Follow me on Twitter @revbrock

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Accounting in the Church

“Accounting in the Church” Year B, Proper 16 August 26, 2012 Madison Chapel, Madison, Mississippi When I worked in the Math Lab at Mclennan Community College in Waco my primary task was to receive any student who needed help with their mathematics courses, tutor them, and encourage them along in their class. We would assist students from the very lowest of the remedial classes all the way up through those senior-level electives in statistics, calculus, and analysis. Occasionally, though, I’d have to turn away a student. Not because they we “unhelpable,” but because they mistakenly came to the Math Lab asking for help with accounting. I would gently point out to them that, unfortunately, accounting is way too hard for a mathematician, and that they would have to consult their instructor for help. I did try to learn accounting, at least enough to help those few wayward students who wandered into the lab. Unfortunately, I was no match for the vocabulary of that discipline and left Accounting where I left Art Appreciation, Psychology, and an unfortunate Bowling elective. One word from accounting stuck with me, though, and it came to mind when I was reading over today’s lectionary passages – shrinkage. This, while not a highly technical term, aptly describes what Jesus encountered when he made the harsh pronouncement we previously read. You see, shrinkage is the “slack” used in a company’s plan to absorb a loss. It’s the jar of pickles that gets dropped on aisle three, or the t-shirt that walks out the front door in a customer’s purse, or the side of beef that’s left unsold because not enough people ordered the special. Jeffery Weiss makes a broader connection with the term shrinkage. He says, “depending on your theology, shrinkage is either a bean-counter’s way of acknowledging the universal nature of Murphy’s Law, or a reflection of the essential Fallen nature of the world. In other words, shrinkage may be reduced but not avoided.” In the not-for-profit life of the local congregation such a concern is unnecessary. We do not live in the same world as a grocery chain or department store that must plan each year for such eventualities. Rather, if something unexpectedly breaks or “walks off” the church relies on insurance or charity to meet the newfound need. Beyond the use of shrinkage as an accounting principle, I find that shrinkage is an appropriate and necessary concept in aiding our understanding of the church. We, as the church, have become so allergic to the idea of shrinkage among our congregations that we have transformed the Gospel and our very identities as Christians into a non-offensive, neutral, harmless message. As a pastor I have a need to be liked and accepted that is slightly more acute than average. I want people to find me approachable, wise, intelligent, well-spoken, tenderhearted, a competent pulpiteer, and a good leader. I want people to like me enough to join my congregation and commit to my ideas of ministry because, after all, they’re great ideas! When a family choses to leave the church I serve, for whatever reason, then, there are feelings of failure, loss, and disappointment. I’ve mourned the loss of families to transfers, deployments, petty arguments, and fiery business meetings, even when those families were the root cause of strife and heartache in the congregation. For too long, I fear, the church has been more interested in numbers that we can compare than in the authentic formation of disciples. It is much easier, especially in a culture like ours, to learn how to fit in with the predominant “Christian” culture, to develop our own quirks, find our own niche, sell our own gimmick, and develop our own style than to hear the hard words of Jesus and live them out. Look at the divisive scene that Jesus creates in our John passage. Let’s not sugar-coat what Jesus is instructing his disciples to do – he is commanding them to commit cannibalism! Yes, I’m aware that we can clean up this offensive command through metaphor or through a connection to the transubstantiation theory of the Eucharist, but we must be aware that the people hearing Jesus speak did no such thing – they are scandalized by this instruction. I found one perspective on this shocking pronouncement particularly interesting. Consider the perception of cannibalism to the Greco-Roman and Hellenized Jewish community (after all, Jesus is speaking in Capernaum): all those races, nationalities, and cultures that were not “roman” were considered to be cannibalistic barbarians. In fact, Albert Harrill has done excellent work in demonstrating that anyone acting too wild, too un-civilized was described in terms of cannibalism. These “outsiders” lacked the most basic human capacity to understand that eating another’s flesh was abominable. Jesus, then, is saying that whoever would follow him, whoever would have him “abide” within him must take on the nature of the most un-civilized, the most un-roman, the most un-Jewish, the most “Otherness” possible. They must become a band of outsiders whose allegiance is to the One who came from the Father. We know from this side of the Cross that cannibalism has never been either the nature or the essence of the relationship a believer has with Christ. What we still have yet to grasp is that there is a strain of scandal, of shock in the Gospel that will ultimately drive many away. Jesus, with this one pronouncement, loses many of his disciples. So harsh is this teaching that he wonders if the Apostles will leave him, too. We must take seriously this overarching theme of "enduring" and "falling away." John contrasts the perishable manna that the Jewish ancestors ate in the wilderness, along with the flesh of the quail supplied at twilight, with the enduring food and drink of Jesus' flesh and blood. Jesus tells his hearers not simply "to believe" but to endure: "Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” The emphasis on endurance identifies these people with Jesus, the "true vine" of which Christians are branches. We can see that John uses symbols and metaphors throughout his gospel precisely to offend his Jewish audience. Jesus in our passage not only apparently condones something prohibited in the Torah (cannibalism and the drinking