October 9, 2022
In the late 7th century before the common era, king Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon forced Judea to become an indentured state in the Babylonian empire. The Judeans fought back and rebelled a total of 3 times, each time ultimately failing and resulting in Judeans being forcibly moved by the thousands to Babylon. As a result, the Babylonians destroyed most of Jerusalem including the center of the Jewish faith, Solomon’s Temple. The first temple was destroyed, thousands of Jews were forced to live away from their holy homeland, and were now surrounded by a culture, people, and religion that they were not truly part of.
How many of you have found yourselves feeling like you are living as an exile, in a town that doesn’t want you, in a city that just ignores you, or even in a church that doesn’t seem to recognize you for who you are? Have you felt out of place, like you are residing in a place that wasn’t created with you in mind? A place where you have to struggle just to get by? Chances are most, if not all, of us have felt this way at one time or another. Maybe you walked into a place where you had no idea where to go and there were no signs to lead you to the right place. Maybe you showed up to a place to find out you had to climb several flights of stairs when you had a bad back or hurt leg. Or maybe you live with a disability that makes you feel out of place all of the time, living in a world that was built around able-bodies. Many things can lead us to feel like an outcast in our own community.
Today is Access Sunday in the United Church of Christ. It is a day where we celebrate the work that people with disabilities have done in the church, and a day where we commit and challenge ourselves to make our community ever more accessible to those with disabilities. Disability is commonly thought to be primarily a dysfunction of the body or mind. More recently sociological studies have begun situating disability in terms of social structures. Disability is often, though by no means always, the result of or at least made worse by social constructs. While someone without the use of their legs would be recognized as disabled in all constructs, it would be significantly less impactful if society was structured around the existence of people who utilize various wheelchair or other mobility devices. If store shelves were in reach of people in wheelchairs, if building entrances were wider and level with the outside surfaces or had gentle, ramped inclines, if vehicles came standard with some type of adaptability for accessibility, etcetera, then the impact of utilizing a wheelchair would be exceptionally lower. Disability is therefore more than a person not having typical control over parts of their mind or bodies, it is also living in a society that makes little effort to be accessible to people with disabilities.
The Jewish people in our passage found themselves living in a world that wasn’t built for them. It was constructed around beliefs, customs, language, and a rhythm of holidays and celebrations they had no knowledge of. They were simultaneously forced to be there and yet made to feel and be unwelcome. They were trapped in a culture and society that wasn’t designed by or for them.
In spite of this, Jeremiah issued a statement from God that said, “Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” And that is what the Jewish people did.
What is interesting about this time in Babylonian captivity is that so much of the Jewish scriptures were written or finalized during and immediately after this time. Parts of Jeremiah, 2nd Chronicles, 2nd Kings, Ezra, Daniel, Lamentations, the final unifying edit of the Pentateuch. The Jewish people, working to build their presence and legacy, struggling to be known, and bettering the land they were sent to has given the world scripture that is still used 2500 years later. It seems as if something about their marginalization in Babylon helped the intensity of their relationship with God and their desire to communicate that with each other and the world.
Babylon was eventually overturned by Persia and the Judeans were allowed to return to Jerusalem if they chose. Some did, but many stayed behind. These groups that stayed behind would eventually become known as the Samaritans. In spite of their Jewish lineage, they were hated by the Jewish people for having chosen to stay behind and create their own temple and scriptures which they thought were more correct and more Godly than the Jewish people’s temple and scripture, choosing to continue to have families with non-Jewish people, and not returning to the holy land.
