Friday, March 22, 2013

The Institutionalized Church

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

    On Sunday, March 3, I preached a sermon on understanding Jesus' death as something other than the dominant Christian understanding of substitutionary atonement (i.e. Jesus-God's Son or God's self-dies a horrible death for our sins in order to appease a holy God).  Such a view supports a church that divides the world into "us and them" with "them" being everyone who does not accept Jesus' violent death on their behalf.  Since "them" won't accept Jesus dying in their stead, "them" gets to suffer the righteous punishment of God for eternity-maybe even starting in this life.  Instead, I offered the idea that Jesus' death was really meant to teach us the opposite way of viewing humanity.  There is no "us and them;" there is only "us."  Jesus' death demonstrates for us once and for all that God values and loves those who have been rejected.  The church therefore is not supposed to be in the business of rejecting others in God's name, but rather its purpose is to embrace those who have been rejected.
    In my sermon I was working not only out of the Gospel of Luke but also out of a book by theologian Wendy Farley, titled Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation.  Farley offers an articulate critique of the institution of the church.  Yet, what I appreciate about her writing is that she does not stop with the critique but offers also a counter-narrative to the story of religious authoritarianism which dominates much of Christian history.  As I said in my sermon on Sunday, it is not enough for us to define ourselves in negative terms (e.g. We are not like those churches who are judgmental and hateful.).  At some point we must offer a credible alternative.
    The common declaration about religion in our culture is "I'm spiritual but not religious."  In its best form, this phrase means a person is looking for a way of encountering the divine that is flexible, fluid and open to contrary points of view.  In its worst form, this phrase is a thinly disguised excuse for not committing to much of anything.  I identify with the statement even as I acknowledge its inadequacy. 
    This week the world's eyes are on Rome and the selection of a new pope.  It's easy from a Protestant perspective to throw stones at the institution of the Vatican-it's inability to reform itself or even prevent the abuse of the most vulnerable under its care.  Yet, as Wendy Farley reminds us, "The Protestant churches have been just as likely as Catholic ones to deploy religious authority to preserve patriarchal and heterosexist power and to justify cruelty and violence."  All forms of the institutionalized church have much to answer for.  That being a given, is the only option left to us to reject the church in all its forms?  I hope not.
    Farley is honest enough in her critique of the church as institution to admit that like it or not we need structure and organization.  We can't get along without it.  Yet, the institution must be continually challenged to guard against abuse.  We must continually hold before us the "prophets' savage assault on religious practices that cloak indifference to the poor" and "Jesus' challenges to religious authorities."  This tension between institution and iconoclasm must remain if we are to do church any justice at all.  To let go of one end of this tension results in oppression, but to let go of the other end results in the loss of community. 
   In every church I have been in the hardest part of the year is nominating time.  The folks on the nominating committee struggle to find people who will commit to serving in church leadership for the coming year.  Sometimes this resistance to commitment is valid-antiquated structures and do-nothing committees, stressed out and over-committed members, etc.  Other times the lack of commitment is not valid and people are simply selfish and too willing to let others do the hard work of keeping a faith community alive.  Some structure is necessary and even vital, but that work often falls to a few members who bear the load for the rest. 
     We live in a culture that does not wish to commit to organized religion, and such a cultural perspective permeates our churches.  It does so often for good reasons.  There is much about the history of Christianity not to like and much about the work of the local church that is irrelevant.  Yet, if we truly wish to offer a different vision of Christianity and a different vision of God-one that is inclusive and loving rather than hateful and cruel-we must be willing to commit to our particular congregation. 
   This Lenten season what will your commitment to CCCUCC be?
Grace and Peace,

1 comment:

Keith Evans said...

Hi Chase,
Commitment to one's church is, in my opinion, the foundation of Christianity. The Church cannot exert influence nationally or globally without the support of loving, strong, committed local congregations.

If we aren't committed to supporting a friendly, loving congregation and a just society at home, we, as a church, can never hope to bring justice and peace to the larger world.

I guess you have heard about our new minister. We feel very lucky to have him and are looking forward to his arrival.