Sunday, September 25, 2005

9/25/05, Sermon

We live at cross-purposes. In the church, when we say something is important, but then live as though something else is important, it is called “hypocrisy.” In the world it is called “taking care of business.” What we say is important in either place varies from person to person, from place to place, from time to time. What is important in both places all the time is money. Everything else serves the money motive. In the church, we don’t say or do things the members won’t like because they will leave the church, or just quit giving. Things work the same way in the world. We don’t do, in either place, anything that isn’t good for business.
The United States hasn’t ratified the treaty calling for an end to the use of land mines because we manufacture land mines, and because the military finds them to be very useful, and because no one is placing them in our neighborhoods, and pasture lands, and scenic vistas. We won’t work for an end to global warming because industries would lose billions of dollars reducing emissions, and taxes would increase, and the cost of goods and services would go up, and the American people would vote politicians out of office who voted for clean air. It wouldn’t be good for business to end global warming. If it isn’t good for business, it isn’t done.
“Business” is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. If a profit can be made, it will be made, no matter what. No CEO ever recommended, and no Board of Directors ever approved, and no meeting of the Stockholders ever ratified a business strategy that was designed to produce less profit for the sake of a cleaner environment or a better world. American automakers could have been producing smaller, more fuel efficient cars for the last 50 years. Larger, less efficient cars were more profitable. We go where the money is. We go where the votes are. And, between the two, we’ll choose the money.
And we can talk about values, and about being “value-driven.” And, we can write mission statements about service and love. But, money is the value. And, making money is the mission. To make more money this quarter than last quarter. And to do whatever it takes to achieve that end. And to not do anything that might interfere with the realization of that end. We like the idea of compassion and the Golden Rule, but we have to pay the bills.
We are experiencing the Revenge of the Canarsee Delawares. The Canarsee Delawares, you will remember, sold Manhattan to Peter Minuit and the West India Company for a handful of glass beads and a couple of silver mirrors (Okay. That can’t be substantiated, but it makes for good copy, and it was for next to nothing no matter what actually changed hands, and no matter what was used for barter, my point remains untouched). Well, the joke is on us. The Curse of the Canarsee drives us to sell heart and soul and the worthy future of the whole country, if not the entire world, for glass and plastic, which we regularly send to the landfill to make room for more glass and plastic. The ghosts of Native Americans gather on the edge of the Happy Hunting Ground, to peer over the side, to look, point, and roll around, holding their sides, laughing. But, unpacking our latest purchase of glass and plastic, and admiring its sheen and shine, we cannot imagine a life that didn’t promise more of this stuff forever. This is the life.
What does it take, do you think? How much do we need? Of what, really, does life consist? The church should be able to explore these questions. The church should be able to conduct experiments in living that are immune to the cultural fascination with money and profit (and with glass and plastic). Ah, but, the church has bills to pay, too, you know. As long as there is overhead, the church is going to be compromised in its ability to be the church. Or, to put it another way, the church is going to compromise its ability to be the church in order to “take care of business” and pay the bills. How to be the church and pay the bills is the toughest trick in the Big Book of Tricks.
And so, we talk about being inclusive, but look around. Mostly white, middle to upper middle class, middle-aged to elderly, well-educated and socially astute, people here. Mostly people just like us here. And, how many of us would keep coming if lots of people not like us showed up? If the Religious Right, say, moved in and wanted gospel music sung to CD’s played over the sound system, and took over the Open Mike to rail against the things we approve, and to applaud the things we oppose, how long before we stopped coming? We talk about being inclusive, but if we include only gay people who think like we do, and African-Americans who think like we do, and Yuppies who think like we do, and Octogenarians who think like we do, how inclusive is that really? And, how many people can we include who don’t think like we do, and still have enough of us to pay the bills? You see the problem. The problem is that the church can be the church only if it doesn’t have to pay the bills. When it comes down to being the church or paying the bills, the church pays the bills.
The smart thing to do would be to reduce our bills. We can be more like the church with fewer bills. Where is the balance point? At what point do the bills which enable us to be the church become the bills which prevent us from being the church? When the church has so many bills that the focus of the church is how to pay the bills and not how to be the church, the church has crossed the line, passed the point.
I have been ordained for over 35 years, and have served 4 churches in that time. That’s a lot of Session meetings. In every Session meeting for 35 years the major portion of the time spent meeting was spent talking about paying the bills. I have never served on a Session that spent its time imagining how to be the church, wondering how to be the church, discussing new and better ways to be the church. Every Session has spent most of its time imagining, wondering, discussing how to pay the bills. And every new program idea or proposal for ministry and service was evaluated in terms of its potential impact on the church’s ability to pay the bills. In order to be approved, a program or ministry idea has to be so innocuous as to be invisible, because, otherwise, it might offend someone and they might leave the church, or stop giving, and then where would we be?
At some point, the bills stop enabling us to be the church and start preventing us from being the church, and no one has any idea of where that point is. And, don’t think this is just about the church. The same thing applies in our own personal lives, and the same thing applies to the country as a whole, and to the world at large. At some point the bills that enable us to have a life begin to keep us from living. At some point, we begin to live to pay the bills. And, we have no idea of where that point is.
We have to do a better job of paying attention. We have to have a better idea of what it takes. Of what we need, and why we need it. We cannot just spend our lives collecting glass and plastic. What are we about? What do we mean, intend, with the lives we are living? How do our bills serve that meaning, that intention? At what point do our bills begin to compromise that meaning, that intention? What do we want to do with the lives that are ours? What do we need to do it? How does what we buy serve it, serve the life we intend to live?
There is a vast amount of difference between a tool and a prop. A tool helps us do what we came to do. A prop serves an image. We have an image of a successful life. We think we know what “success” looks like. To “look” successful, we need the props. The image requires the props. We spend our lives collecting the props which sustain the image. Do you see how empty that is? How sad it is? We BUY success! We OWN the props which project the image. And, we exhaust ourselves maintaining the props which sustain the image, which create the illusion that we are successful, and “together,” and the envy of our peers. But, the props don’t enable us to do anything other than appear to be successful. There are people, maybe you have known some of them, who have Steinway pianos in their homes which no one knows how to play, because they create the right effect. Other people own horses which no one rides for the same reason. How many of our bills pay for props, and how many pay for tools?
Before we make a purchase, we need to ask, “Is this a prop or a tool? What will it help me do?” We have to find ways to reduce our bills by asking if, and how, our expenditures enable us to accomplish what we came to do; by asking if, and how, they are allowing us to do what is needed. Of course, to make that inquiry, we have to know what we are about. We have to know what constitutes our work. We have to know what we are doing here and what we need in order to get the job done. We can not afford to pay for things that maintain an image, that create an impression of the church without actually enabling us to be the church—as only we can be the church—in the world.


bryak said...

Amen brother.

"We like the idea of compassion and the Golden Rule, but we have to pay the bills." - I particulary liked that. People so often say they're this and that, or that they believe in this and that, but don't actually live their words. And your right, while hypocrisy is one name for it, taking care of business sounds much nicer.

Mm, dinner time. Good blog.

rrusso said...

Great message this morning. Glad you posted it here.I have, for many years, wanted to think (or dream) of the church as more organic in nature as opposed to being merely another organization. This was why I loved the small group meetings we used to have in our home. It was the closest I ever came to experiencing what I thought of as the truly organic church, the kind I used to envision the 'New Testament' church may have been like before Constantine got hold of it.
But even then there were times when it seemed necessary to have a larger meeting where all the smaller groups got together and that of course required a larger building and that required money and the organizational skills of a number of people to pull it off and we are back to where all the problems start, etc.
Well, you can see that I don't have answers to the whole issue but it just seems to me that there ought to be an easier way to 'be the church'. I thought about sharing some of this this morning (during open mic)but couldn't get my thoughts together quick enough to make a coherent statement. Thanks for stirring up our thinking though.

Arnie said...

You are absolutely right Jim. Two examples. Fifteen years ago cars got better gas mileage than they do now, but yet we are told there is a fuel crisis and car makers should make cars that get better mileage.

You also say that "no Board of Directors ever approved, and no meeting of the Stockholders ever ratified a business strategy that was designed to produce less profit for the sake of a cleaner environment or a better world".

Since 2001 the 5 major oil refineries (companies) have made $254 billion in profits. There is no incentive to create more refineries to refine oil with those kind of monies flowing in, but yet we are told that there are not enough refineries to produce enough oil to make it cheap.

And you are right about politicians too. Our own Richard Burr took $225,000 in campaign money from oil companies in his latest senate campaign.

It is nice to come to church and find refuge from this storm of greed with people who feel the way you do, and have a grip on the gravity of the situation.