Talk and Prayers for Sunday, 22 May 2022 (Easter 6)
By Andrew and Jane Betts from Advantage Africa
By Andrew Betts
It’s good be back at Cornerstone this morning, thanks so much for inviting us.
A lot has happened since I last spoke here. Last time it was on Zoom. This time we are mostly face to face with some on live stream. Last time the UK had just achieved the infamous nul points at Eurovision. And last week we came second.
And Advantage Africa was providing relief food due to the lockdowns in Kenya and Uganda, where schools were closed for nearly two years. Thank God that crisis is reducing, and most children are finally back in school.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been following signs to the City Centre to reach this church and calling it the ‘City Church’. And now MK is officially a city. Congratulations or, as they say in Uganda, ‘Congs’.
We’re so grateful for your continued support of Advantage Africa as a church, and to many of you individually. You enabled us to support more than five thousand desperate people through the COVID-19 crisis, encourage and love them and help build their resilience for the future. And now we are back to supporting more long-term projects, in education, in disability services, in income generation. From us and our partners, a massive thank you. Peter Ogik in Uganda, who many of you met when he was over here a few years ago, sent a message a couple of days ago saying, ‘Please send our gratitude to the congregation for their generosity in supporting our work. God bless them!’
Today I want to us to look at this passage from John [John 5: 1–9] and see what we can draw out of it. In many ways some of the lessons we can learn, about the love of God for all people and the breaking down of barriers that divide people, are at the heart of Advantage Africa. That’s because as a charity we seek to serve people who are not only challenged by poverty, but by the barriers created by HIV and disability. Please be encouraged that when you support Advantage Africa, you are supporting the removal of those divisive barriers.
In 1964 archaeologists in Jerusalem uncovered the remains of the two churches and an Asclepeion (healing temple dedicated to Asclepius the Greek God of Medicine) and some healing pools believed to be the pool of Betheseda. You can see a picture of it on Wikipedia. It’s worth noting that Bethesda means either house of mercy or house of grace – but the location may have actually been seen as a place of disgrace, due to the presence of so many people with disabilities.
There was actually a bit of a cult around Asclepius actually. So, stemming from the myth of his great healing powers, pilgrims would flock to temples built in his honour in order to seek spiritual and physical healing. But this wasn’t a health spa like Whittlebury Hall, where I imagine you’re greeted by someone with smiley face who hands you a nice fluffy towel, offers you a cup of frothy coffee and ushers you to your personalised treatments. I imagine it was a place of desperation, where all the people with disabilities and chronic diseases congregated. A place where others passed by on the other side.
Because back then there was fear and stigma surrounding disability. We know from the story of the blind man that Jesus healed, that disability was regarded as a result of someone’s sin, or that of their parents. This was a culture that saw disability as a punishment from God. Such myths persist in East Africa today.
A few years ago, I took a wealthy businessman to Kenya to show him some of Advantage Africa’s work with people with disabilities. And we hung out with people who walked and spoke and acted differently to what he was used to. And initially he confessed to me that it made him feel very uncomfortable. But by the end of those few days those people became his friends, and the barriers that he’d put up in his mind between himself and people who were different had been breached. So much so, that he became, and remains, one of Advantage Africa’s most generous supporters.
Jesus wasn’t fazed by spending time with people with disabilities, prostitutes, tax collectors, political zealots – those that we might label today as agitators, or woke, or Tory, or (for the sake of political balance) Corbynistas. Think for a moment of the great divisions we have in our society, of politics, race, sexuality, and all the barriers that exist in our own minds.
And then remember that Jesus came to break down those barriers, between rich and poor, between Jew and Gentile, between disabled and able-bodied or able-minded. Not by giving us a set of rules, but by inviting us simply to follow him, and be like him.
Anybody come across ‘The Chosen’? It’s a TV series that depicts the life of Christ and his disciples. Matthew the tax collector is played as someone with autism. Pure speculation of course. But here you have someone who was essentially a collaborator with the occupying Roman regime, immediately at odds with the other disciples from whom he was extracting those taxes, also played as someone with intense communication difficulties.
It sometimes happens like that in life doesn’t it? In the same way we sometimes have a whole load of different differences bound up together. The people we struggle with because they support a different political party to us, seem to be in a different cultural class to us as well. To give another example from my own work with Advantage Africa, people with disabilities tend to be among the poorest, because disability is both a cause and consequence of poverty. It’s what they call in my business ‘intersectionality’.
The way this plays out in the TV series is that, as the disciples hang out with Jesus, and with each other, those barriers get eroded. As Jesus sends Simon, the impetuous, tax-avoiding fisherman who likes nothing better than a bit of banter in the pub, to undertake a mission with Matthew, the Roman collaborator with autism who struggles with human connections and has communication difficulties, and wouldn’t dream of a night out with his mates – even if he had any. As Simon and Matthew spend time together, they discover their shared humanity. And as they follow Jesus, they become, little by little, a little bit more like him. And the barriers between them are slowly eroded. Male or female, slave or free, peaceful or disorderly, Jesus provides us with new ways to see.
