[Note: This is the text of a sermon given at the Gimli Unitarian Church by your intrepid blogger on August 21, 2016, as previously mentioned in this blog. The Scripture text presented before the sermon was Luke 10:25-37]
Comedian Emo Philips tells the story of a guy he saw on a bridge about to jump. He yells to him, “Don’t do it!” The guy on the bridge said, “Nobody loves me.” “God loves you” he said. Do you believe in God?” “Yes.” “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” “A Christian”, the guy said. “Me, too!” said Emo. “Protestant or Catholic?” “Protestant.” “Me, too! What franchise?” “Baptist.” “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” “Northern Baptist.” “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” “Northern Conservative Baptist,” said the guy. “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” “Me, too!” “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” So Emo said, “Die, heretic!” and pushed him off the bridge.
Christians like to divide up into groups. We have the Catholics and the Protestants. Lutherans and Baptists. Mennonites and non-denominationals. And then you Unitarians are a whole other category yet! And now here comes this guy telling you he’s a progressive Christian. “Great. Something else to learn.” However, I hope that this sermon will give you a bit of background as to what progressive Christianity is, how it is familiar, yet different from the Unitarianism you are familiar with, and we use our belief in progressive ideals and faith in Jesus to make the world a better place.
Like any movement, there are tenets that define progressive Christianity to set it apart. Now, I don’t want to get too far into my presentation without stating first that also, like every movement that has defining tenets, not everyone who identifies as a progressive Christian necessarily believes all of the distinguishing principles. I hope to cover, though, the set of principles that are generally accepted by all progressives. One of the main tenets of progressive Christianity is questioning; if progressive Christianity has a patron saint, Thomas would be it. He is probably most famous for being a “doubting Thomas”, skeptical of Jesus’ rising from the dead. The rest of the apostles believed Jesus when they said He had risen. But Thomas wanted to investigate more. He wasn’t really “doubting” Jesus, but just wanted to use the brain God gave him to find out for himself. Christians are good at a lot of things. We’re good at caring for and listening to others. We’re good at loving Jesus. We’re especially good at putting on potluck dinners. But we’re often not so good at fact checking. The popular rumour-debunking website snopes.com has several examples of tales like “Einstein proving the existence of God to an atheist professor” and “Darwin recanted evolution on his deathbed” and “NASA proves the missing day mentioned in the Bible is true”. And conservative minded Christians love to spread these around because it proves what they already believe. They know what the Bible says if taken literally: that God made the sun to stay still in the sky for a whole day, that God created the world in seven days, and that there is a heaven and a hell. But, if the words coincide with what they already believe, they don’t bother checking to see why they believe what they believe. Why does the Bible say that the sun moved back ten steps on the sundial? Why does the Bible say that the universe was created in six days? Progressive Christians aren’t “doubters”, but we investigate, we learn. Mulder from the X-Files would be a progressive Christian. “Trust no one” and “the truth is out there” are our mantras. This is why we believe that science can exist with God because our powerful God has no limits and can easily create the laws of physics to give us this wonderful world. When we use the brains God gave us to learn more about him, we look at, for example, the creation story and realize that it was written for a society that can’t understand concepts like the Big Bang, planetary accretion, the laws of planetary motion, and evolution so it’s explained in ways they can understand. Much as we might answer a very young child when they ask where babies come from with a story that begins “when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much” because they are too young to understand things like cell division, ovulation, and fertilization, not to mention the actual mechanics of human reproduction, and as they get older we explain more as their capacity for understanding increases. Similarly, God knew that a Bronze Age civilization had no way of knowing about scientific principles given their technology, but they did know that they have “a God that loves them very much” and framed the story of where we come from in that regard. As we grew older as a species and our understanding of the universe around us increased, we saw God’s use of science to create our world. The apostle Paul wrote “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” Progressive Christians use the same principles for understanding life, the Bible, and the world around us.
