February 19th, 2012
“Why I am a Christion” by Rev. Judy Brain
Today’s sermon was first written for a pulpit exchange with a UU church Lexington. Many of the people who had found their way to that particular Unitarian Universalist meeting were folks who had been wounded by the Christian Church. They had been made to feel worthless and guilty by excessively judgmental theology; they had been demonized because they were gay; or they felt intellectually stifled by dogmatism. For them, these negative expressions of our faith became emblematic of all Christianity.
Because of this undercurrent, there was a strong anti-Christian sentiment in the church. UUs are all about open-mindedness. One of their guiding principles is to respect and find value in many different religious traditions. They embraced the teachings of Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Native American spirituality. But Christianity … not so much.
Christianity met with resistance—intolerance even—bordering on prejudice. And to give them credit, they wanted to face this issue. So they invited me to come and, in a sense, defend my faith.
While it seems like such a given, I realized that after more than 20 years in ministry, I’d never preached a sermon that specifically talked about why I am a Christian, so I met the challenge with enthusiasm. But first, I needed to define my terms. I like Jesus’ terminology—”I am the vine, you are the branches.” I imagine Christianity as a vine or tree.
The roots are Jesus’ own Jewish tradition, the trunk, Jesus himself and the early “people of the Way,” then the ever-dividing branches. Orthodoxy and Catholicism divide off the trunk, the Protestant Reformation sprouts off the Catholic limb, and from that Protestant branch, multiple outgrowths. You couldn’t even name how many denominations and movements.
And here I sit on my particular twig—a liberal, progressive, UCC Christian; still connected to that trunk, but pretty distinct from all the other leaves and twigs in that enormous canopy. If anyone claims to speak for all of Christianity, just roll your eyes and move on.
I didn’t really represent the Christianity most of those UUs rejected; we actually had a lot in common. You probably know that old joke that UCC stands for Unitarians Considering Christ.
CHRISTIAN BY INHERITANCE
But, to answer the question, “Why are you a Christian?” I would have to say that the bottom line is, I was born that way. My parents were nominal Christians and sent me to church. This was the only religion I knew. Of course, that’s a wimpy motive. I needed to do better. Why would I continue to choose to be a Christian? Many people in that UU congregation had turned their back on the faith of their childhood.
WHY DO I STAY IN THE CHURCH?
Why do I stay in the church? Oh yes, I know that the church has a shameful history. Great evils were perpetrated in the name of Christianity, but any institution can be exploited for corrupt ends. Great harm has been done in the name of democracy, but we don’t abandon it; we keep trying to perfect it.
People have experienced cruelty within the shelter of a family, but we do not say, “Let’s do away with families!” In spite of how unscrupulous people have distorted the teachings of Jesus, the church has much to offer, and to me, it is worth it. I took from Christianity what I loved and what sustained me and left the rest. And part of the goal of my ministry is to apologize for and correct those aspects that were oppressive and exclusionary.
So, what is it about this progressive Christian faith that I value so highly? Here is my top 7 list.
#7 CHRISTIANITY is my spiritual path.
It is the means by which I approach the divine. I love the music, the corporate worship, the stories that connect me to the past and give me guidance in the present. The practices of Christianity lead me into prayerfulness. When the Dalai Lama was asked by a pilgrim how to become enlightened, he replied, “Go deep into your own tradition.”
#6 IT PROVIDES ORDER AND MEANING
I love the shape that the Christian faith brings to life. I thrive on its patterns of celebration and repentance, reflection and action.
I like Lent where we set aside time to look inward. Good Friday where we intentionally expose ourselves to suffering and death—a practice much avoided in our culture.
I love the idea of sabbath—rest, time out, renewal. And not just a couple of weeks in the summer but a whole 24 hours every 7 days! I like the way Christianity honors the whole of life: work and leisure, relationships and solitude, sorrow and pleasure. Every bit of it is sacred.
#5 IT IS PSYCHOLOGICALLY HEALTHY
The starting place for my brand of Christianity is acceptance. Jesus teaches that we are loved no matter who we are or what we’ve done.
