Monday, March 05, 2012

Removing Obstacles to the Gospel
Greenville College Chapel Address
Mark 2:1-12
February 1, 2012

            This is a picture of my friend, the Rev. Dr. Craig Satterlee, who teaches preaching at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.  A few weeks ago, it was my privilege to be present as Craig was inducted as the new President of the North American Academy of Liturgy at our annual meeting in Montreal.  But what made Dr. Satterlee’s election somewhat different this year was the fact that he is legally blind, wrestling with a disability that many would consider would disqualify him from not only life as an academic but, for all practical purposes, exclude him from much of contemporary worship.
            In a paper that Craig presented in our seminar, he summarizes the problem in these terms: “Is the kingdom of heaven—and its tangible expression, the Church as the Body of Christ—really like a congregation in search of more souls; on finding a projector of great value, they went and sold all that they had and bought it?  What about people who cannot see the screen?  How do they share in God’s Reign and participate in worship?  For many people who cannot see the screen, the use of visual media in preaching is neither culturally relevant nor accessible.  It is certainly not hospitable.  As a preacher, teacher of preaching, and, for that matter, child of God who is legally blind, I am increasingly concerned that an exclusively visual and technological approach to worship, preaching, and communicating the gospel results in an emphasis on physically seeing God, or having physical sight as the frame of reference by which we experience God, which not only inhibits and even prevents people who are blind or visually impaired from participating in worship.  It may lead them to experience themselves as unimportant to the church and outside or unworthy of God’s love,” (“What about People Who Can’t See the Screen?,” 2-3).
            I don’t believe that God intends to leave my friend, Craig, outside of the scope of salvation.  In fact, I have discovered in my own ministry that oftentimes it is exactly these folks whom we tacitly exclude, from whom we have the most to learn about the love of God.  In fact, one of the characteristics of the early Christian faith was its explicit attention to those who lived their lives on the margins and who were oftentimes excluded in ancient culture because of their perceived disability.  Unfortunately, this radical vision of inclusion has oftentimes given way in our American culture of success to a distorted “health and wealth” gospel message that is at odds with the Kingdom vision preached by Jesus.  And, to be quite truthful, as I look around our own campus the reality is that we oftentimes still, perhaps unwittingly, exclude others from our circles.  Sometimes we do it on the basis of gender; sometimes we do so based on physical appearance; and, yes, I do believe that we still participate in social and racial stereotyping.
            This semester we want to explore more carefully the theme of “Crossing Boundaries, Overcoming Barriers.”  As most of you know, our seniors this year are already engaged in looking at the ways gender stereotyping occurs through their explorations in COR 401.  But, as I’ve already suggested, these barriers go well beyond simply gender.  Next week we will be privileged to welcome back to our campus two alumni, Greg and Courtney Coates, who are diligently attempting to live out this theme in their ministry in downtown Indianapolis.  And throughout the spring term we welcome to chapel both faculty and staff from our own community as well as numerous outside speakers, all of whom share a commitment to helping us better understand those around us who occupy the margins of our culture.  But, in order to lay a bit of ground work for our time together, I’d like to offer a few insights from the gospel appointed for use in this year’s lectionary readings—the Gospel according to St. Mark—and, more specifically, this familiar story of the paralytic who is saved not just by Jesus, but through the actions of his caring friends and neighbors.
            In Mark’s gospel, this story is the first of five controversy narratives which establish a setting of conflict between Jesus and the authorities.  As a storyteller, the author of the gospel wants to make sure that his hearers sense the smell of danger which emanates from the very beginning of the gospel.  Now, unfortunately, when we come to this narrative we can easily get caught up in the question of how to interpret a healing story.  But for the original hearers of this gospel, most scholars believe that this would have been tangential.  Seated around a table or crammed into a small meeting space in a house (as most early Christians were), what may have jumped off the page to them was the fact that the action of the story takes place in a house and involves the transformation of that house in order to accommodate the needs of the paralyzed man.
            If one goes rummaging through the actual physical remains of ecclesiastical structures used by the first few generations of Christians, one cannot fail to be struck by the fact that almost all of these ancient buildings accommodated for worship demonstrate quite clearly “traces of remodeling,” (Gordon W. Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, 73).    Early patrons of the church who owned larger homes surely must have made their places of residence available for Sunday meeting, while others probably met in renovated warehouses or apartment buildings.  One of the earliest examples we have of this is a church in eastern Syria in which two rooms were combined to form a small assembly hall while another room served as the primary setting for the rite of baptism—all within a renovated private house (L. Michael White, Building God's House in the Roman World).  Until the legalization of the Christian faith in the early fourth century, much public worship probably took place in such venues.
