Some sermons pop up quickly. You look at the text, pieces start to come together, and a sermon starts to emerge. Other times, it feels like a meandering journey that visits a few different points. Instead of one sermon, it seems more of a few short ones. Today’s sermon feels more like that second journey and starts with discussing religion in the big picture.
The religious landscape of the world is vast. About 84% of people identify with some religious group, and there are close to 4,200 different religions with which people identify. We hear about Christianity, Islam, and Judaism the most in the US. The world’s top five largest religious groups are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and then the more general category of various folk religions that are usually region specific. Four thousand two hundred different religions may seem like a lot, but it doesn’t even count the separate religious subgroups under each body. Let’s even focus just on Christianity for a moment. Within Christianity, the subgroups are usually called denominations. Our churches are part of the denomination called The United Church of Christ. Just in downtown Pittsfield, we also have churches that are part of several other denominations; American Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, United Methodist, and Roman Catholic.
How many grew up in denominations other than the Congregational Church or the United Church of Christ? Go ahead and shout out what some of those denominations were.
Do you have any guesses for how many denominations there are worldwide?
It’s constantly changing, but there are about 45,000 different denominations worldwide. Sure, some of these are small, with only a couple of churches, but still, that number is staggering. Although Christianity has usually been seen through the eyes of the largest Christian bodies, we’re a diverse group that includes denominations that separated or emerged due to cultural differences, concepts of power and authority, conflict, differences in what is considered most important, specific practices, and so much more. It’s fascinating and a bit embarrassing, too. You’d think we’d be closer together, not so far apart.
The United Church of Christ came from merging four different denominations into one, and separate, more conservative denominations have also split off from the UCC. We still have churches from new denominations and other Christian movements finding a home in the UCC all the time. All religious groups are constantly in movement, including Christianity and the UCC. They all do things just a little bit differently.
These differences become apparent in how churches authorize leaders, particularly ministers. In more hierarchical denominations, the minister or priest has authority over a congregation that comes to them through another person or wider church body that has authority over them. In these cases, a minister or priest is usually assigned to a local congregation that, ultimately, has little choice about who serves them. Some denominations do the opposite. The power and authority are vested entirely in a local church and its non-ordained members. A pastor’s authority is pretty narrowly defined, and responsibility for finding and choosing a pastor lies only on the local church. The denominational role is limited to only those things they can’t do apart, and affiliation is always optional. Most denominations are more of a hybrid of the two, and the UCC falls into that category. Local congregations have autonomy and choice in who becomes their pastor. The pastor’s authority depends on the power the local congregation has retained or consented to entrust to them.
In the UCC, a person starts the ordination process once a local church agrees that someone has the essential gifts and skills to pursue ministry. But it doesn’t stop there. Local churches send representatives to wider church bodies so that those bodies can help churches do together the work that couldn’t easily be done apart. The smallest and most local of these bodies is the association. Raise your hand if you’ve served on an association board or committee. Several associations banded together are a conference. How many of you have served on a conference committee? There are 38 conferences in the UCC, and they all send representatives to discern the work of our denomination as a whole. Raise your hand if you’ve served on one of these committees or as a delegate to Synod.
A person seeking ordination has to go in front of a body with representatives from several local churches in the association who have to say that they agree with the local church that recommended them and that they see this person as a good candidate for ministry. When they agree, the person seeking authorization is called a “Member in Discernment.” At this point, they, the denomination, and the local church that saw their gifts begin a multiyear education and discernment process to determine if they should be authorized for ministry. This is the process Becky is in right now.
At the end of the process, the “Member in Discernment,” the regional representative body, the association, and the local church that saw the gifts of the person all have to agree that this person is ready to be ordained. Not only that but there also has to be a church willing to call this person a minister.
Once all those stars align, a person is ordained by the whole of the United Church of Christ to serve in several roles: to preach and teach the gospel, to administer the sacraments and rites of the church, and to exercise pastoral care and leadership. Although different ordained persons may become a specialist in one or another thing over time as they gain experience, all UCC pastors are trained so that they can, at least, fulfill the basic functions of the role. It’s meant to be a generalist role more than a specialist role. In other denominations, there is the possibility of being ordained into a more specialized role like a teacher, chaplain, non-profit leader, etc. But in the UCC, the most powerful entity of the church is the local congregation. The congregation is the only entity with autonomy within our system, so these local churches have collectively decided everyone ordained in the UCC first has to be able to serve the basic functions of a UCC church. Yes, some churches may need different skills than others, and it’s up to the local church to name these. This is why we have a search and call system instead of an appointment system. No one is appointed from the denomination to serve a local church. The denomination has a system to help churches find interested pastors, but no one can serve a local church as a pastor without that church saying, “Yes.”
