The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth. In a world that has with some conscientiousness turned against this kind of witness and its vocabulary, the effect of this witness will in a special way depend upon the quality of its costingness in concrete action and upon its relevance to the history that is in the making. To say this is only to say that the truly reliable God is the Lord of history and also that our sins will find us out. Yet, this Lord of history has given us a world in which the possibility of new beginnings is ever present along with the judgment that is always upon us. To this Lord of history Jesus responded with his message and demonstration of hope in concert with sacrifice.
Liberal Christians aren’t liberal in spite of the Bible, but because of it. They don’t pursue justice for LGBT people because they haven’t read Scripture, but precisely because they have. And in the arc of the narrative of God’s interaction with humanity, liberal Christians find a radical expansiveness, an urgent desire to broaden the embrace of God’s hospitality to include those whom the religious big shots are always kicking to the sidelines.
Johnson lays out the historical context of same-sex relationships from what we know of the practices in Rome and in Greece at the time of Paul, when such relationships were hardly consensual, to the scholarly work of the Middle Ages, where there is much evidence that profoundly close same-sex relationships (which may or may not have been sexual) went unquestioned by the church. What is clear in this history is that there was never a single way of approaching or dealing with same-sex relationships across time or place or faith.
My favorite part of our church’s mission statement is the part at the end where we declare that we are “open to all and reaching out to the world in love.” I like to remind you of those words at the beginning of worship every Sunday because they speak volumes about who we are and what we do in this community. The world at large desperately needs to hear this message about a community that is truly “open to all”. So many other groups and organizations, even churches, divide themselves from one another along ideological lines. Here in this church, it is my privilege to be a pastor to so many people from so many different political and religious backgrounds. I can testify from experience that the Spirit who binds us together is deeper and broader than any one set of ideas or opinions. This is a church that has been built from the heart up, not from the mind down.
Almost everywhere else you can go in the world, the exact opposite is true. Most people want to know if you agree with them before they enter into a relationship with you. But we are different. We’ll move over and make room for you in the pew no matter who you are, where you’ve been, or what you think. We’ll just keep on telling you that we love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it!
Yup, we’re “open to all and reaching out to the world in love”. I want you to know this morning how rare and unique that is, especially for a church. I personally believe that this part of our identity is the key to our future as a church. This commitment to openness is what makes us different from so many other Christians, who make people pass some kind of dogma test before they’ll accept them.
Recently, I was engaged in an intense discussion with one of these “other Christians”. This person said to me, “You think it’s okay, in God’s eyes, for people to practice other religions. So then, why would anyone want to be Christian if it’s not the one and only true religion?” I thought that was a great question. Why would anyone choose to be Christian if they could also choose to be Buddhist, Jewish, or Muslim?
I was reminded of this conversation when I read this week’s gospel passage from the lectionary. It’s the story of a woman named Mary of Bethany, who knelt at Jesus’ feet, anointing them with expensive perfume and wiping them with her hair. This was an incredible act of affection and devotion toward Jesus. Mary obviously loved and cared about him very much.
That got me thinking: if I was in Mary’s place, what is it about Jesus that would make me fall down on my knees in love and devotion? What is it about Jesus that makes me want to commit my life to him? Why am I a Christian?
I think this is a question that each and every one of us should ask. Whether you’ve just started coming to church or you’ve been here your whole life, you’ve decided to be here for a reason. We owe it to ourselves and the world to know what that reason is. I can’t answer that question for you. But what I can do is tell you why I’ve decided to be a Christian. I hope that my answer to this question might help you answer it for yourself.
So here’s what Christian faith means to me. This is what has driven me, like Mary of Bethany, to kneel down before the feet of Jesus and offer him all that I have and all that I am:
For me, being a Christian is all about love. Love is what I have experienced in and through the person Jesus of Nazareth. When religious scholars quizzed Jesus about the most important part of the Bible, he told them it all comes down to love: “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”.
Jesus embodied love in the way he lived his life. He broke bread with tax collectors, Jews who sold their own people out to the Romans in order to make a quick, dishonest buck. He pardoned the sin of a woman caught in adultery when the rest of her village was ready to stone her to death. He nurtured relationships with Samaritans, the ethnic and religious rivals of the Jews, and saw the best in them. He praised the faith of a pagan Roman soldier. He reached out and touched a leper, who had been shunned and exiled from society because of his disease. Finally, he spoke words of forgiveness to his executioners as they waited for him to die. This is love.
Love, he said, is the first duty of any religious person.
When he wasn’t around, Jesus called upon his followers to love each other in his place. Any good deed rendered unto the most despised and forgotten members of society, Jesus said in Matthew 25, he would count as service rendered unto him. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.”
