HEALING THE DISABLED
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
March 31, 2019
Texts: 2 Samuel 4:4, 9:1-13; Luke 10:13-17
As many of you know, my parents were deaf, and they were very concerned with how the so-called “normal” world – that was the old word for the hearing world – saw them. The sign for hearing persons has thankfully changed to the sign for “speaking.” They did not want not be seen as something be-yond the pale, either to be pitied or taken advantage of. Most of all, they wanted to be seen as educated and competent persons in their own right. And my parents were both.
Back in the day Washington, D.C., where I was born and raised, had these wonderful mass transit vehicles called street-cars. You can still find them in places like Boston, Cleveland, Helsinki, and, of course, San Francisco; they were even rein-troduced in Newark a few years ago. When I was in elemen-tary school, we took the streetcar everywhere that we couldn’t walk. Most people did. There were very few cars because during the War production had been focused on tanks.
When we were on a streetcar my mother, always aware how people looked at the deaf, would sign to me and have me sign to her with my hands practically in my lap. She never made noises when she signed and told me to follow her ex-ample. She knew that “normal” people would gawk at the guttural sounds made by many deaf people when they signed.
My mother was what one called prelingually deaf; that is, she was deaf before she had really learned to speak. She had not been born deaf but when she was about a year and a half old, she and her older sister Ethel, three years old at the time, had their tonsils and adenoids removed and became deafened as a result. That’s what she had always been told and that’s what she told me.
Her mother, my grandmother Cossie, was a deeply religious person, and believed strongly that if she only had enough faith her children would be healed of what she saw as a terrible disability. Back then in rural Alabama parents didn’t have the opportunity to learn ASL – American Sign Language – so they could communicate with their children and so Cossie developed a form of gestural communication usually called “home signs.”
Grandma Cossie, who died just before my mother mar-ried my father, took my mother and her older sister to all kinds of revival meetings and ministers who claimed to have the power to heal people of their disabilities. My mother told me of one Alabama preacher who contorted his face into hers as he pressed his fingers in her ears shouting something she did not understand. She left still deaf.
Fortunately, someone told Grandma Cossie about the Alabama School for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind in Talladega. The name has been changed, of course, removing the word “dumb” to the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. A whole new world opened up for her but Grandma Cossie kept praying for healing.
Unlike other healing stories in the Gospels where the disabled person either asks Jesus for healing or is brought to Jesus to heal, he simply walks over to the woman and on
his own accord heals her from the crippling ailment, here described as a spirit much like the way the man possessed was described, that had held her for eighteen years. She immediately stands up straight and begins praising God.
Now Jesus, unlike today’s televangelists didn’t ask for payment nor did he sell “miracle healing spring water” which not only promises healing but tons of money as well. You can’t make this stuff up. Jesus just gets ready to walk away when he is confronted by the leader of the synagogue angry that he has healed on the Sabbath. His retort is short and pointed and this little story ends.
The disabled in Jesus’ time were condemned to either begging to survive – and many did not – or they were hidden away. The ancient Romans did not even have a separate word for disabled. They used the word monstrum, the origin of our word monster. And this word reflected most ancient attitudes toward the disabled. And it took a long time before attitudes began to change
Although many schools for the deaf and blind were established in the mid-nineteenth century, it wasn’t until 1975 that Congress passed legislation to ensure that disabled children would have certain educational rights and 1990 that the Act was expanded into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), now threatened by the chief know-nothing called the Secretary of Education.
Although the Congress in 1798 voted a stipend to sea-men who had been disabled as a result of their participation in the War for Independence, it was probably not until the large numbers of physically disabled soldiers from the Vietnam war that physically disabled persons became so visible. In another war, they died on Omaha Beach or in its aftermath. Now saved from death, they faced barriers to their mobility leading to legislation on handicap access.
At the same time, spurred by lawsuits on behalf of a variety of disabled persons, including the mentally ill and emotionally disturbed, persons with severe developmental conditions, such as Down syndrome, previously confined to institutions, advocates spearheaded a movement to create group homes and community mental health services. Notorious institutions such as Willowbrook closed but there was insufficient funding to provide needed services.
We often find ourselves at a loss in addressing the needs of mental and emotionally disabled persons. In fact, don’t we sometimes shudder when we see them on the street, pan-handling, struggling to find their way in a world they do not understand? To be truthful, don’t we think: “There but for the grace of God, go I?”
Healing the disabled means healing ourselves. It means healing ourselves from our own fears buried deep within us. When Jesus healed the woman in the synagogue, he did more than merely freeing her from an ailment. He restored her life to her. No longer would she be shunned or seen as an object of pity.
Luke’s Gospel used the language of that day: a spirit inhabited her; Jesus rebuked the leaders of the synagogue rhetorically asking, what better day than the Sabbath for the woman, a daughter of Abraham to be freed from the bondage of Satan. It may not be our language, but sometimes we feel the same – a mixture of pity and frustration with a touch of avoidance.
It seems that the disability from which we need to be healed is within us. I know I find myself uncertain how to respond when I come across the mentally ill and emotionally disturbed persons who are on the streets. In Plainfield where
I live, I cannot go far from my home without encountering people who will not have a Jesus to free them from the spirits that inhabit them.
Many of them live in a large SRO, now being converted to an assisted living center with apartments. They wandered about frequenting the coffee hours of the few churches that reflect a shrinking non-Hispanic population. Many have been moved to other supported housing centers but they are still here, forcing us to look at ourselves.
We certainly all need healing from our own disabilities, reflected in the limitations we put on our ability to make real change in our society. We need to free ourselves from the spirit that tells us we cannot do better for the poor and the marginalized. And often unable to speak for themselves, emo-tionally and mentally ill persons are among the most margin-alized in our society.
There was a time when such persons were not only confined to asylums but actually held in chains. And we’re not talking about the middle ages, but within the last two-hundred years. Asylum is an interesting word. The first school for the deaf in the United States was originally called the Connecticut Asylum at Hartford for the Education of Deaf and Dumb Persons. It was considered to be a place not only of education but a place where deaf persons were protected from the way they were treated in the outside world. My father graduated from there in 1929.
Healing the disabled means healing ourselves. It means recognizing the inherent worth of every human being not just in principle as most of us do, but in fact through healing the society from its focus on oneself alone and streng-thening ourselves as a community. Our community of the church must be expanded to a community of society.
We in America have this myth of individualism, people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. No one did that, not John Smith, not George Washington, or Daniel Boone. And certainly not people who inherited wealth. All our hero figures worked within a society that gave them strength to overcome whatever disabilities may have faced them. And the same is true today.
We are the disabled who need to be healed. We need to free ourselves from old myths that have long bound us, for myth is the greatest disability of all. We need to look beyond ourselves and work for community where we live.
Let us come to God in prayer: Gracious One who has created us to live with each other in community, move us beyond our preoccupation with ourselves which has long bound us and into the future building a community for all. In the name of him who showed us how to live, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.