The $600,000 sermon

riverside_church_11There was something about the story in Monday's New York Daily News that just didn't have the ring of truth. The headline was "New Riverside Church Pastor Says His Raise Was Lord-Approved" and it began like this:

The incoming pastor of Riverside Church broke his silence over his massive pay package Saturday, saying God was behind him as he took the reins of the iconic Manhattan sanctuary.

"God told me all week, 'I got you.'" the Rev. Brad Braxton said to thunderous applause.

Braxton was installed as senior pastor despite some parishioners filing a lawsuit to trim his $600,000 in salary and perks.

Could it be, I wondered, that the new minister, a 40-year-old theology professor from Vanderbilt Divinity, would discuss his salary from the pulpit on the Sunday of his installation? And would he say something so seemingly arrogant? God approved my salary?

Riverside Church, built by John D. Rockefeller at the height of the Depression, is one of the city's most prominent churches. The story of the new minister's compensation package -- and an attempt by a group of unhappy parishioners to stop his installation -- has been in the local papers for days. The Riverside Church media office did not answer my request for a text of Braxton's sermon so I went to the church website and listened to the service on line.

As it turns out, there was a mention of the new minister's salary, but not by Braxton. Billy Jones, chairman of the Church Committee, announced that the installations was proceeding because the efforts to stop it were defeated in court. Without going into details, he said that the dissident members had exaggerated the compensation package and that it was, in fact, in line with what the leaders of other major Manhattan churches earn. The actual salary, he said, was $250,000.

The line quoted in the Daily News -- "I got you" -- was indeed uttered by Braxton but not in the context of his salary but in the development of his sermon which he titled "Fear Not." Braxton spoke about the fears people have going into new situations and used his own transition as an example. This, he said, was a time that tested both the faith of the church and the minister. "Riverside Church," he said, "Fear not. God told me all week, 'I got you.' God's presence is our present. It's a gracious gift to know that God's got us."

That's not "breaking the silence" on his salary but good old fashioned Baptist preaching. Braxton went on to layout his agenda for his ministry. A few days earlier, I read in The New York Times that in addition to the salary issue some in the church had other problems with Braxton:

They also complained that Dr. Braxton was moving Riverside away from its tradition of interracial progressivism and toward a conservative style of religious practice.

Conservative religious practice? The Times didn't explain what that meant. Was he a social conservative? Far from it, I learned as I listened to the rest of the sermon. Braxton said that once a person overcame fear, he or she could "move mountains." He spoke of moving the mountains of racism, economic despair, injustice against immigrants and "sexual bigotry." He announced his support for gay marriage, which is now heading for a vote in New York state legislature. Braxton attacked what he called "Christian imperialism" and challenged President Barack Obama to withdraw immediately not only from Iraq but from Afghansitan. Certainly not your run-of-the-mill religious conservative.

Braxton got his loudest applause when he attacked the Daily News. "I promised the Lord I would only meddle one time today," he said and added after a meaningful pause: "And I hope this one gets on the front page of the Daily News." At the mention of the name of the newspaper, a loud boo went up from the crowd. He continued:

It's time for us to move the mountain of HIV-AIDS by encouraging the use of condoms in African countries and other global communities. I wonder if that will make the front page of the Daily News.

There was one more mountain he wanted to move. He asked God to "move the mountain of distrust and animosity in this congregation by speaking the truth in love."

In short, I got a very different impression of the new minister of Riverside when I listened to his sermon. The New York newspapers, so focused on the dollars, simply didn't do him or his theology justice.

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