The love that shone through Jesus came to have a profound impact on his followers. The apostle Paul declared that, if it wasn’t for love, all his words, knowledge, and faith would be meaningless. John the Beloved went so far as to let Jesus’ example of love redefine his idea of God: “God is love,” he said, “and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
What I learned through Jesus is that God is not some angry judge, sitting high up on a cloud, hurling down lightning bolts at people he doesn’t like. No, God is that dynamic energy of love that flows out from within us. God works through persuasion, not coercion. This divine love takes on an infinite variety of forms, depending on the person and the situation. As we open ourselves up to this love more and more, we are continually filled with God’s Spirit, and we begin to resemble Jesus. Love, then, is the measure of our faith, not religious dogma.
Through Jesus, I learn how to love and I learn that I am loved. Jesus didn’t just teach people about love, he didn’t just point to love. No, Jesus embodied love in his very being and person. Love shone through his every word and deed. That’s what I mean when I praise Jesus as the Son of God and the Incarnation of God: Jesus is the embodiment of divine love who invites me to do and be the same, in whatever imperfect and limited way that I am able.
This is what takes my breath away when it comes to Jesus. This is why I want to fall down at his feet and offer everything I have and all that I am, so that I might be part of that love too. This is the kind of God that I can believe in.
For me it is no contradiction to believe that the dynamic God of love I discovered in Jesus can be active in the lives of people from every time, place, culture, and religion. I hear the voice of this God whispering to me in the pages of the Bible and singing to me in the clouds at sunset. Jesus has opened my eyes, ears, mind, and heart to experience the presence of God in all things. For this, I am amazed and give thanks. What else can I do but collapse to my knees before Jesus and worship?
That is why I am a Christian. It has nothing to do with creeds, dogmas, or being the one and only true religion. It has everything to do with love. I hope and pray that the people around me will experience through me, in some degree, the love I have received through Jesus (whether they recognize it by that name or not).
How about you? Why are you here in church today? If you call yourself a Christian, why do you choose that label for yourself? I want to encourage each and every one of you to answer that question for yourself today. Something has brought you here. You are not sitting in this church by accident. It is therefore incumbent upon you to ask yourself: Why?
In your imagination, put yourself in Mary of Bethany’s place: kneeling at the feet of Jesus, offering the very best of what you have and who you are. What has brought you here? Even as you acknowledge and respect the faith of others who are different, something about this faith and this person, Jesus, has captured your attention. What is it?
Answer that question for yourself and don’t be afraid or ashamed to share your answer with the world. There are people out there who need to hear what you have to say. Go out there today and tell them.
“Preach the gospel always… use words when necessary.”
May your words and your deeds say to the people of this world: “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Here is an article from UU World magazine about a new friend of mine.
Ron is the director of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship. His ministry in Turley, Oklahoma bears some resemblance to our community vision at St. James Mission in Utica. I’m getting to know Ron via Facebook and had one phone conversation with him. A lovely guy committed to a unique ministry. This article is a couple of years old, but that doesn’t diminish its fabulous-ness in the least.
From the article:
Robinson, who identifies himself as a Unitarian Universalist Christian, and who is executive director of the UU Christian Fellowship, a denominational organization of UU Christians, said that in Turley he presents “classic Universalist Christianity.” He added, “It’s definitely a liberation theology—the three ‘R’s: relocating to where people are struggling, redistribution of goods and justice, and reconciliation. We do the first two pretty well and we need to be a lot better at the third.”
He said the Unitarian part of Unitarian Universalism “doesn’t fit as well culturally with what we’re trying to do because people here identify it more with wealth and education. Universalism gives us our best connection.” He added that when people in Turley press him whether he is Christian, he says, “‘Yes, but you don’t have to be a Christian to be in our church.’ Then if people have more questions, I talk about following Jesus and ‘deeds, not creeds.’ People get that. If they ask, ‘Do you believe in heaven and hell?’ I respond, ‘I trust God’s love is for all time. The details we don’t know. You’re free to believe in heaven and stay and work with us.’”
Could a church become missional in a place like Turley without a Christian persona? Robinson believes it could. “A lot of the missional churches are not claiming Christianity today because of the ways it has been identified as bigoted, boring, critical, or irrelevant, and so many churches are now casting their faith in terms like ‘following Jesus’ rather than connecting to an institutional church. I think that question about whether you’re Christian, particularly for the younger generation, is becoming less important. Having said that, I do think that what you do have to have is a sense of the transcendent—a belief in something beyond yourself even if you only name it the human spirit.”
The liberal church brings a needed perspective to missional work, he noted, by its affirmation of diverse religions, sexual orientations, genders, and ethnicities. “That means we can channel our energies not into opposing these issues, but into the creation of relationships and communities of all kinds that reflect core progressive values.”
Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954) was a professor at Wellesly College, a member of the Socialist party, and a prominent activist in the Episcopal Church. She was involved in the Social Gospel movement, the campaign for labor rights, the equality of women, and (eventually) pacifism. She helped to organize the Women’s Trade Union League, the Episcopal Church Socialist League, and joined the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. Vida and her partner, Florence Converse, lived together for 35 years, from 1919 until Vida’s death in 1954. She is celebrated in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints: her feast day is on October 10.
Earlier today, as I was reading Diana Butler Bass’s book A People’s History of Christianity, I came across an amazing prediction of Scudder’s that Butler Bass took from Scudder’s 1912 book Socialism and Character. In this passage, Scudder prophesies the advent of mainline church decline, which eventually started to happen in the latter half of the 20th century. I was amazed at how closely Scudder’s views resemble my own, except that she was writing a full century before I started thinking about it. Listen to what Scudder has to say:
One certitude is forced on us : it is unlikely that Christianity will retain so nominally exclusive a sway as it has hitherto done in western Europe. In all probability, the day of its conventional social control is passing and will soon be forgotten. The time will come when the Christian faith will have to fight for right of way among crowding antagonists as vigorously as in the times of Athanasius and Augustine.
And in thoughts like these all genuine Christians must rejoice. Without the call to high adventure, the faith has never flourished.
Start your Monday by singing along with Marcy Matasick. I came across this little ditty through the Christian Left group on Facebook. It’s set to the old Sunday School hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. And it’s not a bad bit of gentle fingerpicking, I might add. Enjoy!
Here is a link to an excellent annotated bibliography of several popular-level primers on Liberal (a.k.a. ‘Progressive’) Christianity. For those who wonder what we’re all about, I’d say this is a good place to start. If your looking for one book to begin with, I’d recommend the one at the very top: Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. It’s concise and well-written for folks on a non-academic level.
It’s an article on the website Spirituality & Practice, which I found by hanging around at Abundance Trek, which is just one of the blogs kept up by my friend, John Wilde. There are many people in this world who strive to be unique individuals who defy all conventional categories; John is one of the very few souls who actually accomplishes it. How like Jesus…
Today marks the end of a series of blog posts called Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians.
I’ve been looking at some of the things that evangelicals do really well and exploring some of the ways in which liberal Christians might benefit by taking seriously the gifts of our evangelical cousins. Life has been pretty rough as of late in the mainline Protestant churches. Battle lines have been drawn between evangelicals and liberals and the armies are loading and aiming. In some sections, shots have already been fired from both sides. I’m beginning to feel a bit like Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita: parking my chariot between the two armies and imagining that there must be a better way than war. Perhaps that’s not the best analogy to use since, in the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna ultimately advises Arjuna to fight and kill. Well, with all due respect to Krishna, maybe I’ll get better advice if I imagine Jesus with me in the chariot.
My colleagues tell me that they expect this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to be a bloodbath. I’m hoping that’s not necessarily the case. With blog posts like these, I’m hoping that we might be able to foster the growth of a more generous spirit within liberals and evangelicals alike. Perhaps, as it was for Arjuna, the end result will be the same, but maybe we can change the spirit of the split, so that the seeds of future reconciliation might be sown today.
Enough of that for now. This series isn’t about denominational schism. It’s about those qualities of evangelicals that liberal Christians can and ought to appreciate and imitate. Let’s get to it, shall we?
In the first installment, God Has No Grandchildren, we looked at the ways in which evangelicals do such a great job of taking personal ownership of their spirituality (a.k.a. their relationship with God). In the second post, Romancing The Book, we looked at the evangelical passion for the Bible. In this final chapter, I want to talk about the evangelical commitment to mission and what liberal Christians can learn from it.
In many ways, mission is at the very heart of what it means to be evangelical. The name evangelical comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means, “Good news.” Evangelicals are all about announcing good news to the world.
They tend to mobilize quickly and effectively using grassroots techniques. Evangelicals were the ones, primarily through the Baptists and Methodists, who most effectively brought Christianity to the American frontier during the periods of colonialism and westward expansion. During the 19th and 20th centuries, they spearheaded international missionary efforts to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In fact, evangelicals did such a good job at this that the churches they started a century ago are now sending missionaries back to North America and Europe to “re-evangelize” our increasingly secular societies.
Take my own denominational tradition (Presbyterianism) as an example. We have our historical roots in Scotland but, numerically speaking, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa has about twice the membership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and more than eight times the membership of the Church of Scotland. The world’s largest Presbyterian congregation (Myungsung Presbyterian Church) is located in Seoul, South Korea. Say what you will about evangelicals, they know how to get things done!
