Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
When I first began my ministry, I served a very small UCC church in a very small dairy farming community in western Wisconsin. Ronald Reagan was president. The moral majority was just coming into our common awareness and the religious right was on the rise – only we didn’t really know yet what that would come to mean. Russia appeared to be the biggest threat to America. The U.S. began funding and training Islamic militants to successfully fight our Russian enemies in Afghanistan. These militants, known as the mujahideen, later become the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. One of the most prominent members of the mujahideen was a wealthy son of a Saudi Arabian businessman named Osama Bin Laden. But we didn’t know all that would mean in 1981.
A lot of things were changing in the American Christian Church. For the first time, our church property and liability insurance carrier offered pastoral misconduct coverage and we all thought that was just ridiculous. Would ministers get sued for delivering bad sermons? In general, mainline Protestant churches were still doing fairly well, culturally speaking. Membership was stable. Schools never scheduled sports events on Sunday mornings and early release on Wednesdays was still generally understood as serving the purpose of mid-week religious education. When strangers learned I was an ordained minister, I was not immediately dismissed as hopelessly square or worse, delusional, or worse, dangerous. Ordained feminist wasn’t an oxymoron. And neither was liberal Christian. The wonderful organization Clergy and Laity Concerned was still strong and active. Originally formed to oppose the Viet Nam war, CALC had turned its attention to opposing U.S. aid to El Salvador, boycotting Nestle for its exploitative infant formula distribution, nuclear disarmament, and divestiture in companies that supported South African apartheid. But soon, Clergy and Laity Concerned, founded by some of the giants of religious activism, Father Philip Berrigan, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. among them, were painted with the same red paintbrush that tainted the National and World Councils of Churches, all identified as Communist supporting enemies of U.S. imperialism, capitalism, and international moral superiority. Christianity was dividing itself into two camps. We were either pro-America, pro-prosperity, wealth, and patriotism, uncritical practitioners of a kind of sentimental, teary-eyed oh-how-I-love-Jesus nondenominational Christianity, or we weren’t.
Fast forward thirty years. Conservative Christian evangelicalism, fundamentalism, the religious right, however we identify that ascendant movement within Christianity, has come to define what it means to be Christian to our uncritical American culture. Those of us who aren’t that, are having a difficult time saying just what it is we are. Or perhaps we’re not having such a hard time defining ourselves, as we are convincing anyone outside the Christian Church that it matters, the difference between us and them. And there are more and more and more people outside the Church. Christianity is deeply divided along lines we didn’t imagine fifty years ago, when the United Church of Christ actually became a denomination.
Occasionally I have been in conversations with UCC clergy about the declining membership in our churches. We wonder at the attraction of Christian fundamentalism, afraid that we aren’t doing the things we could be doing that seem to be appealing to so many, afraid we’re losing members to fundamentalist congregations who offer kinds of ministries that just don’t rest easily on our shoulders. Maybe we should put up a big screen with words to Christian songs, so people don’t have to look at their hymnals to sing the words we keep changing. Maybe we need shorter sermons that don’t spend so much time on how the prophets and Jesus criticized their culture and how that critique applies to our culture today. Maybe we need to offer more small group activities.
I’ll tell you something. I don’t think we need to be concerned with losing people to fundamentalist Christian churches. I really don’t. We lost a few members from our church when I said once in a sermon that I don’t believe Jesus was God, and that I was fairly certain that Jesus didn’t believe he was God either. We lost a few people when we decided to be Open and Affirming, when we told the Boy Scouts they couldn’t discriminate against gay boys and men and still meet in our Sanborn Hall, and then when I performed a couple of gay weddings in our sanctuary. We lost a few people when we opposed the Iraq war as justified retaliation for 9/11. I’m not all that bothered by those losses. I am more bothered by the people who don’t connect with any Christian church because they think that what they will hear or what we will require them to believe is that Jesus was God, and that his mother was a virgin, and that he walked on water and turned water into wine, and brought a dead little girl back to life, and glowed with a miraculous light and floated into the sky. I worry about the people who stay away from the Christian Church because they never hear about Jesus who protected exploited children, spoke lovingly and respectfully to women, and lepers, and filthy beggars, and opposed violence. I worry about all those people who think followers of Jesus are supposed to hate gay people, and think the best way to deal with enemies is to kill them, and believe that wealth comes to those who are good Christians and has nothing to do with the profoundly corrupt economic policies that grew out of the greed culture of the 80’s. I worry about people who define themselves as spiritual but not religious because religious means church and church means judgmental, and separatist, and selfish, and self-serving, and holier than a million thous.
