Sermons

When Our Assumptions Are Turned Around…Rev. Dee Ledger; October 10, 2021

Maybe you saw Kodi Lee’s amazing first audition with America’s Got Talent in 2019.  Blind, autistic, and accompanied by his mom, the then 22 year old Kodi did not seem, on first glance, to be able to compete or even to complete a sentence.  Yet before a stunned crowd, he blew away the judges as he performed professionally, with flawless singing, playing, and his unique musical presence. But had you “seen” Kodi in a grocery store and asked him a few questions, you likely would not have supposed him to be an entertainer.[1]  Kodi is a prodigious musical savant.  His mom once remarked that he can hear a song once and play it.  He can sing in multiple languages, has performed around the world, and even knows how to tap dance.

Assumptions.

What assumptions have people made about you personally?

Assumptions.  We all make them, though we may try at times to avoid doing so.  Our very first impressions can lead to assumptions just as readily as a negative experiences, and even positive ones.  On this Access and Disabilities Awareness Sunday, we might consider what assumptions that we hold that discredit or disparage our siblings in faith who are differently-abled as well as those assumptions that hurt our own selves.

Perhaps we suppose that a person’s physical disability compromises or curtails his or her well-being in ways that we can only perceive as detrimental or somehow “less than” fulfilling.  Perhaps we believe that having a disability always results in social ostracism, suffering, or pain.  Perhaps we assume, like our biblical ancestors, that disability means imperfection, a test of faith, a punishment, the result of parental sin, or the result of Adam’s fall.  Even as recent as this past week, as I researched the topic, I unfortunately found echoes of these assumptions.

What assumptions have you made about others who were differently-abled from you?  What assumptions have you made about yourself and your abilities?  When those assumptions turned out to be incorrect, how did it feel and how did you handle it?

Our personal assumptions about each other and our capabilities unwittingly create barriers for another’s access to God, to our hearts, and to relationship.  Our assumptions about imaging God often also reveal our assumptions about disability and the differently-abled.

Nancy Eiesland, former associate professor at Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, was a theologian, sociologist, and staunch advocate for those with disabilities.  She was also born with a congenital bone defect that prompted her to have 11 operations by the time she was 13.  As Douglas Martin wrote, “she felt that without her disability, she would be ‘absolutely unknown to myself and perhaps to God.’”[2] She saw her congenital disability as part of who she was,  her identity and character formed thru the challenges of her disability.  Perhaps because of this, she came to view Jesus’ wounds from the cross as likewise part of who he was and is.

Of course, others have held a different view; some Christian scholars believe that we are given new, spiritual bodies at the final resurrection and some of us may indeed welcome these perfected (perhaps even younger, idealized) bodies, like we might welcome a newer model of a car on the car lot.  Perhaps this “newer, better model” is part of our hope of heaven or a hope of life to come.  But maybe our assumptions of what a “heavenly body” is like have been limited by our imaginations and our assumptions on earth, and are faulty at best.  Maybe those resurrected bodies will be neither more, nor less than the glory of who we are, even with all of our imperfections and impairments.

Eiesland challenged our definitions of what being disabled truly is.  She stressed that notions of being able-bodied are more fluid than we imagine. She famously pointed out that “individuals who are currently able-bodied have a greater than 50 per cent chance of becoming physically disabled, either temporarily or permanently.  She said, “Ours is a minority you can join involuntarily, without warning, at any time.  [However], this risk can produce creativity and openness to what God will do.”[3]

Prior to seminary, I had little knowledge of a disabled God or an impaired God.  Eiesland reminded me of the Christ who appears to his disciples with wounds intact.  He is not miraculously healed of impairment.   Eiesland argued, “in presenting his impaired body to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God.”[4] Eiesland’s understanding of God helped to counter several long-standing assumptions that were suspect: for instance, that God was supposedly “perfect” in every way and would never have a drop foot or ADHD.

