Disabled and poor people aren’t optional extras to God’s table, but primary participants. (Listen.)
It’s been more than twenty years since my mother died. As most of you know, she had multiple sclerosis. First it disrupted her balance, so she had to walk with a cane. Then it caused paraplegia, so she rolled around in a wheelchair. Gradually, the paralysis crept up her spine; she became quadriplegic. So she graduated into an electric wheelchair which someone else steered for her. Then she began losing hearing and vision; then finally the strength and mobility to inflate her lungs and breathe. She died quite literally crippled, lame and blind.
More, in those pre-NDIS days, given the time and money poured into hospital stays, rehabilitation, physical therapy, medical appointments, medications, disability equipment, necessary house renovations, loss of income and my father’s early retirement to care for her, she died much poorer than most of her able-bodied peers perhaps realize.
As most of you also know, my mother was a minister. But perhaps you don’t know that she worked until just a year before she died, sitting in a wheelchair as she ministered to a community, prayed with people, reflected on the Bible, and interpreted scripture for their context.
I wonder, then, how she would have interpreted tonight’s passage for her church. When she arrived there, walking with a cane, they had no disabled toilet and no ramp access. It was only as her condition deteriorated that they gradually installed such things: an accessible toilet in the outside amenities block; a ramp at a side door; and provision for working from home once it became necessary. But for a long time, my father would drive to the church office several times a day to take her to an accessible toilet; just as, on Sundays, he would enter the church with her through the side door, while the rest of the congregation streamed in through the main doors at the front.
The thing is, it’s hard for people to advocate for themselves. Especially if you’re a woman. And especially if you’re the first female senior pastor in an Australian Baptist church. And even more especially when your church allows you to work from home and take extended leave whenever your condition deteriorates. The pressure on her to make things work was extreme: perhaps she felt the church had done enough; and perhaps it had. At that time, simply accommodating a female body in the pulpit was a radical act; although of course she soon could not access the pulpit itself. Perhaps being able to use the front door of the building or an inside toilet felt like too much to expect.
That was twenty years ago, but I’m not sure how greatly the church at large has changed since then. When I visit churches, I try to work out how a body like hers would enter the building, or use a toilet, or be positioned in the sanctuary, or access the pulpit or the stage to preach. Sometimes, it would be easy; other times, it’s hard to see how a body like hers could lead a service or chair a meeting or feel a dignified member of the worshipping congregation. When your wheelchair only fits in the back, and the congregation is exhorted to stand and sing, you spend a lot of time looking at people’s bottoms.
And so tonight’s story should make some churches very uncomfortable. Jesus is dining with a leader of the Pharisees, who by definition is of sound body since physically disabled bodies were banned from entering the temple. The Pharisee is also wealthy enough to invite a group of people to dinner, and his guests have been jostling for status at the table.
Jesus gives this wealthy able-bodied religious leader a word of advice. ‘When you invite people to a meal,’ he says, ‘don’t invite your friends, your relatives or your rich neighbours,’ that is, these people who are jostling to be first. ‘But when you give a banquet,’ he says, ‘invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed.’
One of the dinner guests hears this and bristles. ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ he says. He might as well have said, ‘All lives matter!’ or ‘Men are victims of violence, too!’ Because while these things are true, black lives really matter in a society which consistently devalues them; and violence against women really matters in a society which consistently puts them at risk; and poor, crippled, lame and blind lives really matter in a society which consistently blocks them from participating fully in religious and communal life.
Jesus responds to the guest’s challenge with a story. He tells of a man who gives a banquet: but the usual invited guests decide not to come. And so he tells his servant, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame,’ that is, exactly the people Jesus has told the Pharisee to invite to dinner. Even after this has been done, there is still room, so the servant goes out again and hauls in all the people he can find in the roads and laneways: the drifters and the unhoused and the children playing hopscotch; the teenagers and the unemployed and whoever else he can find: and these people all come in and savour the banquet.
Notice: this is not a healing story. This is not a story where Jesus touches people and changes their bodies from blind to seeing, from lame to dancing. The guests don’t need to be able-bodied, rich or adult in order to sit at the table; they don’t become able-bodied, rich or adult by participating in the meal; and they’re not there by the gracious invitation of able-bodied, rich or adult people. In fact, in this story, comfortably wealthy able-bodied adults refuse the invitation—they have better things to do—and so the table is entirely made up of disabled people and poor people and children and drifters, drawn in by the urging of the servant of the host.
This suggests to me a fundamental reorientation of the church. A typical church in Australia has a group of middle class able-bodied adults at the centre, who make the decisions and control the finances and graciously decide to welcome ‘others’ with access ramps, disabled toilets and a large print order of service—if they choose to welcome them at all. But this story suggests that God’s table is primarily made up of disabled people and poor people and whoever the cat drags in; and that God’s servants should be rushing into the streets to find such people and ensure they find their seat. But, of course, for this hospitality to be meaningful, and not sidelining or humiliating, the guests must be able to enter the building through the main door, and read the menu, and use an inside toilet.
Jason Micheli reminds us, ‘Our calling as a community is not to make the world a better place; it’s to be the better place Christ has made in the world.’ I look around at our little group and our bodies of varying abilities, with our chronic conditions and chronic pain and failing eyesight. I am infinitely grateful that God made a building available for Sanctuary which has ramps, an accessible toilet, and no excluding stage or pulpit, even as I acknowledge that, even with and perhaps because of my history, I still have a lot to learn about becoming fully accessible.
I said earlier that it’s hard for people to advocate for themselves; but it’s also hard to understand how inaccessible places are until your own body cannot access them. So I ask that you come and tell me if there are things which can be done to improve accessibility for you or your loved ones, so we can work on doing this better together.
Meanwhile, I’m glad to say that I can imagine my mother participating in and even leading the gatherings here. She could enter the building through the same door as everyone else, and go to the toilet inside; she could raise her voice while she still had puff, and preach, like me, sitting down. We’re certainly not perfect, but our building’s not bad, and our lowkey style is accommodating. So let’s keep seeking to be the better place that Christ has made in the world; and let’s think hard about who we should be running or rolling towards, and actively drawing in to the banquet. Ω
A note on language: In using the word disabled, I am following Amy Kenny’s lead. Dr Kenny is a disabled scholar who has just released a superb cry of grief and rage at the church, My Body is Not a Prayer Request (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022). Her thinking has helped me acknowledge my mother’s condition as disabled, as well as articulate some of my own deeply buried grief and rage; this reflection is one result.
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Luke 14:1, 7-24 (Year C Proper 17, extended reading) given to Sanctuary on 28 August 2022 © Sanctuary 2022, quoting a line by Jason Micheli found here. Photo by james williams on Unsplash. Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here.
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