Rev. Pamela Shepherd
Our long, strange story from the gospel of John is a story about a blind man who can suddenly see, and about how angry and suspicious his neighbors and the religious professionals get about it. Lutheran minister, Richard Lischer, said this happened to him in his church.
One Sunday morning, just before worship, one of the leaders in his congregation came to his office to tell him he’d been “born again.” You’ve been what? Lischer asked.
I visited my brother-in-law’s church, the Running River of Life Tabernacle, and I don’t know what it was, but something happened and I’m born again.
You can’t be born again, Lischer said. You’re a Lutheran. You are the chairman of the board of trustees.
Lischer could see the man was incredibly happy, but it all made him mad. Eventually he was able to see that his own idea of spiritual renewal was never supposed to threaten what he’d been taught by the church or what he knew about God. (Christian Century, March 3, 1999)
Our reading this morning tells the story of a healing that breaks all the rules, and how the religious professionals get real mad about it.
To put this story from the Gospel of John into some context, most biblical scholars believe the gospel of John was written to a community of Jewish followers of Jesus who were being thrown out of their synagogues and persecuted by Jewish religious leaders for their unacceptable experience that Jesus, the crucified Rabbi from Nazareth, was also part of the fabric of God.
This community must have felt itself to be like a man born blind who suddenly sees. And they were willing to worship and follow and lose everything for the one who gave them that sight. But the very gift of faith they gained brought them exile and persecution, just like the blind man who gained his sight and then lost his community as the leaders drove the man out.
That man doesn’t know what happened exactly. Only Jesus came along and did something strange with spit and mud on his eyes and now everything is different. The people and the leaders ask him all sorts of difficult theological questions. I don’t know about those things, he says. I just know I was blind but now I can see.
What did he do? How did he open your eyes? The religious professionals are filled with hard questions. The man responds, Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?
That’s such a wise guy response, it’s not surprising they turn on him. But it reveals something else about this man too. He has already decided to be a disciple. He doesn’t know who this Jesus is, but he fully intends to follow him.
That happens to people: I have seen it. It happened to Carlton Pearson, a conservative evangelical, a third generation Pentecostal preacher who’d grown up in an inner city strict Pentecostal home. (The Gospel of Inclusion by Bishop Carlton Pearson)
He attended Oral Roberts University, sang with the World Action Singers, and by the time most young people are starting to figure out what they might like to do in life, Pearson was a Christian conservative Superstar. He was on all the evangelical TV and radio programs, he was appointed to Oral Roberts University Board of Regents, he’d been a key activist for the religious right in George Bush’s presidential campaign and had been a guest at the White House.
He had taken a small charismatic church from 45 people into a mega-church with over 8,000 members, and in the process had launched a wildly successful national evangelical revival, and been appointed a Bishop by the International Communion of Charismatic Churches.
But something terrible happened to young Bishop Pearson. In a moment of prayer, God opened his eyes. He was watching the evening news one night while eating dinner with one hand and holding his daughter in the other.
The news was from Rwanda and the suffering there was terrible. He prayed, God why would you let those people suffer like that and then send them to hell because they didn’t get saved?
He tells simply of his inner conversation with God which ended with his sudden and certain revelation that God and the world do not work like that. He writes, It had taken God less than five minutes to unravel the truth I had lived by and reshape my understanding of the purpose of my life to come. (p 3)
Pearson distilled his new understanding into the phrase, The entire world is saved; they just don’t know it! He began to talk less about being Christian and more about Christ Consciousness. He writes:
Christ Consciousness is each person’s understanding of the truth that Christ has already achieved what He set out to achieve: total salvation. Nothing else is needed. Our mission is to awaken people to the extraordinary love and hope of that truth—to become not necessarily Christian, but Christ-like in bringing humankind together as one in spiritual consciousness. Being “Christ-like” doesn’t necessarily mean being a Christian; after all, neither Christ nor God is. (p 4)
You can imagine how much trouble he was in, preaching a gospel of inclusion as radical as that. No one is going to hell, he preached. God loves this earth and everything on it. We are all so loved.
He was kicked off the board of regents at Oral Roberts, he was denounced from pulpits and throughout Christian media as a man who was not only going to hell but who seemed intent on taking thousands of other people with him. His church shrank in months from 8,000 to a few hundred stalwart but really confused people. The White House stopped inviting him to George Bush events. He was isolated and exiled, and living with his wife and two kids on the bare edge of poverty, yet he had seen that God is Love and he wasn’t backing off of that.
In the story, from the gospel of John, once the healed man is isolated and completely alone, that’s when Jesus comes back. The text says Jesus heard that the people had driven the man out, so Jesus went to find him.
In Bishop Pearson’s story it happens just like that. He got invited to speak at a conference in Phoenix, AZ that was sponsored and attended by a predominately gay, Christian fellowship of people and churches headed up by the Rev. Yvette Flunder, founder of the urban ministry to outcasts called City of Refuge—a large and thriving UCC church.
Pearson writes that while he’d never been a particularly outspoken opponent of homosexuality, he was associated with those who categorized gay people as sinners, so it was surprising to him that he’d been asked to come to this conference and preach.
At the end of his sermon, preaching his new understanding of this gospel of Inclusion, Bishop Flunder asked him to walk down the center aisle and let people greet him and shake his hand or hug him, while the people in attendance gave him a tearful standing ovation.
He writes: I was deeply touched and moved by the warm reception, but even more confounded as I returned to the front to find Bishop Flunder on her knees in front of a vat of warm water and surrounded by a host of celebrants. Flunder and the other ministers gently washed his feet and proclaimed that he belonged with them.
Pearson writes simply, I wept…God used the most marginalized, discriminated people in modern culture to embrace me at my lowest, loneliest ebb….my life and ministry will never be the same. (p 61)
That’s a good story, don’t you think? You probably won’t be too surprised to hear that Bishop Carlton Pearson has been accepted for Privilege of Call and Ministry in the United Church of Christ.
Here’s my message for this week: Can we let the raucous, uncontainable, mysterious Spirit of God completely blow our lives apart? Can we let the Spirit that blows where it will just blow apart all our precious opinions?
Is that scary? Yes.
Is it crazy? Maybe.
But what else is truly worthy of your one precious life?