I preached this sermon on the morning of November 15th, 2020, for the good folks of First Presbyterian Church of Warren, Michigan. My text was Mark 10:46-52. Enjoy!
I have a low voice. Can everyone hear me? Great. Thanks! In that light, I speak to you in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Can someone say amen?
Several weeks ago, Marijo asked me to preach. I wasn’t sure which text I should choose. After she and Julie gave me some guidance, I’ve decided to talk about my theological research. Broadly speaking, I teach and write about a sacramental ecclesiology of disability. Those forty-dollar words mean, roughly, that I examine how people with disabilities – people like myself, and like some of you folks – can use the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion to create and maintain equitable and loving communities within the church. This morning, I’m gonna do three things. I’m going to introduce myself; I’m going to segue from that intro into the broad strokes of my research…and then I’ll show you folks a little about Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52. I’ll particularly demonstrate – using that encounter – a few principles that Christians of varied abilities can embody, in order to really demonstrate God’s love to each other.
First, then, the intro. My name’s Michael Walker; I call myself Mike. I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in an old hospital, to two people from Prince Edward Island. My dad’s a surgeon, and my mother’s a pharmacist. I was born on September 6th, 1984, so I’m thirty-six years old. I have spastic cerebral palsy. That’s a neurological condition that affects motor control: it means that my muscles are always tense (the “spastic” part), that my limbs shake at all times – even the left one, my dominant one (the “palsy” part), and that I had a traumatic brain injury that affected my cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that regulates motion. Because of this condition – or, at least, concurrent with it – I have a number of mobility issues, as well as logical, spatial, and mathematical deficits. I have very little spatial sense; that is, physical directions are very difficult for me. I’m forever lost in space: I can’t make my way from Wrigley Square, in downtown Chicago, to Lake Michigan – a distance of two hundred yards or so – without a map. Additionally, as you’ll likely notice while I’m talking, I sometimes make great logical leaps in conversation. J I also have a very curved spine, so I experience some chronic pain, and I limp when I walk.
So, a significant part of my life consists in my lived response to those conditions. I work methodically, I move slowly, and I sometimes take a long time to make decisions. All of those parts of my personality can frustrate my loved ones, but I’ve found that my own experiences of unconventional embodiment, and physical trauma, make me responsive to the needs and pains of other people. We’re going to talk more about that sort of compassion in a little bit.
Partly because of my responses to these conditions, I took a long time to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up. (I haven’t fully grown up yet, either. If you have pointers, please let me know.) After I did an undergrad in English at Mount Allison University, in Sackville, New Brunswick, I went to Knox College, the Presbyterian seminary at the University of Toronto, to study theology. That initial decision in the summer of 2006 became three graduate degrees in theology, particularly a doctorate in theology, called a Th.D. This is the second point I want to make, the one about my research.
My doctoral dissertation – supervised by Dr. Tom Reynolds, and published in May 2018 – is entitled Embodying Community: a Transformative and Sacramental Ecclesiology of Disability. That document starts from a Reformed Christian sacramental paradigm because I was initially Presbyterian (I’m ecumenical now). The text delves into the Christian and Jewish scriptures for evidence of divine hospitality, and draws significantly on my own life-experience: in general, this project explored how the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion can empower Christians with disabilities to create loving and just church communities.
The short version is that these rituals can activate and motivate relationship: their material elements – water, Word, bread, and wine – reveal human beings’ resilience and our capacities for creativity, desire, and connection. Baptism and Communion invite people into varied modes of accessto equity, especially affective access, which allows people to support and befriend each other. If I may, here’s the slightly-longer version…
Baptism and Holy Communion offer Christians of diverse abilities physical access to equity by creating the conditions for healing and intimate relationship: physically and emotionally, these rituals remind us of Jesus’ welcome of human beings, and invite us to welcome others to know Jesus’ love. They call us into solidarity with each other: because the ritual elements are material things, they invite all of us, of all abilities, to offer food and drink to people who are hungry and thirsty, and to meet the needs that people have where they are. For instance, if we see a stone step up to the choir loft when our sister needs a ramp to get to that place, our baptismal vows and our participation in Communion encourage us to work for the ramp!
