November 24, 2013

Kingdoms, Passing and Permanent


To read the lessons for this day, click here.

One of the really cool things that happened to me this year was that I got a chance to go to a three month executive training course at the Sloan Business School at MIT. The truth is that I have never seen myself as a business person, not in the mold of my B-School friends who were very focused, very driven to achieve success in the crucible of capitalism. I’ll tell you the truth. I never wanted to work that hard. But late last year my bosses at BBN decided that it would help round out my career if I attended Sloan, and so they sent me. And actually I was really excited to go. While I’m really not much for the entrepreneurial aspect of business school, I am very much fascinated by the science behind people working together and how they can be more effective in moving toward a common goal. I’ve always fancied myself a bit of an amateur sociologist, so reading ethnographies, learning about team building, and exploring leadership models was terrifically engaging.

Business school being about business, though, meant we also had to learn about accounting and economics, about how goods and services flow through companies, and how producers and consumers strive to find mutually beneficial outcomes. While I do enjoy math, even the Scottish brogue of our accounting teacher wasn’t enough to win me over to the gentle art of debits and credits and earnings before taxes. And as approachable as our economics teacher made the subject, I have now come to really appreciate why Nobel Prices are given in that discipline.

In spite of how tricky the subject may be, I’m going to spend a bit of time on economics soon, but first I beg your indulgence as I veer off to the right for a moment.

A few years ago I preached on Christ the King Sunday. In fact, it was exactly three years ago, almost to the day. It was Proper 29, Year C—exactly the same readings. I could have just pulled that old sermon out and reused it. I don’t think I said anything terrifically profound so it’s unlikely you’d remember much about it. I did mention that Christ the King is a feast day instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as a reaction to secularism, and I think I was fairly derisive in saying so.

Outside of Christ the King, I really haven’t done much research into the origins of feast days. I’ve always just assumed that they come from traditions that are centuries old. But Christ the King was started in 1925, within my parents’ parents’ lifetime, so it isn’t really all that old. We know that Pius was deeply concerned about secularism, and we know that the Roaring Twenties was a time of newfound social freedoms. It’s easy to just say that Pius didn’t like how loose the world was becoming, so he created a feast day to remind the flock that the delights of this world do not trump the kingship of Christ. This would be typical for a pope, spoiling the fun and being overtly conservative. But that’s way too shallow an analysis. Peeling back the veneer of snap judgments just a bit, we can come to realize that the Great War of 1914 – 1918 left the world deeply distrustful of authority, especially the authority of the governments that so utterly deserted their citizens. There were Archdukes and Kaisers and Tsars and Kings, but very little sanity among any of them. It is little wonder that the world became just a bit more me-centered and less interested in toeing the line of civil and spiritual morality. Pius created the Feast of Christ the King as much as a reaction against the slide of young people toward worldly pleasures as a reassertion of a higher authority even when the earthly authorities have failed. It was a call away from hedonism, but it was also an offering of hope when so many hopes lay dead in trenches across Europe.

It’s interesting that the lectionary uses the account of the criminals flanking Jesus at the Crucifixion as the scriptural inspiration for Christ as a king. Sure, the soldiers mocked Jesus, calling him “King of the Jews,” and one of the criminals asked to be remembered when “you come into your kingdom,” so there are some references to the monarchial institution as a metaphor for Christ’s heavenly authority even at the very lowest moment of his earthly authority. But were I to choose, I may be tempted to use the trope that shows up in all three synoptic gospels, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” To me, this more sharply puts us in mind of the difference between secular authority and ethereal authority. It also shine a light directly on the elephant that is so adroitly ignored in this year’s lessons about kingdoms, Godly or otherwise: money.

And now the pivot back to economics.

Here’s a little secret about governments. They are simply conduits for money. Good governments find a way to convert that money into services that benefit the commons, and even better governments do that efficiently. Bad governments find a way to syphon that money toward the benefit of a few, especially the few in charge, be they despots or just really good at hiring lobbyists. Evoking the metaphor of a kingdom to illustrate the authority of Christ runs the risk of comparing Christ’s authority with the imperfect authority we afford to governments.

Indeed, the trouble with this metaphor, especially over the nearly 90 years since the feast day was established, is how we come to understand authority. Most of the west and a good part of the world practice some form of consensual government, where leaders serve, in some manner, at the pleasure of the people; sometimes less at the pleasure and more at the pain, but by consent nonetheless. From early Greece to the Magna Carta to the American experiment to the powerful images in 2004 of men and women with ink-stained fingers in Afghanistan, we consider it a grand and great achievement when democracy takes hold. By now, Americans are so many generations removed from kings that the full measure of a kingdom has little meaning to us. Yet, if we look to Christ’s authority as an extrapolation of the kingdom metaphor, then we really cannot be blamed for treating God as we treat our government—with an arrogance of consent.

