Our congregation has been working the issue of accessibility for people with disabilities for a long time. We still have a way to go, but we’ve come a long way, too. It’s a two-fold process. We need access ramps into our church buildings, and we also need access ramps into our hearts. We need to widen the doors of our church buildings, and we also need to widen the doors of our hearts. From time to time I will post sermons, thoughts, or resources related to accessibility and disabilities. To start the series, here is the sermon that I preached in 1995 on Morton Church’s first Accessibility Sunday. I am sure that the statistics I cited then need revision, but the need is as strong as it ever was–perhaps even stronger.
A Sermon on Luke 14:1, 12-24
One Sabbath day Jesus went home to dinner with a leading Pharisee of the local congregation. Now this was not a spur of the moment potluck. The host had put every bit of effort into getting ready for Jesus that we put into getting ready for our annual homecoming. It was a matter of honor to put on the finest feast he could, and the more important the guest, the more elaborate the feast.
The host put his head together with the cook about the food, just as we do every September. The food had to be tasty and there had to be enough of it and more. There was a special item on the menu: meat. It was too expensive to eat every day.
The host carefully instructed the servants how to lay the table and where. They must make comfortable places for the guests, and especially for the guest of honor. We know how important that is! Every year we worry about our guests getting too hot outside, and we debate about the best place for the tables. Last year we went all out and got a big tent to dine under.
Just as we do, the host probably planned a program for the guests to enjoy. He also sent out invitations by way of the servants. In his time, you invited your guests twice: once to announce the meal, and then again when the meal was ready. Last year, over one hundred people accepted our invitation to come home to Morton, and we had a grand feast!
At last the dinner hour arrived, and the Pharisee’s table was piled high with good things. After all the guests had gotten settled, Jesus looked around at everyone. He found himself looking into the faces of the host’s family and friends, the neighbors and the influential people in town. Jesus also noticed who wasn’t there, who hadn’t been invited to the party.
He leaned over towards the host and said, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Invite the people that the world forgets about. You welcome the people that world leaves out of its fellowship and off its guest list.”
Everybody around the table stopped chewing. What did he say? Jesus had some nerve talking to the host that way!
There was a very uncomfortable silence. The guests immediately imagined a dinner with “those” folks around the table, and the thought repelled them. “Why, Jesus,” they were surely thinking, but were too polite to say, ”Don’t you know what kind of people they are? We don’t want to socialize with them!’
In Jesus’ day, people often explained suffering as a punishment from God. If you had a disability like blindness or lameness, it meant that you or somebody in your family must have sinned. To make matters worse, you weren’t just a sinner. You were unclean! You were a second class citizen or less, not an honored guest. Depending on your condition, you might even be quarantined outside the city, forced to beg for a living. You stayed in the shadows.
For some, it’s not that much better now. Too often people with disabilities are considered “sickened class citizens,” as one survivor of polio and arthritis puts it . (Gloria Maxson in Harold Wilke, Creating the Caring Congreation . Nashville: Abingdon, 1980, p. 36.) Too often they are regarded as people who have to be helped instead of people who can help. Other people judge them by their limitations instead of their strengths and look away. Too often the church, if it remembers them at all, treats them like objects of pity, a mission project, or superhuman saints instead of real flesh and blood human beings who love and laugh and cry, who do some things right and some things wrong just like every other person.
In Jesus’ day and ours, many would prefer that folks who have obvious disabilities just stay in the shadows. In fact, the world would just as soon that anybody who is even slightly different stay in the shadows.
Let’s face it: encountering those who cannot fit the world’s mold of health and wealth and beauty stirs up deep fears in us that we don’t want to face. How vulnerable and flawed we are! We could be injured! We could suffer an illness! Some of our cells could turn into cancerous renegades! What’s more, if we feel uptight and don’t know what to say, it’s easier just to keep a distance! How much easier it is if some are willing to stay in the shadows!
But Jesus saw all who were in the shadows then and he sees them now. While other people were hoping not to have to encounter them, Jesus was busy calling them to himself, doing good for them and yes, eating with them. Outsiders are the VIP’s on God’s guest list.
For God has done what the host in our parable did. God has worked hard to heap up his table with good things like love, grace, forgiveness and another chance. Precious promises of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the promise that sin and suffering will not have the last word in our lives. God will, because not even death is stronger than God!
