Monday, October 27, 2008

Sermon: "The Economy of Faith" (Delivered 10-19-08)

Last June, or maybe it was July, I had the idea of delivering an autumn sermon series on the economy. I knew about the subprime mortgage crisis. I had read books on personal finance and consumer behavior and I knew about the debt loads and low personal savings rate that imperils millions of Americans. I thought I was embarking on something cutting edge. I had no way of knowing what lay ahead and, unfortunately, how timely this sermon series would be. At the same time, I am a minister, not an economist or financial whiz. I can much more easily explain to you the difference between pre-millennial and post-millennial dispensationalism than I can explain short-selling or derivatives. I thank you, again, for your willingness to listen and ask for your patience as we wade into these waters together.

This morning I will present the final sermon in a four part series of sermons on the economy that I began at the end of August. So far I have spoken on “Making It and Faking It in America,” a sermon about some of the factors that have contributed to the economic and financial problems we face as a nation. Next I preached on the “Economy of Fear,” speaking about how fear, anxiety, and panic have contributed to the volatile financial situation and about how we can cope with fear. Then, at the end of September, I preached on “The Future of the American Dream” and challenged us to a new way of thinking about what it might mean to live the American Dream. This morning, I want to talk about “The Economy of Faith.” Even though this is the last sermon in the series, the sermon series is far from over. I hope you will carry the work of these sermons forwards, that you will debate, discuss, and discern.

The first question you may be asking yourself is, “What exactly is an economy of faith?” What does this term mean? The word “economy” does come from the linking of two Greeks words, Oikos, meaning “household” and Nomos, meaning “law.” Economy, then, literally means the laws of the household. In speaking, then, of an Economy of Faith, I want to tell you that I am not going to focus on the finances of the church. This won’t be a sermon about, to coin a brand new word, “ecclesionomy”, the laws of the church. Rather, I want to argue that the values of our faith have something important to say about the laws of the household.

When we think of economics, we so often think of things on the macro-level: Gross national product, the strength of the dollar, interest rates, the rising and falling of the markets as indicated by green upward-pointing arrows and red downward-pointing arrows that scroll across the top and/or the bottom of the television screen. And things like these—derivatives, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the Wall Street bailouts—can be difficult to reconcile with the day to day. Of course, they are related. All these events in the market do enter into our homes, but they are, for the large part, out of our control. We live or struggle to live with the consequences in our own homes. We try our best to make decisions that are wise and responsible.

On the extreme micro-level however, we might connect faith and economy. All we would need to say is that there is a moral dimension to how we use our pocketbooks. There are moral dimensions to our spending, earning, and investing.

Last month Congressman Dennis Moore came to speak at our Second Sunday Forum. I am very, very glad for something that he said very early in his talk. He held up a piece of paper containing a bar graph representing the budget of the United States government and comparing what is spent in different areas. He said, “A budget is a moral document.” And, if you give this just a half second of thought, this claim is true. Whenever you make a budget decision you are answering a set of very basic questions: “What do we owe? To whom? At what cost?” So, whenever the government makes a decision about funding medical services at Veterans’ hospitals, or providing services to families with special needs children, or choosing to cover a procedure for those on Medicare, or sending international relief to another country, or funding scientific research with the goal of curing a disease or better harnessing renewable energy, or funding the arts, those decisions are moral decisions.

I would argue that the budget that we create each year for the church is a moral document as well. Do we practice justice in our employment practices, by compensating staff fairly and offering health insurance? Does our church step up to be a worthy partner with organizations in the community? Have we been wasteful? Have we been chintzy or miserly? These questions have moral dimensions, too.

And, I am going to go one step forward. I am going to say something that I said at the beginning of our church’s Board Retreat a couple of months ago. It was something that was controversial to say because I know at least one board member took issue with me and disagreed with me strongly. That is fine and good. We can disagree. You can disagree with me and that is a great thing. Disagreement is not failure. Disagreements not only allow us to psychologically self-differentiate; they also sharpen our own thinking.

I am going to tell you what I said that was controversial, but before I do so, I want to talk about two different kinds of disagreements.

The first type of disagreement is a disagreement about methods and means. Should we paint the kitchen red or blue? This is a disagreement about means. We agree that the kitchen should be more attractive, we just disagree about the right way to make this happen. When we disagree about means or methods, we share a larger agreement. Because we share a larger agreement, we can then engage in a process in order to decide on the right way to get to the goal we hold in common. That process may include lots of discussions, but it will likely come down to a compromise. The compromise we reach may be to paint the kitchen green. There are other disagreements though, that are about values. For example, in our American culture, perhaps there is no greater disagreement than on the issue of abortion. Some, to greatly simplify this position, hold strong convictions that women have the right to choice and that the medical decisions they make should be private and not subject to government intrusion. Others, to greatly simplify their position, believe that abortion is morally wrong and that the government has an interest in enforcing a particular moral standard around this issue. When our disagreements are based on values, our positions are intractable. Compromise is not a valid solution. When we disagree about values, the goal of dialogue is not to reach agreement but to reach an understanding on how we will abide in each other’s company, how we will share living in the same world.

