The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 10/10/99
Text: Hebrews 10:19-25
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

In recent days you and I have heard a good deal about a statement made by Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura and published in the November issue of Playboy. The magazine quotes him as saying, "Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers."

Needless to say, the comment has raised quite a few hackles and generated a few more comments in response. Joan Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said, "Karl Marx said something like that. I don't think he wants to be associated with him."(1) Russ Verney, the national chairman of the Reform Party, of which Jesse is the highest elected official, called on the Governor to quit the organization saying, "You have brought shame to yourself and disgrace to the members of the Reform Party." Other politicians lined up to jump on Jesse. House Speaker Dennis Hastert said he was "shocked and chagrined." Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said, "Can you believe a governor of a state in America would say such an insensitive, bigoted thing?" Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, said flatly that Jesse was "off his rocker."(2)

Some folks took the statement with a grain of salt. "We realize that Governor Ventura is undergoing a learning process during his first term in office," said the Catholic Archdiocese in St. Paul, Minnesota charitably (Jesse's own territory). Indeed, our flamboyant friend himself predicted that religious groups would forgive him, since, after all, we are in the forgiveness business.(3)

For his part, the Governor has done a bit of backing and filling. On ABC's "20/20" Friday night, in an interview with Barbara Walters, he noted he should have said SOME organized religion - the religious right - is a sham, because they are always sticking their nose in other people's business. On NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday, he was asked if he thought priests, nuns, ministers and rabbis could be considered weak-minded people. He responded, "No, I don't, not necessarily." Gee, thanks, Jess. Then he added, "And being weak-minded is not necessarily a detriment. It just means that you have a weakness and, therefore, you go to organized religion to help strengthen yourself...And for those people, it's OK." Okee dokee. Keep digging, pal. Keep digging.

By the way, Ventura added that he considers himself a Christian and believes Jesus Christ is the Savior. But he also said, "I don't believe necessarily that I need a church to go to. My religious beliefs can be by a lake, they can be on a hill, they can be in the solitude of my own office." Interesting.

Now you know and I know that Jesse Ventura is not the only one in America who feels that way. He IS in a small minority about relegating religion only to those with weak minds. For what it's worth, we are far and away the MOST religious of all the technically advanced nations. One Gallup poll after another shows that 95% of Americans, give or take a point or two, believe in God, 90 percent pray, 85 percent believe that the Ten Commandments are still valid for today (even though half of those who agree with that cannot name even five of them). Almost 70% of us are members of a church or synagogue, even though attendance is not what it should be. And this is nothing new - in 1835, the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America."(4) Centuries ago the Psalmist wrote, "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'"(5) America may be foolish in many ways, including the Governor, but not that one.

The other part of Jesse's explanation, that which suggests faith is equally well served "by a lake...on a hill...[or] in the solitude of my own office," is shared by many. Who needs organized religion? After all, organized religion - the church - is hardly Simon pure. The Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts. Jesse says look at Northern Ireland - they are not fighting over potatoes! Years ago, the great English preacher, Leslie Weatherhead, wrote, "Frankly, I often wonder why so many people do go to church. Christianity must have a marvelous inherent power, or the churches would have killed it long ago."(6) Hmm.

There ARE lots of reasons to stay away from church. For the most part, it is not very entertaining: preachers can be pretty boring; the music is not exactly Top 40; it takes time out of one of the few chances during the week when folks can just sit back and relax; there is every likelihood that you will be asked to take on some chore if you show up; and worst of all, they figure you should actually pay money for the privilege. The NERVE of an outfit like that!

A mother wrote in Readers' Digest that she once asked her young son what was the highest number he had ever counted to.


She asked, "Why did you stop there?"

He answered, "Church was over." Hmm.

Some people think they are too good for church. They look at the folks who DO come from week to week and see petty, back-biting gossips; they see business people who worship every Sunday but whose ethics on Monday are no different from those who never darken the door; they read and hear of the excesses of the televangelists. They put all this together and then claim that the church is just a bunch of hypocrites...and they do not want to be accused of being the same thing by joining in with them, thank you!

At the other end of the spectrum are those who think they are not good ENOUGH for the church. They have gotten the message that unless they meet a certain social standard, unless they wear certain kinds of clothes, unless they drive certain kinds of cars, unless they live in a certain kind of home, unless they make a certain amount of money, we do not want them. If they have ever had any kind of marital difficulties or problems with the law, or, heaven forbid, they should be gay, we would prefer they stay away. And for that matter, if they are ALREADY a member of the fellowship and some problem comes to light, we would just as soon throw them out. It has been said, "The church is the only organization in history that shoots its wounded." Churches sometimes can be exceedingly cold, and that is sad.

Jesse's challenge comes thundering once more: "Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers." I will grant the church is NOT all that it ought to be. But, apologies to the Governor, it is tremendously MORE than any other organization has ever been.

Millions of lives have been changed by the message preached and taught in the church through the years. People have been challenged to reach new heights in their relationships to both God and neighbor. Christian missionaries have gone to the far reaches of the globe sharing the Gospel as they healed the sick, taught people how to read and write, brought new and better tools for the improvement of life. In our own nation, how many great institutions of learning were founded by the church? How many hospitals bear names like "Good Samaritan," "Baptist," "Methodist," "Presbyterian?" How many day care centers and soup kitchens are operated by churches? How many millions have been and are being raised for disaster relief even today? How many hours of private counseling have been sought? To whom do people finally come when they realize the bankruptcy of their lives before a holy and righteous God? There is no question that more could have been and can be done, that there have been occasional horrible aberrations, but no other organization anywhere at anytime has done NEARLY as much as the church! Jesse, you're WRONG!

