Sunday, March 17, 2013

The transactional calculus of scarcity vs. abundant selfless extravagance

In 1982 and 1983, Nativity Episcopal Church commissioned local artist Margaret Cavanaugh to create six stained glass windows to represent the six days of creation. Nativity has had, over the years, a number of ministries advocating on behalf of God’s creation. These works of art shared a theme with the ministry to which this Church was called at the time.

But why did we give up a substantial chunk of money commissioning stained glass windows? Could the money not have been better used more directly in pursuit of education or advocacy about the issues the congregation cared about? Why does the church squander precious funds on vestments and artwork and beautiful buildings when there are so many people in so much need?

If money is scarce, what’s even more scarce is our time. There’s so much we could be doing in the world to make it better. Volunteering, writing letters, demonstrating, working tireless on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed of every stripe. God knows they need advocates! And there’s so much work to be done. So why are we squandering our time here right now, sitting in this space hearing lessons that frankly we’ve heard before, hearing a sermon that we can probably do without, and eating some token bread and wine? Liturgy doesn’t do anything, does it? Why wait until the end of the service to go forth into the world being the face of God to those we meet? Don’t people need us right now?

If God’s people are in need, isn’t all this church stuff a holy waste of time and money?

We encounter God when we love our neighbors as our selves, even and especially our most vulnerable neighbors, of whom God promised that whatever we do for the least of the hungry, the thirsty, the outcast, the sick, the prisoner, we do for God.

Or is that we encounter God in our sacred stories of God’s saving acts of old when we read scripture? Or do we encounter God through worship, especially in the sacraments of the church?

Maybe all of these are true. Within our Anglican tradition, of which Nativity Episcopal Church is a part, we don’t all emphasize all of them equally. Encountering God through love of neighbor might resonate more to many of us. Encountering the divine through service to, advocacy with, and love of our fellow humans seems to be an important part of our our congregation’s story. But it’s not the only way God can be found.

The more low church, or evangelical branch of Anglicanism stresses encountering God in scripture. And the Episcopal Church is a place where we do read a lot of scripture. Just this morning, we’ve heard four different passages from scripture read directly, and now you’re listening to a sermon that will (eventually) get around to talking about what that scripture means in our lives. The text of the rest of the liturgy is drawn heavily from words or images from scripture. So even if many of us wouldn’t say the first place we look for or find God is in the Bible, we do steep ourselves in the Bible quite a bit.

And we encounter God through worship, prayer, and the sacraments of the church. As a part of my formation process through the diocese, I’m taking a class that meets at a very high church, with a strong orientation toward the sacraments as THE central acts of Christian life. Do we primarily encounter God through receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ each Sunday and feast day?

Or are there other ways we encounter God? Do we encounter God through God’s creation? Do we encounter God through community? Do we encounter God through solitude, contemplation, and meditation? Do we encounter God through the arts? Do we encounter God through the use of our bodies? And do we have to choose?
One of my seminary classmates and I were going over our notes about the different traditions within Anglicanism, and how we vary in whether we emphasize finding God in service, scripture, or sacrament, and she asked “what if I find God in all three?” I think that’s part of the beauty of our tradition: there’s room for people whose primary encounter with the divine comes through service, through scripture, AND through sacrament.

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Talk about a holy waste! A pound of costly perfume? Worth almost a year’s wages? This is extravagant. How? Why? What makes this okay? Surely Jesus is about to scold Mary, right?

But no!

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Jesus encourages this extravagance! The same Jesus who said we’d be judged on how we treat those in need - Jesus said it was okay to use so much money in pursuit of - of what, exactly? An outpouring of love, to be sure, but how is this practical? How is this a good idea? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we restrained these senseless and impractical outpourings of love and focused our energy into loving and helping those in need?

We should not pass up the opportunity to worship for fear that it will deprive us of the opportunity to serve; far greater is the danger that in passing up one, we will fail to do the other as well, and then we neither worship nor serve.

