(Sermon by Lori Erickson at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa, on March 8, 2020)
“Born Again” is one of those problematic concepts for Episcopalians, isn’t it? Members of other denominations get born again, from the Baptists and the Assemblies of God to all those people who answered an altar call at Billy Graham revivals through the decades. But we Episcopalians are born just once, thank you very much. Most of us try to follow the Christian path as best we can without the benefit of that classic evangelical experience of being born again.
Given that, what are we to make of the Gospel reading for this morning? Jesus tells Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” to which Nicodemus replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” And then Jesus says this: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
One way of interpreting this passage is to say that Christians need to have a dramatic, clouds-opening-in-the-heavens sort of experience during which you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. I don’t mean to disparage this, because many people do have genuine, life-changing conversions in this way. But I think—and many of you probably do as well—that this is too narrow a definition of being reborn in the spirit. So as I was putting together this sermon, I tried to think of other examples of being reborn—and that’s when I remembered a presentation I recently heard given by my friend Delia Ray Howard.
Delia is an author of young adult novels, and in her presentation she spoke about the background behind her book Singing Hands, which is based on her mother’s experiences growing up as one of four hearing children of parents who were deaf. I was fascinated by the story she told, especially the details relating to the life of her grandfather, Robert Capers Fletcher.
Robert was born in the year 1900 in the small town of Arab, Alabama. Around the age of five Robert became deaf, most likely by contracting meningitis. Then several years later, he became blind in one eye after an accident with a pair of scissors.
Despite having loving parents, Robert struggled in school, so much so that he repeated fourth grade four times. Then when he was twelve, his beloved mother died of tuberculosis. His father, overwhelmed by the prospect of raising a deaf son on his own, sent him to the Alabama State School for the Deaf and Blind in Talledega.
So there he was, deaf, half-blind, motherless, his family scarred by tragedy, and unable to understand much of what was said to him. It didn’t seem like Robert Fletcher had much of a future.
But something happened to Robert at that school: you might say he was born again. He learned sign language and rapidly made up for what he’d missed before—in fact, he ended up graduating at the top of his high school class. Then he attended Gallaudet College for the Deaf in Washington, DC, and after that the Episcopal seminary in Philadelphia. Though he’d wanted to be a Baptist minister like his father, they turned him down because of his deafness. But the Episcopal Church had a tradition of supporting ministry among the deaf, and welcomed him.
In an age before vaccinations for measles and other infectious diseases, deafness was much more common than it is today. In 1935 Robert organized an Episcopal parish for deaf parishioners in Birmingham, Alabama, a church that in addition to its Sunday services had social events that attracted deaf people from a variety of denominations and faiths. Robert also served deaf congregations in nine other southern states, traveling by train to visit them for a good portion of every month. The church services may have been quiet, but they nevertheless were full of speech, with words signed by Robert and the other parishioners. A charismatic and good-humored man, Robert was renowned for his kindness.
Back at home, his wife Estelle, whom he’d met at Gallaudet and who was also deaf, took in boarders to raise extra money and raised their four children, all of whom had normal hearing. Robert and Estelle taught their children sign language, but were conscious of the need for their kids to be exposed to spoken language as well. Each summer the children were sent to live with relatives so they would be surrounded by speech when they were out of school.
In thinking about Fletcher’s life, I remember the film The Miracle Worker, which is about the life of Helen Keller. Maybe you’ve seen it too. Its most dramatic scene is when Helen’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, is holding her pupil’s hands in a stream of running water, signing the word for water over and over again. Helen has lived in a virtual prison ever since losing both her sight and hearing at the age of 19 months. But as her teacher signs the word repeatedly, suddenly Helen gets it. She realizes that the movements of her teacher’s fingers signify water, and the door to her internal prison opens.
So this is another way of thinking what about being born again—it means to have our lives change so dramatically that we are never the same again. After being reborn, Helen Keller and Robert Fletcher both went on to become powerful advocates for the deaf and the marginalized.
During his decades of ministry, Robert Fletcher served more than 40 deaf congregations, including parishes made up of African-Americans, this being in the days before desegregation. His influence spread beyond the Episcopal world, too. In 1952 he was the first minister to give the opening prayer at the U.S. Senate in sign language and that same year he received an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet College.
In this season of Lent, when we’re asked to ponder how we, too, might be born again, I think we can take some lessons from the life of Robert Fletcher:
- The Holy Spirit often rides into our lives on the same horse that brings tragedy. During his childhood, Robert lost his hearing and one of his eyes, then mourned the deaths of his mother and later his younger sister. After doing poorly in school, he was sent to a boarding school where he knew no one. But in the midst of all of these trials, he found the strength to re-make himself.
- Being born again is just the beginning. The true test of the experience is what happens next. You might say that the Holy Spirit provides the spark, but then it’s up to us to do something with the fire that’s created. For Helen Keller, that meant a lifetime of advocating for those with handicaps. For Robert Fletcher, it meant bringing the word of God to people who too often were left out of the church’s embrace.
- Being born again is simple on the outside, but complex underneath. Think of that scene when Anne Sullivan signs the word for water over and over again for Helen Keller. I think God does something like that with us, too, holding our hands in the running water of baptism, patiently trying to teach us over and over again the lessons that will equip us to serve him.
I know I can think of many times when I was clueless about the spiritual lesson right before me, which was so close to me that I couldn’t see it. God needs to be a very patient teacher, to be sure.
As for Robert Fletcher, he and Estelle raised four children who grew up to lead successful and productive lives. And he was a major influence on his granddaughter Delia, who remembers him as a man of sunny disposition and great kindness. In her presentation, she gave two anecdotes in particular that show his character. The first was that her grandfather loved it when Delia played the piano. He would place his hand on the instrument and smile, enjoying the vibration even though he couldn’t hear the sounds. Throughout his life he focused not on what he had lost, but on what avenues for joy were still open to him.
The other story was that when Delia introduced him to the man who would later become her husband, within a half hour her grandfather was teaching him sign language. Because that’s what you do, once you’ve been born again—you look for ways to spread the spirit.
And at the end of Delia’s presentation, she played a YouTube clip that showed what became of Robert and Estelle’s daughter Louise, one of Delia’s aunts. The clip was from the Academy Awards show of 1976, when Louise Fletcher received the best actress award for her role in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In Louise’s acceptance speech, for the first time in Academy Award history she used sign language when she thanked her parents, Robert and Estelle, for loving her and encouraging her to follow her dream.
That’s what it means to be born again. Sometimes it happens at an altar call. Sometimes it happens when a young girl learns the word for water, or when a young man finds his calling to serve those who need a good shepherd. Sometimes it’s showy, and sometimes it’s subtle. But it’s open to all of us, during Lent especially.
So let me leave you with this question: in what way could you be born again?