Liberal Christians, on the other hand, have a tendency to be more self-critical, inward-focused, and reliant upon institutional infrastructure. The one thing that we constantly seem to forget is that the church is ever only one generation away from extinction. A church is never so well-established in a community that it can excuse itself from putting faith into action outside its own walls.
When liberal Christians talk about “doing mission,” they usually mean supporting various nonprofit organizations that do good work in a community. If you were to look at the various projects supported by the mission committee at my congregation, only one is operated in-house. Another was started by a former-pastor, but is now run by folks from other churches. Most of the time, they send money to other agencies. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing. These agencies desperately need the support. Last winter, a low-income daycare provider in our county would have shut down or reduced services if it had not been for the last-minute financial support of congregations like ours. However, I worry about us when we limit our sense of “mission” to just giving money to nonprofit service agencies. I would like to see us also donating our time and talents to these groups.
Let our churches develop a reputation for the kind of hands-on care that made Jesus and the early Christians (in)famous. The Roman emperor Julian complained to the pagan high priest of Galatia that these “impious” Christians were winning converts because of the way they cared for the poor. This was particularly true during times of plague, when Christians would risk their lives by staying in the infected cities to treat the ill and bury the dead, regardless of religious affiliation.
St. Lawrence the Deacon, when ordered to turn over “the treasures of the church” to government officials, emptied the church coffers into the street and then gathered the poor and destitute together in front of the governor’s office saying, “Behold, the treasures of the church!”
Doesn’t this provide a stellar model for socially engaged, grassroots ministry among liberal Christians? We come to the mission field with a sense of self-awareness, cultural sensitivity, and respect for pluralism. At our very best moments, our acts of service and justice preach silent sermons to the lost souls of this world who are looking for a place to belong. In times more recent than those of Julian and Lawrence, pastors such as Walter Rauschenbusch (early 20th century Baptist) have found their social consciousness awakening as they serve churches in communities like Hell’s Kitchen in New York. The Social Gospel movement, of which Rauschenbusch was an early leader, is responsible for many blessings that we now take for granted: child labor laws, workplace safety regulations, weekends, paid vacation, retirement and healthcare benefits, and minimum wage, just to name a few. Later in the same century, Martin Luther King led his prophetic grassroots campaign against racism, poverty, and militarism. Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers led activist campaigns for labor rights, racial equality, and nuclear disarmament. The Catholic Worker movement, which they founded and supported, now has houses of hospitality in almost every major city in the United States. When liberal Christians get engaged in mission, we do it well.
Even though we don’t tend to go out with gospel tracts and religious sales pitches for “winning souls,” I consider these efforts of liberal Christians to constitute an effective witness for Christ. People are drawn to communities with open hearts, open minds, open arms, and open doors. In our individualist and increasingly isolated North American society, people are looking for belonging more than believing. They are attracted to churches that make a difference in this world. They want a spiritual community where they can feel welcomed and get involved in something that really matters.
That’s where folks are most likely to discover for themselves that God is real and Jesus is worth following.
We liberal Christians need to get a clue from our evangelical brothers and sisters. We need to get out of our pews and into the streets to share some good news in word and deed. The only way to save our lovely churches is to get outside of them. So, let’s get out there are let people know who we are and where we’re from. Speak up and act out in the name of your faith!
Just as the disciples left their nets in the boat to follow Jesus, leave your capital campaigns, steeple restoration projects, stained-glass windows, pipe organs, and hymnals. Take to the streets again!
The fact that the word “evangelical” means “good news” doesn’t mean that liberal Christians don’t have good news to proclaim as well. We do. In the same way, the fact that the word “liberal” means “freedom” doesn’t mean that evangelicals don’t value freedom of heart and mind. They do.
Some folks wonder why I’ve decided to be so intentional about using the loaded terms “evangelical” and “liberal.” Many think we should do away with labels and categories altogether. I’m not convinced that’s such a good thing. First of all, it’s just plain inaccurate. We have two very distinct versions of Christianity that are currently coexisting in our mainline churches. We’ve got to call them something, otherwise we won’t have an accurate picture of who we really are. The various attempts to hold “the middle ground” seem to have resulted in an amorphous and watery theology that fails to challenge or inspire anyone. Rather than eliminating our theological categories, why don’t we be honest about our diversity and focus instead on how our camps are relating to one another?
I don’t want to meet evangelicals on “the middle ground.” I want to be a liberal Christian who respects evangelicals and makes room for them to be who they are and do what they feel called to do, so long as we get to do the same. I hope this series of blog posts has contributed to making that dream a reality.