Judas objected to pouring out the perfume because the money could have been used to help the poor, but had Mary passed on pouring perfume on Jesus, the poor would not have been helped anyway. As the Gospel tells us,

Judas said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.

Had Mary acted out of fear of losing one opportunity to encounter the divine, she would have missed out on both!

We are conditioned by our post-Eden world to think in terms of scarcity. There isn’t enough to go around, so whenever someone or something gains, someone or something else loses.

Thus, prudent stewardship requires us to calculate: what do we give up, and what do we gain. Economists refer to “opportunity cost,” how we quantify what we are not doing whenever we do something. Judas today provides a textbook example of opportunity cost: perfume poured on Jesus’ feet could thus not be sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor.

But Jesus challenges us to escape from that thinking. Life is not a zero-sum game. God’s abundance invites us to think not in terms of “or” but in terms of “and.” The economies of our world are foreign to the abundance of God’s grace.

In Isaiah, God challenges us:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

The wilderness is wild precisely because there are no “ways,” no roads, no paths there. The desert is characterized by a scarcity of water. But God’s abundant blessings overflow. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

God invites us to leave behind measuring and calculating and go all in. To throw ourselves in faith into the bounty of God’s love.

And when we show this extravagant love, God blesses and empowers us with even more extravagant love. I’m not claiming this is the prosperity gospel here - God’s blessing takes lots of different forms. But we don’t have to choose between worshiping God with our whole heart and our whole soul and our whole mind and our whole strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Indeed, our worship of God empowers us to love and serve our neighbors. Our time in worship, our reflection on these beautiful works of art, our whole-hearted embrace of Christian community - we do these without reservation. And then we are sent out, likewise without reservation, but with renewed gifts to take into the world in service.

These experiences open the door for a conversion of heart.
God calls us to turn away from the transactional calculus of scarcity and embrace the gospel of abundant grace and selfless extravagance.

In the course of my studies, I took a church finance class last semester. The instructor drove home the importance of good accounting practices because even the hint of financial scandal can devastate a church community. And believe me, I’ve lived that. Twenty years ago, I lost my church home because of a community divided by the discovery of misused church funds. My instructor made it seem like transparency and accountability even trumped mission: if charity or service couldn’t be done with proper record keeping, the Church shouldn’t do them. But Jesus does give us a different example in today’s Gospel.

The treasurer he appointed, Judas Iscariot, was a thief who stole from the common purse. Now this is in the Gospel according to John. Of all the Gospels, John has the highest Christology: Jesus in John’s account knows everything. When he prays, he sometimes even says “I know you already know this, God, but I’m saying it so the people around me can hear it.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus is omniscient from day one. And yet he chooses to appoint Judas to keep the money.
What example do we draw from this? If our conclusion is that God encourages fraud, that’s probably not quite the right direction here, but rather that we need to move past the mindset of scarcity. Jesus could give the purse to Judas because it didn’t matter. Freely have you received; freely give.

The new bishop of Rome is a Jesuit, a member of an order with whom I worked when I first attended Nativity, and who taught me a lot. I learned a prayer from my time with them translated from St. Ignatius himself. We started class with this prayer pretty frequently:

Lord, teach me to be generous;

teach me to serve you as you deserve,

to give and not to count the cost,

to fight and not to heed the wounds,

to toil and not to seek for rest,

to labor and not to seek reward,

except that of knowing that I do your will.

Ultimately, that’s what we can take away from last week’s parable of the prodigal son and his even more prodigal, more wastefully extravagant father and from this week’s account of Mary’s selfless extravagance: our God of Grace is inviting us to go all in. Freely have you received; freely give. Commit ourselves to worship, to service, to love without reservation, without measure. This transforms us, and prepares us to be able to receive God’s abundant grace. Judas today, the older brother last week - these people were shocked and horrified by these acts of selfless extravagance. Because in a world of scarcity, to give abundantly means to deny other opportunities. To be able to receive abundant grace requires a conversion of heart to recognize the limitlessness bounty of God’s grace: unmerited, unearned, and yet, miraculously, given to us all the same. Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine! Amen.