UCC Access Sunday -- Joshua 24:1-15 and Luke 14:16-21

Author
Rev. Gunnar Cerda
Date

A couple of years ago, a mother shared this with me: “My husband and I are members of a very large [deleted denomination] church…going on 8 years. After 5 years of not missing a Sunday or Wednesday, our infant son was diagnosed w/autism and a few other physical problems. Attendance started to dwindle as he was not enjoying all of the over-stimulation. One of us always ended up taking him out to the car and getting his stroller and pushing him around the large parking lot. We would alternate so we would each have a chance at a spiritual feeding.

It became difficult. Putting him in the nursery or toddler room without myself or my husband was never an option. We started to really miss being there as a family. Attendance dwindled more. If fact, I expect a letter any day letting me know our membership will be null and void if we don’t return. We absolutely loved this church. It makes me sad. But it is probably the most unfriendly to someone with sensory integration disorder. We slowly gave up on spiritual feedings in public.” And the closing words of her story pained my very heart as she said “I miss the love.”

Their experience is not an isolated story. There are many more. One writer shared the following: “family members of many faith traditions, living with a disability…reported that their children remained marginalized within faith communities…” “Without fail, parents believed…that their children had a deep spiritual connection to God; that they had the capacity to develop such a relationship; or that through their active involvement and visible presence in the church community, they could enhance the spiritual lives of the members…nothing created so much sadness in the lives of parents as the failure of faith communities to value the spiritual connection or community role of disabled children.”[1]

Today is Access Sunday in the UCC.  It is the one Sunday in which the local church is encouraged to reflect on both the physical accessibility of the church facility and the social accessibility of the local church’s programs for people/children with physical, developmental, neurological, cognitive, hidden, or mental/emotional disabilities.  When we speak of accessibility and inclusion, it is important to realize or remember that accessibility is not simply architectural, it is attitudinal.  And inclusion is more than accommodation.

Choose this day.  By recalling, recounting and remembering the history of Israel, Joshua also reminds the people gathered there that day that they were once outsiders, brought into covenant through the unmerited graciousness of God.  At the initiation and invitation of God, the outsiders became covenantal insiders.  Likewise, the Luke text also describes an invitation to outsiders.

We may hope and pray that persons with Disabilities will choose this day to serve God, as part of a faith community, perhaps even this one.  Yet if we are to be honest vulnerable and transparent, the church itself must choose this day to become accessible to all, and choose to do the hard intentional work to move from paternalistic and able-bodied behaviors, language, attitudes and architecture that exclude persons; to theology, worship, and hospitality which authentically welcomes and includes all in the life and witness of the church.

One of the questions God may be calling us to answer on this Access Sunday is how/where are we inaccessible and what can we do about it in both the short and long term. One of the things we may need to hear God say to us this Access Sunday is that we don’t have to have all the answers, we don’t even have to have the ramp, or the ASL interpreters, or the braille/large print today; but we do need to be willing to hear the request to provide it and have a plan to meet the need when it is made known. Perhaps we need to be willing to be vulnerable to say, we did not know that was a need, let’s look into it.

So…Is it time yet? Are we there yet? Have we yet come to the place when we might take a critical look at our guest list of people we have invited, and expand our invitation?

We have looked about and lamented over our declining church. We have wrung our hands, wondering why people aren’t joining like they used to. We have tried church growth strategies, and marketing schemes, and advertising campaigns, all designed to attract people to our church. We have tweaked our liturgy, and our worship style. We have written a plethora of welcome statements, designed web sites, set up “Facebook” pages and even opened twitter accounts—all in the interest of attracting people to our beloved, declining, church. After all of this, a few have come, but we are still a shadow of what we used to be—in the “glory days.”

Since so many people have not accepted our invitation, is it time—just maybe—to invite those whom we have not invited before?  After all of the preparations had been made, and no one came, then the decision was made to invite the outcast, the separated, the stigmatized—the persons with disabilities. Those who had been overlooked and marginalized, were finally extended an invitation—and they came.

