Sunday Sermon: Sixth Sunday of Easter
The Rev. Deacon Gene Bourquin preached the following sermon on Sunday, May 26, 2019.
Who doesn’t love a Sabbath healing? Having listened to today’s Gospel, you’re probably expecting a recitation on this theme. Those Pharisees were always going after Jesus for working on Saturday. But I think it’s okay now. I read that gospel a few times, checked with the Dean this morning, and you got permission to go out today and help heal someone. If you’d like to take care of somebody sick, or visit a friend who’s ill, or help a fellow citizen with a disability get down the steps of the subway, please do. I think the matter is settled.
But labor on Saturdays or Sundays is not the only thing we Christians can attend to in today’s Gospel from John.
John’s Gospel is not a parable. John isn’t big on parables. Instead John seems to look back, and with a long view, and tell us the story as it was.
Typically in commentary or sermons I’ve read and heard, the individual in today’s story, this person with a long-term illness has rarely, if ever, been seen as a good guy. He’s selfish or full of self-pity. He’s an ingrate, never reported to even give a thank you to the Lord. He’s maybe lazy, giving Jesus a litany of excuses for not curing himself, not getting up and taking the good fight, maybe not trying enough to make his way into the pool–the pool that would make him well.
I’ll have to admit here, right up front, that I have always had a problem—a struggle—with the healing narratives in the Testaments. Not with the mercy of ending suffering, and not with restoring life, and surely not with Jesus bringing people back into communion and full membership in their communities. Rather, it’s how we—I mean the church and society—have connected these stories to other values.
In the New Testament there’s usually three stakeholders in these stories. First there’s Jesus (or maybe Peter). Then there’s usually the onlookers or crowd or nosey neighbors. And then there’s the individual who is ill, or disfigured, or disabled. His or her illness or disability typically fulfills one or two roles: either their physical difference was representation of sin, or it was a mechanism to enhance others, demonstrate patience, safeguard virtue from pride, or give glory to God. Sometimes a disability signaled the possibility of eternal punishment. In nearly all instances disability is clearly not neutral.
I have to agree with commentator Elisabeth Johnson when she writes that this ill person in today’s gospel “is perhaps the least willing and the least grateful of all the people Jesus heals.”
Unmotivated . . . ungrateful . . . lazy, good-for-nothing lout. It’s easy to see this perspective
When he gets up, he just takes his mat and walks away. This guy doesn’t seem to care at all about the person who just cured him after decades of infirmity. In fact, in the subsequent verses of this gospel, the man actually reports Jesus to the authorities as the violator of Sabbath law.
The negative view that characterizes this person with a disability—needy, greedy, ungrateful—is it true? Or is this more our own projection of a long history of people with disabilities and their place and role in Western Christian societies? Does this rendition of Jesus the healer define a guide to disability, or is this interpretation and judgment of this individual more a reflection of our own cultural norms?
Dr. Robyn Neville, a professor at General Theological when I attended seminary who studies scriptures and people with illness and disabilities, asks, “What cultural or theological values do non-normative bodies communicate?” And she notes sin as the correlate to the imperfect body. And she asks if people with disabilities are seen as objects in the verses or do they have agency? Are they symbols of sin or are they . . . people. Sometimes in the Testaments they appear not much more than props.
And the literature from the secular world has surely done no better related to people with sensory or physical difference, forming and maintaining cultural norms that promote anything but inclusiveness. In what fairly tale is the princess less than gorgeous? What beast is not turned from bad to good, from ugly to handsome? When do we see a story where the teacup is okay with a chip in his china? What does this tell us about the relationships between secular institutions of business, and government, and entertainment, and education? Between abled-bodied people and people with disabilities? In the non-religious view, people must be “overcomers” —defeating the conditions that handicaps them. They are successful only to the extent that they achieve as close-to-normal a circumstance as possible—in body, mind, and spirit. They have agency in proportion to how much they mimic the perfect and immaculate ideal.
Perhaps the epitome of disability—the person with the non-standard body—since the early 20th century until today, is Helen Keller. Although she was not the first deafblind child to be educated—she was actually the fourth, living a century after the first deafblind child was educated by religious teachers, clerics, in Paris—she became and remains world famous. She got the Broadway play, the hit movie, the famous water pump—a modern shrine of sorts in Alabama—and is a hero to countless school children who read her story and often learn to spell silently with their fingers.
Brave, facing a life in darkness and silence, Helen was made the face of disability—pure, unstained, a perfect secular saint for overcoming adversity. But this was hardly the entire truth. While Helen was indeed a brilliant and amazingly strong woman, she was also the product of a system that would only allow her agency when she conformed to the standards of the non-disabled. Helen was blind, but she never gained independent movement. She never was taught to travel the world without being on someone else’s arm. She was deaf, but never taught or used sign language. She never socialized with other deaf people. Even though her voice was literally unintelligible, she was encourage to express herself only with speech—not use sign, the language of the deaf. Before she had her tilted and imperfect eye removed and replaced, she was only photographed on her good side, and her letters sent to people around the world were all checked and edited so that her writing appeared without flaw. She was prevented from marrying to maintain her unearned virginal public image, and to be certain she would continue to bring in funds to promote and support charities, and in order to keep her household financially viable, she even toured the as an entertainer, taking to the stage and becoming a popular vaudeville act despite her Radcliffe college degree.
