Able-Ism of Advent

December 18, 2011

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Everybody says they would if they could but they can’t. This is more the habit and structure of a thought than an actual thought. I would have more focus if I could but I can’t. I would give more if I could but I can’t. I would have more impact if I could but I can’t. I would be kinder if I could but I can’t.

We want, can’t, don’t. We speak of disability as a moral moment as much as a physical moment. I would if I could but I can’t. That is not the structure of God’s argument in this text. It’s structure is precisely the opposite. It says I will because I can so I do. I hope you will notice the difference in the structures. When we say we would if we could but we can’t – you fill in your own blanks – we are actually stepping outside of God’s logic and into a disabled one. God’s language is abled – and abled actively – our language is disabled – and disabled actively.

The text is God’s refusal of a temple. God practically spits on cedar. “I don’t want a temple, “ says God. It will get in my way. I don’t want things that get in the way of my capacity, like cedar. I want curtains, fluidity, flow through, see through. I want a tabernacle, not a temple, says God. And remarkably a tabernacle has as its original definition a curtain, a drape, something flimsy and permeable. Not something hard and impenetrable.

We have had way too many conversations about sacred space lately in lower Manhattan. What comes to mind first is the fight about Parc51 and 9 – 11. That space was sacred, to some, hard and impermeable. Nothing new could happen on that old spot. Lately we have been preoccupied with what Trinity Church Wall Street (such a name, Trinity, Church, Wall Street) could do with gates and doors, locks and keys, open and closed space. Surely at Judson we have an ongoing conversation about what is beautiful, what is permanent, what can be changed, what can’t be changed in terms of our location, our real estate, and more. That conversation is only going to get bigger, not smaller. During the holidays each of us will be humming “I’ll be home for Christmas.” Some of us will weep during the song, others will warm and well with joy. Where is home anyway? Is it a tent or a temple? Is it one place or many? And how do we become able to know sacred space without pouring concrete all over it? Archbishop Dolan himself said today on the radio that women can’t’ be ordained. Why? “Even the pope lives under authority. If he could, he would, but he can’t.” The pope is templed, not tabernacle.

Often when we say we would if we could but we can’t we are talking about space. Think apartments. Or office cubicles. Or the life we lead in those places. Are they filled with ability or disability? Do we see our space as a tent or a temple? Can we move in and out of our own places or are we compelled to live there, as we live there, without change in how we live there?
One of the remarkable things about the way people age is that we often stop redecorating. Bill Cosby reports going to the doctor at 74. The doctor tells him he is well and that he has clean ears. Cosby retorts, “Clearly my good health is due to all my old ideas.”

Obviously I am fascinated by God’s interest in a curtain instead of a cedared mansion for many reasons. But mostly I am interested in this curtain for what it means for you and me and how we live a Christmas story. The Christmas story is another version of God’s predilection for the impermanent, flowing, fleeting. The Christmas story is about something small and simultaneously spacious. What kind of God chooses a child for a revelation? The same God who likes a curtain and not cedar.

First, let me say that God is abled, not disabled – and the way God is abled is by an ability to flow through the ephemera. Someone asked Tony Bennett why he was aging so well, and he said because I know what to get rid of. The strategy of God’s revelation – with Jesus at Christmas and with the Jews around the temple – was one of subtraction not addition. Less, to God, was more.

Some of you know that I have been coping with a physical disability since November 4, when my foot fractured in a very small bone in the middle of my foot. A subsequent encounter with a deer on the highway messed with my other foot, in ways the foot doctors are still imaging and imagining. As a result, walking is very difficult. Standing is easy, walking is not. You probably didn’t know that Jay Hildreth, our oldest member, has also gone through some powerful physical stress at this same time, during which stress he and his hearing aid got separated. Thus I have been the pastor who couldn’t walk, talking to the parishioner who couldn’t hear, while being guided by his daughter and mainstay, who is deaf. Our communication has been comic to say the least. But when I mange to get into Jay’s hospital room, we don’t have to talk. We just hold each other’s hands. We do what we can with what we don’t have – and don’t make excuses that say we would but we could but we can’t. My hairdresser brought her equipment to my house at 7 a.m. on Wednesday and cut my hair. She could, she would and she did. She is a tent maker.