So back to our passage. The man at the pool had been living with a disability for 38 years. Just think about that. 38 years. Almost as long as you’ve been alive George! Thirty-eight years a victim to the myths surrounding disability of his time, that his disability was a result of his sin, or that of his parents, that he had been cursed by God. Thirty-eight years apparently abandoned by his family, and without close friends. At Advantage Africa, we understand what that means as we often come across children and adults who have been abandoned, ostracised, excluded because of their disabilities.
This man had been believing for a long time that some stirring of the waters in the pool could make him well. Was there anything at all in that I wonder, or was that just another myth? (It also makes me wonder why, just once, the others could not just set aside the competition to rush to the pool on the stirring of the waters and let him in first). This kind of thing is still going on. In our work with Advantage Africa, we come across people who have been similarly subject to the myths surrounding disability for long periods of time. Recently we’ve been reaching out to people with epilepsy and we met Ronald in a village called Ddwaniro. He was 82 years old, and had had epileptic seizures for all his life. He’d never been assessed or helped or treated. As a result of our support, he is now on regular medication to control those seizures for the first time in his life. And through the education and training we’ve provided in that community, he has attained a new level of acceptance from those around him. Along with more than a hundred others, by the way!
Earlier this year, we enabled Annette, a person with albinism, to have surgery on the skin cancer which had eaten away a third of her ear. People with albinism lack melanin in their skin so they are very vulnerable to skin cancer, so their life expectancy is just thirty years. Until she contacted our team Annette had never met another person with albinism or seen a bottle of sunscreen in her entire life. As is often the case for children born with albinism, she was abandoned at birth and has lived an isolated and stigmatised life ever since. She was entirely ignorant of the genetic basis of her condition, the need to protect herself from the sun, ‘had no idea why she was white’ and was routinely charged more than others to travel in public vehicles. Her only real friend was her loving husband, who supported her and resisted the discrimination she constantly faced, until he died last year. After experiencing the love and care of our team she described them as ‘my new family’.
Myths and ignorance about disability, such as those that caused Annette to be overcharged for transport or have no friends, do not just survive in Africa. Our friend Chris, who has a visible disability, once described queuing up at a supermarket and hearing a woman behind her telling her daughter, ‘Don’t go to that queue; that woman is a monster.’
Those barriers still exist and persist, when it comes to disability and all those other things such as race, class and politics that I mentioned. Jesus shows us that we are all equal in his sight. As John Bradley, once a member of this church and who some of you here will remember, well wrote in his Theology of Disability:
From God’s perspective disabled people are of the same value as able-bodied people. We are all disabled in some way or other, whether physically, mentally or spiritually, and yet at the same time we are each of infinite value. The life of Jesus is a vivid demonstration of that valuing, [and entirely] subversive of our materialistic society.
John (Bradley, not the gospel writer) went on to say:
Jesus challenged the assumed redundancy of the disabled by touching the untouchably leprous, reaching up to the vertically challenged Zaccheus, and speaking quietly but firmly to the raging psychotic of Gerasa. At the hour of his own death, he reached out in affirmation to his fellow condemned, promising paradise to one as immobilised as he.
John, who had multiple sclerosis, was very wise. He understood that we’re all disabled in one form or another. I can’t see you without these glasses. I carry the mental and emotional scars of having narrowly escaped death four times (and that’s not even including two heart attacks). I told you about one of these occasions when I gave a talk here a few years ago.
Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh – an illness or disability which prevented him from pursuing a full active life. We don’t know the specifics of that, but it was clearly of great trouble to him.
John Bradley writes:
Its anonymity means that disabled people can see it as applying to them, whatever their particular condition. Of course Paul, through whom many had been healed in the name of Christ, prayed for his own healing, not only once but three times. And God answered his prayers with a ‘no’. Hard as this must have been for him to take, Paul realised that through this experience of disability, the grace of God was being made perfect, that is, reaching its ultimate goal. Able-bodied people can think they can get along without the continual resource of the love of God in action; disabled people know that they can’t.
In the same way, in the Chosen, the disciple Little James, is played with a paralysis and a limp. Again speculation. And even though Jesus is healing random people all around him, he does not apparently heal James’s affliction.
John Bradley, Saint Paul, and perhaps Little James, believed that God could use their weakness as a channel of his strength; John Bradley wrote:
I do not consider that I deserve either the suffering of my condition or the grace to live with it but both are the reality of my life.
This theme of turning weakness into strength runs through the Bible and was taken up by St Paul. It what’s makes our faith so radical, so counter cultural and (I believe) so true.
Jesus calls us to follow him, to have a relationship with him. And as we do, those barriers that divide us will get eroded. Perhaps sometimes we can step out to actively build bridges and kick at the darkness that is the source of those myths, divisions and definitions?
