“Removing the Barriers, Welcoming All”

October 18, 2015


Isaiah 40:1-5

Mark 2:1-12


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 relief.

It changed our building—doors open easier, elevators are present in all sorts of places where they weren’t 25 years ago.

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 need renovation.

There is still work to be done. And much of it needs to be done in places like this—in churches, even in this church.

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 lot.

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 is preaching.

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 with mud.

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 doorway.

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 creative response.

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 truth.

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 in joy.

And God’s wholeness will be known among all people.