Sunday, October 8, 2017
Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Access Sunday & Disabilities Awareness Week
The General Synod of the United Church of Christ and the United Church of Christ as a denomination have been advocates for the inclusion and well-being of people with disabilities for over thirty years. But the experience of those with disabilities has changed over time, so delegates attending the 31st General Synod in Baltimore in late June and early July of this year were called on to examine a resolution that reaffirms the previous commitment that was made three decades ago. (“General Synod resolution calls the church to more disability justice,” United Church of Christ News, June 12, 2017)
The intent of the resolution was to look at a guideline for the wider church on how to include persons with disabilities in their ministries. As a member of the United Church of Christ, our congregation has taken some modest, but important steps over the years that include providing handicapped parking, a sidewalk from the street to the side and around the mauka and makai sides of the church, the side door entrance for wheelchairs and locations where those who are wheelchair-bound may sit, and a handicapped wheelchair-accessible restroom.
While we do not have listening devices for persons who are hearing-impaired, we have printed copies of the morning message for those who may have difficulty hearing. The copies are made available each week in large print for those who may be visually impaired.
Today is recognized by congregations throughout the United Church of Christ as Access Sunday and the days ahead as Disabilities Awareness Week. I wondered what I might say to you after having read Paul’s letter to the early church in Philippi. As Paul thinks of his own life he writes: “ . . . whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ . . . I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection . . . ” (Philippians 3:7-8, 10)
I thought about how Paul may have sounded to those in the church in Philippi when he had an opportunity to visit with them and to speak with them directly, whether he sounded like he was scolding or chiding them for what he seemed to perceive as a lack of faith among those who were a part of the church. Jill Crainshaw is the Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She points out that Paul “uses a first-century rhetorical form to communicate with Christians in the diverse and busy town of Philippi. Rhetoric is an ancient Greco-Roman art of argumentation and discourse. Paul was a rhetorical artist . . . ” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2011, page 136)
I must be honest and say I do not always appreciate Paul’s form of communication. Crainshaw makes an observation that explains the difficulty I occasionally have in understanding Paul. She writes: “Contemporary ears sometimes hear Paul’s autobiographical speech-making as arrogance. However,” she goes on to explain, “autobiographical arguments were common to the rhetoric of Paul’s time. A speaker’s personal character was considered a valid, even powerful tool of persuasion. Paul wants readers to know that he has experienced firsthand God’s love in Christ . . . ” and that “he himself strives to live out the message he preaches.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2011, page 136)
Despite my own occasional difficulty and discomfort with Paul, it is not my intention to negate the encouragement he offers to those in Philippi to hold on to and to live out their faith. For Paul, “the primary goal of faith is to know or experience Christ.” (Ibid.)
While Biblical scholars like Crainshaw are quick to point out that “Paul skillfully capitalizes on the rhetorical style of his day to communicate gospel values” (Ibid.), it must be said that there are other ways to communicate the good news of our faith and that brings me back to the affirmation that today is Access Sunday and the start of Disabilities Awareness Week. I want to tell you a story about a man who was handicapped and disabled in a number of different ways.
Before he was given that name Batunea Lalana at his baptism, he was simply known as Pua‘aiki. He was born on this island in Waikapū in 1785.
It is said that “he was a small man . . . but so twisted in body that he seemed deformed. He moved painfully, and his face not pleasant to look upon, for he squinted out of sightless eyes.” (Pioneer Hawaiian Christians, Frontier Books, Number Seven, Frances Eastman, Friendship Press, New York, 1948, page 4)
A relative took Pua‘aiki in after he was rejected by his own family at birth. As the years went by, he was left to grow up as best he could. Constant exposure to wind and sun strained his eyes; by the time he reached adulthood he was a deformed, nearly blind beggar. (Op. cit., page 60)
He found food wherever he could, often rooting it out in the forests and begging from neighbors. There were those who said he acquired the name Pua‘aiki or Little Hog because of the way he lived and existed. Over time, he became known not only as a beggar but as a thief and to some as a sorcerer.
Others said he was an expert in hula, especially the hula ma‘i which foreigners viewed with disdain saying it was a “vulgar ceremonial dance.” (Op. cit., page 7) It was described as a hula with exaggerated arm gestures and leg movements and twisted facial expressions.
Today we know the hula ma‘i as one form of hula among many. Far from being vulgar, the hula ma’i is a celebration of human sexuality and the joy that comes from procreation. Pua‘aiki became skilled in the dance and his misshapen figure and limping movements drew people’s attention.
People laughed when they saw him dance. Whether it was out of derision or embarrassment, we do not know. But news of his dancing ability quickly spread.
