Barriers, Welcoming All”
October 18, 2015
Every October, the United
Church of Christ observes Access Sunday and Disabilities Awareness Week. Six
years ago, Diana Coberly preached on Access Sunday. Diana was still a somewhat
new face around here then. With the help of the Trustees that morning, we lifted
her motorized wheelchair up to the chancel.
We haven’t always observed
Access Sunday in the intervening years, but as Diana and I talked a couple of
times this past summer, it seemed to me that it would be a good focus this
year. We also agreed that rather than stereotyping Diana as the “disability
preacher,” I’d offer the sermon today. And until she was hospitalized on
Wednesday, Diana expected to be the liturgist this morning.
This year our nation marks the
twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was a good
piece of legislation that opened new possibilities to many people.
It changed the way we think—no
longer do we focus as much on disabilities as on the different abilities that
each one of us has and how we as a nation can remove barriers and in so doing
bring out those abilities in people.
It changed the look of our
cities—those cut-outs in sidewalks at every street corner weren’t there
previously in most places and where they were they came as an unexpected
It changed our building—doors
open easier, elevators are present in all sorts of places where they weren’t 25
We can celebrate and be
thankful for all of this.
But we also need to recognize
that there is a lot of unfinished business. Our attitudes and our ways of
thinking still need renewal. Our cities still need repair. Out buildings still
There is still work to be done.
And much of it needs to be done in places like this—in churches, even in this
As we celebrate 25 years of the
Americans with Disabilities Act, we should remember that we as a congregation
are exempt from each and all of its provisions. Churches, synagogues,
mosques—all places of worship need not comply with the ADA. As a community of
Christians, the law allows us to keep the stairs, turn off the elevator, turn
down the PA, keep our restrooms inaccessible, and generally behave in, well, in
an unchristian manner—all legally.
So what we do to make this
place more accessible, we do voluntarily. We provide large-print bulletins, we
cut out our pews to make space for wheelchairs, we provide hearing assistance
devices because we choose to do so. Our faith and our basic human decency
compel us to do these things.
Oh, it’s not always easy. As we
celebrate what we have accomplished, we also need to confess: Sometimes we need
to be prodded a little—or pushed a lot. Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we just
don’t think enough.
We started planning a new
kitchen downstairs and little, if anything, was said about accessibility. I
know. I was in on those discussions. I didn’t raise the issue. I don’t remember
anyone else doing so. One voice finally asked, “What about accessibility?” and
connected us with a great resource person who helped us to see some new
possibilities. We saw how a kitchen can be made usable by many more people—both
those we might think of as “disabled” and those who are older or shorter or in
other ways not measuring up to the standards of “normal,” whatever that means. As a result we have some
good changes coming downstairs. I want thank the Trustees for their openness.
And I want to thank Diana Coberly for the courage to prod a little and push a
But of course it is still
extremely difficult for someone with a mobility impairment to get up and raise
their voice with the choir or visit my office. We have large print bulletins,
but nothing in braille. We have hearing assistance devices, but no sign
interpreter for the deaf. We are accessible, but only to a degree.
Downstairs the sign reads,
“Opening Doors Across Three Centuries.” We have many steps leading up to our
sanctuary so we put in an elevator. We had no room for wheel chairs so we took
saws to some of the pews to make space. In some congregations those pews would
have been sacred and inviolate. Here we have had times when all four of those
new spaces were occupied. My hearing is poor, so when we put in a new sound
system I asked that we get some hearing assistance devices.
We have better attitudes,
better thinking, but there is more to be done to open the doors even wider.
So I turn to that wonderful
story in the Gospel of Mark. This has long been my favorite story in not just
the Gospels, but in the entire Bible, in part, I think, because of what it
shows us about friendship. It is also, today’s context, a great recounting of
an early renovation of a building to make it more accessible.
Look at the house where Jesus
In first century Palestine
houses were usually a single room. Often an outdoor stairway led to the roof.
The roof itself was made of wooden beams overlaid with branches and covered
Such roofs needed to be
repaired each fall in preparation for the rainy season.
But the roof of this particular
house will need to be fixed sooner than that.
Jesus has arrived in this town.
For some time now he has been healing the sick and casting out evil spirits.