of blood), but also brazenly applies the concepts of living water, being lifted up, being the manna from heaven, and ascending to the Father to himself. It’s no wonder that polite religious society wanted him dead! How hard, then, must we look to see that the theme of John 6, and really of the entire gospel, is one of separation and alienation? There is something schismatic about Jesus – there is something very sword-like in the gospel. We could even say that this cannibalistic passage works in an anti-missionary way - to steer outsiders away from the community and to encourage unworthy insiders to leave. It seems, then, that there is something segregationist in the Gospel. Those who want to follow the great Teacher or the Moral Exemplar cannot stomach the offensive and disgusting commitments that Jesus demands. Only those who have understood Jesus to be the Holy one of God, the one who possesses the eternal words of life stay in spite of their discomfort. What if we preached this Gospel? How would the church look if the invitation at the end of millions of services this morning was an invitation to be rejected by the culture in which we find our comfort and identity? What if it was a rejection of the Promised Land that we have fought and bled for? The trouble is that we identify too much with the way of life in America as the Kingdom of God. We have transitioned, especially here in the South, into a maintenance mentality that reduces the church to the preservation of the well-behaved Christian morality in the newest generation of Mississippians. Consider the father who took me to task via email over comments I preached at an ordination service – that perhaps the best and brightest of our children and youth should not be directed toward medical school, law school, or an engineering program, but rather toward a career of service in the public sector, toward non-profit ministry, or even (gasp!) to missions. It is fine to follow a Jesus that wants to help us avoid eternal torment in a Miltonian hell – it is something else entirely to let our children be outcasts in society because the follow the Holy One of God. I believe that if the church is going to be the church in the 21st century then it will inevitably shrink. This is one of the toughest things a pastor can realize – that the model of bigger churches and impressive sanctuaries, bigger memberships, coffee houses and bookstores, children’s ministries consulted by Disney, and all the rest are going to be outmoded by the harsh truths of Jesus. That kind of shrinkage would likely cost a pastor her job, or a music minister his choir. That sounds like the end. Of course, we could just keep preaching the less-confrontational gospel, the one that only cares about the eternal condition of those in the pews. We could keep on calling the maintenance phase of the church “discipleship” and pat one another on the head saying “there, there.” We could send our people across international lines on “mission trips” that look strangely like Christian tourism. We could continue to stake out our own little Kingdoms and defend them against our brothers more vehemently than we seek the lost and wounded. We could do all that. But somewhere I fear that someone is keeping account of how faithfully we follow even the harshest of Christ’s instructions. I fear that we must hear, as from on high, choose this day what your will preach, what you will teach, and what sort of disciples you will make. I pray we choose to stay.

Can We Still be Wise?

“Can We Still Be Wise?” Year B, Proper 15 August 19, 2012 Madison Chapel, Madison, Mississippi My wife used to wear a t-shirt when we were in college that depicted a cartoon roller-skate whizzing across the shirt with the words “I roll with the wise” emblazoned below. She would joke that she wore it when she knew she was going on a date with me. What is more interesting (and funny) is that I haven’t seen that shirt since we got married. Perhaps getting to know me gave her cause to find some person who needed a t-shirt more than she did. Yes, Christian generosity must be the reason. Wisdom doesn’t count in our culture. It has no part of the current currency of information, commodity, and personality. Wisdom is too slow to be of any use in America, and, for that matter, in the church. Wisdom is for old people who have the time to not make decisions; our churches trade on information that changes with the next data set and the next methodology and strategy. Where has wisdom gone? And, for that matter, what is the biblical image of wisdom? After all, Paul encourages us to be wise, to not be time-wasters and drunkards. The entire message of Proverbs, which includes wisdom herself personified and calling out to the simple, is to be wise rather than foolish. What is wisdom, and how can it be understood in a world where information is the quick commodity of life? Let us try to put a finger on wisdom. I find wisdom to be more than the apocryphal “knowledge rightly applied to experience.” Beyond this rather vague and generic frame, let us understand that wisdom has an attitudinal or emotional as well as an intellectual component. Wisdom is a configuration of soul; it is moral character. And fostering moral character, it is no overstatement to say, is at all times the greatest goal of education. It is the goal of the “phreneo Christou,” the mind of Christ to which Paul urges his churches, it is the fulfillment of the moral codes and virtue lists we read and memorize. It is at once the ability to resist temptation and the understanding of why that resistance is eternally necessary. Wisdom is, then, shorthand for the goal of the faithfully formed disciple. The church is not the only place where wisdom may be heard, but it is certainly a primary source of that wisdom. The Scriptures testify that the fear of the Lord is the beginning and culmination of wisdom. The church must, then, be that place where wisdom is proclaimed, but also more than proclaimed. The church must be that place where wisdom is embodied, enacted, and sought in community. Hear the words of Proverbs about what Lady Wisdom has done: she has set up a great house, spread a great table, and is out in the busy metropolitan streets hawking a dinner party, a salon, a seminar around her kitchen table for the edification and education of anyone willing