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1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139

In 2018, the streaming service Netflix released a movie about a preacher his community had ostracized for the radical message of inclusiveness he began to preach. Carlton Pearson, the ministry featured in the film, claimed he heard God’s voice, and that voice gave him new insight into Scripture that was so radical for those listening that they abandoned him.

Pearson was ordained in the Church of God in Christ, an evangelical/Pentecostal denomination. He was educated at Oral Roberts University and mentored by Roberts himself. After graduating from university, Pearson would become an associate evangelist in the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association.

1981, Pearson did what many thought was impossible: he started a church in Oklahoma where black and white folx worshipped together. This was revolutionary. He became so popular that his weekly worship services were broadcast on television. In the pre-pandemic world, a preacher being on TV was rare; now, everyone is a TV evangelist. In 1996, Pearson was consecrated as a bishop and continued to rise.

Pearson’s Church has a well-defined doctrine that states non-Christians are dammed to hell for all eternity. Unless you know a particular version of Jesus, are saved by that Jesus, and are washed in the blood of that Jesus, you are going to hell. So, it’s not only non-Christians but non-specific types of Christians going to hell.

Pearson made an excellent living preaching the Gospel of Exclusion; his Church rose to over 1,000 in attendance each Sunday. But soon, that was all going to change.

I don’t often preach and teach from the Hebrew Scriptures, but I make an exception on rare occasions like today. The lectionary gives us the call story of the young Samuel. Samuel is asleep and hears a voice he believes belongs to his master, Eli. Three times, Samuel rises from his slumber and rushes to see what Eli wants, only to be told Eli had not called him.

The third time Samuel comes in and wakes Eli, Eli figures out what is happening. God is calling Samuel, and Samuel needs to listen and discern what God is asking him to do. The people are in disarray and need someone to lead them and straighten out what has gone wrong. They have stopped listening to God and have been relying on themselves. They have been getting lousy intelligence from preachers who seem well-meaning but have been convicted 34 times for doing it incorrectly. This is not the end of these preachers; there are more than 80 more charges against them, but they continue their rise to power because the people refuse to see the truth. Hmmmm, this story sounds all too familiar.

I have mentioned this before: I am a theologian in the reformed tradition. That means that I believe that the Church needed to be reformed and continues to need to be reformed, but we also have been given a brain and the ability to discern. Freedom of thought was a significant point of the reformation, allowing the people to read, understand, and discern Scripture for themselves, with guidance from those trained for that purpose. No longer were we simply to follow for fear of going to hell.

However, the prophets and the mystics were caught up in the cleaning and reform. The Church threw out a very rich portion of her past and has been unable to recapture it. Today, when one speaks of hearing God’s voice, one is treated with skepticism, especially if it is a radical departure from the norm.

Samuel was not sure what he heard. Carlton Pearson was not sure what he heard. But they both knew they heard something and needed to discern where that voice was coming from. Just a bit of caution: God does not call one to maintain the status quo; the opposite is often true. God is calling us to something new, different, and a little scary.

One night, Pearson was watching a television news story about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. He felt a sense of compassion for the people caught up in what was going on to such an extent that he felt a tug or a pull on his heart in a different theological direction. Pearson began to doubt the very idea of hell as a construct of God but rather a construct of humanity. He discerned that hell was not some supernatural creation but rather a creation of humanity.

Pearson’s theology, like that of most Evangelicals, is rooted in the theology of John Calvin, who says humanity is so depraved that it needed a scapegoat to satisfy God, through the blood sacrifice of his only Son, to change its ways. In other words, humanity was born in sin and has a propensity towards sin. Put this in contrast to Wesley, who believed that humankind was basically good but had lost its way, and Jesus came to show us how to get back on track through love and God’s grace.

Changing one’s long-held beliefs about anything, whether theological or political, is difficult. We need solid ground to stand on, and when that solid ground begins to shift, it shakes us to our very core.

But we do not discern on our own; Samuel needed Eli, and Pearson needed some close associates to help him.  Samuel found an ally in Eli, but Pearson had difficulty finding someone who would listen to him. The call must be tested and tried to make sure it is God and not us.

In my almost 20 years in ministry, I have encountered several people who feel they have been called to ordained ministry. God called me, and I must listen to that call. My usual response is that God calls, but the Church tests and confirms that call. We do not and should not ordain someone just because they feel God has called them. This testing, this discernment, does take and should take years because we do not want to make the wrong decision. Does that still happen, yes, it does, but we try to see that it does not.

Pearson developed the Gospel of Inclusion and stated that Jesus came to save the whole world, not just the elect. That through God’s love, mercy, and grace, all will be redeemed, and it is our job to bring God’s kingdom here to earth and not wait for God’s kingdom on some fluffy cloud somewhere. Pearson believed that Jesus came to all and for all, not just those who believed in him. This radical departure was too much for some and led Pearson to be branded a heretic by his Church and cast into the outer darkness. I know the feeling.

In a letter from Paris in 1787 to Mr. Willilam Smith, private secretary to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” What Jefferson was saying, I believe, is that we must never become complacent; we must always be willing to look at how things can be changed for the better. Of course, Jefferson was writing about the new Constitution but the same is true in the Church.

There is an idea that the Church undergoes what has been called a 500-year rummage sale. This is the process whereby the Church looks in all the nooks and crannies to find things to give the heave-ho or to change. But change should not happen simply for change sake but should only come after periods of discernment and testing to see if the proposed change is God’s will or not. I am not talking about what color to paint the Church’s front doors, but rather theological understanding.

The point of all of this is simple: God is continuously speaking to and through the Church. The Church needs to reclaim its prophetic voice and be that voice crying in the wilderness, not to condemn but to show just how much God loves the world. The Church needs to be the voice that helps people and does not cause harm. Author and Theologian Sarah Bessy said, “People should never be the collateral damage of your theology.”

God’s voice needs to be heard, especially in our crazy, mixed-up world that we are living in now. We are bombarded with conflicting messages every day, and we need to hone our skills of discernment. Is what we hear helping or hurting? Does what we hear promote love or hate? Is what we hear from God or ourselves.

God is still speaking to us, and God is still speaking to the Church. The question is, are we listening?


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