Matthew 20:29-34 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
As we hear our Gospel passage this morning, Jesus is leaving Jericho and a large crowd is following him. Sitting by the roadside, separated from the crowd, are two persons with a disability. Wanting to be noticed, they shout out to Jesus for mercy.
The reaction of the crowd is striking. The crowd sternly orders them to be quiet. Two persons with disabilities are shouting out, wanting to be noticed by Jesus, wanting to be included in his grace, and the crowd wants them silenced. And this is not just a “hush,” this is a stern order, a strong reply designed to deny the voice of those with a disability. It is a response which illustrates that the crowd of followers wants to keep the persons with disabilities in their place.
My guess is that these two persons were used to the stigma. Unfortunately, they were accustomed to being treated this way by society. But in that moment, they had enough. This time they decided they would not be silenced by the crowd. Today, they decided, the crowd would not determine what they were allowed to do or say. So, refusing to accept the crowd’s denial of their agency, the two persons with disability shouted even more loudly: Have mercy on us Lord, Son of David!
Unfortunately, this story has occurred not only in Jesus’ time. As one author writes: “Within a society which uses the criteria of independence, productivity, intellectual prowess and social position to judge the value of human beings, people with . . . disabilities will inevitably be excluded and downgraded as human beings of lesser worth and value.” Even in today’s world, we hear persons with disabilities calling out to be included, only to be met with responses designed to deny their voice, agency and full participation in the community. Even the Gospel text we heard has been omitted and skipped over in the Revised Common Lectionary. Maybe it is not always a stern order to be quiet, but sometimes actions speak louder than words.
What might it sound like today? We want to be able to access buildings! Oh hush, we already built a ramp. We want to be able to park and go shopping like everyone else. Oh hush, we already designated one handicapped parking space. We want the same education. Oh hush, we already hired one intervention specialist. We want to work. Oh hush, we don’t have any jobs which can accommodate your disability. We want to be able to participate fully in the life of the church. Oh hush, we welcome everyone to worship. Hush, hush, hush, we have already decided what accommodations we will give you.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with a woman (we’ll call her “Sally”) in my office, and she was telling me about her faith (She gave me permission to share her story with you). She explained that she has always had a strong faith and a strong connection to the church. When she and her husband had children, they were active in worship, and the kids were in Sunday school.
Their one son was diagnosed with a developmental disability. Unfortunately, due to his disability, his behaviors did not match those of “typical” children in church. In other words, he didn’t behave the way children should in church. He was deemed to be “high maintenance.” The looks and stares, along with comments, from members of the church became part of each Sunday worship experience. Eventually, Sally told me, feeling hurt and betrayed, felling judged as bad parents, Sally and her family left the church and searched for another.
They found a new church, one where everyone was excited to welcome a new family, so they started attending. After all, we all know how we churches rush to greet a visiting family with kids! Yet a few months later, it was the same situation occurring all over again for them in this new church. So Sally and her family searched for a new church, one that would welcome and understand their situation. They wanted to be included in a church family, and live out their faith. They tried a third church…to no avail. They tried a fourth church…
After four churches, their feelings of hurt, shame, discouragement and anger with their experience of churches became too much. They gave up. After trying four churches, they stopped trying. And they stopped going. Sally tells me that these days, she sits down at her computer and watches a sermon on the internet. That way, she says, she can nurture her faith without the worrying about the judgment.
Persons with disabilities (and their families) are not defined by their disability, they are persons just like us, and created in the image and likeness of God, with the same spiritual hopes and needs we have. One author described it this way when writing about a person he had formed a relationship with: “Stephen doesn’t need to be judged, controlled or confined. He has as much right to have a valued place within society, as anyone else. He, like all of us, needs to be recognized as a valued person, loved and above all else understood. He needs people to take the time to enter into ‘his world,’ to sit with him, and together discover that the world in which he lives is the same world in which they live, even though the way he experiences it may be very different from the way many others do. Above all else he needs to be recognized as a person in his own right, with hopes, dreams and expectations for his life, and not a ‘disability’ that simply needs to be controlled, healed or overcome.”
As we heard in our Gospel today, Jesus did not hush the persons with disabilities. Instead, moved with compassion, he reached out to them. In that moment, their voice was heard and the Kingdom of God was seen when their life was forever changed. They found healing and the hush fell instead upon the crowd.
The good news is that Christ has redeemed us from our sins, and we can feel freed to move in new ways. Through Christ we are empowered to be the individuals who challenge stigma instead of perpetuating it. As a crowd who follows Jesus, we can be the ones who reach out to those who have been hushed, offering healing.
Martin Copenhaver, in his book titled This Odd and Wonderous Calling, writes of a situation he encountered while pastoring one of his congregations. He writes of how welcoming the stranger can be messy and tells the story of a gentleman named Bernie. Bernie was bright, well educated and had a true gift for music. He could often be found playing the piano in the sanctuary and you would think you were sitting in a concert hall.
Bernie also had Tourette’s Syndrome, an illness which causes a person to burst forth with involuntary exclamations, sometimes obscenities or something similarly inappropriate. In Bernie’s case, he had a tendency to unexpectedly bark. Yes, bark, like a dog. Due to his disability, Bernie could not hold a job. His family couldn’t handle it and turned him away. So he was homeless and had a disability. And then one day Bernie decided to join the church choir.
Martin confesses that the first time he saw Bernie in the choir, his first thought was not “thank you Jesus.” But despite how uncomfortable it felt at first, Bernie sang in the choir and he had a beautiful voice when he was not barking. And while the church had many discussions about “what to do about Bernie,” in the end they decided to do nothing but let it be as it was.
After a few weeks the congregation became accustomed to Bernie’s outbursts. The understood him and loved him and the gifts he brought. When visitors would come to the church and hear one of Bernie’s outbursts, they would look around and be amazed that no one seemed to be disturbed. What they saw was a community who accepted and included him. When they noticed the lack of response, they would often have a look on their face as if to say “what kind of strange place is this I’ve wandered into?” And Pastor Copenhaver came to the conclusion that perhaps that question is the highest compliment a church can receive.
My friends, people with disabilities are still shouting out today. And we are the crowd following Jesus. How will we respond—as “hushers”……or as Christ, moved with compassion?
(Swinton 42); 2 (Swinton 34); 3 (Copenhaver and Daniel 97-8)
Copenhaver, Martin B. and Lillian Daniel. This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2009.
Swinton, John. “Building a Church for Strangers.” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health (Vol. 4 (4) 2001): 25-63.