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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.

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