Scripture: Matthew 20:1-15
Please pray with me: may the words of God be ever on our minds, on our lips, and in our hearts, and may we use those words to do your will. Amen.
This summer at Lyndale we are reflecting on Sabbath. So you may be wondering, and I wouldn’t blame you: why did she pick a scripture about work? “Maybe she didn’t know,” you whisper, “she is new, after all.” No, I knew, and I think it’s important to reflect upon. Because we have spent so long equating Sabbath with work, or, more specifically, with not working. Maybe when we take a Sabbath we don’t go into the office. Maybe we don’t check our work email, or we lock ourselves out of our work computers, or we don’t hangout with coworkers, because no matter what they say you know they’ll talk about office drama. And it isn’t a bad thing, surely, to abstain from work.
But what does Sabbath mean for those of us whose day to day involves NOT working? What does Sabbath mean for those of us who, because of not working, appear to already be doing Sabbath? In the parable we hear today, folks like this — folks who aren’t working — are the folks the landowner cares about. He asks them, gently, I imagine, “why have you not been working?” And they reply, “because no one has hired us.” We don’t know why nobody has hired them, but today, we can imagine. Maybe they were black men, and the employer was afraid of them. Maybe they were older women, and the employer assumed their incompetence. Maybe they were transgender, and the employer hated them. Maybe they were undocumented, and the employer refused to pay them. And maybe, just maybe, they were disabled, and the employer was not willing to put in the work needed to accommodate them, or was afraid of what they could not do, or, more likely, was afraid of what they might do. For so many disabled people, oftentimes myself included, life can appear to be a Sabbath everyday: staying in bed, not working, not leaving the house for days at a time.
I think of my beloveds with chronic fatigue, chronic pain, chronic depression, social anxiety, or any other physical, emotional, or mental limitation, for whom what we consider “Sabbath” might be daily, unending, exhausting, isolating, and miserable. And, thus, incredibly un-Sabbath-like. So many of my disabled community cannot work, or, more accurately, have been excluded from working. I think of a friend with limited vision who is an avid runner and mountain biker, and whose community has worked together to provide him access to those activities, but whose employer refuses to provide documents in the format he needs. I think of a friend, who is about to have a baby, who is on social security disability, and who is prevented from working because she will lose her benefits but whose benefits are not enough to sustain her growing family. I think of another friend, who simply could not work for six years because of her pain levels, and who frankly didn’t want to. And I celebrate her for that act of resistance. And I think of myself, and the job I lost because of my disability, because my employer refused to provide me access to the work I love. For those of us, for all of us, what does it mean to take a Sabbath?
I think we find an example in the landowner in this parable. His Sabbath, I believe, was a Sabbath from the work of conforming to the societal expectations of his time. The expectation for him, clearly, was to compensate his workers according to their production, and isn’t that what we expect, too? Don’t we all know the angry early-morning workers, who have put in the hard work in the heat of the day, who are angered when others get a handout, a free ride, money in their bucket by the side of the highway, a hot meal paid for by my tax dollars? And didn’t we all, just maybe, used to be that person, too?
And yet, he refused to conform to the demands of capitalism. He refused to ascribe to the gospel of our economic system: that your worth is in your work, and that your work is all you’re worth. It’s an understatement to say that the language of conformity is a hot-button topic in the disability activist community. We hear language of conformity all the time: “oh, you can walk, it’s just painful? Then you should walk, and push through it.” “Oh, you can come to work, even though it will extend your depressive episode? Then you should come to work; you should push through it.” “Oh, you can navigate this space with your cane, but nobody has shown you around the space? Never mind that, you should push through that discomfort and figure it out for yourself.”
But when we, the disability community, unite and refuse to conform to the demands of society, when we hail the sacredness of understanding our bodies and their needs, when we worship who we are, even as we acknowledge our oppression, we truly model what Sabbath is and can be for all: an act of resistance, of solidarity, and of glorious nonconformity. This is the model that the landowner follows in the parable today: he resisted the capitalist and societal demands and expectations, through his shocking generosity. And Jesus said: this, right here, is the community of heaven; this, right here, is the offensive, unreasonable, radical justice of God.
In a few moments we will celebrate communion, the sacrament in which we acknowledge that God’s body and mind are radically different than most people’s, and radically similar to those of us who are disabled. After all, God’s body, made incarnate in Jesus, is certainly atypical; it is a body that both died and lives forever; a body that was born in a time and place but that had, in some ways, existed from the beginning of time; a body that is simultaneously in heaven and, in another sense, present here among us in the bread and juice we share together. In fact, we can understand that God died when God came out about their body being different; it doesn’t get closer to a disability narrative than telling your friends that, surprise, my body is actually also God.