Let me say that again in a blunter way. We want a God who meets us on our terms and by our consent. We want a church that teaches us the path to faith, but only if we get a vote. We have a choice of religions and denominations and churches, and we shop around until we find one that fits our own personal theology, and then we deign to let it come begging for us to validate it with our membership. Michelangelo got it exactly right in the Sistine Chapel when he painted God straining a finger to touch Adam, whose limp reach is so clearly an indifferent afterthought.

We render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. We render to our jobs that which we must so we get our paycheck. We render to Costco and Best Buy and Macy’s that which our retail budget allows. We render to Shaw’s and Trader Joe’s. We render to retirement accounts and to the kids’ 529s. We render many things, all vitally important, all essential and proper. But when do we get around to render to God?

Here’s a little secret about churches. They, too, are simply conduits for money. One way to look at it is that the money comes in two flavors. The first is the money needed to keep the doors open. This includes the upkeep of the structure, the utilities, and the staff. The second is the money to do God’s work in this world. Without the first kind, there is no infrastructure for the second kind. There are many ways to do God’s work, but you can’t do it in a vacuum; building and operating a church is one of many platforms that fills the vacuum, and it is a traditional and comfortable one. Good churches build effective platforms, and even better churches do so efficiently.

[At this point my margin notes say to look meaningfully at the Junior Warden.]

Okay, so churches are conduits for money, and that’s not a bad thing; money flows in, God’s good work flows out. Since economics studies the flow of money, then we should be able to view a church in economic terms. There are at least three different yet reasonably effective ways to bring money into the church. I’ll list them without judgment; they are all very valid models. The first is to view the sum budget of the church as a shared expense, and to divide this expense equally among all. This happens a lot in synagogues, and the congregants pay something they call “membership dues.” The second is an annual appeal campaign for a once-a-year large contribution. Many Catholic churches do this, including Our Lady’s just up the road. The third is our tradition of the annual Stewardship campaign.

I’ve been studying the Stewardship model for many years now, even long before I came to St. John’s, and this is what I can tell you. The Stewardship model has three main features. Stewardship is firstly about participation and not amount. This is very odd given that the church’s financial stability relies on dollars, regardless of how many or how few are contributing those dollars. But there it is. Second, the Stewardship model is private. There is no standard expectation of contribution size, nor are donor lists with tier levels published in the bulletin. This does little to assure a church’s treasurer concerning financial health in the coming year. Third and finally, Stewardship is theological. There are hundreds of bible passages that speak directly to Stewardship. I’ve even asserted once or twice from this very pulpit that there are no verses in the bible that are not about Stewardship. Again, from an economic standpoint, this is not something our treasurer can take to the bank.

So why do we cling to such a fragile and, yes, economically irresponsible model? It’s for the same reason that we can apply the metaphor of an earthly institution like a kingdom onto Christ’s Godhead without fear of stretching the metaphor too far. It’s because God’s economics are not the limited, narrowly applicable, tit-for-tat economics of this world. In Christ’s kingdom there are no transaction fees, no exchange of goods, no striving for gains at the margins, because those things just don’t make sense.

The economy of salvation does not start with a pocket book. Coins in the collection plate are not the way to heaven. This is to say that the income model of the church has nothing to do with the presence of God in our lives, or the promise of Christ as our savior. It is not we who choose to come to God’s presence by deigning to be here; God is present, here or otherwise, and so is salvation through Christ. We forget this when we approach God from the arrogance of consent.

The thing about governments whose authority is derived by consent is that the transaction is not one way. The constitutions of such governments, including our own magnificent document, lay out boundaries and expectations on both parties, the government and the governed, and our implicit signature binds us to that pact.

While we must not approach God from the arrogance of consent, we are, as God’s people, parties to a similar pact, only this pact is called a covenant, and the boundaries and expectations therein are what we spend a lifetime trying to hone, failing at it, being forgiven, and trying again. From the earliest of God’s covenants—when God promised Noah that he would never again destroy the earth by flood—to the covenant that is embodied in the promise of redemption through Christ’s great paschal sacrifice, we are bound to support and promote God’s work on this earth.

There are many platforms by which we can do God’s work, and this little stone structure we call St. John’s is just one example. But it’s our example. It’s our platform. It’s our place to enact and enjoy our covenant with God, and our covenant with each other through fellowship and ministries.

The kingdoms of this earth rise and fall, and their authority waxes and wanes with the foolishness of kings and the capriciousness of the people. But the kingdom of God, where Christ is King, knows no such transience.

I have that on good authority.