Significantly, because the Communion rite still reminds many believers of the ways that people with disabilities are excluded from ecclesial community, the late Lutheran sociologist of religion Nancy Eiesland calls the church “a communion of struggle” (1994, 116). When she says that, she’s not wrong: the ways that many denominations perform the ritual of Communion are ableist, and quite often those who eat the meal do not think of ways to change their ritual to accommodate their brothers and sisters with diverse impairments.
Moreover, and significantly, physical access correlates very strongly to the sacrament of Holy Communion because of that rite’s material elements. The bread and wine bear witness to the potential for compassion and availability between and among communicants, and the bread and wine – evenly distributed among the communicants – testify to the fact that there is enough food to feed everyone in the world. Catholic theologian and storyteller Megan McKenna argues that way in one of her books; I’d be happy to talk more about that.
The sacraments also help people of varied abilities to show each other compassion by providing us with intellectual access to equity. That is, they invite us to use our imaginations to perceive other people’s needs, to meet each other where we are, and to exercise patience with each other in sacramental community. For instance, baptism and Holy Communion beckon us to simplify our overly-cerebral language in liturgy and sermon (a serious but worthy challenge for me!), and to use language appropriate to people with disabilities. For example, I detest words like “lame,” “cripple,” and “retard,” all of which have been applied to me. I assert that the pejorative use of disability language, even that couched in clear references to the Jewish or Christian scriptures, signals intellectual laziness at best, and cruelty at worst.
Baptism and Holy Communion enable people of diverse abilities to experience affective access to God’s equality and justice, as well. These rituals can empower you, me, and all of us to experience God’s love through physical and social sustenance, and so enable us to desire and befriend each other. For me, friendship is a dance, involving a negotiation between two or more parties, across difference. All of our emotional states – joy, pain, anger, fear, sadness, hope – are dance-moves. Friendship means that I seek someone else’s well-being, and I respect their boundaries. Also, friendship emulates the love of the triune God: Miroslav Volf calls the Trinity’s love “mutual interiority.” The members of the Godhead are part of each other, and so are human beings called to be. We’ll talk more about friendship when we talk about Jesus.
So, by virtue of their material elements, baptism and Holy Communion offer interested parties, like us, a window into the classic “four marks” of the Church. Baptism and Communion make us vulnerable and available to each other, so they show us how the church is one, united in our fealty to Christ. They also point to our holiness in Christ, the way in which we engage in the suffering of the world; they demonstrate our catholicity, our resonance across all of Christian tradition whether Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Coptic, and our apostolicity, the way that we follow in the footsteps of Jesus’ friends and figure out how to do what Jesus did.
Speaking of Jesus, this is point number three, my attempt to link my research in the sacraments to the encounter between Jesus and Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52. I’ll read the text again, so that we know where we’re coming from.
46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 49Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
So we might notice several things about this text, in terms of the research that I’ve talked about. For context, the text makes clear that Jesus is on his way out of Jericho, going towards Jerusalem to be killed… So, Jesus and his friends are walking along the road, and Bartimaeus, the blind Son of Timaeus, is sitting by the roadside waiting for him. Then Bartimaeus has a great idea: he decides to shout at the top of his lungs so that Jesus will hear him. I have to applaud his audacity… He gives Jesus a unique title and he shouts, “SON OF DAVID, HAVE MERCY ON ME!” (47). Bartimaeus shouts so loudly that the crowd can’t shout him down…even though they try. I imagine them saying things like, “Hey, man, be quiet. The Master’s busy. Jesus has a three o’clock with Jairus after a lunch near the Temple. Go panhandle somewhere else” (48).
…and then, again: Bartimaeus keeps shouting. “SON OF DAVID, HAVE MERCY ON ME!” He shouts loudly enough that Jesus “stands still” – for, quite possibly, the first time in the entire Gospel of Mark – and he decides to dance with Bartimaeus. He gives the blind man physical and affective access to his ministry. Even though there’s no water, bread, or wine in this story, Jesus exercises the patience to which God’s love, embodied in sacramental community, calls us. Rather than calling out Bartimaeus, Jesus pays attention to him, the person on the periphery. He asks someone to call Bartimaeus over, and the crowd, which was harassing Bartimaeus for making himself visible just a moment ago, requests that he get up and go to Jesus (49). Because the crowd affirms him, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak –an instrument that he needs to beg – and jumps up, and goes over to talk to Jesus. Bartimaeus is active, not passive!
