Disability Ministries Committee of the United Methodist Church

Gone with the Wind . . .

St. Andrew's United Methodist Church
Disability Awareness Sunday
January 27, 2008

In the 1960s in Washington, D.C., there were two ministerial associations; one was for the black clergy, the other for white ones. That decade came a century after Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, followed later by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing everyone's equal protection under the laws. Stirred by the ongoing Black Revolution that began in the mid-1950s, a member of the white ministerial association offered a motion to seek a merger of the two groups. The motion was lost, due to the impassioned opposition of one of the ministers. Afterwards, he told the maker of the motion that he could not help his prejudicial feelings against black people. "I guess," he said, "I was born that way." The other minister said "I understand; but, I thought you had been born again."

According to a story written some 80 to 90 years after the crucifixion, Jesus made the same point to Nicodemus, a pious theologian with strong prejudicial feelings against people supposedly despised by God. Nicodemus belonged to a Scripturally-based group that believed God called its members to be gatekeepers. Armed with Leviticus and other scriptural sources, they had plenty of reasons for locking out a host of people, including those who were ill or physically-challenged, that last category being one in which I belong as a deaf-blind person.

Is such discrimination any different today? I think not. In 1990, Congress passed and the first President Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Today, some members of Congress, the current President Bush, and certain federal court judges, and appellate and Supreme Courts justices seek to diminish the ADA's power. In 2001, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court struck down the ADA's job protection clause for physically-challenged governmental employees. The court's majority insisted that Congress had no proof of job discrimination to justify either the punitive clause or the ADA itself. I marvel at the deafness and blindness of those five justices.

Sometime after the September 11, 2001 tragedy, two men, walking up an airport concourse to the plane they were to board, were grabbed by the security people, hustled into a private room, causing them to miss their plane, all because the authorities refused to understand that one man was Deaf, the other was his interpreter, communicating through the American Sign Language, not at all using codes en route to a terrorist attack.

In 1957, I was appointed to serve a church in Vacaville, CA. A new state prison known euphemistically as the California Medical Facility had just opened in Vacaville. I was recruited by the Protestant chaplain to lead two separate series of Bible classes. In the group was a Pentecostal minister doing time for sexual molestation of young girls in his church. At the conclusion of the second series, he told me that he decided I was somewhat spiritual, but that I could not be fully so until I no longer needed my glasses or hearing aid. I could not resist reminding him that even if God thought I lacked spirituality, I was—at least—free to walk out of that prison unchallenged.

Sad to say, our human condition of thinking too highly of ourselves can leads to prejudicial attitudes and actions. It's called bigotry. Many years ago, in the movie, The Last Living Confederate Soldier's Widow, Lucy, married at a very young age to a considerably older former soldier, is appalled to see how many of their community's young women were not invited to the mayor's annual coming out ball. Her husband replies tiredly, ""he world is full of injustices. It helps to close one's eyes."

Not so, Jesus was saying. Closing our eyes—and ears—to injustices at home or in the world is a sign of spiritual and intellectual deafness and blindness for which the only cure is to be born again, thereby acquiring eyes and ears that truly see and hear. That was Jesus' prescription for Nicodemus and his culture, both of whom had severe cases of spiritual and intellectual deafness and blindness.

Hear again a bit of the story. How can it be, Nicodemus and his narrow-minded colleagues wondered, that Jesus was doing God's work, but among the wrong people? To find out, Nicodemus sought an audience with Jesus, but under the cover of night to protect his reputation. That meant meeting Jesus outside Jerusalem in a campground on the Mount of Olives where Jesus and ousted people stayed because they were poor, immoral, irreligious, or afflicted with a physical challenge or illness. Commenting on Nicodemus's cowardly act, a 20th century British biblical scholar said Nicodemus was "as far removed from Jesus as darkness [is] from light."

Indeed, Jesus was far removed from Nicodemus and his colleagues' belief that they were God's gatekeepers guarding life's treasures against undeserving people. Jesus, to the contrary, saw his and his followers' gate keeping role was to open the way for all people to receive divine grace and the gift of wholeness in their earthly lives. That's good news, and to be deaf and blind to it, as Nicodemus was, means that we need to be born again. As the previously quoted biblical scholar has it, God "demands a complete re-orientation."

Another way of putting it is to say we need enlightenment. One day in Charles Schulz's wonderful comic world, Sally walked into the room where her older brother, Charlie Brown, was watching TV, and announced, "I'm looking for enlightenment." Charlie Brown perked up, saying that he had never heard of any child as young as she who wanted enlightenment. "What kind of enlightenment do you want?" asked Charlie. Said Sally, "The light bulb in my lamp burned out. I'm looking for enlightenment."

Nicodemus never understood his need for an enlightened way of hearing and seeing the gifts and needs of oppressed people around him. He was too self-serving, too literal-minded. Petulantly, he asked if he had to crawl back into his mother's womb to be born again.

Jesus ignored that ridiculous question, and turned Nicodemus's attention to the wind playing on the olive trees all around them. In the Hebrew and Greek languages of that era, each had one word that variously meant wind, air, breath, or spirit. God's spirit, Jesus was saying, is like the wind. It has a will and a way all its own, so that now and then, here and there, and time after time, God's spirit-like the wind rearranging the hair on our heads-can rearrange our minds and our hearts until we are hospitable to all people, different or disabled though they be (John 3:1-8).

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a dream. My dream is that one day all prejudicial attitudes and actions, including those directed against physically challenged people, will be gone with the wind.

Will you join me in dreaming that dream?

— Robert Walker