Differently Abled

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A sermon on 2 Samuel 9:1-13 by Rev. Doug Bratt, pastor of Silver Spring Christian Reformed Church, Silver Spring MD. Published by permission of the author.

Our story really begins not in David’s palace, but in Saul’s home. There the king’s grandson, Mephibosheth, had spent his first five years eating his meals in a highchair at the royal table. His dad Jonathan and the new king David had also been extremely close friends.

However, Mephibosheth’s grandpa and dad’s deaths in battle panicked their survivors. Some worried the Philistines would try to kill the rest of Saul’s family. Others worried more about what David and his men would do.

So Saul’s servants grabbed everything they could carry and ran for their lives. Five-year-old Mephibosheth had to suddenly leave his home and happy memories. However, when his nurse picked him up started running with him, she dropped him, breaking both of his feet. 

That fall leaves him able to walk only with difficulty, if at all, for the rest of his life. So while Mephibosheth escapes with his life, he doesn’t escape with his abilities intact.

However, as author Craig Barnes notes, few of us do. Our limited ability to walk, hear, see, remember or learn impairs some of us. Painful memories, fear, worry, doubt or some kind of mental illness make others feel almost disabled. If that’s also true for you, you probably have sympathy for Mephibosheth’s life’s downward spiral.  

Their disabilities sometimes drive people into virtual complete anonymity. We easily act as if they almost don’t exist. In fact, our text’s King David doesn’t even know his best friend’s son Mephibosheth is even alive. 

Yet he hasn’t yet forgotten about either his friend Jonathan or his promises to him. After all, while David can be brutal and ruthless with outsiders, he’s persistently gracious and faithful to people to whom he makes promises.

So he summons Saul’s former servant with the question that perhaps now haunts him: “Is there anyone left from Saul’s family to whom I can show some godly kindness?” 

Ziba answers the king, “Yes, there is Jonathan’s son. But he can’t walk.” Now we’re not sure just why Ziba tells the king Jonathan’s son has a disability. He may worry David will try to kill this surviving descendant of Saul. Maybe it’s as if Ziba is telling him, “Don’t worry. Prince Jonathan’s son’s disability keeps him from threatening your kingship.”

Yet isn’t it sad that Mephibosheth’s own servant never uses his name? Ziba simply refers to him by his father’s name and disability, as if his they somehow define him.  

On top of that, Ziba tells David that Jonathan’s son is in “Lo Debar,” which means place where there is no pasture. So even to his own servant, Mephibosheth seems little more than a nameless man who has a disability and lives in a place where nothing grows.

Kate Larson has written a book entitled, Rosemary: Hidden Kennedy Daughter. It tells the story of Rosemary Kennedy, who was the sister of among others, John, Robert and Ted.

Rosemary had developmental and intellectual disabilities that were the result of an accident at birth. So when she was 33 years old, her father, Joseph Kennedy, told the doctors to lobotomize her. It left Rosemary with limited motor and speaking skills.

Sadly, Joseph Kennedy never told his wife Rose about their daughter’s lobotomy. He sent Rosemary away to a home for people who had disabilities where he never visited her again. Rosemary’s siblings hardly ever talked about her. It was as if her disability rendered her nameless and at home only far away.

We generally treat people who have disabilities in more enlightened ways…if they survive to be born. In a peer-reviewed paper, Dr. Brian Skotko estimates 92% of all women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome terminate their pregnancies.

Even when people who have disabilities get to church, we sometimes struggle to minister to them. Barb Newman tells chilling stories about working with children who have disabilities in western Michigan. 

She describes talking to a pastor who’d just ended a phone conversation with a family friend. That friend had asked him to lead the funeral service for their young child who’d died from complications from several areas of disability.

When that pastor asked his friend if his own pastor would like to participate in that service, he admitted they had no church. They’d tried eight different churches within an hour of driving distance of their home. However, each one had basically said, “Sorry, we don’t have anything for your child.”

The church down the road from the family’s home had agreed to host the funeral service. Barb looked that pastor in the eye and said, “It is amazing that the first time this child’s body will be welcome in church will be in a casket.”

Don’t those churches’ messages sound a bit like Ziba’s, “There is still a son of Jonathan; [but] he can’t walk.” In other words, “People like Mephibosheth who have disabilities can’t harm you. But they can’t do much for you either.”

Yet as Barnes insists, we’re all Mephibosheth.  After all, our mental or physical health disables some of us.  Bad habits, bad memories and bad ideas about life disable others.  His adultery will largely disable even David.

Yet as Barnes goes on to note, God doesn’t ask any of us, “What are you good at?” Nor is God obsessed with the things that disable us. No, God asks the same question David asks about Mephibosheth: “Where are you?” Because God wants to bring you and me home.

David desire to show kindness to Saul’s grandson by bringing Mephibosheth home is gracious. Ancient kings, after all, killed all of their predecessors’ descendants so they wouldn’t pose a threat to them. 