Think about the arguments that people started with Jesus after he revealed the truth about his body at the Last Supper: people told him that his God-ness was blasphemy, that his honesty was a conversation starter, a “launching point for greater conversation.” Just as Crutches and Spice says in our first reading today, those reactions are common for disabled people. All disabled people, myself included, have had this “coming out” moment: coming out as disabled to our friends, or family, or bosses or doctors or grad school administrators, who have the power to make our lives miserable or further exclude us from reaching the goals we deserve to achieve.
For me, and for others with invisible disabilities, we have this “coming out” moment often; for others, with more visible disabilities, they don’t get to decide when and who they “come out” to. But I can speak for myself: coming out about my disability has been, and continues to be, more dangerous than coming out about my queer sexuality. In communion, and the crucifixion, and the resurrection, we take time to understand that God is disabled, both because of God’s atypical, incarnate body and in the way that the world treated God. After all, the world refused to provide justice and access for a body like God’s, and, in fact, executed God for it.
We think of all those with disabled bodies who are executed by the state: murdered by police, sentenced to the death penalty, killed by violence in state hospitals or solitary confinement; we remember especially those who operate at multiple intersections of oppression, those in who are disabled and also people of color, indigenous, undocumented, non-Christian, sex workers, queer, trans, nonbinary, women, and all those experiencing physical, spiritual, emotional, or psychological violence on an ongoing basis because of the justice, God’s generosity, that we have failed to provide them. The late disabled theologian Nancy Eisland explores the concept of a disabled god in her 1995 book by the same name; I highly recommend the book, for those interested in further reading.
However, today, as we reflect on our disabled God, the God of atypical bodies and minds, and the God of bodily exclusion, we understand also that this politically disabled God is the only God we want to follow. Because we all know the God who has been politically enabled by the United States of America; the God who has been given seemingly limitless power by our government, our neighbors, and yes, sometimes our Churches. That God of American power, that politically enabled God, is the God of borders, of prisons, of state violence in all its forms, of transphobia, of hetero-sexism, of white supremacy, of all harm rooted in the Christian tradition.
We, as the “good Christians,” like to separate ourselves from that enabled God as much as possible, and that inclination is not fundamentally wrong. However, we simultaneously must acknowledge that the enabled God comes from the same Bible we read, from the same religion we profess, and that we, too, are the descendants of that enabled God. But I don’t want that God. I want the God of the justice that has been de-centered from our society. I want the dangerous God; not the God of school prayer, but the God of school access; not the God of the Pledge of Allegiance, but the God of a pledge of solidarity; not the God of the United States of America, but the God of the community of heaven, the community that, as Jesus says, is just access for all holy and created bodies and minds.
I reflect today as we prepare for communion on the recent murder of Bill Peace, a longtime disability justice activist and scholar. Bill was the first person in a wheelchair to get a PhD from Columbia University, and did groundbreaking academic work on disability justice when so many of his disabled peers were systematically excluded from the academy. And Bill was murdered, recently, by capitalism, by the healthcare industrial complex, by medical neglect, by the disinterest of the people of the United States of America.
Bill was killed, not by a complex and unknown medical condition, but from simple, treatable, infected wounds, wounds which, in 2019, don’t deserve to kill anybody. I was speaking to another dear and disabled friend this week, who was a particularly close friend of Bill’s, and asked her what she thought he would think of this sermon. She said she thought his feelings would be complicated, because the wounds he received from religion — wounds that came from decades of Christians telling him that his disabled body was cursed, a sign of his sin, the result of his lack of faith — were, perhaps, another type of wounds which never healed. She told me, though, that there was another aspect of Bill’s death which had been overlooked by those that did not know him. She told me that Bill’s wound care doctor was absolutely in the wrong… but that Bill was also stubborn. There were some concessions to the capitalist system he could have made that might have gotten him more treatment, but would have also cost self-determinacy and dignity. And he refused to make those concessions.
And so Bill was killed, in so many ways, by the lack of respect, personhood, and justice for those of us who are disabled. The wounds from which Bill died — the religious wounds, the physical wounds, and the wounds of the loss of dignity — are the wounds of Christ, the wounds of all disabled people murdered by state violence, the wounds whose blood we consume today, the wounds that become, most intimately, somehow ours, somehow part of our bodies, as Christ’s blood joins with Bill’s blood joins with our blood when we take communion and digest, in the most physical and anatomical sense possible, a more complete understanding of the pain and liberation of the world.
The hardest part about preaching on oppression is the ending, because we know that while sermons end quickly, (or not quickly, depending on the preacher), oppression does not. The end to oppression requires much more than a witty turn of phrase, or a quick re-visiting of the previous points I made, or even a call to action. Oppression ends, and can only end, when we take a true Sabbath from conforming to the ways of the world, to the ways of capitalism; when we actively resist the lie that our worth is in our work; when we come to understand that, by simple dint of being created, you are enough, we are enough, God is enough. You are enough, we are enough, God is enough.
May we all feel the call to Sabbath, from work, or from exclusion, or from societal and political expectations; and may we acknowledge that when we do accept that invitation to true Sabbath, there is the community of God. And that is enough.