Mark 2: 3-11 — Through the roof
Then some people* came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven. Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk?” But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,’ he said to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’
This week is the second in our four-part series on how Progressive, Open and Affirming churches can move from simply welcoming marginalized people into our congregation to intentionally working with marginalized people to make our space accessible for all. Last week, we talked about how to create space for the transgender community in our church and in the next two weeks we will be talking about creating space for folks living with a mental illness and folks living in poverty.
Today, we are talking about how to be more accommodating and accessible for people who are living with a disability. This is something that affects all of us, regardless of how able-bodied we are. According to the CDC, 61 million adults in the United States are living with a disability…which breaks down to about 1 out of every 4 people. This means that even if you are not personally living with a disability, you know and love someone who is. It also means that our church already has people who are living with a disability among its members, and so we need to be asking important questions about if there is more we can be doing to create an accessible church.
Our scripture for this morning tells the story of a man who was living with a disability. We don’t know much about this man, we don’t even know his name. For the purposes of this sermon though, I’ve decided to call him Steve. We can infer a few things about Steve from reading this story. First, we know that he was paralyzed. We also know that in those days people who were living with disabilities were not seen as equals to those who were able-bodied. Many people believed and taught that if someone was disabled that person or his/her family must have sinned against God and this was their punishment. Most likely Steve’s disability caused him to be ostracized from many in his community.
Second, we know that he wanted to see Jesus. News of this rabbi had reached his community. His family and friends had heard the stories of Jesus traveling the countryside, spreading a new message about God and God’s love for all. They had heard that Jesus had the ability to heal people, and they began to imagine what might happen if they could just get Steve to him. Being blessed by this Rabbi could change his entire life.
The third thing we know about Steve is that he was loved. Despite having a lower social status because of his disability, his friends cared about him and his welfare. He was loved so much that four of his friends carried him on a mat from his home to where Jesus was preaching. He was loved so much that when his friends saw that the house was surrounded by people and there was no way to carry a man on a mat through that crowd, they did not give up and take him back home. They didn’t say, “Sorry Steve, better luck next time.” They began thinking of other ways to include him in this special moment.
They loved this man so much that they fought the systems that were designed to keep him out. They found a revolutionary solution to a problem that would have stopped most people. Together, the four of them fought through the crowd to get to the house, climbed up onto the roof and lifted Steve on his mat up there with them. They created space for him by breaking through the roof, and then they lowered him down, so he was right at the feet of Jesus. They demanded Jesus’ attention on their friend’s behalf.
Jesus, by forgiving Steve’s sins and later telling him to get up from his mat and walk was doing more than healing him. He was also confronting the attitudes which kept this man marginalized in his own community. He was declaring that Steve was a child of God, just as deserving of God’s love as anyone else. He was restoring Steve to his place in society and his community.
The sad thing is that 2000 years later we still have a long way to go as a society to be fully accommodating of people with disabilities. All too often we still treat people living with disabilities as a burden rather than as a beloved part of our communities. As I was doing this research, I was shocked at how much work the Christian church in America needs to do to make space for people with disabilities to be fully included and loved members of the church.
For example, in her article “Resisting Ableism in the American Church,” Shannon Dingle wrote:
“Going to a new church as a disabled person is a brave act. Why? Because churches have a history of being unwelcoming to us.
I love the church. I can’t and won’t give the church up, no matter how wounded I feel. Yet, I know more disabled people who have left the church than who have stayed. I know more parents who have left after giving birth to or adopting children with disabilities than who have stayed. Whenever I’m asked about Christian speakers, writers, and leaders who are disabled, I pause to think if I can add any new names to the short list.”
She goes on to explain that when the Americans with Disabilities Act was being put into place there were Christians who actively fought against Churches being required to make ADA changes to their buildings because of how much it would cost. The financial burden is something important to be aware of, but so is the very real consequences of being exempt from being ADA compliant.
Dingle wrote, “The outcome of exempting Christian churches and schools from the ADA has been threefold. First, most Christian education programs have only served abled students. Second, no other religions made similar arguments, so Christians stood alone against access for disabled people. Finally, this outcome communicated to the disability community that they did not belong in mainstream U.S. Christianity, as churches either actively opposed the ADA or passively didn’t abide by it because they weren’t required to do so legally.”
So, when we think about becoming more accessible for people living with disabilities, how does First Christian Church of Las Cruces live up to our calling to be inclusive of all people? Well, right now, we are worshipping online. Our zoom worship is accessible for most people living with disabilities, and we also post the written text of our sermons on our website, so it is available for someone with hearing loss.
In our in-person worship services we offer to bring communion to someone who cannot come to the front. We also invite people to only stand during the service if they are able—both of these things are really important to be aware of.
If we think about our physical space, we can be proud that our building is (for the most part) accessible. Our social hall, sanctuary, hallways, and multi-stall bathrooms all accommodate wheelchairs. We have handicapped parking spaces in our parking lot, and we have added braille to our internal signage. Thought has been given to how we can continue to make changes to our building to make it more accessible, and that discussion will continue to evolve as we grow together. For example, we need to consider how someone in a wheelchair might open our exterior building doors as right now we do not have a push button entry system.
There are other things that we can do to make our church a safer place for someone living with a disability. We can post pictures of the chairs in our sanctuary on our website so someone with back issues can know if it is a chair they can comfortably sit in. We could offer a few seating alternatives so people can sit in the chair which is most comfortable for them.
We could be more aware of the chemicals and perfumes we use, so people who are allergic to those scents do not risk an asthma attack or breathing difficulties when they enter our space. We could have a plan in place for what to do if someone needs medical attention while they are at our church. We could designate someone as the person to contact to request simple changes we could make to our space to make it safer for someone with a disability.
We can also be more aware of the language that we use. Are we asking people to stand up in the service and forgetting to include that it is also ok for folks to stay seated? Are we operating under the assumption that someone who has a disability needs to be “fixed,” rather than accepting their disability as a part of their identity? Are we using language that enforces the idea that being able-bodied is normal and having a disability is abnormal? Are we making assumptions about what people need rather than creating a space that is safe for people to tell us what they need?
Over the past few weeks, I have been working to articulate how important it is to move from being a space where everyone is welcome to becoming a space where every person is an important part of the community. I have been explaining this by saying that all people need to be intentionally included, but I think John Swinton explains it much better when he says the following:
“We must go beyond mere inclusion. Disabled people don’t simply need to be included (although that’s a good starting place) – they need to belong. And in the church, of all places, there must be no ‘them and us’…To include people in society is just to have them there. All we have to do is make the church accessible, have the right political structures, make sure people have a cup of tea at the end of the service or whatever. There is a big difference between inclusion and belonging.
To belong, you have to be missed. There’s something really, really important about that. People need to long for you, to want you to be there. When you’re not there, they should go looking for you. When things are wrong, people should be outraged – absolutely outraged that people are doing things against people with disabilities.”
Will you work with me to create a church where all people are not just welcomed or included, but where we all belong together?