Another tenet of progressive Christianity is caring for the poor and needy. One would think this is Christianity 101, but many modern-day politicians like to loudly proclaim their Christianity as they make decisions while neglecting the heart of the law being compassion. This was an issue even in Jesus’ day. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” he said. “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” Social justice is a major theme of the Bible, there are over 100 verses in over 20 different books of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments that talk about doing good in the world. These passages implore those who want to follow God to “bring justice to the fatherless”, “show kindness and mercy to each other”, “to do justice”, “defend the rights of the poor and needy”, and on and on it goes. Laws like North Carolina’s HB2 that actively discriminate against transgender people, are those that concern a progressive Christian the most, as they ignore the many, many exhortations in the Bible to give aid to those who are being discriminated against. And if it is your own legislation that is doing the discriminating, the onus is on you to fix it if one claims to be a Christian.
Love for everyone. This is something that a progressive Christian takes very seriously. The reading I chose for today is the “too long, didn’t read” version of the Bible. You’ll notice that the person who asked the question of Jesus was probably a lot like you and me, “Teacher, look, I’ll level with you. This book is huge! There’s like over 800,000 words in it! I don’t have time to read all of this! So, quick, what’s the part that I really need to know?” And Jesus asks him what he thinks the needs to know, and he gives Jesus two well known Biblical commands that are the basis of progressive Christianity: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself, which Jesus also agrees are the most important. But then he goes on and then asks who exactly their neighbor is, because dag nabbit, if they want the short version, they want to do as minimal work as possible. Jesus launches into a wonderful illustration of who our neighbor is by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. In it, you may remember, a man, in need of urgent attention after getting beaten up and robbed, is ignored and shunned by prominent religious figures, but is helped by a Samaritan. Now, we today know the term “Samaritan” as someone who selflessly helps others, thanks to Jesus’ story, but when he said it, the audience considered Samaritans to be people they weren’t to associate with. They worshipped in the wrong place. They didn’t follow the laws of the Torah, and who knows what else is wrong with them. Next time you hear the parable of the Good Samaritan, substitute today’s current bogeyman in where “Samaritan” is. A Muslim. An LGBTQ person. An African-American. An atheist. Whoever it is, there’ll always be one to use. The people that were looked down on by Jesus’ audience is our neighbor. The one that we are not showing love to. And they are to be the ones we are to open our homes to, the very ones that make us the most uncomfortable.
This care for others drives one of our primary tenets, caring for all. Progressive Christians care for the poor and oppressed in the face of the dismantling of social programs designed to give them care. Progressive Christians care for marginalized groups like the LGBT community and support same sex marriage despite widespread attempts to not treat them as equals even by other Christians. Progressive Christians support people of other religions and cultures even though rampant discrimination exists based merely on where they come from and who they worship (or don’t). Progressive Christians care for conservative Christians, despite their beliefs being against ours. Even if they don’t follow the Bible’s guide for doing justice and helping out the oppressed, we still, as progressive Christians, follow Jesus’ example of caring for everyone, no matter who they might be. And yes, this even extends to Donald Trump. We can, and should, speak out against policies he proposes that discriminate and are anti-Biblical, but being a person like the rest of us, we are not to ridicule the person much as we would wish not be ridiculed. You’ll notice that earlier I mentioned that Jesus spoke out against the Pharisees a lot. They were a religious group that cared more about the letter of the law than the spirit of the law. Sounds a lot like some modern day conservatives, more concerned about what the Bible says by the letter than what the Bible means, right? These were the type of people that would remind Jesus that healing on the Sabbath is wrong. And, yes, if you look at the Old Testament as it is written, legalistically, healing and other work that Jesus did on the Sabbath is forbidden. Jesus reminded them though, that right actions are better than right beliefs, God cares more about what we do for others than if we have kept rigidly to a literal interpretation of the Bible. So you’d imagine that all of Jesus’ followers were progressives and the Pharisees couldn’t stand him. However, a Pharisee also came to Jesus to ask questions and to listen as well, a particular Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus calmly asked questions and listened to what Jesus had to say. And, more importantly, he still never stopped being a Pharisee after he became a follower of Jesus. We believe in a big God. Big enough for both the conservative and the progressive, as long as we respect each other.
