change”. She said: “when we turn from anger, we turn from insight”.
So I think this story can be changed. I think it means we do not seek healing that subjugates and excludes people with disabilities. The healing we seek involves radical change in ourselves, and justice in the world to welcome and celebrate differences.
That book I mentioned in the Holy Trinity library is not always respectful but does contain many good ideas for including people of all abilities. It’s further proof – you can’t tell a book by its cover! Its title is mistaken – the last Chapter is entitled Celebrating with the Expected Guests!
Every one is expected.
Everyone is included.
Each of us is loved – no matter how we are born; no matter what happens to us – through illness, accident, aging.
We will change whatever we must – so that we all receive the support we require; all of our stories are heard; all of our contributions are recognized.
As family, we share sorrow and celebration.
As allies, we share anger and action.
All social justice struggles are connected.
Theologians say that John retold the stories of Jesus relative to the changing times after his death. Is there a better story – that we can tell now – that could cover the issues John addressed? Those are:
Jesus helps people at the margins of society but can’t stay with us all the time.
Disability is not a sin.
People with disabilities and their families are often overpowered, and need support.
Religious and other authorities can set up rules and obstacles that victimize us, and they sometimes need to be confronted and challenged.
Healing can mean welcoming.
Understanding sometimes evades those in authority, but comes to ordinary people in surprising ways.
Ian will now read another story. See what you think, as a re-write, for a start… It’s quite simple, really.
An eagerly awaited baby was born one Sunday, to a family in the Holy Trinity parish. Jesus couldn’t be there in person, but sent a midwife who checked the baby over carefully while she cleaned him, smiled at his family and kissed his tiny head. Getting to know their new son, the parents noticed his eyes did not open and he had an unusual number of fingers and toes. They snuggled him, but watching him struggle mightily, they called for medical help right away.
Church friends met the new dad right away at the hospital. People from Holy Trinity carried out a vigil there for many weeks, alongside the family, praying for the baby, questioning the authorities and digesting the information professionals provided. When a physician refused treatment, the whole parish sued the pants off him!
There was a huge celebration when the baby came home at last. People kept bringing their children and grandchildren to play, attended medical appointments, celebrated the little guy’s learning and encouraged his parents.
Liturgies and Sunday School at Holy Trinity became even greater feasts of sound and touch.
The school board stopped pressuring the family to send him to a segregated school, after the whole parish showed up at board meetings and wrote letters. Instead, everyone got together and provided support so he could learn as a member of the regular classroom in his neighbourhood school.
More than just once every year, the child’s birth was remembered happily and great joy was shared over his survival and his achievements.
At Holy Trinity, wonderful stories were told, and they all prophesied.
Listen to what the Spirit is saying to this congregation.