Giving Bartimaeus a Voice: Hearing those with disabilities in our churches (Mark 10:48-52)

BartimaeusSo Jesus and the disciples are heading out onto the pilgrim road to Jerusalem. They’ve fallen in with a large crowd, because you don’t go from Jericho to Jerusalem without expecting to go toe-to-toe with bandits, and this crowd attracts the attention of a beggar sitting by the road. He’s a blind man, by the name of Bartimaeus, and when he hears that Jesus Is coming, he starts shouting out to the Son of David. Of course, people tell him to shut up, because that’s what people do when tramps start shouting and embarrassing everyone.

Bartimaeus has been pushed to the margins. He’s living out on the edge of town, and when he tries to speak out, he’s immediately silenced. Maybe that’s due to his social status, maybe his disability, maybe both, but no-one expects him to have anything useful to say. No-one, that is, except Jesus.

Jesus immediately gives Bartimaeus the chance to speak – “What do you want me to do for you?” Now, some would think the answer to that is obvious: surely he wants to see again, right? And yes, that turns out to be the right answer, but notice that Jesus doesn’t assume the easy answer and he certainly doesn’t take Bartimaeus’s voice from him. That’s a lesson for churches to learn when facing disability – my son is deaf, and if Jesus asked a representative sample of the deaf community what he could do for them, they wouldn’t necessarily say they wanted to hear. They’d be offended at the very suggestion, because deafness is a part of their very identity, not something that needs fixing. Agree with that or not, the church isn’t here to take the voices away from those around us; churchsplaining isn’t a great prologue to the good news of Jesus.

There’s more to being welcoming communities than simply meeting whatever accessibility legislation happens to affect our local church. True accessibility begins with listening for all the voices in our community, giving everyone the opportunity to articulate their needs and difficulties, their hopes and their dreams. I’m not convinced the church as a whole has yet figured out how to make all the diverse voices around us heard.

Maybe that starts with refusing to wait for people to turn up before trying to make accessibility a reality. Make an effort. Take a leap of faith. Invest in a couple of braille Bibles, subtitle those video clips you’re using, give some thought to the impact of our services on those with sensory needs. These are first steps and the beginning of a journey, but if our churches are to be truly accessible, it’s a journey that needs to be made.

Jesus made sure Bartimaeus’s voice was heard. As his disciples, should we be doing anything less?

(If you’re interested in starting this journey, it’s worth checking out Disability and Jesus for user-led insight into these issues. I’ve also touched on these themes in a post about autism and the church.)

Carnival: Shrove Tuesday 2015 (Mark 10:35-45)

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Today is a day of disruption.

We stand on the edge of the Lenten wilderness, forty days of fasting and desolation ahead. We may be heading towards the resurrection, but to get there we have to go through temptation and betrayal, conspiracies and false hopes, the violence of the Cross and the silence of the tomb. Easter is hard won.

We have Pancake Day in the UK, using up what’s left in cupboards. Elsewhere, however, things are more colourful; there’s music and dancing and colour; there’s carnival, in other words, and while there’s something subversive and transgressive about this, it’s also an echo of an upside down Kingdom.

After all, one of the themes of carnival is inversion – peasants become kings for the day, the normal rules can be suspended. This can be limited to taboo-breaking if you want, but there’s something deeper behind this, something that riffs on the words of Jesus:

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

We don’t always see this around us – kings aren’t servants, they’re politicians and businessmen, celebrities and sports stars. Jesus idea of kingship seems far away.

But that upside-down Kingdom was inaugerated with the Resurrection, and so while it may not always be visible, it is already here. It’s dotted throughout Lent – the mock military procession of Palm Sunday, the foot washing of Maundy Thursday, the victory-through-horror of Good Friday. If Carnival reminds us that another world is possible, then maybe it also serves to remind us that another world is already here.

If you want to really reflect Christ, you need to turn you hierarchy upside-down; don’t pursue riches or power or self; raise up the downtrodden, honour the marginalised, serve rather than be served. They may think you a fool but you’ll be dancing in Christ’s Carnival.

