Community Christian Church of Springfield

4806 E. Cherry
Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821 


The Long Overdue Death of Denominations

Proper 26    November 2, 2014
Community Christian Church
Roger Ray, pastor

Matthew 23:1-12      Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

There is an old proverb I'm very fond of about a time when a certain man and the devil were taking a walk together.  As they walked along, the man stumbled upon a great truth.  He showed it to the devil and Satan said, "Here, let me organize that for you."  There is just something about institutionalizing something wonderful that takes everything good out of it.

We get used to expecting politicians to be dishonest and self-serving.  We regrettably accept that corporations and the wealthy will manipulate the banking and tax systems to serve their own interests.  We may even become wary of friendships and love relationships that come and go far too easily.  But when it comes to the church, that vessel that has carried the gospel through the centuries, it never seems right to just accept corruption there and when we find it there, it seems always to be more malignant, more insidious, more heart breaking, because it is so very out of place.

It is one of the things you have to love about the gospels.  The Bible wasn't written by God, or Jesus nor was it even written by the Apostles...the gospels are a product of the early faith community, preserved by churches and edited by pastors and priests.  And yet, as we find in it, here and there, as in our reading from Matthew this morning, an occasional stone thrown right at organized religion and the pompous bishops, priests and pastors who run it.

There really isn't much preserved of the teachings of the historical Jesus, especially considering how important he has been to human history... but of all that got left out, edited out, covered up by later church tradition, it is kind of surprising that Matthew was able to preserve this stinging rebuke of the clergy in his gospel.

It is a helpful reminder for us in this age to make sure that we realize that the gospel and the church are not the same thing.  As important as the church was as a social institution, I always wondered if Jesus ever would have bothered to attend one.

The primary preaching message of Jesus was about the Kingdom of God.... The rule of God, the world where people didn't kill, steal, or lie.... The world in which there was neither warfare nor poverty... that's the kingdom Jesus talked about... that's the kingdom that Jesus said was coming.... But it didn't.  He didn't get the Kingdom of God.  He did get the church.... Is it any wonder then that he hasn't bothered to come back?

The church has been the vessel of the message of Jesus.  The church codified the gospel, ritualized, and in many ways sanitized it but at least it preserved a way of thinking and a vision for a better world.... Even while often lending its support to governments and economies that are the exact opposite of what Jesus envisioned.

But the church has been a vital institution for hundreds of years.  There was hardly a rural crossroads in America that didn't sprout one or two churches.  Our downtown city-scapes have been punctuated by cathedrals and steeples.  But the dominance of the church has gone the way of the wooden slide-rule and the manual typewriter.  Churches all over America and Europe are closing or being repurposed.

Twenty years ago, on a Sunday morning, I preached to between 300 and 400 people who crowded into two services in an ornate sanctuary.  In those days we had thirty or forty people a week who asked for a cassette tape of the sermon and a few hundred read a missive from me in the printed church newsletter.  Now we see 40 or 50 people gathered in our simple little church while somewhere between five and ten thousand people will download the message every month as either a video or a podcast.

I have tried in vain to make substantive connection with our far flung audience... struggled to somehow make them a part of our community...but the world has changed.  People don't connect they way they once did.  I fear that bricks and mortar churches will exist only in symbolic ways in the next generation but even still, you have to see, the church is not the gospel.

Our church never bothered to affiliate with any larger denomination.

I served Disciple of Christ churches for nearly 30 years and there was a time when I looked up to my denominational leaders with admiration and with confidence.  As the institution shrank, and jobs became scarce, it seemed to me that all of the really good guys were forced into retirement or unemployment and the rules of Machiavellian power manipulation took the place of virtue and noble leadership.

In place of self sacrificing servants of the church, the few remaining judicatories seemed willing to be as dishonest and corrupt as they had to be in order to keep drawing a salary and to hold on until they could retire.  My relationship with the Disciples did not end initially when I reported a former General Minister and President of the denomination, William Nichols, of pedophilia and of using church funds to pay for illicit sex.  I reported it but I trusted the church to deal with it appropriately but they didn't.  They paid of the living victims and swept it all under the rug unwell Nichols had died.

Closer to home, I demanded an audit of our local Ozarks Lakes Area office when it became apparent to me that the Area Minister was using designated funds to pay his own salary until all of the funds were depleted and all of the records had been destroyed.  To this day I cannot believe that Mike Weinman is not in prison rather than still serving as Area Minister.  More than that, I cannot believe that all of the Disciple ministers in the area, who saw this happening, chose to be silent and to allow the embezzling to just go on.

But the hypocrisy of others is no excuse for indifference on our own parts.

The institutional church was dying from financial starvation and now they are making themselves morally irrelevant.  I want to believe that this new pope, Pope Francis, is the real deal.  I hope that the reforms he is hinting at actually take root but whether they do or they don't, the Catholic Church is at least a half a century behind the inevitable changes of society and though they have the numbers and the money to survive for another century, they will shed numbers at a rate that will look like a free fall.

Smaller protestant denominations will either merge with one another or they will blink out of existence and, so far as I am concerned, they won't disappear fast enough to suit me.  They were useful at one time but have become too sick to redeem.  They need to get out of the way and make room for something new and different to emerge.

The institutional church is somewhere between the intensive care unit and the morgue but the gospel is still alive and well.  Where it will take root is still not entirely clear to me.  Though we have ten times as many listeners on line as we have in the room, I do not think that faith will find it's home on iTunes or YouTube.  Somehow, people of faith will still need each other, they will have to find one another and build community.

Bishop Spong has pointed directly at our little church and has declared that we are an example of what the church must become.  I find that validating and encouraging but like the two thousand people who will download one of our messages on the web this week, Bishop Spong lives a thousand miles away and even though he and Christine Spong have generously contributed to our future work, it remains to be seen if even our wild and rebellious version of church can survive.

But folks, you have to realize, the kingdom still hasn't come.  The military industrial complex still has more power than our elected Congress and President.  Our corporate media still tries to distract us as if we were all pre-school children, and poverty, which could have been stamped out by now, is actually on the rise.

The denominational church may and probably will, and probably should, die.  The whole business of religious institutions being against other religious institutions may have served a purpose in previous centuries but it threatens to kill us now.  There is no need to have a religious body that thinks that Christianity is right and Buddhism is wrong.... We need faith communities that believe that peace and justice is right and war and injustice are wrong.  It is not about communion, baptism, praying five times a day while facing Mecca, or putting food offerings and incense in front of a statue.... It is about paying a living wage to workers.... It is about treating people with respect and affording fundamental human rights to minorities, regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation or nation of origin.

There are big issues in life waiting for our time, attention and resources.... Religious turf battles need to be relegated to the pages of history.

Roger L. Ray, D.Min. 

Community Christian Church
4806 E. Cherry Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821

"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up." (Martin Luther King, Jr. - Nobel Speech)
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