God has put the bread of life and the cup of salvation on his table, and he is eager to share them with his guests. God has sent his servant Jesus to invite one and all to fill the banquet hall. “Everything’s ready! Come on! There’s still room!” Jesus calls to people who have disabilities. “If the world tells you that you don’t belong, and that you don’t have anything to contribute, come home to my table. I’ll tell you something different!’ Christ is the servant who has gone out into every highway and byway to bring all kinds of people out of the shadows and to the table.
And he calls his body, the church, to do the same. “Look all around you!” Christ insists. “Not everybody is at the table yet. Not everybody has been invited yet. You go and welcome people with disabilities to God’s banquet.”
“But Lord,” reply many congregations who pride themselves on their hospitality. “We don’t have any of them here. If any come, we’ll be glad to help them in.” But they are there and here, overlooked in the shadows. By the Americans with Disabilities Act definition, there are approximately 900,000 people in North Carolina with disabilities, and I estimate about 11,500 in Nash County. That’s 15% of the population. They ought to be in the church, at God’s table!
Some are already in the church. By sheer willpower to keep climbing the steps when there’s no ramp or lift. They keep quiet about the pain and the fear of falling. Others strain to hear what’s going on or to see tiny print, but they hardly ever complain. What’s more, they’re much too polite to say anything when the bathrooms are uncomfortable or impossible to use.
After a while, some give up the struggle to keep going to church. There seems to be an unwritten rule in our society that once you get in a certain condition, you just gracefully accept your lot and stay home. But not everybody wants to stay home!
This happened to a dear man in the church where I grew up. His name was Gene, and he had mental retardation. He also had clubfeet and walked on his ankles. Gene had the gift of prayer. He prayed for others and asked them to pray for him. The church would not have been whole without Gene.
The time came when he could no longer walk. He used a mobility scooter to get around his house and yard. But he stopped coming to church. Why didn’t we in the church make a way for him to come into worship using his scooter? Why weren’t we determined like those four friends in the children’s story? (See Mark 2:1 12.) We committed a sin of omission against Gene.
I suppose we reasoned that, well, if Gene came, then we would gladly help him in. That would save the trouble and expense of modifying our building. Friends, suppose the servant in the parable had taken that approach! He would have said, “I don’t see any people who are poor or crippled or blind or lame. But if any come, I’ll be sure to let them in!” Would that have pleased the master?
Jesus doesn’t say wait until folks ask to be invited or until they show up on their own and bang on the door for us to let them in. In the words of the master, the Lord says, “Go out at once—right now—into the streets and lanes of the town and bring them in.”
We don’t wait until folks show up on Homecoming Sunday to get our building, grounds and food ready for them. We make our preparations well in advance without knowing exactly who is coming. We expect any and everyone, so we work hard to get ready.
The Lord is calling us to take the same skills of generous hospitality, the same energy and creativity that we use at homecoming, and use them to get our building and our hearts ready to welcome people with disabilities.
That’s probably going to mean a ramp, and our disability concerns committee is likely to recommend to the session that it be at our main entrance. They believe with all their hearts that God’s honored guests ought to be welcomed by the front door! The committee will also seek a way to make the entrance doors openable to someone in a wheelchair, or with limited strength in arms and hands. Moreover, the bathroom needs some work done on it to make it accessible. And I’m sure you all have more ideas. Share them with the committee.
But most important, we’ve got to let the Lord build a ramp into our hearts, and open them so we can welcome people into our hearts and lives. God will help us cope with awkward feelings as we get used to each other. God will help us bear the pain that comes when we care. For Christ Jesus bore infinite pain to welcome us into his heart and home.
Friends, God has prepared a great feast, a table piled high with the food and drink that give us new life. God has set many, many places at that table, and the guest list is long. Come on, everybody, whatever your condition, come to God’s table, and show others the way. Come on, Morton Church, time to go get God’s guests and tell them, “Everything’s ready. You all come and eat!’
And one day, God is going to gather us all up for a great banquet in the kingdom. There’s not going to be any more sorrow or crying or pain. We’re going to sit down at the table together. And the Lord will look around and say, “At last—at last!—everybody is here!”