            This story, then, would have been heard by its intended audience a generation or two after Jesus not primarily as simply some kind of historicized event in the past set during Jesus’ ministry, but as something of a window or commentary on their own experience.  These small congregations scattered throughout the Mediterranean would have been asking themselves, “Who is to be allowed into the church?” and, “How can we accommodate people with special needs?”  And, because there was a premium placed on hospitality in the ancient world, finding ways of caring for the stranger would have been “front and center.”
            At the heart of the story is the desire to simply be in the presence of Christ and to discover help, health, and wholeness through the forgiveness of sins.  If one believed that Christ was present through the signs and symbols of Word and Sacrament, as those early Christians did, finding a way to open up the gospel (which meant, in a very practical sense, finding a way to open up their homes) was absolutely essential to the Church’s mission.  And the scope of those who would have been considered marginalized in that era would have been even larger than in ours.  It would have included, at a minimum, the enslaved, the poor, the disabled, those with chronic illness, even women.  And part of the attraction of the gospel message may well have been just how radically inclusive it was in a culture known for its extraordinarily hierarchical nature.
            In Mark’s gospel, the message shocks its hearers out of their lethargy.  And it does so by centering around meals.  In Mark’s Jesus story, three different banquets take place—one at Herod’s birthday, a second at Bethany, and a final one at Passover.  In the first, the daughter of Herodias dances rather lasciviously and gains the death of John the Baptist--whose head is brought to her on a plate.  The parallel to this story is set up in the banquet at Bethany where a woman opens an alabaster jar of costly ointment and, notice, breaks it over Jesus’ head.  Both of these are then set in relief over against the story of the Last Supper where Jesus calls the disciples to an entirely different way of understanding what it means to be invited to table.  Mark’s church could not have failed to notice the counter-cultural themes being echoed here, all which beckoned them to see table fellowship as upsetting the traditional mores and attitudes of exclusivity.  What was at stake here was nothing less than whether they would invite sinners and outsiders to feast on God’s meal and to join in drinking the cup of the Kingdom—that is, Christ’s death.
            I think that it is extraordinarily difficult for us to understand just how radical this kind of thinking was.  In those days, it was believed that one’s social status was God-given and for life.  And, if one demonstrated any kind of disease or disability, it was a sign of disfavor.  Given such a worldview, maintaining lines of demarcation and establishing social order were absolutely crucial.  The function of religion was to give one’s life meaning by helping one maintain an air of thankfulness that he or she was not like others; that one maintained a kind of “leg up,” as it were.
            I am often reminded of our 21st-century American version of this bastardized form of the gospel whenever I turn on many of the so-called “Christian” television programs.  In a good number of them, hope is generated by encouraging the hearers to see themselves as somehow special, as part of a saved “in-crowd” sometimes with special heavenly knowledge.  Or, another version may be a handsome or beautiful preacher whose external visage and words of upbeat optimism seem to suggest that God wants us to be pretty and happy and wealthy.  And, we are reminded, if we phone in soon enough to make our pledge, we may yet receive a book authored by the television evangelist which will reveal God’s very plan for our lives.
            But, to return to where I began this message, what about my poor friend, Dr. Satterlee?  When the cool-looking hip pastor steps to the microphone with his shirt tail hanging out and the special tattoo in Hebrew lettering displayed on his forearm visible to all to say, “The answer to life’s every question is right there on the screen,” what can Craig say or do?  Is the gospel for him?  Does he have to be physically healed before he can participate in the community of faith?  How should he respond when he walks into a congregation where the text for the morning is from John 9 about the man born blind and the one who is portrayed by the gospel writer as the hero of the story is made into a cardboard cutout for why we must be healed from our blindness?
            When we equate disability with sin we participate in perpetuating a vision of the Kingdom that is exclusive and in which Jesus looks more like Tim Tebow than a crucified Messiah.  And, perhaps even more cruelly, when we suggest that the disability itself is a result of unbelief, we continue to contribute to the marginalization and demonization of those who somehow just don’t “measure up” in a society in which the vast majority of plastic surgeries are done on people who make less than $60,000 a year.  If our template for inclusion is attached to an air-brushed vision of bodily perfection, we of all people are most to be pitied.