Now he stands inside this typical house with its flat, mud roof.
Jesus is talking—Mark says
“preaching the word” to the people.
No ponderous sermon here. Jesus
speaks about God's purposes and calls people to turn in new directions. So many
men and women have come to listen that they pour out of house, blocking the
The crowd wants to see Jesus.
The people want to hear him. They want to be near him. In their excitement,
they don’t even notice the people carrying a paralyzed man. If their eyes were
open to all that was going on in this place, perhaps they would say: “Look,
here comes someone being carried on a mat. We should move over and let him in.”
They don’t .
But even now, in spite of his
limitations, this man has something that we all need. He has friends. And his
friends do what friends do—they find a way.
A blocked doorway calls forth a
Up the stairs they go, ripping
the branches off the roof and digging through the hardened mud.
It's a strange sight. Bits of
the ceiling start to drop around Jesus and the people crowded in the room. Then
suddenly daylight comes streaming inside. And finally a paralyzed man is lowered
down in front of Jesus through this makeshift skylight.
It’s said that when God closes
one door, God opens another. Maybe. But when that is not the case, some of us
will just dig a hole in the roof.
There is a word for the
boldness and determination that these friends show. Jesus calls it “faith.”
It's not a matter of having complete knowledge about the person and character
of Jesus. Faith moves toward a goal, strips away impediments, digs deep.
We need one another, we need
our friends of all different abilities. None of us can do this on our own.
Life can be hard. Life can be
hard for all of us. We all encounter our disabilities, our limitations.
We have difficulty hearing the
We have difficulty seeing how
things really are.
We have difficulty walking in
the way of Jesus Christ.
We have difficulty speaking up
for those who are being hurt.
We are often simply unable to
stand up for what is right.
We are all disabled in some way
and we all possess great abilities for other tasks. Our calling, then, is to
use our abilities, to become aware of our limitations, and to join in the
efforts to make all places and all good things more accessible to a growing
number of people. We can do this through legislation. We can do this
voluntarily. But we must do it.
When a church is accessible,
when a church is aware, it speaks a
message of good news not only to its members but also to the larger community.
It says to each person, “You are important.” It says—we say: “If or when you
can’t see what is going on here, you
are and will be of great value to us and to God. If or when you can’t hear the words from the pulpit, the
voices raised in song, or even the deep tones of the organ, you are and will be
of great value to us and to God. If or when you are not able to comprehend what is going on here, you are and will be of
great value to us and to God. If or when you can’t speak or your speech is halting, you are and will be of great
value to us and to God.
The rabbis said that in front
of each one of us goes as procession of angels announcing, “Behold, here comes
an image of God.” That is our message as well. We join in the proclamation of
the angels, the messengers of God, in saying whatever your limits, whatever
your disability, you are accepted. You are of infinite value to the God who
created you and to the community of God’s people. Indeed, in you we see the
very image of God.
The prophet Isaiah spoke to a
people who were captive—their movements were restrained, their voices were
silenced, what they heard was limited. Isaiah told them that the time was
coming, indeed it was close at hand, when they would be released, when they
would discover new ability, new freedom. And those abilities, that freedom were
God’s desire for them.
He shows them—and us, if we
will open our eyes—a vision of valleys lifted up, mountains made low, uneven
ground being leveled, rough places smoothed. Can you see this? Can you see a
straight highway with no impediments so that people might come into the presence
of God and live their lives fully and in joy?
This is the way of inclusion,
that there would be no barriers in the way of people coming to God, no barriers
preventing the people’s access to the worship of God, no barriers to the
community of God’s people. This is the vision that we have, the goal we move
toward in faith.
In this place we seek to be a
sign of what God is doing. So we keep working to get our doors open—and keep
them open—for more and more people. We
keep working to make the rough places smooth, the uneven ground level because
that, we believe, is what God desires. In faith we even sense that God might be
working through us in this—that all people would be accepted in an inclusive
and welcoming community.
We change our hearts,
recognizing that even that is a process and sometimes we need to simply do what
is right even if our heart just is not in it, to keep at it until the rough
places are smooth, the mountains are leveled and the valleys raised and all can
come and go freely.
Then we shall all journey
together in peace.
We shall all worship together
And God’s wholeness will be
known among all people.