Last Sunday's sermon
I want to tell you a story of my time at Westminster college. As one of the smallest colleges we got all the independent students from small denominations – who paid for their own tuition. I was working on a project with one of the independents I didn’t know very well, and I said let’s talk about it over lunch. The other student said to me- I don’t come in and have lunch because I can’t afford it and I bring my own. To my shame I had never even noticed that several people I studied with were not in the dining room with the rest of us.
To completely understand the reading this morning we must understand a little more about Bartimaeus. Conventional wisdom at the time was that he deserved his blindness- that either he or his parents had sinned against God and his blindness was a just punishment. As someone who was reduced to begging for a living, he was in a precarious position not only physically reliant for food but he was also excluded from participating in his society simply because of his impairment. He was also in physical danger of all sorts of things from malicious people who like to torment the vulnerable to being run over by traffic.
So when Jesus heals him he isn’t just restoring his sight- he is bringing him out of danger and vulnerability into safety and also bringing him into full participation within his community.
Over the last few years there has been a relentless and toxic conversation in our society about justice and privilege. It is a simple fact that for some people life is made harder because people to treat them differently. It doesn’t even mean that people do it intentionally. In fact it’s normally happens unintentionally. But it does happen. It means that these people start life with a disadvantage. Some of those people may overcome disadvantage and achieve an enormous amount, but others will not. Some may never be allowed to. This also doesn’t mean that other people without that disadvantage have it easy- it simply means that they are starting life without that disadvantage so have a greater chance of having a good life. This is what is meant by privilege.
The story I told you about the independent student encapsulates one of the real problems with any discussion about privilege- we assume other people are treated the same as us. I hadn’t thought about the financial implications of independent students because I wasn’t an independent student and the subject had never come up in any conversations.
There is no way that we can notice everything that happens to others. We often feel disbelief when we are confronted with the fact that other people are not treated the same. Accompanied with this realisation are quite often negative emotions - guilt, embarrassment and we may even feel threatened. If others are treated less well- does that mean that I will need to lose something myself for things to become fairer? Is it my fault and does that mean I need to apologise for something I never even realised was happening?
The murder of Sarah Everard has highlighted women are not physically safe. In the year ending March 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that 4.9 million women had been victims of sexual assault in their lives. That is 4 times the size of our city. This included 1.4 million who had been raped or had faced attempted rape. Imagine that every person in Birmingham had been sexually assaulted because that is the size of the problem. And a woman is murdered every three days. That means about the number in this church each year. Often after not having been protected from someone violent that she knows. I am not a woman and nor do I completely understand the feelings that comes from the terrorism our society practices on women – but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. It clearly and demonstrably does
Neither know what it feels to be the target of racism. But it is a problem when black people are 5.7 times more likely to be stopped by the police. The history of empire, colonialism, slavery and exploitation is one where my ancestors were the beneficiaries- not the victims. I can look at statues without wondering if this person kidnapped or owned my ancestors. I do not experience the day-to-day aggressions and omissions that are still so regrettably part of our society. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. I also do not notice barriers like steps simply because I step over them. That doesn’t mean that they are not there.
The point is that unless it affects us- we don’t notice- but that doesn’t mean that things aren’t happening. And that means that people are treated differently than others. And because people are treated differently there are times that we need to do things to make up for that disadvantage. An example of this is Open Table. I remember that when we talked about it at Church meeting the one issue some people had was- what if other Christians protest? There was an understanding in our church meeting that for many LGBTQ people churches are still not safe. And if you have been discriminated against, exorcised, shunned, preached against and told you are evil -trust me, is a bit of an issue.
And the fact that churches rarely speak up even when they disagree because of the belief that people are entitled to their theological opinions means unless you say something or do something LGBTQ people will assume you are as bad as the rest. So LGBT people need a specific space and a specific invitation to know we are welcome and that the abuses that are still so prevalent in the church against them are not going to happen here.
I genuinely hope one day that something like Open Table does not need to exist. But until every church stops persecuting LGBT people it does need to exist. And from that space that Open Table creates LGBT people can find the healing and confidence to take their rightful place at the table. While some of us have- many of us have not. There is much healing to do.
It is also the same with our building. Until every physical barrier is removed there is work to do. Until there is a proper access for all toilet that includes lifting equipment and the ability to use a shower, we have work to do. Until the field is a place where disability sport can play with no more preparation than any other group we have work to do. And then we need to work on the rest of Boldmere.
Until each woman can leave any venue and walk home unmolested, does not have to live in fear of assault in her home and can be prominent on social media without being subjected to sexualised violence from internet trolls we have work to do.
You may be wondering- where is God in this. Quite simply everywhere. If you read the Bible justice is one of it’s key themes- prophets decrying the hard heartedness of the religious establishments and crushing the poor, to Jesus’s healing and talking about the Kingdom where the last will be first to Mary in the Magnificat exulting in a topsy turvy Kingdom where the humble are fed and the rich turned away. To the oppressed and violated exulting around d the throne of the Lamb in revelation. The things we are speaking about today tell us more about God and our mission on earth than some theological puff piece about Jesus was nice to disabled people.
Some of you listening may say “why hasn’t he mentioned the barriers and attitude that affect me. The simple answer is like the rest of us, if I don’t directly experience it I probably haven’t noticed- unless I have been told about it. I acknowledge that I have enormous learning to do on issues of inclusion. We all do.
And I know some of what I learn makes me feel uncomfortable. All of us are learning and some of what we learn means that we have to change how we think, how we act, and to question is what we have is fair. And it hurts, it’s confusing and even threatening. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t right.
We must be like Jesus who reaching out- who cured far more than sight loss that dayIt isn’t about wokery- it isn’t about worshipping victimhood, it isn’t about dishonouring history. It’s not about encouraging people to be snowflakes. It’s about fairness. The simple question is- are people being disadvantaged because how I act, think and believe?
Having to change ourselves to make the world a better and fairer place isn’t discrimination even if we are the ones who need to change. It’s the painful process of rebalancing the scales that are unbalanced. It is about facing squarely that people are treated differently. That the rest of us have obligations as Christians to stop being part of the problem and start trying to be part of the solution. Not as saviours or taking the agency away from people but being allies, friends and advocates. It’s about educating ourselves so that people don’t have to constantly be teachers about the things that blight their lives.
So I finish this sermon with genuine plea- please talk to me or the elders. Let me know what barriers we are missing- and point us to where we can learn how we begin to dismantle them.
Let’s work together to make this place a place where all are welcomed, included and valued. Where we can sing our next hymn with a sense of complete integrity and intent.