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Creating a New Progressive Ecumenical Church Relationship

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This sermon was delivered by The Rev. Chuck Currie, a United Church of Christ minister, at Portland, Ore.'s First United Methodist Church on April 29. The Scripture readings included 1 John 3:16-24 and John 10:11-18.

As I preach this, your senior minister is of course attending the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I hope you sent her with body armor! Most of our denominational bodies that make of the National Council of Churches -- whether it is the United Methodist Church or my United Church of Church -- hold such periodic gatherings and more often than we would like to admit these events show off the disunity in our churches more than the unity we strive for as Christians. The divisions that we face within our denominations, the decline of the mainline church over the last generation, and the changing realities we face in a society more pluralistic than ever beg the question of whether or not we are -- any of us, regardless of denomination -- doing church in the right way. So today, I come with a proposal. Let's throw out the rule book, break with tradition, look to the future with our eyes open and hearts centered on living out the Greatest Commandment, and perhaps even bring together some of our denominations under one new banner -- a new united church -- that reflects a belief that living out God's mission for the world is more important than bureaucracy and polity, the laws that govern our churches.

What am I suggesting? Within the mainline tradition there is a growing consensus moving our churches in a progressive theological direction. We read the Hebrew Scripture and the stories of the Prophets, and their battles for economic justice resonate with our own times. As we reflect on the life and ministry of Jesus as shared with us in the Christian New Testament we hear God calling us further to be a people of justice concerned with the "least of these" and with those on the margins. Jesus' own teachings have called many of us to embrace movements of liberation for Africans, Latin Americans, women, and gays and lesbians. We believe that those who use the Bible to justify discrimination or who wield Holy Scripture as a partisan political weapon to divide are the heirs of those who just a generation ago used the Bible to justify Jim Crow laws and worse. Those of us who still hear God speaking -- a slogan of the United Church of Christ that can also be explained as feeling the Holy Spirit opening up our hearts in new and exciting ways just as Jesus did for his community and time -- need to band together and live out the unity that we are called to live in Christ in new and more substantial ways.

In part, this is needed because we must serve as a count weight to those who would and will misuse our Christian faith to promote agendas of hate and discrimination. Organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, and the churches that align with them, promote radical agendas that would deny not just basic protections to gays and lesbians but they also promote economic policies that benefit the wealthiest at the expense of the poorest -- all in the name of Jesus. How can this be? But study after study show that, when asked, Americans indentify Christianity with these conservative voices rather than ours. Working together, under a new umbrella, we would have the opportunity to amplify our voices. But we also need to have renewed courage in our pulpits and in our pews to preach and live out a Social Gospel seriously once again. Churches that act simply as social clubs tend to die, and they deserve to. Churches that have a shared sense of mission and purpose tend to grow and more importantly help build up the Kingdom.

Right now an amplified and united voice preaching a new Social Gospel, or progressive Christianity, is particularly needed as the Roman Catholic Church works to undermine the social fabric of our pluralistic democratic society. They want not just religious freedom -- something everyone deserves -- but for government to reflect their will alone. On women's health care, for example, President Obama has gone to great lengths to make accommodations that legitimately meet their concerns regarding dispensing birth control as part of employee benefit packages for church-related non-profits and educational organizations. But in rejecting the president's proper compromise and in making the outrageous claim that his administration is engaged in a war against religion -- one bishop, without punishment, compared the president this month to Hitler -- their actions have shown that their agenda is a roll back of women's rights. This is evidenced by the Vatican's witch hunt against nuns. While we seek to find ways to repair relations with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we must also be the Christian voice protecting women from those who would seek to return them to second class citizen status.

In California, the Roman Catholic Church recently cut off funding from a homeless shelter after the shelter hired a new executive director who happened to be a female United Methodist pastor who supports marriage equality. The shelter took no stand on that particular issue but her personal position was enough to warrant the church to cut ties. In Oregon, Catholic officials have cut off funding to Children First for Oregon -- which fights poverty, childhood obesity and for health care -- because they are part of a pro-choice coalition. Portland's Street Roots newspaper lost their Catholic funding simply because they listed Planned Parenthood in their guidebook of available medical services foe people who are homeless.

As someone who has worked closely with Roman Catholics, these recent moves have been heart breaking, and I know they reflect not all Roman Catholics but top level officials.

But what is the result of all these controversies, including the fights within mainline churches, such as the fight over ordination for gays and lesbians in the Episcopal Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church, among other churches:

A poll taken among young Americans a few years ago, folks between 16 to 29, showed that: "The vast majority of non-Christians -- 91% -- said Christianity had an anti-gay image, followed by 87% who said it was judgmental and 85% who said it was hypocritical."

Can you see why young people are turned off by church?

But what about people in that age group who attend church? What do they think?

"80% (of younger church goers) agreed with the anti-gay label, 52% said Christianity is judgmental, and 47% declared it hypocritical."

And you know what? They're largely right. The poll further noted that larger numbers of young people don't want to even indentify as Christian.

I'm asking for members of the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church (USA), and Presbyterian Church (USA), Christian Church (Disciples of Christian), along with the historic African American denominations and others, to dream again about working together as one church, not separately. Already such partnerships have been formed in places like Canada and India, so it is possible.

Just a generation ago there were widespread and serious discussions in the United States among mainline churches about the merger of denominations. During the mid-part of the last century there were many such mergers around the world. The United Church of Christ here in the United States was the result of one church merger in 1957.

One of the reasons those discussions stopped is that there was a concern that the distinctiveness brought to the table by our denominational bodies would be lost in a mass merger of churches. A decision was made to focus on collaboration instead of consolidation. To represent that collaboration we have relationships of full communion and work through bodies such as the National Council of Churches. But that has not been enough.

I simply do not believe that at this point in time the distinctiveness of our different churches is more important than the values and common understandings of Scripture that unite us. As a United Church of Christ minister, I am often asked what I believe about the Bible. I tell people that I discern the Christian faith using the tools laid out by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism: Scripture, reason, tradition and experience.

And why do I possibility think this could ever happen? Because it happened once before in 1957 when the Congregational Christian Church, with roots going back to the Pilgrims, and the Evangelical and Reform Church, with roots going back to German settlers to middle America, joined together to form the United Church of Christ after a local church pastor and a seminary president first exchanged letters suggesting the idea. It took decades of discussion, even court challenges, but these two very different churches finally set aside their differences to focus on what united them.

In 1 John we read this morning we read: "Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action."

We don't have decades to wait for action because the issues are too pressing and the challenges to great, but we are called as the church universal to live out our faith in new ways in every new age and it is time that took up that call. We need as much truth and action as we can get. This sermon will be posted on Facebook and published on The Huffington Post. Share this proposal with your friends and maybe, just maybe a new ecumenical movement can be born out of our worship experience here today that ties us together with other Christians who share our love of God and love of neighbor. If so, that ecumenical movement could have the power to bring God's light to dark places and begin the process anew of building up the Kingdom of God as we also seek to reconcile with those who fight us so hard on the issues of the day. In the end, we are all children of God. But business as usual is not working for anyone.

Amen.