The Widow’s Offering: Blog Action Day 2014 (Mark 12:38-44)

Facebookinstagramsocialtile2There’s a moment, not long after the Triumphal Entry, when Jesus and the disciples are watching the rich and the powerful make extravagant offerings to the Temple coffers. And yet Jesus isn’t impressed with them; rather, his attention turns to a widow, tatty-clothed and hungry, who places two small copper coins into the collection. “Look,” he says, “She’s put in more than everyone else; that’s all she has to live on.”

I’ve always heard this taught as an example of great faith, and maybe it is – after all, no-one can say that the widow’s offering isn’t sacrificial. She gives everything she’s got to God, trusting that he’ll look after her; frankly, she’s got more guts than I’d have in that situation. Problem is, if we leave this story as one of an individual’s trust in God, we miss the prophetic anger that drives the scene. Because this is all about inequality.

The widow appears in verse 42, four verses after Jesus excoriates the religious leaders. These so-called “Men of God” demand respect and honour and make a great show of their piety, but they’re all surface – underneath, they’re the sort of people who “devour widows’ houses” and they’re heading for a fall.

This pretty brutal summary comes immediately before the widow makes her offering, painting the whole scene in a harsher light. Suddenly her story falls within a great prophetic tradition – look at how Isaiah and Amos rail against religious observance coming at the expense of justice. It’s clear from the Old Testament Law that the widow s08257_all_001_01-widowsMitehouldn’t have been in such dire straits – the community should have been protecting her, along with orphans and immigrants. Instead the very men who should have been defending her cause were pushing her deeper into poverty. We’re seeing piety without justice; doctrine without jubilee. No wonder the very next passage is a prophecy of the Temple’s destruction.

So, what does this mean for a world in which the richest 10% hold 86% of the wealth, in which the wealthiest 85 people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion? I live in the sixth richest country in the world and yet we’ve seen a 163% increase in the use of food banks over the last twelve months. It feels like inequality has been sequenced into our society’s DNA.

The frightening thing is, I know the answer starts with me – or rather us. I like blaming the 1%, until realising that I’m in the next 9% just by benefit of being born in a European country and having a decent job. That’s a sobering thought, forcing me to count my blessings and check my privilege. But even when I realise that I still do more tutting than acting. And the houses of widows still get devoured.

I can’t fix global inequality. But I can vote with an eye towards justice, I can make my voice heard, I can donate, I can use my democratic right to hold power to account. I can see people not as shirkers or skivers but as individuals with there own stories and circumstances and histories that I need to be aware of. Because, in the face of naked displays of avarice and hypocrisy, Jesus, the Son of God, was most interested in a starving widow.

In the face of food banks and ambiguous percentages, I think that’s a lesson for us all.

Some older posts related to wider issues of inequality are The Edges of the Harvest, No Jew or Greek But Plenty of Elephants, and Aliens, Strangers and Junia the Apostle

Peeking Behind the Curtain (Mark 15:37-38)

rent-veil“And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last. Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”     Mark 15:37-38

This is huge.

That said, I don’t think its hugeness is fully in the immediate act of the veil being torn. It’s in the moments after, the silence after the dust has settled and the initial shock has worn off. Because, of course, someone peeked.

I can’t say this for certain, but I can say that, if you put a big red button in a room, and a sign saying “Do Not Push”, someone will eventually push it. Oh, they may wait until they’re alone, they may never admit to pressing it, but the temptation will be too much. It is, after all, a big red button, and the sign says quite clearly “Do Not Push.”

The veil – more of a giant curtain – was a “Do Not Push” sign. The presence of God was said to dwell in the this room, accessible only to one man once a year, a man with a rope tied around his waist in case the sheer holiness of God struck him down on the spot. The veil was a boundary, and frankly it sounds like it was safer to respect that boundary.

And yet the ancient scriptures are full of stories of those who caught a glimpse of God and lived – Abraham, for instance, or Jacob, Moses, Isaiah…

Respect the veil for your own safety?

Or take a risk, take a peek, hope to catch sight of God…?

Someone would have looked. I’m sure of it, sure as I am that someone would eventually press the big red button. Heck, that someone would probably be me.

