Risky discipleship

by Mary Spriggs

Text: Luke 13: 10-17

Yesterday was a stressful day. There were errands and housework to do and my daughter was not feeling well. I dashed into Starbucks to get her a fruit drink and a stranger held the door open for me. “Thank you very much,” I said. “You are worth it,” she replied. Wow. The power of one statement to turn a stressful day into one of joy and affirmation.

Our Gospel text depicts ability and disability. The ability of Christ, with the power of God to cure any disability and to end physical suffering. The 18-year disability of a woman who could not walk straight. And the inability and refusal of the Pharisees to see the central place of mercy in God’s commandments for life and worship.

Each of us has certain abilities. Some are great teachers. Some can run marathons. Some cannot walk easily. Some struggle to read. Some can preach sermons. Am I able to preach? I guess we’ll see about that today.

In the Book of Luke we are often reminded of the contrast between religiosity and true discipleship and the inevitable conflict between them. True discipleship involves risk. I propose that here it is not just the woman that Christ seeks to heal, but also religious practice and even society itself. Christ’s actions reinforce that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. In four separate verses in Luke, Jesus angers Pharisees by placing mercy before religiosity on the Sabbath. Finally, in Luke 14, he asks the experts to see what they have learned: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath ?” The Pharisees are silent. Could it be that they are afraid of the risk involved? Afraid of contagious disease? Afraid of changing traditional religious practices held for centuries? Afraid of the loss of status which comes with Jesus’s challenge to their authority?

The Greek phrase for the “spirit of infirmity” from which the woman suffered is pneuma astheneias. This can be translated as a spirit of sickness, weakness, or merely of being timid. Perhaps like me. She lacks confidence and shows it in her posture. She doesn’t feel “worth it.” Does the “spirit” refer to some external demonic spirit, or just to the woman’s own spirit; for we all have our own pneuma that is part of our identity.

By healing her on the Sabbath, Jesus established that her healing was more important than religion practiced for its own sake. The woman was vulnerable in her disability, and Jesus stepped right into that vulnerability by challenging the religious and social tradition of the Sabbath and offering her hospitality. Thus, Christ has shown us that healing has powerful social meaning. Christ’s healing, in fact all his teaching, restores relationships. Relationship is what God is all about. The entire Bible is a record of God’s continual mercy, forgiveness, and effort to stay in relationship with us. God has formed a relationship with each of us from the time we were in the womb, whatever our potential abilities.

It is society that defines “normal ability” versus disability. In his book Vulnerable Communion, Thomas Reynolds calls this the “Cult of Normalcy.” He describes how Western society has encouraged individualism and independence, marginalizing those with different bodies, deficient functions, or dependency upon others for communication or transportation. Our society demands that the disabled strive to become “normal.” Those who cannot are ignored, stigmatized, or passed by on the street without a glance. Surely Satan himself is active in this social isolation of the disabled, as he is all about destroying relationships. In contrast, God supports relationships and uses our individual strengths and abilities. To God, those who are disabled are in fact just differently abled. Moses had a speech defect, Paul suffered continually with an undefined thorn in his side, and Mephibosheth could not walk.

For Nancy Eiseland, author of The Disabled God, healing is growth through pain or trauma toward joy and well-being, facilitated by the removal of institutional barriers and religiosity which associate disability with sin and lack of faith. The church must beware of how its religiosity views disability. Many older Christian attitudes toward disability hearken back to how Luke’s audience understood disability, as something caused either by God or demons or Satan himself.

Even modern Christians find subtle ways to unconsciously blame the victim for their disability. We blame those with mental illness for “not acting normal.” We suspect persons with disabilities of lacking faith, otherwise they would be healed. Or perhaps we assume that God “made them that way” to be an inspiration to others or in order to show his power. Amos Yong, in Theology and Down Syndrome, writes about the author Mary Semple, suffering from a brain tumor, whose charismatic friends pressured her repeatedly to undergo faith healing, an embarrassing and humiliating experience for her. She says that in contrast her non-Christian friends accepted her unconditionally “openly acknowledging her obvious deformities without fear.” I wonder which of her friends have truly provided the healing that Jesus intended in today’s text.

Our religiosity can cause us to avoid even discussing our disabilities. We want to feel secure in our faith and strong, not vulnerable. Each Sunday we show our cheerful nature to one another. We feel that we should be grateful for the good in our lives and for God’s love, but aren’t we also afraid to be vulnerable with each other?

I confess my own disabilities. I have recently been diagnosed with severe hearing loss for certain sounds and frequencies but cannot afford the hearing aids I’ve been prescribed. I cannot walk steadily because arthritis has required that several joints in my feet be replaced with metal plates. Most embarrassingly, I have suffered from an anxiety disorder since I was seven years old. I feel very vulnerable telling you this. But as disciples of Christ, are we not meant to live in mutual vulnerability? For it is from vulnerability that we learn empathy. This does not mean feeling sorry for someone, but feeling with them. Because they are worth it.

