Shuck and Jive

Sunday, January 11, 2009

What Is Progressive Christianity? A Sermon

Here is the text of Sunday's sermon:

What Is Progressive Christianity?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennesssee

January 11th, 2009
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Mark 1:4-11

Someone wrote on my blog this past week that she was going to be baptized this Sunday. I told her it was dangerous business. Look what happened to Jesus. I am serious. I told her that once you are baptized, truth, justice, compassion, peace (Jesus kind of stuff) will make demands on you and gnaw at your conscience until you are dead.

This is point eight of the eight points of progressive Christianity:

Recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

That to me is a pretty good definition of baptism. You may have been baptized as a baby or as a teenager or even an adult. You can even join a community, and never think a thing about it.

That is until one day you are reminded that baptism has something to do with how you will live your life. It is just a sprinkle of water on the head. There is no compulsion.

But, you know.

When there is injustice in the world and you want to turn and look the other way, you know that you have been baptized.

When you are given the choice between deception and truth, you can choose the deception, but you will know.

Baptism is a reminder that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

There is a liturgical tradition that I haven’t had much luck in implementing. I think the flower industry is too powerful. This tradition relates to funerals. It involves placing a white pall over the casket and nothing else. No flowers, pictures, ribbons, or bows. The white pall is a symbol that one’s baptism is complete in death.

I realize that I won’t have much say in the matter. But if any of you are around when I am dead, and my remains are placed in some box, just drape it if you would with a white sheet. It will signify that I have finished making trouble, and that my baptism is complete.

I wanted to do a sermon today about progressive Christianity. However, the topic is too big. So I am going to break it up into a series of sermons. I want to talk about point eight of the eight points of progressive Christianity and how that relates to baptism.

On the bulletin you see that we are a Progressive Christian Community.

What does that mean? Progressive Christianity is gaining momentum. More and more communities are self-identifying as progressive. Hal Taussig, of the Jesus Seminar visited with us this past year. He wrote a book called A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots. This book was the result of his quest to identify and describe progressive spiritual communities and their characteristics.

He found over 1000 in the United States. He found that these communities have five emphases. Not each community has all of them, but these five consistently surfaced. Here are the five:

1) Creative, expressive worship. This includes worship that is becoming less clergy focused and includes more congregational participation. This may include guided meditations, extended periods of silence, dance, sharing of joys and concerns, a variety of rituals and readings from other traditions including marginalized aspects of Christianity.

2) Intellectual curiosity. Progressive Christianity demonstrates an openness to new ideas and to scholarly research. You will find progressive congregations hosting book studies on the historical Jesus, feminist theology, early Christian communities, and so forth. These insights are used to inform worship and practice.

3) Gender-bended. Progressive congregations are specifically open and affirming to all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender-identity and proud that they have taken that step. They are also fully supportive of women in the full life of the church and include insights from the various feminist theologies including inclusive language for God.

4) Deep Ecumenicity. Progressive congregations do not view other religions as false. You will find in these churches study groups to learn and appreciate the insights of other religions, incorporating some of their prayers and rituals into worship. Some, for example, may include yoga meditation as a ministry of the congregation.

5) An emphasis on social justice, particularly, eco-justice. Progressive congregations have a deep concern for the environment as well as other social justice issues, speak of them, and advocate for changes in public policy.

One of the marks of progressive Christianity is that it is always in the process of discovering and rediscovering new and ancient ways of being in community. This can include taking traditional symbols and rituals, such as baptism, and finding in them contemporary meaning.

In two weeks, on the 25th, we will welcome new members into our community. On that Sunday, we will welcome two people through baptism. Others will join by reaffirmation of their baptism. They are at the point in their lives where they want to take this step on their journey.

If you are thinking about joining this community, let me know. I would be thrilled to meet with you and talk with you about this community and progressive Christianity in general.

In February, we will begin a confirmation class for youth who have been baptized as children or perhaps not yet baptized but are at the point of taking ownership for this baptism. At the end of this time of preparation, study, and fun, they will be able to make the choice to confirm their baptism and join this community as full members.