During this same period, my computer key board decided to no longer type m’s, p’s or u’s. Yup. It had enough with those letters. Thus I have the oddest scripts on my computer. Not to mention my brief trip to Cleveland, earlier this week. American Airlines assured me there would be a ramp and a wheelchair for my arrival. There was not. CB had dropped me off at the airport, I was on my way. When we arrived and there was no ramp, American Airlines personnel starting blaming every body in sight. “No one told me we needed a wheelchair. Loud, long Whoops. Why didn’t anyone tell me? You know the excuse cycle right? I would if I could but I can’t. That’s when a man in a pick up truck with a large yellow snow plow on the front of his truck came over. He said, “I’ll take her.” So I got into the pick up truck with the large yellow snow plow on the front of the truck and was driven across the Tarmac, got to see beautiful stars and arrived at the front of the airport ten minutes later, much to the surprise of my dear friend, who immediately took me downtown to Cleveland to see the Christmas lights on the town square. One miracle deserves another. Ability breeds ability, disability breeds disability. Some people would if they could and don’t. Other people take you through security gates and drive across air fields. Some see cedars and others see curtains.

Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” I think I want to say that the able-ism of Advent, the great capacity of God to keep it small and simple, clear and fluid, is a question of competence as well as goodness. I don’t think the people who took Jay’s hearing aid had malice in their heart. They had just lived too long in the world where they would if they could but they didn’t. I don’t think American Airlines had malice in its heart when it missed the note about the wheelchair in the chart. They had just lived too long in the world where they would if they could but they didn’t.
I have had such a good time being disabled. I can’t wait to get my foot back but for now the crutches give me a whole new picture. Cab drivers are the best. At Roosevelt Hospital I took applications for people to push my wheel chair and the nurses aids and janitors were the best. One New Yorker opened the door to a deli for me, without being asked and with a smile on his face. “Boy, New York is a kind place,” I said. “Yes, don’t let anyone ever tell you anything different.” There are people who like to tell you different. They like to tell you that they would if they could but they can’t. Their house is built of cedar. In case you think this is an anti home building or anti cedar sermon, please. I love temples. I even love this temple. But it ain’t the whole story. If it ever gets in our way, it has to go. We worship a god of tents, come as an infant, one who comes small and stays small.

The great writer, Gustave Flaubert, says he spent the morning taking out a comma and the afternoon putting one back in. He could and he did. Edith Wharton had comments on punctuation as well, ‘There is not much to be said about the period, except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.” So I turn towards the ending here. God is a god of tents and curtains. God can and does. Like Aidan O’Shea could and did. Jay wanted some hair gel in the hospital and a Judson directory so he could call us. Aidan took it over to him. Why? Because he could and he did.

So who is not going to like this sermon? People who prefer to be disabled than abled. People who need an excuse. Trinity Church will also not like this sermon. They would have if they could have but they didn’t. I know people are fond of saying that we are preoccupied with Trinity. They have it exactly right. We are pre occupied. By the way Trinity has a long history of being vexed by the temple problem. Even Herman Melville’s brother disaffiliated from Trinty in 1846 over the conflict of the destitute downtown and Trinity’s real estate. I will post the whole story. Suffice it to say that the right to terrain as a human right and so-called property rights have a brilliant history down the street. When Bartleby in the famous Melville story says, “No, I would prefer not to, “ he is talking about this conflict.

Once again in downtown Manhattan, at this Christmas time, we are on our way to deeper occupations of curtained space. The reason the Trinity problem is so vexacious is that its logic is inhabited by the cedared matter of the tent and tabernacle . Occupiers say they need physical space. They sound like the temple crowd. Trinity also sounds like the temple crowd. They would open if they could but they can’t so they didn’t.

Interior Decorators won’t like the sermon either, nor will architects unless they have been graced by God and understand that temples exist to be redone. Over and over again. Bart Boehlert who writes a blog about beauty may or may not like it. People who love this meeting room, just as it is, may or may not like it. Donna Schaper, who arranges oranges on a plate before she leaves in the morning in hopes that something beautiful will be stable on the counter when she gets back in at night may not like it either.

But God is not running a popularity contest. For lack of a better word, God is diaphanous. God is a child. God is four fragile candles lit in a very firm darkness. When it comes to God, we all have cataracts. God Can an Does.


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