Ralph Connor Memorial United Church

The Little White Church on Main Street, Canmore, Alberta

Sermon: October 28, 2108 – Mark 10: 26-32

Sermon: October 28, 2018 – Mark 10: 46-52
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley

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An important part of engaging a Bible story, is to pay attention not only to what it does say, but also what it does not say.   In our reading today from the gospel of Mark, there is a pivotal moment when the action could have unfolded in a number of different ways, and what Jesus says and does, and what he does not say or do, is significant to us as we choose our words and actions as his modern-day disciples.

The action in this story is clearly laid out. A blind man known as Bartimaeus – at a prime begging location outside the ancient oasis community of Jericho – calls out to Jesus to have mercy on him, literally to “mercy” him. In the words of Mark Davis, the crowd is annoyed by Bartimaeus and “tries to make the blind man mute,” admonishing him for squawking at Jesus.  But he will not be silenced, calling out even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me.”

At Jesus’ command, the crowd – or the disciples, we’re not sure who – bring the man to Jesus.

And then what did Jesus do? He asked the man, “What do you want me to do for you?”  To which the son of Timaeus said, “Teacher, I want to see again,” and with that clear proclamation of intent, his sight is restored.  If I were a disciple in that crowd, I might have been scratching my head when Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you” because it would have been obvious: he’s blind, Jesus, he begs for a living, what do you think he wants you to do?  What a silly question to ask.

But it’s wasn’t a silly question, it was an opportunity to ask Bartimaeus – rarely treated with full respect and humanity –  a human, respectful, empowering question.  Bartimaeus calls out for mercy, and Jesus seeks clarity, asking this person what he needs. What Jesus DOES, is ask…and empower…and respect; what Jesus does not do, is assume…or disempower…or patronize.  He does not assume that just because he cannot see, this man feels incomplete; he does not assume the posture of the know-it-all who can fix the brokenness before finding out from the man what he thinks is broken or just fine as it is. He lets Bartimaeus name the next step, and then endorses this self-determination by saying, “go, Bartimaeus, your faith has made you well.”  Bartimaeus named where he needed Jesus’ presence in his life; and in reply Jesus listened, and loved, and sent this man out into the world with dignity and purpose.

That approach, of listening to people describe their lives and what they feel is needed, if anything, to live more fully, is a general approach to life and ministry that will serve us well if we are humble and respectful enough to do so. We’ll come back to that later in the message and later in the service, but for now I want to stay with one specific aspect of this story: Jesus’ interaction with someone living with a disability.

I gather that some of you have met David Roche, a humorist, author and motivational speaker who splits his time between California and the Sunshine Coast.  My family had the great blessing of getting to know David and his wife, Marlena, one summer at the Naramata Centre, with our children particularly drawn to this man of great honesty, love and humour.

David describes his physical appearance like so: (pp.102-103)

“When my face is totally relaxed and in repose, my left eye stays slightly open.  My left cheek bulges and sags.  The left side of my mouth droops as if I had a stroke.  My mouth hangs slack and open, showing my two lower front teeth.  My purple tongue protrudes slightly. Effort goes into closing the left eyelid just a little more, holding up the left side of my mouth, squeezing the muscles on the left side to keep it from sagging, holding my mouth closed, hiding my tongue and teeth. It is a constant, unremitting, minimally conscious effort that causes no end of stress and headache…a ludicrous and essentially useless effort to appear symmetrical.”

As an infant, David had a condition diagnosed as an extensive cavernous hemangioma, which led to the removal of his bottom lip when he was a young child, and radiation treatments that caused the lower part of his face to stop growing. (pp.3-4).  What must that have been like for such a young child? we wonder, and David answers:

“People often assume that I had a miserable childhood, that I was constantly taunted, fearful, isolated and shy.  For some reason, it is difficult for them to believe that I was reasonably happy as a child…Puberty was a different story, but my childhood was good”  He continues, recalling “I was almost always in a safe place: in the neighbourhood, in school, in church, with my family [where] I felt valued.” His grandmother, in particular, was a true ray of sunshine.  David writes, “[first thing in the morning] my Nana would say to me, ‘Aren’t you the one? Aren’t you the one?’ or ‘Aren’t you looking good this morning.’ The joy she felt at seeing me was so manifest that I loved to stand still and let it wash over me.” (pp. 124-125)

