In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,
while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there
was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Gen. 1:1, 31)
The Bible is a book about relationships with two overarching narratives. The first narrative is that God’s love spills over every boundary. God to be God craves to be in relationship. God creates the world not out of need but out of chesed/loving kindness. This is love that
is visible in behavior. Creation is an act of chesed. The created did not earn creation, we were gifted it. We were created not to be passive but to
spread chesed in the world. The second story is that God cannot tolerate oppression. God is always on the side of the despised, the disdained, the
powerless, and the weak. If we ask where God is, look for the camp that does NOT have the power. God created us to be in relationship with God
and with one another. In so doing, we partner with God and God’s creation ensuring an end to all forms of oppression.
How have we allowed ourselves to believe something in God’s creation is not good? God’s paintbrush illuminates the sky, astronauts
inspired by John Glenn and scientists theorizing the Higgs Boson particle push the boundaries of what we understand, Misty Copeland
redefines for us the picture of beauty on point, Renee Fleming and Yo Yo Ma enchant our ears with ethereal performances, and you and I make
our little corner of the world brighter. What is it about humans that makes us want to put some humans into a category of being less than
any of these, less than you or me? And yet, we speak of castes, classes, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. The implication of our
declinations is some are better than others. We disparage that which is different from ourselves. Today we consider people labeled with variabilities
disabilities to be less than ‘normal’. What does the prefix dis suggest?
Consider a few words beginning with dis:
We are ill at ease with those we label with DIS. To make ourselves feel better, we diminish, disparage and dismiss those labeled with
disabilities. In the history of people with physical and intellectual disabilities, we have come a long way. We no longer confine people to
sanitariums. We no longer experiment on individuals without their knowledge. We are diminishing use of the word retarded. The
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. The ADA was designed to remove legal and physical barriers excluding those
labeled with a disability from everyday human interactions in public spaces and spheres. These are fine steps towards recognizing God’s
good intentions for all of humanity’s varied abilities, but we are not there yet. The Great Commandment Jesus gives us is to love the Lord
your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength AND to love your neighbor as yourself. We can hardly love the other we are DISing. God
considers human beings made in God’s image to be very good. If we are very good, how can we speak of human beings having ‘disabilities’?
Were we to speak of variabilities rather than disabilities, we would acknowledge difference without disparagement. We could claim the
imaginable dignity of difference by affirming God’s creation of very able people.
We are all able. We are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable gifts. Romans 12, 1 st Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 all list
these gifts including teaching, discerning, healing, interpreting, providing hospitality, and sharing the Good News of God’s very good
creation. Similarly, we will all be labeled at some point in our lives with what legally constitutes a disability. According to the Americans with
Disabilities Act of 1990 (US Code Title 42 Chapter 126 Section 12102) a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits
one or more major life activities of such individual. By that definition, having a hearing aid, using a walker, relying
upon a pacemaker, taking mood stabilizing medication, requiring insulin to regulate diabetes, or needing high blood pressure medication can all
be considered having a disability. In other words, we all have or will all be labeled with a disability.
Words matter. Words shape our thoughts. Thoughts shape our actions. Actions shape our habits and habits shape our character. Words
shape our perceptions of similarities and differences. We are good at loving the people who are like us. We use language to separate ourselves
from anyone we consider different. The gospels are full of examples of lepers (Matthew 8:2, 26:6, Mark 1:40, 14:3), demoniacs (Matthew 8:28-
33, 12:22, 15:22, 17:18, Mark 5:16-20, 7:26-30, 4:33-36, Luke 8:27-36, 9:42, 11:14) and, paralytics (Matthew 9:2-9, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5) who
are separated from others because of the language we use to describe them.