Because we – in the West—tend to believe in the myth of bodily perfection, we rage against our mortality and find it hard to love God and ourselves when we believe ourselves to be “less than” whatever standard of perfection or able-ness is celebrated at the time.  Eiesland warned that “stress-induced impairment will soon be among the leading causes of disability in the Western world, as we work our bodies beyond God-given limits…[And] stress induced disabilities, like repetitive strain injury, stroke, and heart attack, teach us that we have yet to hear God’s call to be fully human, which means accepting our mortal limits.”[5]

But why does this matter?  John Swinton writes, “The ways in which we construct our understandings of beauty, normality, strength, intellect and reason have a direct implication for the ways in which we interpret and respond to disability. Our ‘normal’ constructions mean that disability can only be perceived as an abnormality which, it is assumed, cannot reflect the true image of God.”[6]

Similarly, Deborah Creamer, a systematic theologian and a feminist scholar, argues for a theology of limits.  In her view, there is a difference between the limitations we impose on each other and the limits on the human condition.  She says, “When we think of limits, we think of limit-ed. We tend to imagine that a God with limits (e. g., a God with an impairment) is less (at best) or defective (at worst). Why would we worship, or even want, a limit-ed God? If God has an impairment, we tend (from a limited-ness perspective) to think of what God is not (a blind God cannot see, a deaf God cannot hear). However, applying the limits model may instead give us a very different way to think of God.”  In her understanding,  limits are seen as neutral, natural, and universal.  They are not pathologized.[7]

How well can you accept your human (mortal) limits?  What limit bothers you most?  Have others assumed to know what your personal limits are?

Lastly, we might consider how our ideas of God’s power are made in our image to our detriment.  In his reflections on the idea of a disabled God, Burton Cooper writes: “Our tendency is to think of divine power in the same terms as our power, except to extend God’s power unlimitedly. That is, there are limits to our power; there are no limits to God’s power. If we can do some things, God is able to do anything. Thus, human ’ableness’ provides us with the image to think about God’s power. In this context, the image of a disabled God is not simply a shocker but also a theological reminder that we are not to think of God’s powers or abilities as simply an unlimited extension of our powers or abilities.”[8]

In our New Testament reading from Hebrews 4, we are reminded that we have a “high priest”—Jesus—who can sympathize with our weaknesses, because he has – in every respect—been tested as we are.  We are encouraged to approach God’s grace with boldness because, like Jesus, we have been made strong in our weakness.

Can you see the strength in your weakness?  When your hand shakes and you aren’t able to grasp things like you used to, or when you can’t remember names or faces as readily as you’d like; when you are in the bathroom during the night more than you wish, or when your spirit takes a downturn and you must make a trip to the therapist for a depression you don’t understand, can you see this weakness as leading to a different kind of strength?  Can you imagine God, not necessarily correcting the weakness, but transforming it so that it is less hindrance to you and more gift?  Can you approach God with boldness, not to shut God out of your various abilities and limits, but to discover the God within them?

What difference does having a disabled God who knows our humanity make? Perhaps our assumptions are holding us back from knowing what this God can and will do.

Amen.

 

 

 

[1] The Story of Kodi Lee, Beyond America’s Got Talent, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AX64ohDR4M

[2] Douglas Martin, “Nancy Eiesland Is Dead at 44; Wrote of a Disabled God, The New York Times, March 21, 2009.  https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/us/22eiesland.html

[3] Dr. Nancy L. Eiesland,“Encountering the Disabled God,” https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/uploads/content/bible_in_transmission/files/2004_spring/BiT_Spring_2004_Eiesland.pdf

[4] D. Martin, ibid.

[5] Dr. Nancy L. Eiesland,“Encountering the Disabled God,” https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/uploads/content/bible_in_transmission/files/2004_spring/BiT_Spring_2004_Eiesland.pdf

[6] See above.

[7] John Swinton, “Who is the God We Worship? Theologies of Disability; Challenges and New Possibilities,” https://www.abdn.ac.uk/sdhp/content-images/Who_is_the_God_We_Worship.pdf

[8]John Swinton quoting Burton Cooper, ibid.