to come. That sounds too familiar… The Common Lectionary has cut us off from the great contest going on in these chapters of Proverbs. Over and against the call of Wisdom to the simple to enter into a challenging, long-term, yet ultimately satisfying relationship, Lady Folly calls from just across the street. She, too, is holding a dinner party, and though seductive, her party will offer no life, no wisdom, no meaning. Hers is a dinner party for the hook-up culture, for the thrill seekers, for the work-hard-play-hard friends of mine. It is a party of folly, that relaxing word that reminds us of betting the coin toss in an NFL game or playing croquet. Folly is easier on the spirit, it seems. Cheap jokes and silly stories entice us. Folly often looks pretty good. The wine is stronger, the music louder. We are supposed to choose the less-fun path of wisdom. Paul points to drunkenness, the very point of Lady Folly’s dinner party, as the mark of time wasting among the believers. There is room to broaden drunkenness and its pointless and senseless waste of time to other ways we waste ourselves in meaninglessness. Wisdom is applied here to the living of our days. Time is not featured as some cosmic catchall which we simply fill up by living so long. Rather, time is an ingredient in human life, standing in need of redemption as much as any other aspect of human being. "Making the most of the time" is a call to consider our lifetimes a time of salvation, to make the task of being formed into the likeness of Christ a lifelong pursuit that has no room for the drunkenness of folly. We are urged to wisdom, filling ourselves not with wine but with Spirit, with Christ, with God. The Pentecost church was taken for a bunch of drunkards. To be brimful in this way is the better part of wisdom. To be drawn into singing, psalms, hymns, spirituals, thanksgiving, glad worship is no ignorance, no waste. For the fullness of Spirit is properly experienced only in community. Where drunkenness, or any other selfish diversion for that matter—even a religious one—tends to isolate, take away, or destroy family and community, the church is encouraged in another direction. This is the course of wisdom as the church always tries to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Yes, we can be drunk of church. We hear “make the most of the time” and imagine a week crammed full of programs, trips, classes, and meetings to maximize our involvement in the Kingdom. But this tendency, which, in my opinion, is a devilish corruption of the mission of the church to make people whole by making them thinner of soul and more separated from the world they are called to heal, it is much safer than actually living wisely and being the church. It is easier to be a teetotaler than to be a mature believer who understands the wisdom of self-control. It is easier to be an extremist and to draw clear boundaries than to live in the messy compromises that wisdom calls us to. Notice that the invitation of Lady Wisdom is to the simple, the senseless, and the immature: hardly the crowd we want on a steering committee. We lose control of the church when we start inviting these sorts of people to come and be formed by the Spirit, to come and sit around the table that Wisdom has set. There’s no telling just what we will learn of these simpletons when we are forced to sit in extended conversation with them around the bread and wine of the Church. Oh what a beautiful image! The master sending out the servants to the alleys and streets inviting the dumb, the foolish, the simple-minded to a feast where they can be honored as human beings and presented a spread of food that truly feeds – it is as though we continue to hear that theme throughout the whole of Scripture. Jesus has said that he is that bread which sustains unto eternal life. He is the wine that wells up within us in new blood as sons and daughters of God. But the table we are called to is not simply the act of taking and eating or drinking; it is the sitting with the other in dialogue and relationship and learning to live wisely in a world allergic to such slow work. We have been convinced that to make the most of time means to get more done in each hour, in each minute. We have been sold a vision of life that says sitting with strangers and being slowly formed into the likeness of our God is not as valuable as quickly scheduling another meeting or service or seminar. It is a waste of time to sit at this table. The food has taken too long to prepare, the service a little too slow, the conversation a little too pointed and personal. But the smells! But the scene of vegetables piled high on the Lord’s buffet, of the meats slowly roasting over a Holy Fire, of brother and sister serving one another out of the love and fellowship that is as much a mark of the true church as the stripes on Christ’s back. Can we still be wise? Sure. It is not enough to say that we need to slow down and breathe occasionally. It is not enough to say that we should resist the information-as-commodity culture we live in; such is the air we breathe. Living wisely is not just about time. It is about the intentional formation into the likeness of Christ to which we as individuals and as the church corporate must submit. Such a formation will involve Scripture, history, and a healthy dose of patience with one another. For the classroom of the wise is really a kitchen; our laboratory a dining room. The curriculum is people learning to love one another and to mutually submit to one another and to the Lord Jesus Christ. We must learn to present the Feast of the Lord in such a way that it is more than an invitation to memorialize the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ; we must learn to present our very existence as the church as a feast of fellowship, of embrace, and of the continual reformation of our lives into the nature of Jesus Christ. Even our finest culinary artists will not match God's creation in perfection, completion, and stability. Those are the traits of Wisdom's house, God's earth. But with bread and with wine, with soup and an open table, we begin to sense the wonder of the creative act that is Holy Wisdom, in the person of a woman, whose kitchen is filled with good things and whose home is a place of welcome. "Come and eat," she proclaims. "Come to Wisdom's feast."