These gospel stories continue to hold up a mirror to our reality of stratification and othering. We have even misused gospel stories such as this morning’s reading from John 9 to link sin with a disability. This gospel is in fact pointing out that God uses even things like physical blindness to
paradoxically help us “see” the goodness of God. As the story of the blind man in Chapter 9 progresses, the man becomes increasingly aware
of God’s having given him good gifts. In direct contrast, the Pharisees become increasingly blinded to God’s goodness as they insist upon
misinterpreting the healing actions of Jesus. The Pharisees keep looking for a way to label the man as something other than one of God’s good
creation. Words matter. What we dis, we dismiss. Despite God having declared all of God’s creation to be very good,
we label one in five Americans with a disability. Why not graft the “very good” of God onto the abilities we all have and create a new word
– variabilities? When I asked people to rate the abilities of a person labeled with a disability, I found that person was considered less able
than a person identified as having variabilities. Regardless of demographic differences, respondents rated a person identified with
variabilities as being more capable than a person labeled with a disability.
Why should this matter? A friend and colleague of mine, Paddy, recently graduated from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School
(CRCDS), has become ordained as a Deacon in the Episcopal Church and is on track to become a priest. He has felt God calling him to the
priesthood all his life but faced tremendous difficulty achieving his dream because so many people felt his disability would get in the way of
his ministry. Paddy has reflected with me about this new word –variability – and what it might have meant to him growing up. Had
everyone considered themselves with variabilities, Paddy believes his cerebral palsy would have been one of many variabilities alongside
height, cognition, athleticism, musicality or social skills. He believes the stigma attached to his diagnosis would have been diminished. He
even reflects that more people might have wanted to sit with him in the cafeteria. How many of us have ever worried about who would sit with
us when we entered a room of strangers?
Our biggest challenge as Christians is to embrace the other – all others, particularly those we feel are different. Ask yourself, what is the
one difference you find hardest to embrace? A physical difference like lameness, blindness, or Parkinson’s? A mental difference like Down’s
Syndrome, autism, or schizophrenia? A social difference like level of education? A racial difference? A gender difference? A sexuality
difference? A political difference? A person’s grooming habits? A person’s accent? God made us different with very different abilities. And
God declared all of God’s creation to be very good. Imagine a world in which all of God’s varied creations are valued,
cherished and nurtured. Imagine a world in which no parent is ashamed to bring their child to a church function because of the child’s
variabilities. Imagine a world in which untold abilities are discovered as people embrace one another’s variabilities. Imagine a church whose
membership had dwindled to less than 50 being revitalized by the infusion of one man in his 60s labeled with a disability.
This is a true story of the transformation of the East Rochester United Methodist Church. In 2013 when they called a new pastor, their
average Sunday worship attendance was 35, the majority were senior citizens and the church was considering closing. Pastor Todd Goddard
attended a conference hosted by Heritage Christian Services entitled “Faith, Hope and Inclusion: Stronger Together.” Todd met Ray and
invited him to worship. Ray had grown up in the days where institutionalization was a common practice. Ray is a gentle giant with a
love of discussing sports and eating good food. He fit right in with the congregation. Because they got to know and love Ray, the church
decided to host the Heritage Christian Services day rehabilitation program in its building. The church and Heritage Christian Services did
not want a tenant/landlord arrangement but a mutually edifying relationship. No rent is charged and Heritage invested in the necessary
building upgrades to make the day center possible. Today the members and Heritage friends have joint fellowship, Bible Study and mission
experiences. This transformation was not without its growing pains. The pastor and leadership of both sides were both intentional about having
mutual education and informational sessions. They listened carefully to all parties concerned. They brainstormed things they could do to share
the love of God internally and externally. They came up with many great ideas. Their favorite springs from a need they saw and a gift they knew
they had to give. Each Holy Week, they host an outreach to the community in the form of an Easter Egg Hunt for children who need a
little extra assistance and time to hunt. The first year, they expected 25 children and 75 showed up. The ministry grows exponentially each year
and has been featured in our local news outlets. Both the members and Heritage friends say they cannot imagine ministry without one another.
My friends, if we can imagine it, we can do it. God loves