Trembling and Bewildered


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 31, 2024

I begin my Easter sermon with a joke some of you have heard before. It comes from the influential Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church. He used to tell it to his congregation every year on the holiday. He would say, “Easter remains an awkward holiday for Unitarians. The trumpets sound, we all sing, and Jesus is not resurrected–at least not as God’s only son. So what are we doing here? Why even bother?”

Why even bother? Easter’s not really a thing for most Unitarian Universalists. And yet, here we are–you in the pews and me in the pulpit–on this awkward holiday.

But it is not an awkward holiday for all of us. We are a pluralistic movement. We know that there are many paths to the divine. Some of us do not even need the divine to infuse our lives with depth and meaning.

As a way of honoring that diversity, this morning, we are lifting up the theology of Bishop Carlton Pearson. Is his name familiar to you? A friend of the congregation, he preached here a couple years back–his sermon “The Gospel of Inclusion” is one of our most watched videos–and was well known throughout our movement. Tragically, he died this past year at the age of seventy.

His message, he called it the gospel of inclusion, I might call it classical Christian universalism, remains. It holds up Easter as not only an important holiday but the central event in human history. Let me explain.

But before I do, let us recall the encouragement from our guest preacher last week. Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika tried to coax us to be a little bit less of God’s frozen chosen and share a little bit more enthusiasm during the service. He encouraged you, when you find yourself moved by the sermon, to offer up an “Amen” or a “Hallelujah” or a “That’s Right” to get the dialogue going between the pulpit and the pew and bring more of the spirit into the room. Can we try that now?

Alright! So, Bishop Pearson, Bishop Pearson started his religious life as a Pentecostal preacher. He was charismatic. Gifted, he brought song into his sermons. Over the course of a couple of decades he built up a large congregation, established a popular television show, and even became the counselor to Presidents.

He was particularly close to George W. Bush. Deeply embedded in conservative politics and firmly located within evangelical Christianity, his mentor was the famous televangelist Oral Roberts. Some thought that he was heir to Roberts’ religious empire–private university, evangelical network, the whole kit and caboodle.

Each Sunday, and several times during the week, he lifted up a conventional conservative theology which focused, as he put it, on “the business … of saving or getting people saved from the wrath of God which results in banishment to Hell.”

He proclaimed this message for twenty-five years. Then one evening, in the spring of 1996, he was watching the news. The genocide in Rwanda was being reported. There were pictures of people who “had been persecuted and practically starved to death,” like the ones we see from Palestine and should be seeing from Sudan, on the screen. The horrific images filled him with guilt and rage. And so, he prayed.

But his prayer was the not the sort of the regular penitentiary prayer, a prayer for divine intervention or one asking for people to receive salvation, that he typically prayed. Instead, it was an accusatory prayer, an angry prayer, a demanding prayer, a prayer from which he wanted answers.

“God,” he prayed, “I don’t know how you can sit on your throne there in Heaven and let those poor people drop dead to the ground hungry, heartbroken, and lost, and just randomly suck them into Hell … and be a ‘Sovereign God’, not to mention a ‘God of Love.’”

I know that some of you have had experiences like that. More than one of you has shared with me a story about why you stopped being a Christian. Such stories often take one of two forms. The first is similar to Bishop Pearson’s. As a teenager, or a young adult, or just one day because you had a jarring experience, you find yourself questioning the conventional Christian narrative that only some people get saved. Looking at a screen, reading a newspaper, thinking about the horrors in the world, you find yourself wondering if people who have never heard of Christianity, who have never been exposed to the Christian religion, go to Hell. Why should they be condemned to eternal suffering just because they are not Christian?

Asking that question, something in you shifted and you decided that you cannot believe in a God that is cruel. So, you quit that church.

The second form is harder. It is one that is important to talk about on this Easter, which coincides with International Transgender Day of Visibility. It is that you were born as you are, someone who does not fit into binary gender or heterosexual norms. And the community that raised you was one which demanded–through a misreading of the Christian New Testament, the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, or another scripture–that you conform to such norms or face divine wrath. Knowing that we are all born beautiful, each born a living member of the great family of All Souls, you left that religious community.

Whether the break was because of the first reason, or the second, or another reason all together, it has left more than a few of you with what we might call religious trauma. For some people, this trauma results in a mild distrust of religious institutions and professionals. For others, the symptoms–and I use that word intentionally since some psychologists are starting to recognize religious trauma as a malady similar to other forms of trauma–can be more severe: a sense of anxiety or panic when exposed to religious symbols, songs, or ideas; ruptures with your families of origin or longstanding friend groups.

Religious trauma, a lot people who join, or attend, a Unitarian Universalist congregation like this one come seeking healing. Maybe that is what has brought you here this morning. Perhaps you have come seeking a community where you can be spiritual without shame. It might be that you are with us looking for a religious space where we say, whoever you are, whoever you love, you are welcome here.

In that spirit, I invite you to turn to your neighbor and say, “Neighbor, whoever you are, whoever you love, you are welcome here.” Try it.

Whoever you are, whoever you love, you are welcome. Returning to Bishop Pearson, his story was like some of yours. He wanted to know how a loving God could “just randomly suck … [people] into Hell.” But, I suspect, his story had an important difference. When he offered up his prayer, as he recounted often, he “heard a voice respond within.” It said, “Is that what you think we’re doing, sucking them all into Hell?”

Startled, Bishop Pearson began to argue with God. He said, “That’s what I’ve been taught.” He reasserted his conservative theology, “They need to get saved so that they can go to Heaven. … Somebody needs to go over there and get them saved by preaching the Gospel to them.”