For the man at the pool, his problem had become a way of life. No one had ever helped him. He had no hope of being healed. Jesus asked him ‘Do you want to get well?’ On the surface, this is a rather extraordinary question, but it makes me wonder whether the man had actually lost the desire to help himself, and become rather trapped by and defined by his infirmity.
I suffer from three chronic health conditions that at times make me feel pretty desperate and cause me to cry out to God. And God gives me the strength, hope and joy to keep going, and even to minister to people like Ronald and Annette through the work of Advantage Africa.
I do believe God still heals, as he healed the man at the pool. Do you?
A friend of mine was given less than a year to live about fifteen years ago and was surrounded with prayer. She is still alive today, worshipping God in another church this morning as I speak.
I have no idea why God apparently heals some people and not others. If we knew that, who would we be?
It seems God calls us to be patient in our Christian journey towards the answer to such difficult questions. God also gives us hope, that through Jesus he understands suffering because he’s experienced it himself on an unimaginable level on the cross. Without our faith, we would not have that comfort, and that hope of answers to look forward to. Nailed to the cross in searing agony, never mind the spiritual agony of taking our sins upon himself, the dying Christ was totally disabled. Yet still, in fact especially then, he was serving both God and humanity.
George offered me a reading from the lectionary from Revelation for today’s service, but I declined it and said that particular book of the Bible is better left to professional preachers like him and Ernesto.
All I really understand about Revelation is that it offers hope of something even better than we are experiencing now – when all the infirmities present around the pool of Bethesda, all the barriers and divisions I’ve spoken about, and all the questions I’ve raised this morning will be gloriously answered and redeemed and we get to be with Jesus, unhindered by any of those things.
Jesus healed the man and he got up and walked. Out of the temple, to face a different set of realities. Getting a job, dealing with the religious people of the day criticising him for carrying his mat on the sabbath, for goodness sake. Perhaps, with the extraordinary insight Jesus had given him about his equal value as a human being, becoming one of the world’s first disability campaigners? It was certainly a new start in his life (and remember Jesus met him again and told him to stop sinning) and new responsibilities to take on board.
To finish, let me tell you a true story about bout a woman called Joyce. Joyce grew up in a dysfunctional home and for fifteen years she was sexually, mentally, emotionally and verbally abused by her father until she left home at the age of eighteen. It sapped her confidence and filled her with shame and despair. She married a used-car salesman who cheated on her and persuaded her to steal money from her employer. After a difficult early life, when she encountered Jesus, Joyce likened it to this story of the healing at the Pool of Bethesda. She said: ‘Jesus was firm with me and applied tough love. He did not let me wallow in self pity.’ It was as if God was telling her to ‘get up and walk’ and indeed she did that, eventually becoming a Christian Minister.
Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith came for all people. As our colleague Peter once reminded us, when he died on the cross, he did not exclude people with disabilites or albinism, or who are different in any way. He breaks down all the barriers that people erect between each other and provides us with new ways to see. God uses our weakness as a channel of his strength and as we follow him, he gives us hope.
By Jane Betts
Nicky Gumbel, Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, shares a model for prayer which I find helpful. It reminds me to give space and time to honouring God, reflecting on his goodness and abounding love, rather than just reeling off my latest shopping list of worries and needs.
The model is ACTS (A-C-T-S) which stands for adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.
Of course, this is just a model. God doesn’t require fancy words, just our sincere and open hearts. There will be times when life feels so tough that it’s hard to pray a single word, coherently but that’s OK. As it says in Romans 8: 26 ‘… the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.’
For now though, I’m going to follow the ACTS model so let’s pray together.
Dear Father in Heaven,
We love you and we praise you. As Nehemiah says, ‘Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.’
Lord, we’re sorry when we get things wrong, when we’re impatient, frustrated or unkind. We’re sorry when we ignore the Holy Spirit’s promptings to help someone in need, or to confront divisions or injustice, because it’s inconvenient, we’re too busy, we don’t want to look foolish or make ourselves vulnerable.
Thank you for your boundless love for us, for the joy of fellowship with others, for our families and friends, food on our tables and roofs over our heads. I want to thank you for the privilege of working for Advantage Africa with committed partners and encouraging supporters, like our friends at Christ the Cornerstone, who ensure that people living on the margins can find new hope and resilience.
Please help us to live radical lives of service, to break down barriers and to love our neighbour, whether they’re in Loughton or Lviv, Downhead Park or Damascus, Kents Hill or Kampala. Help us to boldly say ‘I will go Lord, if you lead me.’
Lord we pray for an end to the brutal war in Ukraine, for swift resolution and restoration, and for the healing of broken hearts, minds and bodies. Please help Ukrainian refugees in the UK to feel loved and welcome and for the children to make friends and thrive in their new schools. Indeed, please help the UK to be a place of open-armed welcome and love for all refugees fleeing war, persecution or devastating hardship, no matter where they’re from.
We love you Lord, sorry for when we fall short, thank you that you never do and please hear our prayer.
In Jesus’ precious name,