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I Can See Clearly Now

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Noel Paul Stookey’s story also offers us an opportunity to reflect on the blind spots in our lives and where the impact of Jesus’ message, God’s love and the care of those around us can bring light into our world.

Today’s text – John 9: 1-41

Pastor Phil

A man who could not see. Another man who invited him to open his eyes. People amazed and divided by the transformation that had taken place. And a new way of seeing the world and living in it.

Those are some of the elements of that story of Jesus giving sight to the man born blind.

They are also some of the elements of the story of Noel Paul Stookey – someone probably best know as the Paul in the folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, that soared to fame in the 1960s.

Stookey was in Stoughton for a concert about a week ago. Those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear that I was there. The music of Peter, Paul and Mary has threaded its way through much of my life. And Stookey’s music and his story have played a particularly vital role for me.

I had chance to interview Noel Paul Stookey in 1987 when I was at The Capital Times before the trio was coming to Madison for a concert.

We talked about the upcoming show, of course, but we talked more about the way he was traversing three sometimes-disconnected worlds – the world of music, the world of politics and the world of Christianity.

We talked about the moment in 1968 when, to use the image from today’s Gospel, his eyes were opened and he could see – the moment that broke through the shadows and healed the blindness in him, as we just sang.

His story has power both because of his celebrity status and the drama of the moment. But I think his story also offers us an opportunity to reflect on the blind spots in our lives and where the impact of Jesus’ message, God’s love and the care of those around us can bring light into our world.

First, a bit of context. Stookey grew up in a suburb near Detroit, Michigan. His family was not religious. He described his father as a “somewhat reluctant ex-Mormon” and his mother as a “non-practicing Roman Catholic.” Once he became a part of the folk-singing trio in the early 1960s, they would sometimes sing songs with religious themes, but he said those songs were “not so much heartfelt as accommodated.”

By the mid-sixties, he was feeling like something was missing in his life, despite the fame and the high-life that came with being a musical star. He said he was uneasy with the contradictions between the pastoral themes of the folk songs he was singing and “living in a million-and-a-half dollar house and waking up at 11 a.m. after having champagne and strawberries the night before.” Even his name seemed to be a façade – he had grown up as Noel, now he was known as Paul.

One of the friends he talked with about his discontent was another famous singer of the era – Bob Dylan.

Later, Stookey would tell a reporter from United Press International, “’I went to him in my dope madness in the mid-’60s and he said ‘have you read the Bible.’ I said ‘no.’ He said ‘you should do that.’ ”

Dylan also told Stookey to go back to his home state of Michigan and walk around a bit to see what’s real in life.

‘”When I went back,” Stookey said, “I found that the only things that had stood the test of time were the experiences that were of God — relationships, love.”

So Stookey’s quest was underway, but it was not until a concert in Abiline, Texas in 1968 that light broke through the shadows in his life.

A young man named Steve had slipped backstage at intermission and asked Stookey if he could talk with him. Lots of people were approaching members of the trio at the point to talk about dealing with the military draft. So Stookey thought, “Sure, I’ll help you out kid.” He promised to talk with him later.

But the kid had something else in mind.

When they met backstage after the show, Stookey asked, “What is it you’d like to talk to me about?”

Steve answered, “I want to talk with you about God.”

Stookey said he trusted his instincts, as odd as this situation seemed. As he put it, “You know that funny feeling you get when you run into an expert. I knew the guy was speaking from experience.”

Stookey kept signing autographs backstage and Steve kept telling his story about how his own encounter with Jesus had changed his life. Stookey said, “I kept drawing connections between what I was looking for in my life and what had happened in his life.”

They talked far into the night. Eventually Steve asked Stookey to join him in prayer. They knelt in prayer, eyes closed.

Stookey described what happened next: “When the opportunity came to talk directly to God in a prayerful position, I just started to cry. I realize at that moment, as I said I was sorry, I was confessing not only a distance from God, but confessing all the excesses of my life as well. The following morning, I was a new person.”

But he also wondered if that sense of newness, that sense of seeing anew, would continue in his life. It did.