            As my friend, Brett Webb-Mitchell has written, we “have been in relationship with or treated people with visible disabilities largely as objects of charity.  As objects of charity, the view is often taken that an impairment has been foisted upon a person from birth because of a birth ‘defect’ such as Down syndrome or due to one’s age like Parkinson’s disease that usually strikes people over the age of 40, or are victims of their own disability-marred future, like someone who contracts cancer from smoking or is HIV-positive.  There are still people in this world who believe a child’s disability is somehow or the other related to the sin of a parent or forbear,” (Beyond Accessibility, 9).  In many respects, then, we have simply perpetuated this misunderstanding.
            So, where do we start?  We begin with the gospel itself and allow it to become the master narrative for opening us to new possibilities.  And in that gospel, where the world is turned upside down, those who are usually considered at the bottom are now pushed to the top.  That is why a Henri Nouwen found it absolutely essential to make the pilgrimage to L’Arche.  It wasn’t so that he, master priest and published scholar, could somehow save these poor handicapped souls; it was so that they could save his soul from the temptations of the ivory tower.  When one begins to focus on the essential issues of life—eating, drinking, and attending to toilet functions—one begins to come in contact with one’s humanity once again and, in so doing, to be able to listen to God’s voice through those who are oftentimes cut off and cut out of our lives.
            I would like to propose that this semester we begin to find those who can help us to understand the good news in such a radical way.  It may mean sitting at a different table in the Dining Commons or attending an event outside of our normal interests.  It has been my privilege to learn from students in this way across my own academic career.  And, I must tell you that I have been deeply humbled by what I take for granted and how much I still have to learn.  Just last March, for instance, I found myself in need of physical help and was rescued by several students on a missions trip including Jonas McBride.  Watching how Jonas carries himself as he struggles with his speech left me amazed at his patience, determination, and humility.  Jonas is an outstanding example of someone who demonstrates for us how a speech impediment is no barrier to living a life committed to the lordship of Christ.  And then there is Mari Schaeffer whose determination to not let her physical challenges get in the way of her learning makes any accomplishment I may achieve seem like tidily-winks.  In fact, just this past summer Mari spent time conducting an audit for us of our campus that demonstrated just how difficult it is to maneuver around our campus for someone with special physical needs.  And I could go on and on about alums like Jared Chestnut who, though confined to a wheelchair and facing an early death, took high honors in our Management Department at the national level.  We all need to learn to be better about befriending those who have so much to teach us about life and about God.
            But it isn’t enough simply to learn to listen to others.  We must also find ways of adjusting our attitudes and changing.  Like the four men in Mark’s gospel who tore away the roof, we, too, may need to make some adaptations in the way we do things.  In the case of my friend, Craig, providing a handout with text to accompany the overhead visuals and learning to not rely entirely on the screen as holy icon may be at least a start.  Sometimes we may need to give oral instructions in order to invite others in and when we are planning for an event we need to be sure to include those with disabilities in our circle of leadership.  Instead of relying on a video clip to carry the whole of our chapel announcement, maybe we can find ways of reaching out to the other senses of hearing, taste, smell, and touch, or at least providing some explanation of what the clip is intended to suggest.  And, most importantly, perhaps we don’t need to even insist that folks have to stand to participate in worship or to wave their hands in the air in order to be considered holy. 
            At the very least, Dr. Satterlee claims, we should be about the business of developing “a theology of access,”—a way of not allowing the various media we use to come between us and others.  We should speak truthfully, but not in ways intended to reduce others to their disability as their primary means of identification.  And, we should always see others as Jesus sees us—as people who are worthy of God’s love no matter how we look or think or act.  Ultimately, we should remember that the table to which Christ invites us is his table and it extends into time and space to include people of all races, all backgrounds, all types and genders. 
As one of my mentors, Dr. J. Christaan Beker, said in a chapel address almost two decades ago as he reflected back on his academic career at Princeton: “Now that the end of my career is imminent…what is especially important to me is the increasing pluralism and diversity in the student body.  I am grateful to the diverse constituents who make up our student body; to the various age groups among you; and to the imaginative and the courageous ways in which women have taught me.  I especially acknowledge the way in which African-Americans and Asian-Americans have compelled this stubborn Dutchman to open his heart to their life experiences, so different and often so much more difficult from my own,” (“The Challenge of Hope”).  I challenge you today to remember, as Dr. Beker taught me and as I have learned from you, it is always a privilege to be invited to sit at such a table with others who are different from us and from whom we can learn so much—whether they have the ability to physically see us, to hear us, or even to understand us, or not.  For, it is only as we come to such a table that we begin to get an inkling of just how radically inclusive the Kingdom of God truly is.  And capturing at least a glimpse of that reality is our challenge for this semester.