As a teen and young adult, David struggled to find his voice in a world that treated him as a problem that needed fixing or, worse, as an abomination, or as one whose condition was a punishment for somebody’s sins somewhere.  But eventually he did find his voice and started speaking and writing.  David found love – “love at second sight” as he and Marlena describe it – and discovered that he had the ability to inspire others through speaking at schools.

“Young people approach me on the street” he writes, “and say that they remember when I came to their school and it was the best assembly they ever had.  They can never tell me what exactly they remember, or what was good about it, but they remember that it was cool and I was cool….It doesn’t seem to make much difference to them what I had to say. That doesn’t stick.  But the fact that I was there has great significance.” (p.134)

I’m dwelling on David’s story for a couple of reasons.  First, because he, like Bartimaeus in our gospel story, constantly has to deal with people’s assumptions about him.  It’s as if his full being is comprised of his appearance, and the way that his appearance impacts others.

The second reason I’m dwelling on David’s story, is that it is HIS story.  It’s not a story ABOUT David, it is David describing his world, in his words… which takes us back to our gospel today.  In a situation where everyone else figured they knew what was needed, Jesus made no assumptions, Jesus did not finish Bartimaeus’ sentences. Jesus makes space for this person, and all people, to tell their life’s truth in their own words.

“Able-ism” is a form of discrimination which “characterizes persons as defined by their disabilities and as inferior to the non-disabled”. Many years ago a speaker asked this nearly-rhetorical question: picture a pregnant woman, and the prospective parents being asked, “are you hoping for a boy or a girl” and they answer, “oh, that doesn’t matter” – then what is the rest of that sentence? “As long as it’s healthy.”  I’m sure I gave that answer a dozen times when Shannon was expecting the twins, and it’s a worthy enough hope – I hope that EVERYONE in the world will be healthy, not just my children – but what if that isn’t how it turns out?  What if the child’s physical or cognitive development starts behind the curve and stays behind the curve? Is that a disappointment, a “failed hope”, or is that an inherent part of their personhood?  Is that gift of life any less holy than one with fewer challenges? The past two issues of The United Church Observer have featured two very important aspects of ableism: September’s issue asks tough ethical questions about the increased early use of medical technologies and a trend toward ending a pregnancy if certain disabling conditions are indicated, wondering aloud if society sees such lives as less valuable than the lives of the more fully abled.  And then this month’s issue speak of inclusion in the workplace, noting that 14% of Canadians (3.8 million) have a disability, but only half of them are employed.  Nearly 800,000 of those who are unemployed are capable of working, many with post-secondary education. The story goes on to profile four differently abled people and the ways that they and their employers have made adaptations to make the workplace, work.

Lifting these issues to our attention is important, and I commend both articles to your attention.  But another incident this summer, tells us that we have a long way to go.  Dr. Colin Phillips, a lecturer in Social Work at Ryerson University, was one of this year’s candidates for United Church moderator.  An academic and a man of faith, Colin also happens to have had Cerebral Palsy since birth.  The fact that he was nominated for moderator is a good thing, but at the end of General Council Colin spoke of the rest of the experience at Council: not being approached for conversation, sitting with the other folks in wheelchairs at meal times as nobody else would dine with them, feeling the fear as people gave him a wide berth.  As we seek to be a denomination based in inclusion – and as we specifically learn what that means through our local Affirming Process – Colin’s experience of big-time exclusion bears hearing. Are we ahead of the curve compared with some denominations? Perhaps; but Colin’s words at General Council 43 remind us that even if this is the case, that’s not much to boast about.