(You can read Noel Paul Stookey’s extended account of that encounter here.)

On this day when we are taking note of the connections of faith and service in people’s lives, it is worth noting how Noel Paul Stookey’s faith helped shape his life in the decades after that night in Abilene.

Peter, Paul and Mary had always been on the front lines of musical activism, singing at the March on Washington in 1963 and at a huge anti-war march in DC in 1969, getting arrested in protests outside the South African Embassy and traveling through war-torn countries.

But Stookey added another dimension, letting themes of love – as he came to understand it through his faith – infuse his activism and his music.

You can hear it in the powerful song he wrote in the 1980s about the brutality in El Salvador after reading about it in Sojourners magazine and in the quirky little song he wrote in 2014 called “Nuke Are Nuts” after hearing Archbishop Desmond Tutu give voice to that phrase.

You can hear it in his song from the late nineties called “Love Rules” – “Love gentle, love is kind, Love forgives but it is not blind, Love is what we are born to find” – and in his recent ballad about immigration – “Familia Del Corazon” – “Though the darkness closes ‘round us, Storm clouds drive us from our home, the light of Love still surrounds, us, Las Familias del Corazon” – families of the heart.

As his own faith deepened and became more public, conflicts came with it. The audience for Peter Paul and Mary began to fractionalize. Those three disconnected worlds he was in began to clash.

Pop music as a whole in the sixties was not known for being either political or religious. Born-again Christians were hardly known for their political liberalism. And political activists on the left were suspicious of both religion and pop culture.

Stookey found himself in a somewhat isolated place. As he told me back in the 1980s, “I am part of a small group of believers who find themselves much more liberal than the mainstream evangelicals, yet represent an increasing number of Christians who see a need to connect the integrity of their faith with the integrity of their lives.”

His wife, Betty, was on this journey with him. They had known each other in high school, but did not get together until several years later when their paths crossed in New York City where she was finishing a degree at Columbia University in philosophy and comparative literature.

As he delved further into Christianity, she dove in as well. After their children were grown, she attended the Harvard Divinity School and ultimately was ordained in 1997 as a United Church of Christ minister and worked as a college chaplain.

Of late, they have been working together on a project called “One Light, Many Candles,” a multi-faith celebration of the diversity and integrity of individual faith in a global spiritual community. We showed the video of that project here on Ash Wednesday.

There’s that theme of light again.

In the Gospel story, light broke into the blind man’s darkness and allowed him to see not only the world in front of him, but God’s love for him.

Late at night in a room in Abiline, Texas, light broke into Noel Paul Stookey’s life and transformed the way he would see the world and see God.

Where does light break into our lives?
What do we see?
How does God’s light and God’s love transform us?

Those are questions we can carry with us this day as we consider the way our faith leads us to serve the world.

But before we stop, one more song from Noel Paul Stookey.

We all know the wonderful song, “America the Beautiful.” Mostly, we all know the first verse. There are actually four verses that Katherine Lee Bates wrote as a poem in 1893 – published, by the way, in a magazine called The Congregationalist, which has some ties to one of the early parts of what would become the UCC. It was published in the form we know it now with music by Samuel Ward in 1910.

In 2011, Noel decided to create a couple of new verses. They are on the insert you have, so let’s sing this newest version through together.

America the Beautiful

New lyric and arrangement by Noel Paul Stookey
Original music by Samuel Ward / original lyric by Katharine Lee Bates
©2011 Neworld Multimedia Publishing

O beautiful for spacious skies, / For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties / Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea!

Oh, nation of the immigrant / The slave and native son
Whose loyal families labor still / That we may live as one
America! America! / Renew thy founder’s call
Let liberty and justice be / The right of one and all

Oh bountiful of forest green / Of lake and fertile lands
Where seeds of hope are tended by / Thy sons and daughters hands
America, America / The earth still calls to thee
Where human life and nature strive / To live in harmony

O beautiful for spacious skies, / For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties / Above the fruited plain!
America! America! / God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood / From sea to shining sea!