Is Christianity a Four-Letter Word?

There are some who regard Christianity as if it were a four-letter word. In this sermon, Pastor Brooks talks about how one might respond to this. He discusses how we can be honest about the ugly-side of Christianity’s past and present while also being enthusiastic about our own positive experience of faith.

Scripture Reading—Matthew 5: 13-17

Not long ago, we had a dinner at our church for members who had joined in the past few years. The plan was to check in with them, see how things were going, and see if there were things we could do better as a church. The metaphor that I used to prompt our reflections was this: when they joined the church, it was as if they had blasted off into space on a rocket ship. Thankfully, the rocket had made its trip without exploding or crashing. The fact that these relatively new members were at the meeting that night meant that at the very least the trip had been something of a success. Therefore, we wanted to use our meeting that night for two purposes: first, to look back on what went well on their initial voyage into space, and second, to look forward to see how their next trip could be even better. It was during this discussion that Molly Wilson raised a terrific question. She asked about how we are to respond to a common view held today which regards Christianity as if it were a four-letter word. As a pastor who wanted to reassure our space travelers that their next trip would indeed be very successful, I quickly and confidently said, “Oh, I will have to preach a sermon on that.” Of course, I had no idea what I would say in such sermon.

A lot of us probably can name the reasons for why some might think of Christianity as a four-letter word. Maybe they have had negative experiences with gay-bashing forms of Christianity. Maybe they have been in churches that have split due to conflict. Maybe they have been in churches with pastors who committed serious wrongs of abuse or fraud. Or, maybe they are well aware of the blood-stained history of Christianity whether it be Nazis in Germany or slave masters in the United States. Alternatively, Christianity as they know it could present a lot of intellectual problems. Perhaps, they can’t take the Bible literally. Perhaps, the Bible and traditional views of God seem too sexist to be the basis of a valid religion. Perhaps, they can’t get themselves to believe in the idea of a supernatural God as if that is the only kind of God one can imagine as opposed to an incarnate God who exists amid mystery and the deep meanings of life.

I have to admit that it can sometimes be hard to name all of these reasons for why some might think of Christianity as a four-letter word and then not believe that such people are right. That’s a long list! This morning we could intellectually discuss the diversity within Christianity: how Christianity has never been completely defined by its ugly side and how there are a variety of ways to view the Bible and God. In addition to Sunday morning sermons, we have taken part in this discussion in the past through adult education programs such as Living the Questions, our book groups, and our Faith Formation program. All of that is vitally important, and it was great to see the recent results for the Christian Education survey. There is a desire out there to continue in this vein, to read Marcus Borg, and to have a Progressive Christianity 101 class.

Recently, however, it occurred to me that there is another way of considering this matter of how we regard Christianity. There is always a reflective and intellectual component to what we do, but I don’t think that completely captures what ultimately causes us to not only stick with Christianity but to whole-heartedly embrace it. A few weeks ago I was writing a new article for our website. It was about the new Sunday school curriculum that we will be unrolling this Fall. The curriculum is produced by the UCC, and it is called “Faith Practices.” As the title suggests, the curriculum is designed with the idea that faith isn’t just a matter of thinking and believing. It is also a matter of doing and acting. Christianity is a way of life. It is something that becomes real by how we practice our faith.

You might want to look back over your life and see if this rings true for you. For me, it is hard to think of my faith journey as solely an intellectual exercise. As a kid, what if I had never gone to Summer camp and experienced the joys of friendship amid a fun-loving, Spirit-filled Christian community? As a youth, what if I had never gone on service projects to Mexico, the Stonebridge-Munsee reservation, or the Appalachian mountains? As a young adult, what if I had never experienced the spiritual awakening that came from working with prisoners serving life sentences and youth who had suffered from violence? More recently, what if I had never experienced this wonderful community—this community in which we attentively care for each other and actively seek justice in the broader world? As much as I like to talk about the good news of God’s Kingdom as the central message of Jesus, I know from my own life that I am a Christian because it is a faith that goes beyond words and ideas, even if those words and ideas are a vitally important part of it all.

It occurs to me that part of responding to this idea that Christianity is a four-letter word has to do with being honest in two ways: First, we should be honest about the frankly horrific forms that Christianity can take. Even if we do not identify with the Christians of the crusades, we would be wise to remember what Dorothee Soelle said: we bear responsibility for the house in which we live, even if we didn’t build it. Second, we also need to be honest, or perhaps unashamedly enthusiastic, about the Christianity that we have experienced, that we have practiced ourselves. We need to live up to Jesus’ declaration: let your light shine! Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.” In other words, let other people see how we practice our faith, so that they can know what it is that we do in the name of God.

Some of you are probably familiar with Brene Brown who became a best-selling author and an internet sensation for a Ted Talk because of her research on vulnerability. In a nutshell, Brown explores how humans have a fundamental need to feel connected to others, and yet often have trouble connecting. After years of sifting through interviews, Brown realized that people who were able to connect with others did so because they allowed themselves to be seen. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable. Interestingly, the original Latin meaning of the word courage was “to tell who you are with your whole-heart.” Brown asks why some people are able to do this more than others. She concludes that it all depends upon whether their conception of who they are is under-girded by a fundamental sense of worthiness or a fundamental sense of shame.

As you have probably heard me say before, I am more of sociologist than a psychologist when it comes to understanding people, but Brown’s thoughts made me think about what it is like being a Christian in a world in which our very faith is regarded by some as a four-letter word. In this kind of world, I think it is easy for progressive-minded Christians to feel a sense of secret shame or embarrassment, a tentative fear of what others might think. Not only is that a miserable feeling to have, but it is also what can keep us from connecting with others. Out of a fear of being negatively judged, we keep our Christian identity and faith to ourselves. Herein lies the problem: we don’t want our faith and our church to be like a silo on a hill. We want it to be a beacon, a lighthouse. I believe this church knows its worthiness, and I believe that’s why it has such a bright future. Our open and affirming ethos has enabled us to realize our child-of-god-ness. It has enabled us to be vulnerable in a world that can sometimes be bruising. It has enabled us to see the magnificent light that is here, and it has enabled us to lift that light up for the world to see. Amen.

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