Institutions Ruin the World, and Institutions Will Save It - Reservoir Church
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Your Faith Journey At Reservoir

Institutions Ruin the World, and Institutions Will Save It

Steve Watson

Nov 25, 2018

This month we’ve tried to share some of our best content on pursuing a life of faith and having that go well for us, and the people around us. Last week Ivy invited you all to a year-end reflection on just what is or isn’t going well in your experience of faith, as well as how your experience connecting with a faith community at Reservoir is going. That reflection booklet is available on our info kiosk in the lobby and if you’re around with us on the last Sunday of the year, just before New Year’s Day, we’ll touch base on it during that service as well. I really hope that many of us will take an hour or two with that reflection – you’ll see there’s a tear off sheet at the back to turn in and have a conversation with one of our staff or one of our trained leaders about what you learned as well. The point of those conversations isn’t to gather feedback on the church and it certainly isn’t to check up on you or anything! It’s to give everybody here a chance to have someone listen well to how your life of faith is going, and to pray for you. So I hope that many of you will take us up on that offer.

The other thing we’ve done this month is try to make it easy for you to become a member of Reservoir, if you’d like, to not just attend services or make friends here, but to make this your church as well.

People Hate Institutions

I was talking this fall with a guy who runs a program called Faith and Leadership at Duke University, and he was telling me that the funders of his program wanted to call it the Institute for Christian Institutions, or something like that. And he told them: please, don’t. If you want to kill this program, call it anything to do with institutions. Because people hate institutions.

My guess is that even if you don’t personally hate institutions, you at least don’t trust them very much. For fifty years, Americans have trusted political institutions less and less. And for good reason. We’ve discovered that our presidents break laws they think don’t apply to them, have bombs dropped in places they aren’t telling us about, send money places they shouldn’t for agendas they wouldn’t admit to. We don’t trust particular politicians, sure – that’s probably been true forever. But most of us don’t trust the political institutions they work in either.

The same has been happening in our lifetime with churches as institutions. I mean, how many scandals in the life of a religious leader are revealed until nothing surprises you anymore? I’m past that point. How many times does a religious community talk one way about its mission and act another way entirely, before people write them off for good?

I was reading some polls last week about Americans’ trust in various institutions, and the polls just happened to run annually from 2018 back to the year of my birth. And in turns out that trust in Congress, in the presidency, in Supreme Court, in religious institutions, in the press, in banks, in public schools are all at or near all-time lows, or at least lows in my lifetime.

We don’t trust institutions and more and more, we don’t join them either. We’re spending more time alone, less time in public gatherings, and committing less of our time and money and hope to organizations and institutions our collective life depends upon.

Because institutions ruin the world.

Which is why the man at Duke wanted nothing to do with that word. And he won, and his program that helps Christian institutions do good in the world is called something else entirely.

But what I want to share today is a conviction that this gentleman at Duke and I both share, which is that institutions will also save the world. Now I’m being a little tongue in cheek. We start our annual Christmas season called Light in the Darkness next week, where we ask how Jesus is saving the world. And I put my hope for the future good of the world in Jesus, not in any particular institution.

…But Institutions Also Do A Lot of Good

That said, if Jesus is going to save the world, a lot of the good is going to happen through institutions. Dave Odom, the man at Duke, says that an institution is something that lasts for three or more generations. It’s something that serves some kind of good for more than fifty years.

And if there’s anything we want that our parents or grandparents needed or that we hope will be around for at least another generation or two, we look to an institution to get it for us.

If we want water, we don’t head over to the Charles River, scoop up a handful, and drink it down. We look to institutions – to the people in our past who created reservoirs and aqueducts and pipes and pumps, and to the water authorities in our own times who maintain those systems and preserve them for the future. Thank God for clean water institutions!

And if we want heat or food or education, with some exceptions, generally we look to institutions to do these things for us. And we invest in their capacity to do it over 50 years or more, because we want our grandchildren, or other people’s grandchildren to also have water and heat and food and education so they can live and tend to our world and pass on those goods for another three generations.

Institutions—private and public, big and small—are collective agents of the evil in human hearts and the havoc we wreak on our earth and on one another. But institutions are also the containers of our hope and our blessing, the collective means by which we tend to our own needs and care for the survival and thriving of future generations.

And so with spiritual formation and a deeply flourishing world, it’s no different. If we want Jesus to do something good and beautiful in our city that will last for 3 generations or more, then it’s not going to be done through a single person, or through a loose collection of heroes, but through organized groups that are bigger than any one person, that outlast the influence or charisma or faults of any one person.

So I’ve called today’s talk Institutions Will Ruin the World, and Institutions Will Save It because much as I share your distrust of Congress and the presidency and religious institutions and banks and all the rest of it, I know that we don’t get the world we want in silos. The deepest goods we want for ourselves and we want to pass to future generations happen together. And I deeply want us to be joiners and committers and builders and funders – people that shape institutions, our own institution of Reservoir Church included, to do powerful good over the next three generations and beyond.