But beside all that, there is an even MORE important reason to stand up for the church: God's Word tells us to. Listen again to what we heard in our New Testament lesson: "Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching."

I wish the NRSV translators had chosen some other word than "provoke" - there is already enough of the wrong kind of provocation in churches. A better rendering might be "to spur one another love and good deeds." We gather together to remind each other what God has done for us in Jesus Christ; we have our attention called to the things that need doing in our world - hurricane relief, feeding programs, medical care, spiritual development - things in which we can make a difference; we challenge ourselves to make the improvements in our own lives that we know would be pleasing to God.

To those who complain about the hypocrites in the church, we say IT IS TRUE! There ARE hypocrites...along with all sorts of other miserable sinners. But then, that is why we are here - because we KNOW we need help. We need to be spurred on. Jesus said, "I have come to call, not the righteous, but sinners."(7) Saints-in-the-making, perhaps, but not yet. We need the spurs.

We are not to "neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some." None of this "by a lake...on a hill...[or] in the solitude of my own office," Lone Ranger approach. There is the classic story of the fellow who, despite being deaf as a post, showed up for worship every week, hot or cold, wet or dry, faithful as can be. A friend asked him why, since he could not hear anything being said or sung in the service. His response: "I just want the world to know whose side I'm on." Good for him. The world NEEDS that kind of witness.

Scripture says we can use our weekly gathering together for "encouraging one another." Life can be tough. There are times when we feel like giving up. We NEED the fellowship of caring people to get us through difficult moments. What Jesse says about "strength in numbers" IS true.

In years past, people turned to the church for that fellowship, but today, less and less are doing so. Despite those polls that consistently show Americans as exceedingly religious, recent statistics on the number of unchurched people in this nation make us the fifth largest mission field in the world. Folks still need help, but they are not looking for it in the church.

This is no trivial matter. Listen to this. In my files I have a survey of 1,093 high school seniors taken ten years ago by an international public relations corporation which concerned how far these youngsters would stretch ethical standards to get ahead in the business world. When asked if they would be willing to face six months probation on an illegal deal in which they made $10-million, 59% responded "Definitely yes" or "maybe;" 36% would plagiarize to pass a certification test; 67% said they would inflate their business expense reports; 50% of the students said they would exaggerate on an insurance damage report; 66% said they would lie to achieve a business objective.(8) That was ten years ago. What do you think the results would be today? If the mainline church, the church that provided the moral compass for this nation during our first 200 years, continues to decline as it has over the past generation, who will shape our nation's values as we move into the 21st century? Jesse? I shudder to think.

Finally, come - organized religion... because "the Day [is] approaching." For almost 2,000 years the church has been waiting for the Lord's return. In every generation since his ascension, many have been convinced that the last days are just around the corner, and ours is no exception (and even more so this year with the approach of Y2K). But, when you think about it, whether the second coming is near or not, your meeting and my meeting with Jesus Christ IS. Our faith is firm that when a Christian dies, we go to be with our Lord. That means the time is short under any circumstance. And that means we need preparation...the preparation we get in meeting together from week to week.

Two little boys were walking down the street and turned in the driveway toward one lad's home. On the porch was the boy's grandmother - it was a nice day, and she was sitting in a rocking chair reading the Bible. The one lad asked the other, "What's your grandmother doing?"

The boy responded, "I think she's cramming for finals."

I realize that I have been preaching to the converted this morning. You do not agree with Jesse Ventura. After all, YOU ARE HERE. You know that history offers no parallel to the church. The Governor's comment gives us an opportunity to remind ourselves how important it is.

There is no question that what goes on in parliaments and legislatures, in Congress halls and Senate chambers, is always of importance to humanity. But when the world is out of joint, when people's minds are muddled and their hearts are failing them for fear, then the thing of supreme importance is the living church, with all of her sanctuaries of worship and her avenues of service, where men and women come to have their faith strengthened, their thoughts clarified, their ideas uplifted, their convictions born, and their characters created. You see the church has introduced the world to a vision of perfection. The church has introduced the world to Jesus Christ.

Earlier we mentioned the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville who came to these shores almost 170 years ago to study this fledgling democracy. Listen to him again: "I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbours and ample rivers and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power."(9)

"Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers." Really? No. This is the LORD'S church, the Lord's WORK, it is the Lord's WORD that calls us to fellowship. Our individuals, as a nation, as a world...depends on it. Jesse, you're wrong!

Amen? Amen!



3. Matt Bai, "Now He's the Man to See," Newsweek, 10/11/99, p. 37

4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America, (1835) Chapter XVII: Principal Causes Which Tend to Maintain the Democratic Republic in the United States,

5. Psalm 14:1

6. Leslie Weatherhead, The Christian Agnostic, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1965), p. 163

7. Matthew 9:13b

8. Newsweek, 10/30/89, p. 10

9. Pastor's Professional Research Service

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