Last Sunday, we had an honest, helpful presentation here at Ralph Connor by Pam Rocker, hearing her experience as a lesbian Christian woman.  Her first-hand accounts were so important for us to hear, learning how to receive the input of all people without any sense of “we” and “they”, “insiders” and “outsiders.” In the question-and-answer time after worship, we started thinking about various types of obstacles that a wide range of folks might experience when coming through the door to worship.  One of those came evident to me this past Wednesday, when I was asked ahead of the memorial service if our facility was wheelchair accessible.  The best I could say was, “there’s a ramp to the sanctuary and there’s space up front…but if you need to use the washroom, it’s going to be tricky.”  While I know there’s hesitation in getting into a building program at this point in time, including no small amount of  hesitation on my part, I will say this: if our little building is going to support our mission of being invitational and inclusive, even on its present scale, we’re going to have to find a solution to the physical barriers of this space.

Earlier in this message, I spoke of the importance of listening as Jesus did, as we, in Christ’s name, engage the community needs around us. In a few minutes, we’re going to be listening, to representatives of CYAN, the Canmore Young Adult Network.   They have one of the best posters I have seen, ever: this simple portrayal of a wayfinding sign, and words indicating that CYAN is “for young adults, by young adults”  Much of the success of this group in such a short time, has come from living in that listening space between Jesus and Bartimaeus, in which the question, “what do you need” is asked.  Young adults were and are asked what they need, and CYAN does its best, peer-to-peer, to build the kind of healthy community connections wished for by that age group, building a life that is physically active, socially connected, hopeful.  I am so proud of CYAN’s breadth of meaningful involvements  and their peer-to-peer approach, for young adults/ by young adults. This model, which includes some key supports and mentorship offered by congregation members, strikes me as THE way for the Church to go, moving forward.

Jesus and Bartimaeus stood together, surrounded by disciples wondering why Jesus didn’t just heal the guy, and by a broader circle of people who clearly wanted the blind beggar to stop invading their comfort zone.  When the Church is at its best, we are not the annoyed/ judgemental crowd, but rather are standing right in the middle of that respectful place between Jesus and Bartimaeus: not assuming that we have the power or the answers, not even assuming that we as a Church are playing the role of Jesus in that scenario – for sometimes we are the ones wondering, hurting, yearning, sometimes we need the support of others.  In the next generation of Church life I predict that understanding every single interaction we have in the community as a meeting between equals, will reshape us in ways that might just find the power of resurrection in Christ.

Just outside Jericho, some things happened and some did not.

  • Jesus did not act before listening.
  • Jesus did not assume that Bartimaeus was “lesser than”
  • Jesus did not cut off the discussion in order to enact a pre-determined solution.
  • Jesus did not even take credit for the healing experienced by Bartimaeus, crediting that to the strong faith of this man who trusted God and named what he needed.
  • But what Jesus did do, is to ask, “what do you want me to do for you.” And in the answering of that question, amidst the belief that Jesus would want whatever was best for him, Bartimaeus gave an honest answer, and stepped into Christ’s circle of wholeness.  What a wonderful, hopeful picture of empowerment for us to carry with us in the days and years ahead, in the times when we offer a helping hand, in the times when we realize that we are the ones in need, in the ways we re-shape our ideas about ability and dis-ability.  Thanks be to God in Christ, Amen.

References cited:

Davis, D. Mark. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/10/bartimaeus-bar-timaeus-and-joy-of.html

Peters, Diane. “Job Opening” in The United Church Observer, October 2018, pp. 22-27.

Phillips, Colin. https://generalcouncil43.ca/sites/default/files/2018-05/bio_colin-phillips.pdf

Roche, David.  The Church of 80% Sincerity. NYC: Perigree, 2008.

Sanders, Nora. https://www.united-church.ca/blogs/round-table/note-nora-time-listen

Spurgaitis, Kevin. “Human Variation” in The United Church Observer, September 2018, pp. 22-27.

Wikipedia. “Ableism.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ableism

See also

Drive-Thru History. https://www.drivethruhistory.com/jericho-and-jesus/

Hughes, Gareth. https://christhum.wordpress.com/2009/10/26/the-name-fame-and-shame-of-bartimaeus/

Stop Ableism. http://www.stopableism.org/p/what-is-ableism.html

 

© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.