The scriptures affirm that we’re wise to not blindly trust institutions, who so often can be our enemy. One of the letters in the Bible is called Ephesians, because it was circulated to house churches in Ephesus and other cities around Western Asia, modern day Turkey. And tradition has it that the author of this letter was a Jewish follower of Jesus named Paul, who wrote it while on house arrest, guarded by a Roman soldier.

Paul looks at this soldier and uses his armor and weapons, all this gear of his oppression, as metaphor for the tools and practices of a flourishing life. But he says this too:

Ephesians 6:12 (CEB)

12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

It would be easy for Paul to look at this soldier and say: here is my enemy. This man who keeps me in chains, who limits my mobility and my choices and my options is my enemy. This man who by his mere presence mocks and threatens my culture and my faith and my personhood is the object of my hatred.

But Paul looks at this soldier and thinks, no, it’s not really about him at all. It’s about the rulers and authorities behind him. He’s just a stand in for the Roman Empire, and all of its propaganda and lies, all of its violence and oppression. And even that empire is a tool of timeless human and maybe even supernatural collective tendency toward the use of power and violence to fuel greed and ambition. The institution, and big, big forces behind the institution is the real enemy.

And this is still true, right?

Think of the political or cultural figure you most resent, you think is doing most harm to our world. I know, it might be hard to think of somebody, but try. I’ve got someone in mind.

Now it’s not really just about them, is it? It’s not that individuals don’t have agency and responsibility. They do. We all do. We are each accountable to one another and to institutions of justice. But even when we don’t seem to be, and get away with all kinds of awfulness, we are accountable – each of us – to a living God, who sees all our thoughts and actions, known and secret.

But anytime an individual is doing something greedy or foolish or just plain evil, they’ve got the weight of their funders or voters or protectors behind them. They’re serving the interests of institutions and larger forces who have their back and enable their harm.

Institutions ruin the world. They foul our streams, and steal our votes, they take our money and burn our trust and shame our children and oppress our marginalized. And we’re right not to trust them.

But it’s not like all institutions are merely agents of evil. After all, Paul himself spent his life starting and encouraging small, emergent communities of faith – house churches that he hoped would help people flourish and pass on renewal and faith to future generations. Paul, the writer of some of the Bible’s letters, was first a builder of and tender to institutions.

And when Jesus looked to the fifty years and more beyond his life, he also didn’t just put his hope in individuals but envisioned some form on institutional life as well.

In a moment of great pride and trust in one of his prize students, Jesus tells Simon Peter that that second name of his – Peter, which means Rock – is his true nature. Because Peter is someone he thinks he can start to build something around. Jesus says to him:

Matthew 16:18 (CEB)

18  I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it.

Now to be clear, I don’t think Jesus necessarily had “church” in mind in the way that we know it today. Jesus was a first century Jew. He didn’t speak English, but Aramaic, and Matthew and the other early memoirists of Jesus’ life translated all his words into the Greek that they wrote in. All to say, Jesus’ times and language and culture were very, very different than ours in a million ways.

And yet, when Jesus envisions a way to transmit his teachings and way of life to the future, he envisions not just an individual but a collective. When Jesus thinks about building out new ways of relating to God and neighbor, new ways of being in the world, he trusts an institution or set of institutions to do that. When Jesus asks, what can overcome the power of evil in world, what can stand up to the gates of hell, he says, Peter – don’t just be you. Be a cornerstone in this institution I’ll build called a church.

Three weekends ago, after the enormous tragedy in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I spent time in a couple of local synagogues in support and solidarity.

And in my neighborhood synagogue of Temple Beth Zion, I had a beautiful morning of worship. TBZ is a special place that blends the traditional and the contemporary, mysticism right alongside activism. So were singing the words of an ancient Hebrew psalm, but we were singing them to Leonard Cohen’s music.


And sometimes people sang in the Hebrew we tried to read from pamphlets, but their Rabbi Claudia would raise her voice and say: there’s so much Hebrew, but please sing, and if you’re not comfortable in Hebrew, just sing in the language of your soul.

And we’d sing with syllables, like Yai-dai-dai-dai-dai-dai-dai.

I felt so welcome and included, and I was free to worship in a tradition and place I hadn’t called my own. And I had this shiver in me, as I realized Jesus, you are here.

Now in telling this story, I mean no offense to my Jewish brothers and sisters who might find it obnoxious or worse to think about a Christian finding Jesus in their synagogue of all places. And I would never push this interpretation of my experience onto anyone else, but I am a follower of Jesus and can’t be anything else, and in my Jesus-centered faith and Jesus-soaked view of the world, I don’t have another reference or center for my experience.

So as I felt the presence of God in worship, I felt Jesus show me in my thoughts that Jesus was in this space, and in the quiet of my mind, I asked Jesus: what are you doing here today? What are you up to? And over the next hour or two, all these fascinating and deep and playful things stuck out to me as again and again, I thought: ah, here you are, Jesus.

And one of these places where I saw Jesus was in the way this congregation rallied around the events in Pittsburgh to stay focused on the good they want to be in the world.

Rabbi Claudia told her congregation – you know why we were targeted? We were targeted last weekend because somebody said that we love refugees and that we work to welcome them. And then she said: you know what? We do! And we will!