Now, let’s turn more specifically to the scripture for today. So, again, as I mentioned before, a person is ordained by the whole of the United Church of Christ to serve in several roles: to preach and teach the gospel, to administer the sacraments and rites of the church, and to exercise pastoral care and leadership. There were other religious leaders during Jesus’ time, but none authorized Jesus. Jesus emerged as a movement leader, not an institutional leader.
Last week, we talked about the teaching style of Jesus. Many things Jesus taught, preached and said were in the role of teacher. Teaching during Jesus’ time was meant to provoke thought, deepen understanding, and expand your relationship with the Holy. Sure, sometimes a particular point was emphasized, but more often, one was taught a story or phrase meant to continue to provoke thought. Among the disciples, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was most often referred to as Messiah, a liberator of the people. But Jesus was also called a rabbi, meaning “teacher.” In last week’s sermon, I mentioned where Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” which, on the surface, sounds good and righteous. However, if you take it just a little further, you don’t love an enemy by definition. If you love someone, they are not your enemy. In his teaching, Jesus would share an idea, and if you sat with it long enough and started to look at the consequences of that idea, it started to reform and invite the student into reformation. Think about some of your favorite teachers. In most cases, it wasn’t just about what these folks taught but about how their teaching changed your thinking.
Jesus was a Messiah and Rabbi known for his parables and wisdom that pointed toward what was then an interlinked spiritual and political liberation. Even the stories of healings and miracles that happened through Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a teaching connected to them. They were not just for the person’s liberation but the community’s liberation.
There was a surface understanding, but always room for deepening understanding, like in the “love your enemy” text. Today’s three teaching pieces talk about salt, light, and law, and those in Jesus’ time had a special relationship with each. And, with each, Jesus made room for a deepening understanding and relationship.
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
These folks knew a lot about salt. It was a main preservative. It helped ensure there was life, so, at first glance, this idea of throwing out the salt that lost its saltiness made a lot of sense.
However, I’m also sure someone said, “Wait a second. Can salt lose its saltiness?” It actually can’t. You don’t use up the saltiness of salt, so what’s Jesus saying here? Is Jesus saying that one actually can’t be ever discarded? Is he just talking about an abandoned belief or practice? Remember, Jesus wasn’t trying to comfort people with his teaching, but this Messianic rabbi was trying to help liberate people’s thinking. The point is not wisdom teaching but what emerges out of this wisdom teaching. The same is true for the following text.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
This was a time when the only natural light at night came from the moon and the stars. It was a spiritually and physically dangerous time. To have light wasn’t just a privilege but a responsibility that helped make things safer. Hiding a light under a basket would have seemed ridiculous. Someone who asked about the salt might have said, “Actually, wouldn’t hiding a light under a bushel basket potentially light the basket on fire and burn down the house? Who would have put a basket over a lamp anyway? Someone with the light or someone who wanted to get away with something in the darkness?” Jesus meant to provoke questions like this and not limit the interpretation of the prompt he shared. We have to look at the next part of the text similarly.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Again, the hand of the same person in the back of the room might have shot up as she asked, “Um, which specific laws and prophets are you talking about? What would make me more righteous than a scribe or Pharisee, anyway?”
Can you imagine being in the room with the disciples and other followers of Jesus as they tried to figure all of this out? It would have been wonderful sometimes and not so wonderful sometimes, too. Jesus provoked the diversity of thought and belief. It’s who we’re supposed to be in some ways.
So, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that there are 45,000 Christian denominations. We share the same scripture but different interpretation, context, life experience, or histories. Each denomination speaks to our call to retain our saltiness, to shine our light, to figure out what the law is together, and all our interpretations don’t always line up. Yes, conflict about what we do and how we do it is rarely fun, but it might be faithful.
Our two congregations were called together because of what we saw we could do together. That is the big, beautiful picture. But we don’t any won’t agree with each other all the time. We’re not always going to agree on what makes us salty. We’re not always going to agree on the nature of the light we shine. We’re not always going to agree on the rules and traditions that ground us. At different points, we’re all going to be that student with their hand in the air, and that’s good. In fact, Jesus might even call it faithful.
In life, we need unity and diversity to make us whole. Jesus’ stories and teachings are one of the ways we can get there. For this preacher, some sermons pop up quickly. You look at the text, pieces start to come together, and a sermon starts to emerge. Other times, it feels like more of a meandering journey that visits a few different points along the way. Instead of one sermon, it seems a bit more of a few short ones. Writing today’s sermon felt more like that second journey, and today, I am thankful. Amen.
The Rev. Mike Denton is the designated pastor of First Church of Christ (UCC) and South Congregational Church (UCC) in Pittsfield, MA. Join us for worship at 10 am on Sundays! Click here if you’d like to donate to the church and its ministries!