April 26, 2008

The Church’s Treasury

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Diocese of New York Warden’s Conference / April 26 2008
Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine
Proper 24: For Vocation in Daily Work
Eccl 3:1,9-13; 1 Pet 2:11-17; Matt 6:19-24
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

I could briefly summarize today’s readings as: Don’t Worry be Happy, Be a Good Citizen, and Try Not to Make too Much Money. The first is better known in its Latin version, Carpe diem; the second — Be a Good Citizen — is sound advice as long as one lives in a good city.

It is the third, Try Not to Make Too Much Money, that appears directed at those who serve the church. Church wardens are volunteers, so you never expected to “live by the church;” but even the clergy who do — because the rectory is often next-door, are only very rarely embarrassed with riches. The matchbook-cover promise, Go to School to Increase Your Earning Power, doesn’t apply to seminary. Rather, the church compensates its clergy based on the biblical command to leave the threshing ox unmuzzled — as well as on a short leash and moving in circles.

So devoting your life church work, on a stipend or as a volunteer, is a good way to follow our Lord’s advice not to lay up treasure on earth.

+ + +

If, that is, we are talking about the kind with images of politicians, in various denominations. But there is another kind of treasure more beguiling than folding green. And it exists in various denominations, too: Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran.... It is a treasure the church and its workers are tempted to store up, perhaps compensating for getting less of the kind with a politician’s image and likeness: whether Tiberius Caesar or Andrew Jackson. It is the treasure of stable security, of becoming an institution.

Saint Peter shows this at work; he counseled good citizenship so the church could survive in the Empire. But the Empire soon got so bad that good citizenship became impossible for Christians, forced to choose between Christ and Caesar.

Those who had counseled obedience found themselves re-evaluating — Peter ended up crucified head-down; and Paul must have reconsidered the wisdom of appealing to Caesar’s justice when he faced Caeser’s sword. The apostles learned they could not serve two masters — Christ and Caesar — though too late to leave epistles to that effect.

Imperial persecution clarified the church’s vision as only the hangman can — to see that survival on Caesar’s terms was not worth it, and the time had passed for playing goody two-sandals. So, strange as it may sound, thank God for Caesar, who gave the church something to stand up to, something to stand up for. Persecution reminded the church of its mission: not to survive by ceasing to be itself — but to spend itself for the life of the world, as its Lord had done.

Caesar reminded the church that those who seek to save their life will lose it. Caesar reminded the church that it was the body of Christ — Christ crucified under Pontius Pilate, who suffered death and was buried, and only then was raised from the dead. Christ set the pattern for the church: Only by losing life can life be saved; only what dies can be raised again.

+ + +

Since those fiery days, the world’s animosity towards the church has cooled to chilly toleration. And how has the church responded? How does the church expend its energy these days, now that Caesar no longer persecutes? Isn’t most of the church’s warfare these days internal? Where is the church’s treasure being spent — on outgoing mission, or ongoing questions of self-definition? Is the church laying up treasure in heaven, safe from moth and rust and thieves — or squandering its resources on ecclesiastical mothballs, Rustoleum, and burglar alarms?

It happens in parishes, national churches — it even happens in cathedrals... so I’m told! The focus shifts from mission to talk about mission, from vision to the vision statement. When this happens, the church’s vision is obstructed by the bulk of its own precious self, and the church abdicates its title as a wonderful and sacred mystery and verges on becoming an institution like any other. Preoccupied with survival rather than with mission, it resigns its role as bride of Christ and becomes more like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, the wedding banquet transformed into a shuttered room whose lonely inhabitant tries to preserve a past that never was.

+ + +

Am I exaggerating? Think of the resources spent on the present Anglican Communion disagreements. The Episcopal Church treasures the Communion, and rightly so — but here is an opportunity to reform and revive the very thing we treasure if we are willing to set aside preoccupation with its structure for a time to focus on its purpose: to develop a Covenant not based on who’s in and who’s out — but upon the mission we share to a suffering world, with the Communion as a vessel well-suited to bear the good news to the ends of the earth — because it’s already there!

We are called and commissioned to risk what we treasure, to spend ourselves for the sake of the gospel, in a gospel fashion. It is not that we don’t need structures and vessels, but that they are means to an end, not ends in themselves. We are meant to use them, and sometimes lose them. Indeed, we are called to lose our very lives and thus to save them; for only what dies can be raised; only what is spent can be redeemed. True wealth, after all, is revealed in what you spend, not in what you possess. The church is most truly itself when it spends itself with an abandon that matches the liberality of the spendthrift Christ — Christ who gave himself up on the cross, who spent himself completely, and all for the love of his bride, the church.

What a perfectly mad young couple, who store up no treasure, spend all they have on each other — but having each other need nothing else. You know the story: she cut off her hair to buy him a watch-fob; he pawned his watch to buy her a comb — gifts, in their purchase, rendered useless — yet infinitely precious.

What, then, is the church’s true wealth? Only Christ, and him crucified. And what is his treasure? He has told us how much he values each of us poor fragile creatures as chosen and precious. As Solomon’s old love song tells it, sung in a Christian key: Christ is our treasure, and we are his.

+ + +

Long ago, a good deacon faced Caesar, who demanded the church’s treasures. Expecting gold and silver, how angered he was when the deacon assembled the poor and said, This is the church’s treasure.

We members of Christ’s body are the church’s treasure still, because treasured by Christ, because we are where his heart is. And no moth, no rust, no thief can touch us. We are Christ’s treasure, and this holy place — and all of the parishes from which we come to gather here — are God’s treasuries. Don’t you ever let anyone tell you they are just institutions. And don’t you ever let anyone make them so. You who teach and you who learn, you who worship and you who proclaim, you who administer and steward and care for the fabric of these vessels, keep your vision clear, always turned to the needs of the world that the church is called to serve. Carpe diem: Seize the day — the time is now. Christ is risen and has given us the greatest treasure — given himself into our hands, fragile treasures of bread and wine that feed and strengthen us to spend ourselves in Christ’s service.

May we now and ever spend ourselves freely, all of us, who bought by Christ, are free to serve — Christ’s treasure on earth as he is ours in heaven.+


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how you get from "Carpe Diem" to "Don't Worry, Be Happy"?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

The resonance between Ecclesiastes 3:1,9-13 and Horace Odes 1.11 is striking; both carry the sense that it is foolish to worry about tomorrow, but to take advantage of what each day brings. Of course, while at GTS I was forcibly reminded of the Latin tag as it was carved on the entrance of one of the older buildings -- Hoffmann, IIRC. I know that some see "Carpe Diem" as a kind of rallying call to ambition and excellence (as in "Dead Poets' Society") but I think both Horace and Solomon had a slightly more cynical view, tinged with a soupçon of melancholia.

RFSJ said...

Very uplifting sermon, esp. as I now have to face writing my own for tomorrow!


June Butler said...

We are called to spend ourselves and spend our treasures for Christ's sake, beginning today.

What, then, is the church’s true wealth? Only Christ, and him crucified. And what is his treasure? He has told us how much he values each of us poor fragile creatures as chosen and precious.

And the least among us are the greatest treasures.

Yours is a new twist on "Carpe Diem", but I like it, Tobias.