The voice was not satisfied. It challenged Bishop Pearson. He heard, “why don’t you … turn off your big screen … and catch the first plane over there and get them saved?”

This enraged the bishop. He shot back, “Don’t put that burden on me, Lord. … I can’t save this whole world!”

Then came the life changing response. “Precisely,” he heard. “That’s what we already did. But these people don’t know it and … most of you who claim to be my followers don’t believe it. … We’re not sucking those dear people into Hell. Can’t you see they’re already there? We’re bringing them into Heaven before they suffer even more in the Hell you have created for them and continue to create for yourselves … all over the planet. We redeemed and reconciled all of humanity at Calvary. That is what the Cross was and is all about.”

We redeemed and reconciled all of humanity at Calvary. That is what the Cross was and is all about. It is hard to find a more concise statement of classical Universalist theology. It can be summarized as the belief that God loves everyone without exception. You might recall Mark Morrison-Reed’s vivid description of this historical vision. He has described Universalism as “The Gospel of God’s Success” and offered the “image … of the last unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable … to resist the power and love of the Almighty” as a depiction of it.

In this telling the purpose of Easter is to widen love’s circle. Jesus’s death on the cross cleanses all of humanity from sin and reconciles everyone with God, guarantees each and all a place in Heaven. And the Easter story–crucifixion and resurrection–becomes the central event in human history. It is the episode that communicates the unlimited love of the divine to us.

Now, I will admit, not being a Universalist Christian, or really any kind of Christian, there is a lot about this theology that I find troubling. While it lifts up a God loves all of humanity without exception, it still finds something redemptive about torture and capital punishment. And, personally, I am just not onboard with that kind of theology.

But Bishop Pearson’s discovery of it was life changing. It left him, in the words of the earliest Easter scripture, “trembling and bewildered.” It caused him to engage in “a total re-examination of everything … [he] believed about God, the universe and my relationship to it.” It inspired him to begin to preach a new message, which he called the Gospel of Inclusion, and eventually led him to proclaim something I call the resurrection of the living. This is the understanding, in his words, that each person has within them “Christ Consciousness.” Or, as I understand it, that the purpose of religious community is to help us to wake up to the world as it is, to open ourselves to the glory, the beauty, and the wonder around us.

Such a revelation leads, as the founder of our tradition in Houston, Quillen Shinn preached, that the purpose of the religious community is “to make this world a Paradise, a pleasant, happy place for all to live in.”

This is an impossible task, as Bishop Pearson realized in his conversation with God. To be honest, the dynamic is a bit like what friend of the congregation Tony Pinn describes in his own theological work: Sisyphean. Sisyphus, you might recall, was the figure from Greek mythology endlessly condemned to roll a rock up a hill. Whenever he reached the top, the rock would roll back down again, and he would have to start all over again. There are no permanent victories, the work of justice is never ending–a reality we are faced with as so many gains of the last century are being rolled back.

But we can do what we can. So, maybe, again, in that spirit, in the spirit of bringing a little more inclusion and paradise onto Earth, you might turn to your neighbor and say again, “Neighbor, whoever you are, whoever you love, you are welcome here.”

Whoever you are, whoever you love, you are welcome here. Preaching this message soon led Bishop Pearson to find himself cast aside from the Christian community he had so long been part of. His church shrank. He was put on trial by a council of Pentecostal bishops for “heresy” and exiled from his previous religious fellowship. He concluded that what he had thought, these are his words, “was a close, genuine family of brothers and sisters in Christ was really a power-mad cabal.” He decided that the theology he had preached previously was, again his words, a source of “terrible abuse” that caused people to hate, rather than love, each other.

His revelation about the meaning of Easter meant that he was now a person recovering from religious trauma, a person in need of healing. Here, you might know, how his story ends. Leaving the Pentecostal fold, he found his way to liberal Christianity–embraced religious communities that proclaimed that everyone is welcome and love, no exceptions–and even Unitarian Universalism. His congregation in Tulsa, which had dwindled to a few hundred members after he began proclaiming the Gospel of Inclusion, merged with the largest Unitarian Universalist community in the city. He continued to proclaim that a congregation should be a place where people can “love God and love others” and have the “unprejudiced freedom to do so.”

For him, the Easter holiday which we mark today, was a reminder that Jesus was “the triumphant Savior who took out the devil and sin” for all people, not just the saved. For him, the Easter holiday became a holiday about recovering from trauma.

This was, after all, the original dynamic of the holiday. Jesus’s followers were traumatized by his death. They had expected that he would bring about the Kingdom of God. Instead, he died on the cross. And yet, his death brought about a transformation of their religious community. It left them, as the ancient text records, “trembling and bewildered,” about what would come next. And yet, somehow, some way, that radical rupture with history, filled them with the hope that they needed to go and begin to find healing from the trauma that they had experienced.

Maybe you are like that this morning. Perhaps, you came here seeking some sort of healing from religious experiences you have had in the past. If so, I say again, whoever you are, whoever you love, you are welcome here. And in that spirit, I close my sermon with a prayer.

Spirit of love,
moving through each,
inherent in all,
which some of us understand
as God
and others know simply
as the spark that connects
one human heart to another,
help us to set an intention for our congregation this morning,
may we be a place of healing,
a place of welcome,
a place of hope,
for all who need it,
may we widen love’s circle,
and invite into our community
all who are wandering looking for a religious home:
you are welcome here,
no matter who you are,
no matter who you love,
no matter what you believe,
you are welcome here.

This is the Universalist message of Easter. This is one reason to lift up the holiday. And, in that spirit, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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