In time, Kamāmalu, the favorite queen of Liholiho, heard about him and summoned Pua‘aiki to become the court jester. “You shall dance for us when we wish,” she said. “For this you will receive food and ‘awa” – food and drink. (Ibid.)
And so it was that he would dance for the queen and her court. By the spring of 1820, the royal residence was moved from Kailua on the Kona coast of Hawai‘i island to Honolulu, O‘ahu. Once on O‘ahu, Pua‘aiki’s health declined.
He found himself unable to stand and to dance for the queen. Soon the food and drink ceased to arrive.
It was during that time that a young Hawaiian man named Honoli‘i came upon Pua‘aiki, who was laying on the ground in a grass hale or house, moaning. Flies swarmed over his sightless eyes; lice crawled up his beard. His small, twisted boy was clad only in a tattered malo of native bark and a dirty bit of a ragged kīhei. (Ibid.)
Honoli‘i reached down and laid his hands across Pua‘aiki’s eyes. He brushed away the flies and smoothed back his hair. Honoli‘i told him he just returned home with haole missionaries from a place call New England.
“Are you haole?” Pua‘aiki asked.
“‘A‘ole! No!” said Honoli‘i. “I am brown, like you. I am Hawaiian. But I have been away long at school. Now I have come back to my own country.”
“Listen to me, Pua‘aiki. I have good news for you. Forget about ‘awa root to deaden your pain. That will not heal you. But there is someone who can heal you. He will cure your sickness. He will make you well. He is the Great Physician.”
Pua‘aiki stiffened and raised his head abruptly, staring at Honoli‘i as though he could see him. “The Great Physician!” he said. “What is that?”
Honoli‘i replied, “He is Jesus Christ, who heals souls and brings light into dark lives.”
“Take me to him,” cried Pua‘aiki. “I want to know more.
“I can take you where you will hear more about him,” replied Honoli‘i. “Then we go, now!” insisted Pua‘iki. “We go, now!”
It was out of his encounter with Honoli‘i that Pua‘aiki eventually became of the one the early Hawaiian converts to Christianity. He became an eager listener and leaner and lost no time telling others about his own faith in Christ.
It is said that when Batimea was taken by Honoli‘i to the home of a missionary, he sat and waited to hear the missionary speak. Sometimes he cried. Tears of joy streamed from his blind eyes but no one knows for certain what heard.
I can only imagine what he must have thought and felt when he heard the story of his namesake Bartimaeus for the first time – a story of someone like himself who cried out of darkness and doubt; of someone whose life had been shaped experiences of loss, exclusion and helplessness; of someone bowed down in desperation. Although Batimea was not healed of his blindness in the same way that Bartimaeus was healed, he nevertheless responded in faith believing that out of the brokenness of his life, he would be restored to wholeness.
He was baptized on July 10, 1825 and was given the name Batimea Lalana – Batimea for Bartimaeus, the blind beggar and Lalana, the Hawaiian word for London, where Liholiho, the king and Kamāmalu, the queen, visited while on a royal tour of England in 1824.
Although his eyesight improved for a period of time, Batimea spent most of his life relying upon what he heard and was able to memorize. After he received his license to preach, Batimea was commissioned in February 1843 to serve as evangelist and pastor of Honua‘ula, the district in which our church is located.
Within seven months of his commissioning, his health began to declined once more. He died seven months later on Sunday evening, September 17 1843 at the age of 58.
Whether or not he was able to visit all of the churches under his care, we do not know. But it is likely that he came to us here in Mākena. In the early years our church carried the name Honua‘ula. In later years it was changed to Keawakapu and still later to Keawala‘i.
Though Batimea remained blind, he was able to “see” and understand the good news of Jesus Christ. Batimea was buried in the cemetery at Kaʻahumanu Church in Wailuku. A headstone marks his grave. It reads: “Batimea Lalana Pua‘aiki. Born about 1785 in Waikapū. Became a Christian in 1843 in Wailuku. The Blind Preacher of Maui. ʻI once was lost, but now am found. I once was blind, but now I see.’”
Across from Batimea’s headstone is a sign which reads: “Graveyard of the Kahale Family. Donors of this land for a church. Several early Hawaiian Christians may be buried here in unmarked graves, possibly John Honoli‘i, Thomas Hopu, Hawai’i and Kawailepolepo.” It is possible then that Batimea’s good friend Honoli‘i may be as close to him in death as he was in life.
As I think about Batimea’s life and the transformation that came through his faith in Jesus Christ, I have come to appreciate the words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians. When I read Paul’s words now, I hear Batimea’s voice: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings . . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:10, 13)
“My name is Batimea Lalana!”