In his classic, axiomatic simplicity, Jesus asks the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (49). Hear me clearly, friends. This is the question that people with disabilities want to hear within the Church! This question – the kind of thing Jesus is most famous for – is the sort of question that the Church can and must get better at asking believers with disabilities. Rather than allowing financial or personal concerns like the cost of helping Bartimaeus, or his physical awkwardness, to interfere with the encounter, Jesus simply and directly enters into Bartimaeus’ situation and empathically asks him what he needs. Jesus meets him where he is, and gives him personal and intellectual access to the transformative things that God is doing.
My colleagues in Toronto, at the Ontario College of Art and Design, have called this principle, “Just ask, just listen.” One enters into a situation, and without judgment, asks how s/he can help the other person. This is the kind of question we as a Church ought to ask people when we see them in pain. Not just, “Can I pray for you?” Not, “Why don’t you get a job?” Instead, we can say, “Hi! How can I help?” It’s a simple change in perspective from the ableist, prejudiced norms that think first of the finance and furniture of our rituals…and because it embodies that openness to change, and that appreciation of diversity, it’s worth it.
…and, returning to the text, we’ll simply notice that Bartimaeus says he wants to see again. Without much preamble, and without any apparent physical contact, Jesus restores Bartimaeus’ prior visual acuity. “Go; your faith has made you well.” We might say it like this… “Dude. I appreciate you asking. Here you go; take your sight, and go on your way.”
Go. Go where, exactly? Significantly, Bartimaeus doesn’t just go on his way. Rather, the Son of Timaeus follows Jesus “along the road” into Jerusalem…where the latter will die a painful death. And, because Jesus has slightly improved his social standing, and entirely given him back his sight, Bartimaeus does so with joy. Dear friends, this is the joyful accompaniment to which the sacraments call us. This is the empathic engagement to which Christ invites us.
I promised you folks principles that we could draw from this encounter, based on my research. I can see three such principles in this text, borne out by the work I’ve done in ecclesiology. First, by shouting for Jesus’ attention, Bartimaeus advocates for his own needs. Not everyone can do that – for instance, many people with profound intellectual disabilities don’t have that capacity – but those who can advocate for themselves and others definitely should. Jesus wants us to shout, as loudly as Bartimaeus, for the creation of real and sacramental community within the Church. I think that that advocacy is terribly important.
Second, by stopping and attending to Bartimaeus’ cries, Jesus offers him the patience and empathy that are the backbone of an accessible community within the church. Jesus doesn’t just listen to Bartimaeus. He mobilizes others to help him too – he gets the crowd on-side, in a way that it wasn’t before he met Bartimaeus. That’s significant: when we in the Church do advocacy, we must use all our resources to show others why the work of Jesus is important.
Third, by engaging with Bartimaeus in compassion, Jesus offers him an indispensable aspect of access to loving community. Jesus both asks Bartimaeus exactly what he needs, without any sort of prejudice, and then offers him precisely what he asks for, without reservation. He asks Bartimaeus what he needs; Bartimaeus says, “My sight, teacher,” and Jesus gives him renewed sight. In this way, Jesus demonstrates the sort of love that we, his friends, are meant to offer others when they’re suffering. We’re called to meet people where they are, simply and without attempting to offer ourselves security and comfort. We’re meant to offer what we have to others without asking for reciprocity, change, or good works. Jesus offers us the opportunity to dance with others, with people unlike ourselves, in friendship.
I hope that today, and in the days to come, you’ll take up the Saviour’s invitation to dance. I hope that you’ll go out into the world still pondering some of these things. I also pray that you’ll exhibit the patience and compassion of Jesus, and the alacrity of Bartimaeus, in your encounters with others. I share those hopes and prayers with you in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Can someone say amen?