Instead of living in vulnerability, we desire to maintain distance from the weak among us because of fear. We fear contamination from lepers or AIDS patients. We avoid eye contact or conversation with the mentally ill, terrified by their unpredictability. We “talk down” to persons with intellectual disabilities. We forget that Christ said in Matthew 11, “I praise you, Father, LORD of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” What a healing gift we would offer if we met the disabled from our own position of vulnerability. If we treated them as if they were worth it. What risky discipleship!

In our habits of religiosity, we dare to make decisions about the disabled which are not ours to make. A friend of mine, a learned theologian, was denied ordination by a major denomination because he has cerebral palsy and the governing body feared he might exhibit tremor when handling the bread and wine. This decision did not demonstrate risky discipleship. Despite the ADA, churches in the United States can practice discrimination against the disabled in hiring and firing because of the separation of church and state. Where is the discipleship in this? Perhaps we are afraid because we are aware that each of us is at best only temporarily able-bodied. Disability reminds us that we too will become weak and die someday.

Historically, the Christian church has even aligned itself with political power to gain a sense of security, however false. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in Ethics: Confession of Guilt, “The church confesses that it has witnessed oppression, hatred, and murder without raising its voice for the victims.” Bonhoeffer himself lived under the Nazi regime, which exterminated the sick and the disabled. He chose the risky discipleship of protest and paid the ultimate price with his life.

Dear Father, I confess that it is fear that kept me as a pharmacy hospital intern from embracing patients with AIDS. I confess that it is fear that keeps me from sharing money freely with many worthy causes because I fear my daughter having no money after I am gone. I also fear being lonely and vulnerable in my old age. I think of Psalm 71, “Do not cast me away when I am old, do not forsake me when my strength is gone.” Surely all of us, the disabled and those of us temporarily able-bodied, have this prayer in our hearts. But I age quickly, and perhaps today is my last day on earth.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus repeatedly calls us to such discipleship. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians, “by our weakness we are strong.” Jean Vanier created a community in France called L’Arche (the Ark) where the intellectually disabled and their support staff share meals and housing, thus risking intimacy and mutual vulnerability. These communities now exist worldwide. As Vanier writes, it is through such intimate actions that we start to feel a deep connection with the universe and its creator.

I was a counselor for seven years at a workshop in Skokie, Illinois, for persons with disabilities who were judged unable to work in “normal” competitive employment. Here Tony, a blind teenager, worked at lightning speed assembling boxes next to a Mary with intractable seizures who counted boxes, who sat next to a Walter, a Cubs fan with cerebral palsy, who passed his work on to Brian, a young man with paranoid schizophrenia, and all was collected by Oscar, an 86-year-old man with severe depression. New materials were supplied by Dan, a 38-year-old man who had suffered traumatic brain injury from a motorcycle accident. The love and respect for personhood shown by each individual for the others was awe-inspiring. I personally never felt more vulnerable, nor more loved as a human being, than by this group of risky disciples. It was a foretaste of the feast to come.

Christ himself became vulnerable in the most poignant way in order to teach us that vulnerability shared together is the true meaning of discipleship. His mercy was not cheap, but the most risky kind of all. As Luke reminds us, this God-as-man not only lived closely with all those rejected and marginalized by society, he even warned us that “the last shall be the first.” He himself suffered and took on our pains and our wounds and found perfection in disability. For his resurrected body still bears his wounds.

Despite our fears and vulnerability, offering a healing presence to persons with disabilities is worth the risk. For God is with us as we insist upon their inclusion, empathically listen to their stories, and share our own weaknesses with them. For Christ himself did the same for each person he met while he walked with us on earth.

There is a great sense of urgency to our mission. As Luke reminds us, we do not know the hour of Christ’s return. Will Jesus catch us in our status quo, hiding from our own weaknesses and those of others? Will we then bow our heads in shame?

Maybe we can challenge ourselves like St. Francis did? Francis relinquished his life of wealth and pleasure for one of preaching and servitude. His one remaining fear was a fear of lepers and leprosy. In the biography by the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, we see how one day, he decided to set out with his fellow monk, Brother Leo, to face his fear and to find a leper to embrace. Kazantzakis writes, “Throwing himself upon the leper, Francis lowered his head and kissed him upon the lips. Afterwards, he lifted him in his arms and, covering him with his robe, began to advance slowly, with heavy steps, toward the city… But, suddenly I saw Francis stop abruptly. He bent down and threw aside the robe in order to uncover the leper. All at once he uttered a loud cry; the robe was empty! Francis turned and looked at me, opening and closing his lips in a vain effort to speak. But his face was resplendent-ablaze! The tears flowing from his eyes, he fell prostrate on the ground and began to kiss the soil. I remained standing above him, trembling. It wasn’t a leper; it was Christ himself who had come down to earth in the form of a leper in order to test Francis.”

Take an honest look at the world around you. Who are we afraid to embrace because they make us feel vulnerable? Dare we embrace the very Son of God, who chose to make himself vulnerable among us?

Dear Father, You knew each of us by name while we were yet in the womb. Let us humbly repent the precious opportunities to heal that we have let slip by. Let us rejoice to bring healing to others and to choose to live in risky discipleship. To live by mercy, not habit. In the name of your glorious and exemplary Son, in whom you share your love and your life, teach us to hold nothing back. For all are worth it. Amen.