But I tell you, baptism is dangerous business.

It is not about assenting to creeds or to some sort of metaphysical philosophy. It is not a ticket to the afterlife or an expression of Christian superiority. None of that.

Baptism is first a sign that we are embraced and loved by God without conditions. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less. It is a sign of radical grace. The Divine Mystery that pervades the universe is within each of us. It is the humble recognition that before we know ourselves, we are known.

All religious traditions have a way of expressing that truth in some form. Baptism is the Christian way. It is not a symbol that separates us from other human beings, but connects us. It is the Christian way of saying we all belong. We all belong to each other, regardless of our religion, ethnicity, politics, status, whatever. When I remember my baptism I remember that I am a brother to every human being. Likewise, every human being is my brother or sister.

Secondly, it is a sign to live into that radical grace. As the eighth point of progressive Christianity states, “…being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.”

As I noted on my blog to the woman who was being baptized this Sunday that once you are baptized, truth, justice, compassion, peace (Jesus kind of stuff) will make demands on you and gnaw at your conscience until you are dead.

Because of my baptism, I cannot look at the situation in Gaza and say it is not my problem. My baptism will not allow me to excuse myself from the violence by saying they are always fighting over there. I can’t get away with trite analogies or lame explanations that lay the blame on someone else. My baptism requires that I look into my own complicity. I have to ask to what extent do I as a citizen of the United States contribute to this situation of apartheid and the violence and injustice that apartheid inevitably produces? I must ask to what extent this apartheid contributes to my privilege.

While I cannot claim that my baptism gives me the answers, it compels me to ask the hard questions. My baptism calls me to seek and to speak the truth. More importantly, it calls me to hear the truth when I would rather find comfort in my illusions. Ultimately, it is a call to action. It is a call to incarnate in our own lives compassion, justice, peace, and love.

The Gospel of Mark reports an interesting exchange between Jesus and two of his disciples. James and John thought that following Jesus meant big rewards in heaven. Here is the story:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

In the end we all follow our own path. Baptism is the invitation to travel lightly and to live authentically. It is a journey that we spend our lives taking and conclude at our death. We don’t take it for the promise of reward or for fear of punishment. We take it for love alone.

There is a wonderful story in the Muslim tradition about Rabi’a. Rabi’a was a Sufi mystic and poet and she lived about 100 years after Muhammad. She spoke against engaging in the spiritual quest out of either fear of punishment or promise of reward. According to one legend, she was walking with a vessel containing water in one hand and a vessel containing fire in the other. When asked why she was carrying fire and water she said: “With the fire I am going to burn paradise and with the water I am going to quench the fires of hell so that never again would anyone act out of anything other than pure love of God.”

That is what I think baptism is about. It is the sign of our life’s journey into God. I will close with one of her prayers. Let us pray:

"O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell.
and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.
But if I worship You for Your Own sake,
grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”



  1. Great sermon! The prayer at the end was wonderful--did you write that?

  2. Thanks!

    I wish I did. That was a prayer by the person I was talking about at the very end, Sufi Mystic, Rabi'a.

  3. Oh wow John, you have done me in with this one.

    There is so much I want to say but I just don't have the words right now.

    Thank you will have to do. Thank you...

  4. Thankyou for an informative post. I enjoyed it.

    Some aspects of Christianity can be confusing for non-christians. I hope you will continue to enlighten.

  5. i am terribly humbled that my baptism may have had something to do with your sermon. i'll send the link to paul - because really, it was he and God.


  6. I'm a classical christian more than a progressive one, so there were points of disagreement for me in this sermon, but I appreciate the passion and conviction it offers. I also liked the line about the divine mystery pervading all things -- on that we all can agree. Peace to you today.

    Chris Brundage

  7. Fran--you always make me feel good!

    Kat--aspects of Christianity can be confusing for Christians too! We are quite diverse. Rule of thumb: When anyone says "Christians believe __________" view it with skepticism. Some may, some may not!

    Brooke--yes, your comment was the seed for this sermon. Good for you to take this step on the journey!

    Chris--thanks for the good words and for the push! Peace to you too, my friend.