But how do we let others know about progressive Christianity? Not all of us can be lucky enough to be asked by your Reverend Jonasson to speak before a group of wonderful people about what we believe. You’re not going to see progressives to go on a missions trip for the purpose of proselytizing to strangers to “win” people to Jesus. Sure, you will see plenty of progressives go to other countries to lend their expertise to help disadvantaged whether it is building houses in Mexico, or teaching English in Japan, or supporting local child poverty projects in Cambodia, but that is more because of our primary tenet of doing social justice. As for letting others know about progressive Christianity, there is a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that demonstrates the progressive’s view: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words”. I have found with dealings with non-Christians that simply being a progressive Christian and quietly living your life doing social justice and defending the oppressed is far more effective to show them what Christianity is about then have them be treated the same as if you walk into a car dealership only to be accosted by a salesman right away wanting to sell you something. We find it much more like Jesus to show his message of respect for all by building relationships with people first rather than setting out to “change” people we don’t know, which runs afoul of our principle of “relationship and respect”. I mentioned earlier that Jesus gave us the top two instructions for Christians, “love God and love others”. Progressive Christians also have an unofficial third commandment to guide their actions, which is summarized by a maxim by noted blogger and Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton that has become known as “Wheaton’s Law”, which states “Don’t be a jerk”.
So I’m sure by now you’ve been listening to me and wondering two things: one – how much longer is this guy going to keep talking, and two – this is a lot like the Seven Principles of Unitarianism. And I will agree there is a lot of overlap, as Unitarianism is a progressive faith. However, being progressive *Christians*, we do these things (respect of others, justice for the oppressed, love for all) because of Jesus’ example. Jesus’ claim to be divine is a central tenet of our Christianity and we use our inquisitive nature to determine that His claim is true. Recognizing Jesus’ words as those spoken by a God that loves us, we follow those words with that in mind. And it is our belief in a powerful God that sets us apart from the conservative Christians. Both of us believe in and worship the same all-powerful God, a god that is bigger than anything and can do anything, and conservative Christians loudly proclaim that their God is more powerful than man. But do they really believe that? It seems that more than God, the right-wing conservative Christians often put fear as their god. Fear of the “gay agenda”. Fear of Muslims. Fear that Christianity is going to be made illegal Any Day Now. All of a sudden, their all-powerful God, the God they believe made the universe in the blink of an eye, the God that they believe will defeat Satan in the End Times, is suddenly afraid of a Muslim community centre, is afraid that schools don’t have prayers. They stop focusing on God and start focusing on The Other. Suddenly, God is not in control. The God that we believe in as Christians is all-powerful, he doesn’t have limitations. And yet, there is a whole subset of Christians that worry about Christianity being eroded because their God, is a God that cannot do things. We believe God is always there. Jesus reassured us of this: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
There is a famous quote by Abraham Lincoln that says “a house divided cannot stand”, and the Christian church is divided lately. One group publicly seeks the favour of their God by withholding God’s love from others, convinced that only a certain type are worthy of God. They proselytize to others as if they were “projects” to be saved, unwavering in the conviction that their beliefs are right. And they stick to a literal interpretation of the Bible at the expense of the environment and scientific progress in the care of others. The other group welcomes all no matter their race, beliefs, or orientation, as they too were welcomed by God. They seek honest and genuine relationships above talking about religion. And they are hungry to learn more: about their God, about others, and about the world around them. Rather than loudly proclaiming their faith, this second group quietly helps others without seeking recognition for it.
Which of these do you feel do you feel are doing the words of the Christ that they worship? Go and do likewise.