Fred Craddock, in his commentary on Luke, offered the following: “The parable can be heard as a defense and justification of the church whose membership included persons who would have been or were rejected in most circles…or…as a prophetic word of Jesus to a church rapidly becoming ‘the establishment,’ uttering pious phrases…and no longer inviting to God’s table the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind.” (Interpretation: Luke, pg. 180) 

Of course a deeper (and more uncomfortable) reading of the text also reveals that the choice to include persons with disabilities came as a second thought.  So before you think “A-HA, our next outreach strategy!” please be cautious. Persons with disabilities are not a strategy. They should not be invited as a mere means to grow a church. THEY ARE, however, persons who are longing for a spiritual home. They are a community longing to be invited and genuinely, authentically, welcomed into the life of the church.

Rev. Hannah Brown wrote the following (https://www.faithandleadership.com/hannah-c-brown-we-thought-wed-done-enough-welcome-people-disabilities-our-church-we-were-wrong ) this past Tuesday:

Our church had a problem: One of our congregants couldn’t serve communion.

She is one of our spiritual leaders. She is especially wise when it comes to the importance of communion. She knows how much it matters to share a holy meal together, how much it matters that no one is left out.

She can’t tell us that in words. Instead, she lets us know through the agitated movements and sounds she makes when she’s worried that no one is going to serve her. She lets us know in the amazing smiles and squeals she makes after she receives the tiny piece of bread dipped in juice that she can safely swallow. The joy she finds in communion is contagious.

But there was no way to get her wheelchair up the steps to the platform where our communion table stood. There was no way to get our monumental communion table down the steps to the floor. There wasn’t even a good way to install a mechanical lift, given the architecture of our sanctuary, originally built in 1891.

Our church had a problem: Our congregant couldn’t serve communion. Or light the candles. Or bring up the offering. A lot of other people couldn’t do those things, either. We knew that something had to change.

Who belongs in a church, or in any Christian institution? Who should be welcomed by our spaces and our practices? Who should be empowered to lead? The lesson we hear in our Gospel reading today is that Jesus would not limit his welcome to those who are able-bodied or neurotypical.  And as Rev. Brown noted, when one person can not be included, than the church has a problem.  Who isn’t included today?

Creating a community where everyone feels both welcomed and included takes commitment—like the Israelites in our Joshua text today.  As Walter Brueggemann writes (Theology of the Old Testament, pg. 748): “Israel’s first testimony is that it has engaged with Yahweh willingly, knowingly and without reservation.  This act of testimony…requires a purging of all competing loyalties…an elemental decision to reorder the life of the community with an entirely different set of risks and possibilities.  Israel’s decision for loyalty to Yahweh is in the presence and awareness of alternative loyalties, which they here vigorously and intentionally rejected.”

The question for the people, then, is how they will remember their history and whether this history of God’s acts will be the basis of their identity going forward. I believe we are in a similar position, facing the question of how we narrate our own past and present, and how we see God working in them.  Can we narrate the story of our own lives as the mighty acts of God?   Better yet, Joshua put it to the people as a whole. So as a church, can we narrate our history as a people and our lives together going forward as God’s invitation and God’s work among us?

Is it time yet? Is it time yet to revisit the guest list, choose this day to serve our God of inclusion, and instead of inviting all those who aren’t coming, invite those who want to be invited?

The good news is that we can be that covenant people.  Not just as scattered congregations, but as a unified body which goes out to the “outsiders” to regain the ones who are lost.  We can be the church where people with disabilities find a home, a community who loves each child of God, and where those who have been excluded find a family.  We can be a church with a spirit of inclusion, tolerance and understanding—embodying God’s love and moving out into the community, making a difference in the lives of others.  

“Choose this day who you will serve!” Now is the time—a critical crossroads time for the future of the church.  Now is the time for us to ask how we can put the love of Christ, which is in us, into action.  Now is the time for us to choose the type of church we will be in the world.  What course will we chose?

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[1] Speraw, S. “Spiritual experiences of parents and caregivers who have children with disabilities or special needs.” Issues In Mental Health Nursing 27, no. 2 (February 2006): 213-230. CINAHL with Full Text, EBSCOhost(accessed October 15, 2014).

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