So, there it is, the context for the Progressive Christian movement. It is an attempt to articulate what some of us Christians believe. Progressive Christianity is trying to avoid sentences that begin “we don’t believe…” to differentiate ourselves from Christian fundamentalism. Enough of that. It’s not getting us anywhere anyway. Rather, Christian Progressives are trying to define what we DO believe so that we might speak in a common voice to the issues that are so painful and degrading to so many in our culture and in our world. Here’s a definition I found on the website of The Christian Left. I’ve tweaked it some but it is essentially how Christian Progressives describe ourselves.
Progressive Christianity is Christianity characterized by the willingness to question tradition, and affirm human diversity as a gift from God. We hold a strong emphasis on social justice, care for the poor and the oppressed, and environmental stewardship of the earth. Progressive Christians have a deep belief in the centrality of the instruction to “love one another” within the teaching of Jesus Christ. This leads inevitably to a focus on compassion, promoting justice and mercy, tolerance, and working towards solving societal problems of poverty, discrimination, and environmental degradation. Progressive Christians, motivated by our particular devotion to the teaching of Jesus Christ, respect and honor other religions as equally worthy pathways to God.
You know, for some of us, most of us in the United Church of Christ anyway, this definition of Progressive Christianity marks no significant change in our thinking. If I had read this definition thirty years ago, when I was first becoming aware of the growing schism within American Christianity, I would have said, yes, that pretty much covers it. But I didn’t know then how difficult it would be to get this message out, to draw people in to our communities of love and faith and justice and compassion.
This is too large a topic for one sermon, and we still have a congregational meeting to attend, so let me close with just a few observations and a promise that I will return to the topic again in coming months.
First, this observation about the daily operational life of this church, The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College. Several months ago, in an Elders meeting where we were trying to determine what kind of a pledge campaign we would have so as to build a budget that would do all we want to do, I said something along the lines of “I just want to do it and get on with it. How individuals allocate their money is an important issue that goes to the heart of whether people are fundamentally generous or protective of their financial resources. But pledging and creating a church budget is only important inasmuch as it undergirds the ministry we want to be doing here. We need a strong financial foundation. So let’s just get that done, and then move on to other things that matter to us.” Warren and I tithe to our church. You know that – we’ve told you that before. We believe in tithing, but more importantly, we don’t want to spend an inordinate amount of time calculating what we should be giving to the church, whether the church is handling our money the way it should be, whether we think too much is going here and not enough there. I don’t think that’s how Jesus wanted his disciples to think about money. Rather, Jesus taught that greed was destructive, that punitive and unjust taxation policies exploit the poor, that caring for the needs of others was as important, even a little more important than caring for our own needs. I always have that in mind when I think about our church finances.
Second, liberal, well-educated Christians are very, very good at deconstructing myth. I talked about that last Sunday. We are not nearly as good at constructing Christ-motivated action. We need to work on that. Our Board of Deacons for Religious Education hopes we will all read Robin Meyers’ Saving Jesus from the Church, in part because we want to have a common jumping off point for exploring our ministry together. We’ve ordered a dozen copies of the book. They’re for sale in the Batchelder Lounge for $10 each. If we sell out, we’ll happily order more. Be warned. Reading the book is not the last step in this exploration of Progressive Christianity. It’s the first step.
Third, there is a lot going wrong in New Hampshire, our home state. Legislation already passed and legislation in the pipeline will have a devastating impact on thousands and thousands of our fellow New Hampshire citizens. This has gone way beyond the philosophical differences between Republican and Democrat. This is about what it means to care for one another. We have to get involved in the debate and we have to resist the harsh repercussions such damaging legislation will cause. I know that makes us a little nervous, but think of it in this way – what would Jesus say about this legislation?
Finally, we need to care what happens to our enemies, whether those enemies are prisoners in Guantanamo, combatants in Syria, tea partiers in Arizona, or Christian fundamentalists with whom we disagree on everything. We need to care about them, and pray for them, and actively love them. That is what Jesus meant when he said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It’s pretty much that simple.
Well, that’s enough for today. May God who loves us all without reason or delineation, stir in our hearts the best of our faith. Amen.
Printed on the back of the Sunday worship bulletin was another definition of Progressive Christianity, from ProgressiveChristianity.org.
By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean that we are Christians who:
1) Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;
2) Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey;
3) Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to:
a. Conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
b. Believers and agnostics,
c. Women and men,
d. Those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
e. Those of all classes and abilities;
4) Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe;
5) Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes;
6) Strive for peace and justice among all people;
7) Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth; and
8) Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.