So we can only imagine how Mephibosheth dreaded hearing David’s soldiers pound on his door. Yet when that knock finally comes, Mephibosheth has no choice but to obey his king. 

We can almost see him limp toward Jerusalem, perhaps on crutches, maybe dragging his largely useless feet. Or must Mephibosheth ride one of his animals? Or do people perhaps come alongside him to carry him into the king’s presence?

No matter how he gets there, when he arrives in David’s presence, Mephibosheth falls flat on his face to honor the king.  We can almost smell the sweat of his exertion and terror. 

So Mephibosheth may wonder if he’s heard right when he thinks David told him, “Do not be afraid.”  Isn’t it amazing how often God and God’s people say that in the Bible?  Maybe that’s because we have so many reasons to be afraid, especially when we’re on the outside looking in or at the bottom looking up.

“Don’t be frightened,” David basically tells the man who has every reason to be afraid of the king has already eliminated the rest of his family.  “I’d like to do something special for you in memory of your father Jonathan.”

King David then does three remarkable things.  He restores to Mephibosheth all the land that he’d confiscated so that Jonathan’s son can have a steady income.  David also restores to him a permanent seat at his royal table.  And the king turns Mephibosheth from someone whose disability makes him think of himself as a “dead dog” into one of his own sons.

In that way, David acts a little bit like God.  After all, God also does extraordinary things for us.  God doesn’t just give us everything we need – and often even more.  God doesn’t just give us a place at God’s family table.  No matter how we think of ourselves or how others think of us, God also adopts you and me into God’s family.

Yet we must admit we’ve not always responded by acting like God.  Sure, we’re pretty good at ministering to people whom grief, or sin, or addiction have disabled.  We’re even pretty good at caring for those who are spiritually disabled. 

Yet we haven’t always paid much attention to people who have mental health issues or intellectual disabilities, even though Jesus spent so much time with people who had physical and emotional needs.

At the end of our text, our narrator reminds us that Mephibosheth is still “crippled in both feet,” as if to say, while David has changed many of his circumstances, Mephibosheth continues to have a physical disability.  So he’ll always need David to show him “kindness.”

The Hebrew word for that “kindness” is hesed.  It’s usually used to describe God, and is variously translated as “unfailing kindness,” “devotion,” “faithfulness” or “favor.”

Yet what we sometimes overlook is the covenantal element of that kindness.  God shows special kindness to those with whom God has entered a covenant of grace.  David shows special kindness to Mephibosheth with whose father he had made a covenant.

More than 53 million Americans live with some kind of obvious disability.  That means that as many as one in five of us struggle every day with disabilities that we can see.

Yet God invites and equips all of us to show each other the kind of kindness God shows us.  After all, when you were baptized, it wasn’t just God who made covenant promises to be your God.  We the Church also promised to help you to grow to love and serve the Lord.

That means when we show each other kindness, we’re not being first of all politically correct, or just nice.  We’re keeping our baptismal promises to both God and each other.

So I’m grateful for the people who kept those promises by building this church on one level with bathrooms whose stalls are fairly wide.  I’m thankful for the person who secured a grant to provide people who have hearing impairments with listening enhancement devices.  I’m grateful for people who try to hold our church’s feet to the fire about keeping our promises to people of all abilities and disabilities.

However, our work is far from done. People who have a variety of disabilities grace us. Yet we struggle to fully minister to and enfold each other.  For example, were Mephibosheth here today, we’d have to carry him up to this platform. Our bathroom stalls aren’t wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs.

We’re a relatively small church with relatively limited financial and volunteer capacity.  So it’s tempting to tell people who have disabilities or those who love them, “We can’t really help you.  Try the big church down the road.”

Yet church is precisely where people who have disabilities belong.  That’s because all we have here is people with disabilities.  Some of us are just cursed with the ability to hide our disabilities.

The gospel claims that strength is found in weakness that some of us display, but most of are pretty good at hiding.  Paul even insists God’s power is “made perfect in weakness.” 

Whatever else that means, it suggests that we find the need for a Savior like Jesus Christ precisely in the weakness that all of us have.  God became disabled by taking on our weakness to equip people who are disabled to be strong enough to show each other covenant faithfulness.

Yet as my friend Mark Stephenson points out, it’s also instructive to note that in a society in which strong legs and backs were considered essential to survival, Mephibosheth was resourceful.  He, after all, was able to afford servants. 

Though Mephibosheth had a disability, he was able to use his talents to employ and manage people. We can imagine that he even used those resources to minister to David as well. 

We don’t, after all, just minister to people who have disabilities. We also encourage them to minister with and even to us. God equips all of us, after all, to be servants of God and participants in God’s kingdom.

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 Nice, although saying that David's adultery puts his disability on the same level as someone who uses a wheelchair to get around trivializes genuine disabilities.  I'm not aware that David's adultery prevented him from using a sword or walking, or even caused him to experience hallucinations for that matter.  if this congregation needed to be told about David's adultery, either they aren't even at Disability 101 yet, or the pastor needs to read my blog about chronically normal people.