The Olympics have dominated sport for many of us during July and August. Not only has there been the Olympics but the Paralympics, an inspiring sporting gathering of people with various impairments who push themselves to the limit, achieving more than we might imagine is possible. Seeing the valour and dedication of these people has helped to change the view of impaired people from being somehow a little less than the rest of us, to being heroes. Not for them the rejection and exclusion that has been the lot of those who are different in some way over the centuries. Of course, Jesus was never one to discriminate. He always saw the value in every human being and still does, as should we his Church.
The readings at the service on 9 September were Psalm 125, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-end. My reflection follows:
As we gather here in our Cathedral, a capacity crowd is gathered in the Olympic Stadium in London for the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games. Every ticket is sold for this climax to what has been an exceptionally successful event.
It is possible to define the success of the Paralympics in different ways. For the organisers it is likely to be in the form of a sigh of relief that everything went as it should do after all the preparation; that the 70,000 volunteers who helped have greeted thousands cheerfully and politely; that the venues have lived up to expectations.
For the individual sportsmen and women there is the joy of having done their best and possibly having won medals or broken records. David Weir of Great Britain has today won the wheelchair marathon, bringing his total gold medals at this Paralympics to four. South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius – “Blade Runner” – also won gold yesterday in the 400m in the final race as the track and field events came to an end. So many of them have celebrated this culmination of years of training and dedication.
Perhaps the most important success is what Pistorius noted: “I think everybody’s perceptions of disabled sport have changed.” Those who seem different in some way have usually suffered rejection, exclusion and cruel stares. These Paralympic athletes have been hailed as heroes. People with impairments, like the blind ballet dancers from Brazil who will perform in the closing ceremony, are totally included in all that is going on. Many people with no impairment of any kind recognise that they could not achieve what the Paralympians have done.
In Jesus’ day people with various impairments were marginalised – forced to the edges of society – begging for the money they needed to survive. I have no doubt that some were much loved by their families but opportunities to improve their lot were strictly limited – no blades to run on in those days if you didn’t have feet! There was also the question of whether the person or their family had sinned in some way, resulting in the curse of some physical or mental problem. What a horrible question to hang over anyone!
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus met a man who suffered from deafness and difficulties with speaking. Obviously someone cared enough about this man to bring him to Jesus and beg that he might be healed. As we might expect, Jesus did as he was asked to do, commanding the impediment to go. There is a good chance that the man was not a Jew but that didn’t deter Jesus. The man’s ears were opened and his tongue released. As a result the people couldn’t stop telling everyone about what had happened. I suspect the man too would have used his new-found voice to tell of what Jesus had done for him.
Until we meet Jesus and are brought into his Kingdom, we are as deaf and impeded in speech as that man. We need our ears to be opened and our tongues released by Jesus’ action in our lives. Each day in Morning Prayer we begin by saying, “O Lord, open our lips and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.” That’s what we can do after Jesus frees us from all that limits us in our lives.
It’s interesting to note what the people around the man said, getting more and more excited about telling the story as time went on: “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” Isaiah spoke in very similar words when he was looking forward to the coming of the Messiah:
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isa. 35:3-6a).
Jesus’ actions proclaimed that he was the Messiah. He is still the Messiah; he still comes to open blind eyes and deaf ears, to give strength and agility to lame legs and to release mute tongues to praise him. Sometimes the healing may be physical; certainly it is spiritual. Jesus is the Messiah of all people, whatever their needs.
The Church is called to continue Jesus’ work but it’s all too easy to fall short of what we are asked to do. James in his letter picks up on the discrimination that was going on in the treatment of people in the Church according to how rich or poor they were. Those who were obviously well off were treated with huge respect, given the best seats, spoken to politely. The poor were spoken to curtly and given a lowly place to sit on the floor. James points out that God has a special place in his heart for the poor and treating them badly breaks the commandment Jesus gave, to love one’s neighbour as oneself.
It is all too easy to judge people by outward appearances, to let our prejudices get in the way of really accepting them as we have been accepted by God. Jesus made no distinctions between people and nor should we, though sometimes we need people like James to point out our judgemental nature to us.
In SL we can’t easily detect differences of income or impairments in the people we meet. Having avatars disguises that sort of thing. We don’t necessarily know how old someone is unless their voice betrays it. Once we get used to SL, we don’t usually mind avatars that are not human. We may, however, pick up subtle differences in people which may influence how we respond to them. Some are easier to chat to than others. Some seem very introverted. Some may struggle with their spelling and so appear less educated than others, or perhaps they are dyslexic. We may find some people require more energy of us than others.
In my time in SL I often talk to people who have had difficult experiences in this virtual world. They may have been banned from some groups for reasons they don’t understand. They may find that people who seemed like friends suddenly reject them. They may struggle with the practicalities of SL, like sitting down or getting voice to work, and find that people are not patient with them. They sometimes find they are spoken to with a lack of respect or accused of something they haven’t done.
Here on Epiphany Island we have clear guidelines on how people should be treated, in order to provide a safe space that everyone can enjoy. One of the five points in our vision is that we are “a community which welcomes and serves others, and is known for its love and care”. In this way we can address another of our points, giving “those involved in Second Life an opportunity to explore or deepen their faith in God, who loves them and seeks a relationship with them”.
Every person is of infinite worth to God and so should be to us also. Those of us who have had the privilege of coming to know Jesus also have the privilege of sharing the wonderful news with everyone that they are loved, cared about, respected, and belong here if they choose to be here. If we don’t offer this I think we could say that our faith is without works and is dead.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor