Sermon preached by the Reverend Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 31, 2011
Our country is two days away from defaulting on our loans. If this is the first that you’re hearing of it, I apologize for the being the bearer of bad news, but given the amount of coverage this has been getting, I trust that you all have already heard. What I’ve found interesting as I watch this spectacle unfold is how all sides of the debate have participated in conflating our Government with a business. I say interesting, because at the end of the day, the Government is not a business and although our Government certainly needs to figure out its budgetary problems, governments and businesses have different purposes, different goals, and different measures of success. This got me to thinking about the many ways that we get to conflating governments and businesses with a third entity, the church.
Confusing the church with government is the easiest to see, especially when we look across history. At many times in the past the Church has tried to play Government. Whether it was the wide-reaching political intrigue of Rome from the 5th century through the 16th century and beyond, the attempted creation of Protestant theocratic city-states during the reformation, the origins of our own Anglican tradition with the monarch of England as the head of the Church of England, or even the fact that almost every Town Green in New England enjoys a Congregational Church along with the Town Hall as its neighbors, we can’t seem to shake the belief that somehow the Church would make a good Government. As heirs of American social and political thought, we know that the Church and Government never mix well—when we look back through history we see that so often when the two get together, suffering and intolerance prevail.
Why the failure? At a fundamental level, the Government and the Church are not the same; the Government and the Church have different purposes, different goals, and different measures of success. Among other things, the Government is concerned with maintaining a stable society and looking after the welfare of its citizens. The Church, when it is doing its work, can destabilize social structure and is equally concerned with all of God’s children—those within its fold and those not.
Can you imagine how today’s Gospel reading would have turned out if Jesus was a government? I had visions of questionnaires to determine the hunger and need of members of the crowd, of bureaucracies designed to make sure that members of the crowd had paid up their taxes before receiving bread and fish. But then I realized if Jesus were a government, then he probably wouldn’t have bothered with feeding the crowd of over five thousand. They weren’t his people after all, the disciples were, and it was going to be difficult enough to call five loaves and two fish split among thirteen people a meal. I mean, come on, do the math.
Confusing the Church with a business is a bit harder to notice, as it is often subtle and because as a society, we tend to see everything as though it were a business. These “business-colored glasses” influence everything from our discussion of budgets and fundraising, whether it is at the local parish level or the Diocesan level, to the search and call process for hiring clergy. Most people don’t know this, but the method for hiring clergy used in the Episcopal Church as well as several other mainline denominations since the middle of the last century, was modeled after the search process used by corporations and believed to be best business practice for congregations. The Church is only just beginning to recognize that maybe this wasn’t the best idea. What’s more, this country is filled with churches that follow best business practices, churches that maintain strictly balanced budgets and have all the proper financial controls and oversight committees but are nonetheless failing as churches as they become increasingly inconsequential in their slow death spiral.
Why the failure? Businesses and the Church are not the same; businesses and the Church have different purposes, different goals, and different measures of success. The purpose of a business is to make money, to turn a profit. If a business is unable to make money, then it has failed as a business. What’s more, the antithesis of profit is not simply a lack of profit, but is operating a business with a deficit. While the Church can consecrate bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ, can invoke the Holy Spirit, and can discern the work of God in the world, it can’t spend money that doesn’t exist. That said, money and a balanced budget are not the goals of the church—they are simply a tool and a limitation of reality, respectively.
I was trying to imagine what today’s Gospel would have looked like if Jesus were a business, but I couldn’t, because it is utter foolishness, like a child’s fairy tale. Not only did Jesus set out to take on a business venture without the necessary capital, he then set out and offered his goods for free. And the Gospel would have us believe that by giving it away for free, he ended the venture with more than he started! And let’s not even get started on the scripture from the Prophet Isaiah, who is clearly a raving madman.
There is a particular church that I know and love. It has a quirky tendency to take things literally—they once cut down all the trees out front of their building because their Diocese told them that they needed to be more visible in the community. They also take the example set by Jesus in today’s Gospel literally. This little congregation, located in an economically depressed region, takes whatever money is left in their bank account at the end of every month and spends it all putting on a free dinner for the entire community. Their last capital campaign was not to improve their sanctuary, which is almost painfully tiny, but was to upgrade their kitchen so that they could feed even more people every month.
That congregation lives a financial reality that would send most congregations into a paroxysm of anxiety, for they start every month with no money in the bank, and end the month with enough to feed the community.
What this particular church and today’s Gospel reminds us is that the primary purpose and concern of the Church is sharing God’s abundance, whether it is an abundance of grace, an abundance of salvation, an abundance of Good News, an abundance of love, or an abundance of welcome with all people. Because ultimately, we are the church not so that we may take part in beautiful worship or the hospitality of coffee hour, not so that we may simply tend to our own, but so that we may build God’s kingdom in the world by sharing what we have found with others. We are a church so that we may build a dwelling place big enough for all of God’s children, a dwelling place where all are fed until they are filled with God’s abundance.
Thanks be to God.