And she called to the center of worship, next to her and the scrolls of the scripture, all those of us that were doing anything in solidarity with or service of refugees and immigrants and prayed for blessing over us and our work.

Because for Jews to survive, targeted as they’ve been by so many people for so many centuries, they’ve needed institutions. Jews have built schools and sustained synagogues and worked to shape a protective, pluralist public life that would allow their presence and prosperity. And generally, they’ve done this, as Temple Beth Zion was doing this in my presence, out of a commitment to sustaining their life and their future and for expanding blessing in the world.

They’ve caught a vision of their Abrahamic covenant that says: You are to be blessed so that you can be a blessing for the whole world. And so together, as we read and sang in the synagogue, we will build in love what will last for the healing of the world. We will together work with God to transform the world as it is, to the world as it should be.

Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts

For the early followers of Jesus, the best image of this kind of thing, the institutional commitment to the knowing of God, the flourishing of our lives, and the flourishing of the world is an image in the scriptures of the “body of Christ.”

In another letter, Paul writes:

I Corinthians 12:12-27 (CEB)

12 Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. 13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. 14 Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. 15 If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 16 If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. 19 If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? 20 But as it is, there are many parts but one body. 21 So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” 22 Instead, the parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary. 23 The parts of the body that we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most. The private parts of our body that aren’t presentable are the ones that are given the most dignity. 24 The parts of our body that are presentable don’t need this. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the part with less honor 25 so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. 27 You are the body of Christ and parts of each other.

So besides being really funny, this is so beautiful. Right? People connected to one another, being totally different. I mean if you ripped an ear out of a head, and jabbed an eyeball out of that same head, and then plucked some strands of hair from the same body. Now this is gross and violent, so do not do this. But if you did, they wouldn’t look like they belonged to the same thing at all. Ears, eyes, hair— they look nothing alike, they have different form and function. And yet together, with all the other parts, fed by the same blood, they pulse with life and do something glorious. So Paul says people bonded together in Jesus, drinking of the same Spirit, are the body of the unseen Christ.

What a vital, organic, and beautiful way of talking about an institution! Paul telling this little church – you have work to do together, and you have everything you need to do it. And not just that, but you belong to Jesus, and you to belong to one another.

Now at some level, this image of the “body of Christ” is not at all about an institution, but mystically about all people that connect to God through Jesus Christ.

But for a couple of millennia now, this phrase “body of Christ” has also been understood as it is for Paul as a metaphorical image for an institution, for a local congregation of Jesus followers, who seek to pass their faith and Jesus-centered way of life down for at least a couple of generations.

Now when church goes badly for people, it doesn’t look like this at all! And I’ve heard and read hundreds of stories of church going badly for people. But what does it look like when it goes well?

Well, for one it tends to be less hierarchical. As I said, most bad things in institutions, and religious ones in particular, have to do with abuse of power. But Paul’s image subverts power. It says the only head of this body is Jesus, no human authority. And the parts that look more important to some people aren’t. So at Reservoir, for instance, neither me nor any other pastor is your mommy or daddy. We don’t tell you what to think or what to do. We don’t make your decisions for you. We’re servants or catalysts, not bosses.

The body of Christ is also a community of mutual honor and interdependence, where people aren’t too private or ashamed to say I need something or to say I’m here for you. It’s a place where each person’s individual nature and contribution matters—people offer who they are and what they have. Whether it’s Yemi last week offering us the beauty and taste of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Or it’s a team from Reservoir volunteering at Victory Programs’ Celebration of Life for Boston residents with HIV/AIDs, or whether it’s one of our own members that in her career helps run that whole organization. The body of Christ looks a lot like you, Reservoir Church, at your best – people showing up for one another and the world with honest love and generosity, staying alive for yourself and each other and the world.

Everyone of you is needed here, just as you are, and together we make a whole that is much greater than all of its parts.

This is why I’ve shamelessly invited all of you to membership at Reservoir – to connect in community here, and to give your time here, to give your money here, to not just see yourself as a renter but an owner here, because this community has a whole series of gifts to give you and we can’t be all that Jesus wants us to be for one another and for our city without you.

We also can’t offer anything of faith and flourishing over the next fifty years and beyond if we don’t build a healthy and flourishing institution of faith—one that can give a Jesus-centered, open-minded, wholehearted, fully inclusive, vibrant and healthy community of faith to the next generation and the generation after that.

And this takes money and time and energy and initiative and talent. It takes you. Your wholehearted ownership and participation.  

So please do consider membership at Reservoir – the forms are in the info kiosk in the back, and our pastors are happy to chat with you too.

But it’s not just about us – we need a lot of great institutions. Companies, schools, non-profits, civic institutions to do creative and heroic work in our times.

So ask yourself this question, our

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

What are you giving yourself to that might last and contribute to flourishing for fifty years or more? Where might God be leading you to deeper, more wholehearted commitment to the health and purpose of an institution?

And for this week’s spiritual practice. Would you consider…

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Do at least one of these things this week:

  • suffer with one who suffers – be present in compassion
  • glory with one in glory – celebrate someone else’s good news
  • show someone else that they are needed and show up to community as if you are needed.