Sunday, June 14, 2009

Riverside Church Installation: Don’t Destroy the Unique for the Commonplace

imageThe Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has printed the installation sermon for Brad Braxton, the new Senior Minister at the Riverside Church in Harlem, NYC.  It was preached by Dr. Robert M. Franklin and is entitled “Magnificence, Once Again” and has as it’s text 2 Cor. 2:1-12.

Braxton is the successor to Henry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin Jr., and James Forbes, Jr. (as well as others)

The sermon says in part:

At this moment in history, America needs to emulate Riverside’s tradition of interfaith collaboration and respect. [The church is both an American Baptist as well as a United Church of Christ congregation.]

As I say this I think of that marvelous place, Córdoba, Spain. In its history I find a warning for the church of today. Cordoba flourished under the Romans, then passed to the Visigoths (572) and later the Moors (711). Under the Umayyad dynasty it became the seat (756-1031) of an independent emirate which included most of Muslim Spain. The city was then one of the greatest and wealthiest in Europe and renowned as a center of Muslim and Jewish culture and admired for its architectural glories—notably, the great mosque. This construction of the mosque began in the 8th century and became one of the largest in Europe and the finest of all Muslim monuments. But by the 1560s Christians had retaken the region and destroyed thousands of mosques. Amidst their breathless demolition of all things non-Christian, they came to La Mezquita (the great mosque). It was a masterpiece adorned by 900 horseshoe-shaped arches of onyx, marble, jasper, and granite. The red and white color of the arches resembles candy canes for as far as the eye can see.

But they destroyed a large part of it and built a cathedral right in middle of it. The juxtaposition of two architectures, two traditions fused and crushed together. It is one of the most stunning sights I have ever seen, and I urge you to visit. Ironically, as Christian intolerance for diversity grew, only this mosque was preserved because it had become a church and a symbol of Christian triumphalism. Proud of their victory, the builders awaited the approval of the Holy Roman Emperor. But when Charles V visited and observed, he recoiled and declared, “You have destroyed something unique to make way for something commonplace.” They had replaced the magnificent with the mediocre.

The church has always been at its worse when it has destroyed the unique to make place for the commonplace.

Contemporary examples are abundant. In recent years, we have witnessed the strange and sad career of the American church in the public square. Too often, the church has drifted from its core mission. It has experienced an identity crisis, at times becoming little more than an instrument of the state or a political party or an economic system. The magnificent has been subverted by the mundane.

Or consider prayer: Pascal said that God has instituted prayer so as to confer upon man the dignity of being a cause. How often have we transformed prayer, the soul’s magnificent leap into the arms of God, into selfish bargaining for personal health, wealth, and success?

Or preaching: In the life of Jesus, preaching was a means of saving lives through mass communication. But in recent years, preaching has been downgraded into a shrill, sharp weapon used by petty men to promote arrogant piety, intolerance, and blind patriotism.

Find the complete text of the sermon here.

(Although I will note that the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly does not comment on Braxton’s $600,000 a year salary, more than double James Forbes, Jr.’s salary who was one of the country’s best known preachers & had led the church for 18 years….  Ouch.)

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