A few weeks ago I found myself in a conversation with a church member who asked: “Griff, what is it that sets us apart from any other progressive or liberal leaning organization in this city? Because whatever it is that sets us apart from that, I want to hear that each week in the sermon.”
So I started thinking and I realized that the truth is often my sermons have more references to an article from the New York Times, to the amazing black feminist leader bell hooks, and to the poetry of Rumi than to Jesus and his words in the Gospels. I realized there are times that my sermons are just a few short steps away from a sermon I could preach at a Unitarian Universalist church, which is not to knock the UU church, but if that is the theology I am preaching I should preach it under the right label.
And all that was in my mind as I sat to write the sermon for that week — a Pentecost sermon — and I found myself writing the following:
I want us to be a church full of truth tellers, people who are willing to boldly say the things that need to be said, the truths that God is waiting for someone to be bold enough, courageous enough to stand up. I mean how many of us watch our language and truth because we don’t want to be mixed up with those “evangelicals” so we watch how much we talk about Jesus and the resurrection or prayer and Spirit language or devotional language about Jesus. … And if we are not talking about those things, then what are we talking about? Jesus is it for us and that should be a truth we boldly share.
And as I looked over it, I wondered if I would be brave enough to preach it once I got in the pulpit. It seemed a bit like confessing a teenage crush. And yet on Pentecost morning those words came out and instead of crashing to the ground as I feared, they found a new life in the air and they landed in a way that physically felt different.
And I got an email just 30 minutes after church from a member who stated: “Griff, when you preached about talking about Jesus and not being scared to do it, I wanted to stand up and shout ‘Amen!’ over and over and I wept tears of joy, this is it and this is what I long to hear. As proud as I am of our progressive stances, I need Jesus preached over and over. This is what we have been missing.”
And I got response after response like that all week long, all these good progressives asking, how can we reclaim Jesus?
It made me think about Jesus and his parents at that moment they left Jesus in the temple and then realized their mistake, their loss. You see, that entire text might teach us exactly what is wrong with the liberal Baptist church in America today.
Mary and Joseph have journeyed to Jerusalem with their religious community, with those who share their faith, those who do their everyday life with them, those who share their spirituality. And this community is headed home after worshipping in the temple together, when halfway through the journey, Joseph and Mary realize that neither of them have Jesus and neither does anyone in their community.
I can see the scene. Mary stops the crowd with her cry: “Wait, has anyone seen Jesus? Where is he?” The community begins to look around and no one has Jesus with them any longer, in fact for most of the group it has been a while since they saw Jesus. Someone asks where was the last place they saw him. Mary responds, “Well, it was in the temple, we have to go back and get him.”
But someone else in the crowd says, “We? There is no we here, you lost him.” Someone else says, “We are making really good progress, look how far we have come and how quick we got here. We can’t turn around and lose ground.” Someone else suggests it might be best for Mary and Joseph to go get him and then catch up with the group. Others are a bit confused, still trying to let it sink in that somehow they forgot Jesus in the temple.
And that seems a lot like the liberal Baptist church today. I have to confess it feels a lot like me.
We look around and we have gotten so many things right. We are fighting not just for LGBTQ inclusion, but for LBGTQ rights in all of life. We are protesting for women’s rights and trying to create a more fair, just and equitable way of life. We are joining our black brothers and sisters to cry out that Black Lives Matter. We are protesting the denial of science and doing all we can for creation care. We are creating sanctuary for immigrants and refugees. We are vocal about everyone’s rights to medical care. We lobby for our children and their education. We are trying to find a way to let art lead the way in our world. We scream about separation of church and state. We know all the facts about income inequality in America.
And that is great.
But have we forgotten why we do all those things? As a Baptist church we do all of those things because that is exactly what Jesus would be doing today. We do those things because that is very way of Christ. We care about each of those issues because those are the very issues that brought Jesus to tears and made him the angriest. We fight those fights because those are the fights the gospel leads us to fight. We do this because we see not just Scripture but all of life through the lens of Jesus Christ. We do all of this because of the resurrection, because the resurrection makes us believe that anything is possible.
But how often do we say it?
Because we are not saying it enough. At some point in our history we finally started fighting the right fights, but we forgot why we fought them. Claiming Jesus and the resurrection suddenly seemed too evangelical and we tried to distance ourselves as far as possible from the evangelicals.
And there is good reason for that. There is a great deal, perhaps even most of what they believe, that I never want to be associated with. It’s what keeps me up in the middle of the night. It’s why I constantly have to say “I am not that kind of Baptist.” It’s the things I read and hear from the Religious Right that make me want to throw my hands up in surrender. It’s what makes me ashamed of the church and a large part of my own foundation.
But here’s the gospel: they don’t get to claim Jesus alone and they sure don’t get to define what Christ following looks like. It took four Gospel writers (worth noting that we used to call them the Four Evangelists) each in their own distinct way to tell the story of Christ and God knows we need all those unique voices and more telling the story today.
So we can’t let the Evangelicals alone have Jesus. We can let them have patriarchal language, we can let them have their fights against science, they can have inerrancy, they can have their exclusive practices, they can have their programming and theology that keeps women in their place, they can have all their God and country hymns, they can have the Religious Right. In fact, please take all of that. Let them have it and claim it.
But they can’t alone have Jesus.
And we need to realize the bold truth that in reclaiming Jesus, we don’t have to look like them. We can still be set apart from them, because their ways are not our ways but they don’t get a monopoly on the Way.
Because there is a better way.
Perhaps the most important task of the liberal Baptist church today is to find ways to demonstrate that everything we care about is because of our faith in Jesus. That the issues dearest to us are deeply influenced by the way Jesus lived. That the issues we care about are the issues Jesus cares about today. That because of the resurrection we deeply believe that we can make a difference and we are trying to make that difference. Because we believe that love is the way Jesus embodied how we live.
I participated in the Women’s March because I wanted my daughter to know that during her lifetime I was always on the right side of equality, which I believe because the very movement of Christianity was started by two women who came running with the news, “The tomb is empty.” I fight for LBGTQ rights because when I look at the Gospels the folks I see Jesus preaching against are those who keep folks out and the people I see Jesus loving are those on the margins and those strong enough to be themselves. In the Gospels Jesus spent most of his preaching ministry talking about money and the sin of having too much, so I am forced to look at how I participate in that system and fight any system of inequality. I yell out that Black Lives Matter not just because my own black brother was once arrested for something that I would have just been given a warning for, but because according to Jesus, law and gospel are color blind. Because it seems that Jesus paid a lot of attention to the prophets, I pay a lot of attention to the prophets.
As progressive Christians we do what we do because of Jesus Christ. If not, we are not progressive Christians, we are just progressives.
The deep truth is that a great deal of the world wants us fighting for all these causes, they want to join in on that fight, that want to see a better truer world and they need to know what’s behind our fight.
The way of Jesus. The way of Christ. The way of love.
So, church, let’s stop traveling for a second and make sure we did not leave Jesus behind. If we did let’s all turn around to find him. Because when we let him lead us, the very Kingdom is near.