The Gospel of Luke features two prominent stories involving Samaritans as the “good guys.” The first is the famous parable that has been given the title of “The Good Samaritan,” the second is our New Testament passage today in which the cured Samaritan was the only one of ten people to return to thank Jesus for being healed of his Leprosy. Luke seems to be intent on, at least in these passages, showing the marginalized person as being the closest to God’s influence. In fancy theological speaking this is called the preferential option for the poor. “The option for the poor, according to theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, “involves a commitment that implies leaving the road one is on” in order to enter the world of an “insignificant” person; selflessness is the goal of this lifestyle.” In other words, there is some way in which God works more directly among people who are oppressed; whether they are poor, disabled, racially marginalized, or otherwise cast to the edges of society, and calls those who are not in the margins to intentionally move themselves to minister to those who are in the margins. The term “poor” serves as a umbrella-term for anyone who has been outcast from typical society.
God’s preferential option for the poor (or disabled, mentally ill, marginalized), in my opinion, demonstrates why new movements of the spirit seem to rise up from the margins. The civil rights movements arose from Black churches in the 1960s in spite of them being a fraction of the size of the Methodist, Catholic, and Southern Baptist churches of the time. The Quakers, who fled Europe to escape persecution, were the first Western group to oppose slavery, with some members speaking out as early of the late 1700s. Today Black, Mujerista, Asian, Queer, Disabled, and Womanist theologians, just to name a few, though coming from very different backgrounds, have nurtured beautiful and varied expressions of Christianity that all share a passion for God-fueled, direct action for liberating humans from oppression. God ministers from the margins. Jesus reaching out to heal and help the marginalized in his time demonstrates God’s special passion for the outcast. Where society wants to hide marginalized people, Jesus wants to center them, see them, reach out to them, touch them, heal them, and restore them to their communities. This working of God from the margins is so strong that I have been told whenever it seems like God is absent or not speaking clearly, to make sure I am spending significant time supporting the people doing Christianity from the margins, because God’s presence permeates that space.
A significant part of welcoming people in Christ’s love is not being afraid of disability and welcoming people just as they are without trying to reinterpret their existence. We don’t need to use cutesie euphemisms like differently-abled, differently-capable, special, or whatever. Disability is not a dirty word. There is a social media creator who goes by the name FootlessJo, and just as her name suggests, she is missing one of her legs from just under the knee down. She recently went to the emergency room for an unrelated problem and was wearing a shirt that said “Disabled is not a Dirty Word” and the nurse and doctor both went out of their way to tell her she shouldn’t label herself that, and the doctor, before even asking her why she is at the ER, told her that she, and many people who are “different like her” are making the best of their life and doing amazing things out there. “Yes, sir, that is the point,” she said, “disability or disabled are not bad terms, not derogatory statements, and are accurate descriptions for a portion of human beings.”
Going back to recognizing disability as a social construct, there are significant communities of people in the disabled community that are perfectly comfortable with their own bodies, but desire and fight to create a more accessible society. The deaf community, autistic community, and ADHD community largely, though by no means completely, have no desire to have our bodies and minds changed, we just want a society where we can exist and move about freely the way we are, and to have access to the accommodations we need to navigate life where things cannot be changed to adequately allow access for us to be successful.
This is what most people long for, an existence in which they, along with everyone else, are not marginalized, oppressed, and forgotten and left to suffer, and long for a world in which all people can live together as one, which is the ultimate dream of God and mission of Jesus. Jesus’ healings of the lepers and others were always more than just relieving that person’s physical and spiritual distress, they also enabled that person to fully participate in their community. In this way we should follow Jesus’ lead to continuously form our church and community into more and more accessible spaces and welcome those with disabilities into full participation in our church.
This is similar to what happened in Jeremiah. The Judeans were forced to live in a society that wasn’t designed for them, didn’t freely welcome them, and made them struggle to escape marginalization. But with the help of God, the Judeans established families, businesses, legacies, scriptures, and more that have lasted 2500 years. I wonder, if we listen to those who are disabled and otherwise marginalized in our own church, what amazing new things may come about that will last for the next 200 years of our church’s life.
 Gutiérrez, Gustavo (2009). “The Option for the Poor Arises From Faith in Christ”. Theological Studies (70): 318