And if someone had looked, what would they have seen? Would there have been a bolt of lightning, a slain priest? Or would the room have been empty, something somehow more terrifying than a mere smiting. After all, wouldn’t that mean that God was absent?

Entirely absent, though, or just somewhere else? Somewhere down the road, perhaps, hanging on a cross, his power and majesty incarnated not in lightning and in fire, but in the pain and the blood of a suffering servant.

God’s presence moved, no longer contained in a room in a temple in a city, but mobile and verbal and vulnerable and approachable.

If someone had peeked, what would they have seen? What would they have thought? Maybe God’s left the building. Maybe everything’s changed.

They couldn’t have known that, in a few short decades, the only reminder of the Temple would be a wall. The Holy of Holies would be gone. And then where would God be?

Elsewhere, God manifests in other ways – a man executed by an empire, a ‘gardener’ standing outside a tomb, tongues of fire and a rushing wind. He has moved outside the box, never really contained by the box in the first place. God isn’t contained by our preconceptions; he’s not hidden by a veil but incarnated as a carpenter.

Lord, give us the eyes to peek.

Keeping Watch In Gethsemane (Exodus 12, Mark 14:32-42)

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It’s the night after the Passover meal and the household take their positions as they prepare to keep watch. They’re looking out for salvation, maybe, or the power of God’s right hand, and they sit in the traditions of their ancestors, remembering how the Israelites stood vigil on the night they fled Egypt, getting ready to run as soon as a broken Pharaoh gave the word. This is Leyl Shimurim, the Night of Watching.

Leyl Shimurim commemorates the Exodus, and keeping this in mind, maybe there’s an oblique reference to it in the story of the first Easter. The Last Supper has ended, Jesus and the disciples retreating to the Garden of Gethsemane to face the horrors of the coming day. Jesus asks his friends to keep watch with him; knowing what’s to come, he pours out his anguish on his Father; the disciples, either exhausted or oblivious, fall asleep. Mark repeats the phrase “Keep watch” twice in a handful of verses; whether or not he’s referring to a specific ritual, something important seems tied up with those words. And so, not for the last time that weekend, the disciples fail their master.

But had they been able to fight off fatigue, what would they have seen? Their ancestors, had they chanced a quick, awestruck glance out of their window in Egypt, would have seen something powerful, cosmic, raw, primal, an empire brought to its knees overnight. The disciples would have seen a quite different aspect of God – scared, shaking, sweating blood and weeping. Was this something they’d have wanted to see? Maybe, for the sake of their categories, their falling asleep was for the best.

But on the other side of Gethsemene, we see God with 20:20 hindsight. This was a different kind of exodus, one in which God’s majesty would be revealed not through power but through sacrifice, compassion and love. But while I may be good at knowing the words, I’m not as good at seeing how God is at work right now, at living that out in my own life.

So maybe there’s a benefit to practicing a form of Leyl Shimurim, in pulling an all-nighter to become a witness to what God is doing, in engaging with prayer and the Bible in seeking to find God, not just in 1st century Palestine, but also in 21st century England. In the dim stillness while half the world’s in bed, maybe there’s an opportunity to meet with the God who never sleeps.

Still, nowadays we live 24/7, and so there’s something to be said for looking out our windows and seeing how God is actively at work. Watch the church soup kitchen giving people a bed and a dinner for the night. Watch the street angels safely getting party-goers into 3am taxis.

I used the word ‘watch’ there, and that’s when my own words convict me because maybe I should have said ‘help’ instead. Because what’s the point of keeping watch if you don’t do anything about the things you see? Talking the talk is easy, so is blogging the the blog, but staying awake to stand vigil, to discern what God is doing even when he seems far away, can be a whole lot harder…

Because that’s the thing; God is always at work. Sometimes we’re not looking though, and other times we miss it because his actions don’t fit within the confines in which we place him. He reaches out to the outsider and offends the religious and makes empires tremble, and if we don’t keep watch for all that, we miss something important. Because we miss seeing his power and his compassion; we see the world, but we fail to see Jesus.