Caleb could not see the scrolls to study the Torah, and he couldn’t listen to any teaching in the synagogue because people associated his disability with sin. So he was no expert on theology. He could not recognize the people around him by sight, but couldn’t identify them by voice either because they kept their distance and never talked to him, just about him. So Caleb couldn’t be considered an expert on his community either. But one thing he knew thoroughly and intimately was his own disability. He was the expert on that, both what it meant for him physically, and how people would or wouldn’t interact with him because of it. Yet even about this one thing, they would not listen to him, or respect his expert authority. To them he practically had no voice, no identity other than “the blind man.” The Gospel writer doesn’t even give him a name (I made “Caleb” up)! The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar talked about him, asking, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But when they finally talked to him, they challenged him on who he was: “Then how were your eyes opened?” They demanded the impossible: “Explain the physical miracle, or we will not believe you are who you say you are.” Then they go after his parents, because this grown person certainly cannot speak for himself. And the Gospel-writer participates in disabling his voice by writing: “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” As if fear for themselves is the only reason even his parents would treat Caleb, a person with a disability, like a human being.
This is nothing new for people living with disabilities. So, even though we usually hear this text preached with blindness as a metaphor for “spiritual blindness” and recognizing the light of Christ, this time, let’s take it literally. Caleb’s life was defined by disability, because that’s how others chose to see him. When we were in middle school, Kate and I became friends, because her friend and neighbor Jamie and I were in band together. With a few others, we formed a social group, a lunch table. Kate has cerebral palsy and an out-going personality. On her wheelchair, I still remember the bumper sticker: “Attitudes are the real disability,” and Kate embodied it. Her laugh – sometimes out of place, uncontrolled, loud – broke down attitude barriers in our school. It is literally a slogan on a bumper sticker, but “Attitudes are the real disability” is Truth with a capital “T” and a theological statement too. Access to mainstream classrooms or employment or power in organizations or faith communities are not restricted by what our bodies can or cannot do, but by attitudes, recognizing or not the valuable human person in front of us, through whom God’s works might be revealed. Jesus disputes the shaming, but really common, theology of equating disability with sin, then mixes part of himself (his saliva) with the earth, then smears it on brother Caleb’s eyes. He talks directly to him then, gives him a task to do, so that what Caleb does with who he is, might reveal God’s work to everyone who would ever hear about it. Later, Jesus hears how Caleb had been thrown out of the synagogue for speaking his truth, seeks him out, and tells him directly who he is. Caleb receives what so many of us yearn for: personal revelation from God in the flesh.
Of course, Caleb, child of God, had all this capacity before Jesus came along and restored his sight. Who knows, he could have revealed profound theology before physically being able to see, but the attitudes of his peers incapacitated him, and after a lifetime of this, who wouldn’t internalize it? One thing we might dig into more here is not just a theology of disabilities, but a theology of discrimination. When others will not believe you, consult you, or trust you to be the expert on your own identity, it is to the detriment of the whole community. Everyone could miss God’s work through you, the witness of your voice, your life, and your transformation happening right in front of them. It is worth it for all of us to believe people with disabilities: that they are definitely able, valid witnesses, contributors to our communities and able to reveal God’s work in the world. Now, at this point the sermon could take a couple directions. We could do some self-examination about the people whom we have not trusted to be the authority on their own identities or to tell us about the discrimination they experience even in faith communities. People such as women, people of color, transgender persons. That could be a very convicting and powerful sermon direction. To understand who might give such an account, I have found the Decolonize Lutheranism movement really powerful. You can look up their blog at decolonizelutheranism.org, and interact with real stories of exclusion that go well beyond frustration with Lutheranism being equated with lutefisk. It opened my eyes.
But let’s stay with the theology of disabilities in this sermon. The late Nancy Eiesland, a theologian and sociologist who lived her whole life with disabilities, drew a much more powerful metaphor than “I once was blind but now I see,” in her first book, The Disabled God. She hoped that in eternity she would still have marks of her disabilities because she didn’t know who she was without them; they made her who she was. Besides, she saw Christ himself with disabilities. Disabilities can be so varied, and can arise anytime during our lives, that Eiesland refers to others as “temporarily able-bodied.” How might it impact our faith, our relationship with God and our neighbor, if we see on the cross, a disabled God? Jesus is at once paralyzed, and in terrible pain. His hands and his feet are nailed straight through, so there’s no way to move or use his limbs; eventually he is even powerless to lift himself up enough to breathe, because that’s how crucifixion kills. And true to all disabilities, the real oppression is not the physical stuff, but the social isolation, the emotional anguish of being abandoned, unheard by his friends, his disciples, even perhaps by God the Father (you remember, when he cries out from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Christ’s wounds remain after the resurrection, holes all the way through all 4 limbs, and a wound in his side from the spear, which could elude to any number of unseen, internal disabilities. They never go away; in fact he uses these wounds to prove his identity after the resurrection. They prove God’s intention to be dis-abled with us instead of perfect and glorious above us.
What might this image of a disabled Christ mean, for us? For the “temporarily able-bodied,” it could be a wake-up call not just to pity or feel compassion for people with disabilities; for those with disabilities, it might be encouragement to not be frustrated, but to keep on agitating until we all do better. If our systems do not allow access for people with disabilities to speak up and lead, we are convicted of ignoring the voice and works of God. If our theology does not explicitly condemn equating disabilities with sin or curses from God, we are failing to fully understand and convey what Jesus was doing on the cross. And more broadly, we could all miss the redemption, and even grace of every challenge in our lives, to mind, body, relationships and spirit. But a disabled God is not just staying on the cross to prove a point, but really cannot do everything for himself. He cannot come down from the cross, which is different from choosing not to. Dependence on others for something is a part of having any disability. A disabled God is dependent. God is dependent on humanity for the work of God to be revealed on earth. God is dependent on our disabilities like Caleb’s blindness, our attitudes, and our attachments to each other, to embody resurrection. I need to wrestle with that some more, I think. But it sure changes how I see the body on the cross. Thanks be to God.