This does not mean we are not held accountable. It means we are not cursed; we are not forever trapped in our sins. There is always the potential to start over. One of our most valuable beliefs is the doctrine of forgiveness. We can be set free.
Christianity also provides a supportive community. Isolation is a contributing factor in depression; we all need a helping hand now and then. And we need to offer a hand to our neighbors. Getting mixed up in a church can promote a balanced lifestyle. There are studies that show it is even physically healthy to be a church-going Christian. (I’m not sure about the cause and effect at play there; but I think there could be a health benefit from being part of a supportive faith community where you are cared for and extend care to others.)
#4 CHRISTIANITY GIVES PURPOSE TO MY LIFE
The Bible claims that everybody has been created in God’s image and called to be reflections of the divine. Whoever you are, whatever you do, you have the high calling to be God-like in your actions—loving your self, your neighbor, and even your enemies. What greater purpose could there be? You are a part of something more profound than you are—something that calls you to become your best self. And everyone is important and beloved. The CEO of a multimillion dollar hotel empire is no more valued than the woman who cleans toilets in his rooms.
The scripture’s emphasis on justice forms the way I live—how I spend my money, what I do with my time, my attitude toward the environment, the causes I support, the values I pass on to my children and grandchildren, whose interest I have in mind when I vote. Jesus calls me to be in solidarity with those women who clean hotel toilets.
#3 THE LIFE OF JESUS MOVES ME
Who can remain unaffected by the story of “the man for others” as Albert Schweitzer called him? Jesus, the spellbinding teacher who caught the imagination of simple peasants and rich folks alike and welcomed them all into his circle; the powerful healer who reached out to the most feared outcasts; the wily rabbi who confounded the wise; the radical reformer who died because he loved his people and believed in his mission to set them free.
#2 THE STORIES OF JESUS ARE PROFOUND AND COMPELLING
Today, instead of beginning with scripture as I usually do, I’m going to end with it and tell you my favorite of all Jesus’ parables. A story that captures the essence of Jesus’ message about God’s grace. It embodies the core concepts of our faith—grace, forgiveness, and redemption. And it also hints at the cost. The story of the loving father who forgives his wayward son.
#1 INHERENT IN THIS STORY IS MY NUMBER ONE REASON FOR BEING A CHRISTIAN: IT’S ALL ABOUT GRACE
I have a friend who ran a mission school in Pakistan. She said that until she lived in a Middle Eastern country, she did not have an appreciation for the radical message of this story. In that culture, the society that formed Jesus, what happens in this parable would have been beyond anyone’s imagination.
A son who behaved like the one in this story would have been cut off with no questions asked. Children owe so much deference to their parents, especially the family patriarch, that it would be unthinkable for a child to treat his father with such disrespect and even more absurd for the father to take the initiative in forgiving him and accepting him back into the family with a celebration instead of punishment. The father would have been ridiculed and shunned, condemned for being weak and ineffectual. In this shocking parable, Jesus tells us this is what God is like. I’m not going to comment further, let’s just allow this beautiful story speak to us.
The Parable of the loving parent Luke 15:11-32
Once upon a time there was father who had two sons. The younger came to him and said, “Father, give me my inheritance so I can seek my fortune. And so he did.
And the young man traveled to a far country where he wasted his inheritance on hedonistic and dissolute living. When everything was gone, he found himself in need and he went into the country and hired himself out to a farmer who gave him a job no self-respecting Jew could imagine—feeding the pigs.
He grew so hungry that he would have gladly eaten the pods the pigs were eating. And no one gave him anything.
But then he came to himself and thought, “How many of my father’s hired hands have enough to eat and more, while here I am starving. I will go to him and say, “Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Just take me in as one of your servants.”
But while he was trudging down the road to his parent’s farm, his father saw him while he was still a far way off and was filled with compassion. And the father ran to his wayward son and kissed him and put a robe on his back and a ring on his finger and called to his servants, “Hurry, kill the fatted calf, prepare a feast! And let’s celebrate. This son of mine was dead is alive again. He was lost but now is found.”