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Friday, 28 August 2015

The way to unity is through diversity

Here is my sermon from yesterday's lunchtime Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook (the sermon can be heard at the London Internet Church website):

In the culture of Jesus’ day, those with disabilities were often excluded from their community because of their disability. We see this in the Gospels in references to disabled people living outside villages and towns and being beggars on the streets. Those who were Jews, were excluded from worship at the Temple because of their disability. Jesus’ acts of healing were, therefore, acts of inclusion because, as a result, those healed were reintegrated into their community. For those who were Jews, we often read of these people being sent to authorities after their healing in other that they can return to their communities.

Despite this, as the theologian John Hull has noted, many disabled people rightly ‘claim the Bible and Christian faith are not so much part of the answer but part of the problem.’ He notes that ‘many Christians still persist with a literal concept of miracle, and the imitation of Christ is sometimes thought to involve healing miracles for disabled people.’ In addition, ‘the Bible itself depicts many disabilities in a negative way.’ ‘He gives blindness as one example, due to his personal experience of this condition, which ‘is frequently used as a metaphor for sin and unbelief.’ This is a metaphor taken from the world of sighted people and used to marginalise and demean the world of blind people. The result of these negative features of the [Christian] tradition’, John Hull says, ‘is that disabled people usually find better things to do on a Sunday morning than go to church’.

That situation is the reverse of Jesus’ intent when he healed. He intended to include disabled people in the community, culture and worship of his day but some aspects of the Christian tradition which he began have resulted in disabled people experiencing exclusion. As John Hull has said, ‘The true miracle … is when disabled people are fully integrated into Church life and accepted exactly as they are’.

At St Stephen Walbrook we inhabit a space which is a visual treasure chest. We rightly value Wren’s masterpiece as ‘the pride of English architecture’ (John Summerson) and because the sensitive mirroring of Wren’s dome with Henry Moore’s altar and Patrick Heron’s kneelers creates harmonious space. However, those who are blind cannot see what we see in this space and those with mobility impairments cannot access the space in order to see. All the while that those of us who can access and see the glories of this space, accept that others cannot, we are actually a space and community of exclusion. As a community whose mission statement says we seek to provide, without prejudice or expectation, a safe and welcoming place, we need to creatively imagine how we can include those who are currently excluded.

Jesus, in order to communicate with the man in our Gospel story (Mark 7. 31 - 37), uses touch and gesture. There are several different theories as to why Jesus acts in ways that seem very strange to us; putting his fingers in the man’s ears, spitting before putting his fingers on the man’s tongue and looking up to heaven. The simplest explanation would seem to be that touch and gesture were the ways in which communication could take place. The starting point for inclusion for us, as for Jesus, is to enter to some extent the world of the other person, in this case the man who was deaf and who had a speech impediment.

It can only be as we connect with the different world that others inhabit that understanding can come from which inclusion can develop. John Hull says: ‘The major disabilities create a distinctive world of experience, so different from the world in which the majority live as to constitute different human worlds. The powerful majority often create a world which is assumed to be the only world. Those who do not share this world are regarded as being without a world and are pitied or patronised. This idea of multiple worlds is of great political and social significance. If you do not understand my world, how can we relate to each other with mutual respect? If we rush too soon to a single world, we create an exclusive domination. The only way to create a unity of the human species is to go through multiplicity. The way to unity is through diversity … We must also include the different human worlds of experience, such as the disabled worlds we have been thinking about. Just as the Church can’t be holy or catholic without the equal ministry of women with men, so it cannot be holy or catholic without the equal prophetic and sacramental ministry of disabled people with the able-bodied.’


Stevie Wonder - Visions.

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