Helen was the prototype of the overcomer—so much so that she was a friend and supporter of Alexander Graham Bell. You know him as the inventor of the telephone. But deaf people know him as the famous scientist who wanted to prevent people with hearing loss from being able to legally marry each other. And Helen believed and promoted the pseudo-science of eugenics in order to eliminate the propagation of people with disabilities. Her disabilities were no more part of her than an unwanted scar and her life’s story was the efforts of ridding herself of the outward signs of difference and disability.
Themes in popular myth and culture and the bible demonstrate the obstacles encountered by people with disabilities who seek inclusion and justice as themselves within the wider Christian community.
Mathew quotes the prophet Isaiah when he describes Jesus’ mission to redeem us of our sins, saying “He took our sicknesses and removed our diseases.” In Luke we see healing as a benefit of belief. "Don't be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed." And Mark recounts Jesus saying, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."
Even as we marvel at the love and compassion of Jesus the healer, we might still ask, Where does his leave us—morally and ethically—understanding today’s Gospel story? With John’s Jesus? In the author’s reflective retelling of the savior’s story? As someone living with glaucoma and only one-third of my vision left, this is not a hypothetical alone.
Most odd in today’s healing story, there is no selection by faith—no “woman, your faith has set you free” moment. There’s no coming from faith or running to it. Quite the contrary—there is no evidence that the man in today’s Gospel is affected in any spiritual way because of his encounter with Jesus.
In John, people who have disabilities tend to appear to be real people. And Jesus is seen to address professor Neville’s question about characters in the Bible—are people with disabilities just objects? In today’s gospel, Jesus seems to say, “No.” He sees a real person. He does not assume or decide for this person—instead, Jesus asks a question. He says, “Do you want to be made well?”
Now our assumption would surely be yes, of course, why not, who wouldn’t after 38 years? But not every person with a non-normative body, or altered sense or mental status, needs or wants to be cured. Some do indeed. Sometimes a person’s difference, though, is part of who the person IS—not an affliction but rather a component of identity. And in Jesus’s simple inquiry, What do you want? He gives agency to this man, recognizes his personhood, respects his ability to decide about his own life.
Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, the nobleman’s son is not even present when healed—nothing is explicitly asked from this father and son for the miracle, and when Jesus restores the sight of a congenitally blind person, his perpetually clueless disciples say, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” I proffer that of all the gospels, John’s rendition of the Jesus’ narrative gives us the savior and healer who most reveals how those who are not disabled can be in communion with those who are.
What we have is two really diametrically opposed perspectives, one I’d hopefully label “obsolete” and the other “emerging.” And the former and the later are easily detected in threads of Christian thought and the history of secular societies. The older view sees a person with a disability in religious terms as the bearer of sin—and in the eyes of modern medicine, as the bearer of a broken less valuable body. This stands in stark contrast to the emerging view of the non-normative body—in both the Church and in contemporary cultures.
Quite frankly, I reject the classic interpretations of the Christian narrative of sin and so-called affliction, the alignment of fleshly flawlessness and holiness, the notion of imperfection to an arbitrary standard as a judgments of ability. We as Church have long be made small by St. Paul's assertion that "faith cometh by hearing"—literally eliminating salvation and the kingdom from all Deaf people. And we have lived for 16 centuries with Augustine conflation of sin and disability, the result that many people were banished from the church, unable to participate or hear the word of God, forcibly cloistered into religious communities, and segregated by type of difference.
Nancy Eiesland in her 1994 groundbreaking book, The Disabled God, challenges this boldly. She calls for end to the stereotypes and one-dimensional saints. She asks us to live into a belief system where difference does not mean incomplete, heroism is not the necessary prerequisite to the elimination of injustice, and disability is part of life and salvation.
The man in today’s Gospel had valid complaints – they were real. Jesus listened. His story is not recounted to enhance others through pity and patience, or safeguarding virtue from pride, or to correct the sinner. Jesus doesn’t demand deference, doesn’t look for it, is okay without it.
The Jesus we worship, as John well knew, dies with a broken body. Author Eiesland reminds us, “The symbol of Jesus Christ, the disabled God, has transformative power . . . It is the disabled God we remember at the Eucharist table—the God who was physically tortured, arose from the dead, and is present in heaven and on earth [ . . . ] disabled and whole.” The time for ransomed healing grace—requiring perfect hearts, perfect minds, or perfect bodies in order to be held in the ever present and all encompassing loving arms of Jesus Christ, is past. The signs and miracles of The Christ are not quid pro quo for forgiveness. We are all already—Adonis or disfigured—worthy.
The church is broken by sin, not by physical or sensory differences, and when we see Jesus reminding us of this, we’ve witnessed our good news in today’s Gospel.