(And, if you will permit me to continue with the digression for just a bit longer, that is why, to continue with the abortion example, I think the most brilliant thing that has been suggested is that instead of continuing to argue when we know that neither side will give an inch, that we should work to find some aspect of the conversation where we can agree. I would say that just about every person who holds a pro-choice position would hold forth the goal of fewer unwanted pregnancies. And, on the side that is not pro-choice, I would also think that almost every person would embrace a goal of fewer unwanted pregnancies. Voila! The same goal. Now, what is left is to discuss the means for achieving that shared goal.)

So, what did I say at that Board Meeting that was a matter of disagreement? I said this. I said that not only is our national budget a moral document (as Dennis Moore said), and not only is our church budget a moral document, but our own household budget (our personal Oikonomos) is also a moral document. I actually said something a bit more flippant than this. I said, “Don’t tell me what you believe. Show me where you spend your money and I will tell you what you believe.” Upon rethinking this, I can see how this statement could make someone uncomfortable and put someone on the defensive. But, I can’t withdraw my assertion that there is a deeply moral dimension to our own personal financial decisions.

There are all sorts of ways to spend money, save money, and invest money in ways that reflect our values. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to choose the neighborhood in which we will live and this decision speaks to a certain set of values and priorities. We choose to buy certain types of groceries. We may buy goods from some companies that generously support causes we believe in and avoid buying from other companies that support causes we do not believe in. We value education and so put away money in our children’s education fund. We value the symphony, or the art museum, or the theater, or public radio. We care about the priorities of a politician and give money to that candidates’ campaign. We value this church and voluntarily support it. Family is important to us so we save for a trip to visit a relative living in a distant city. How is it possible to deny that our own day-to-day financial decisions shine a light into our values?

I speak for myself and I think I speak for every single person here when I say that it is true that the depth of our care and concern is deeper than the depth of our pockets. If this is not the case, I would think that it would indicate a poverty of values. So, we have to weigh our decisions and prioritize our values. That is life. That is faith too. Let me explain.

Forrest Church says that religion is our response to being alive and knowing that we will die. I think his is a good definition but I disagree slightly. I say that religion is our response to being finite creatures in a universe that is infinite, at least according to our capacity to imagine it. We are finite, limited beings in a world that is, for all intents and purposes, infinite and limitless.

Our first response to this is frustration, frustration that we will not get to do everything we want to do, see everything we want to see, and solve every problem we want to solve. We have to choose. We have to choose. And our choices have moral dimensions. In fact, without both the ability and the necessity of choice there could be no ethics. In fact, the greater the number of things we have to choose between, the greater our ethical responsibility is. With greater freedom comes greater responsibility. And, so, after the frustration of realizing that we are necessarily limited, comes faith. Faith is how we choose to walk forward into this very partial and limited slice of the infinite that we are able to experience.

I want for us to return to this idea of an economy of faith and explore it. I want to say a few more words about faith. Maybe the two – faith and economy – sound a little bit irregular together because one comes to us from Ancient Greek and the other from Latin. The word faith comes to us through Middle English, but goes back to the Latin root fides meaning trust. If you like word games, that is why dogs are sometimes named “Fido.” The name means trusted one, faithful one, one on whom you can depend. (I actually once preached a sermon called, “Faith is Like Naming your Dog.”) Putting the two words together, an economy of faith would be the laws of our living that reflect what we pledge fidelity to.

I want to say just one more thing about faith. It is something that I think was best articulated by a colleague of mine who said that the role of religion is to cause our hearts to break open. And when this happens, when our hearts have been broken open, we will be most connected to our ability to love, we will know joyfulness, and we will grow in our ability to apprehend beauty. The result of this transformation is that we will respond to this breaking open of our hearts by choosing to bless the world with our lives.

And, it occurs to me that I have not really talked all that much about the economy or stock portfolios or whatever. So, let me conclude simply with these thoughts:

As a religious community we will respond to whatever comes in the days ahead with faithfulness, with principle, and by not fleeing from our highest values. Though we may disagree on the means to achieve those values, we have one goal. We would be one.

Through adaptability we will continue to find ways to bless the world. We will create programs and opportunities, ways of gathering and ways of serving. We will take care of one another. We will take care of one another. We will take care of one another.

We will be called to even greater levels of discernment, requiring us to grow focused and even more discerning on how we are called to bless the world.

I want to conclude by relating a story from a New England church whose minister was exploring the church archives and came across the financial ledger from the days of the Great Depression. [This story is contained in Thematic Preaching by Jane Rzepka and Ken Sawyer, pages 115-116.] The story tells how next to many of the pledges there was a second number written with a small “s” beside it, indicating how much the pledge had fallen short. But, there were an equal number of pledges with a small number and an “o” next to them, for those who overpaid their pledge. The author continues,
I read lots of historical material this week, but nothing touched me more than the dusty ledger book from the thirties, from high up on the shelf: In our church during the Depression, for every pledge that had to fall short, one of many generous people overpaid his or her pledge to compensate.

I love the history of this church. Gandhi was never a member. Mother Teresa never belonged here either. Just regular folks. They dedicated their babies, they worshipped, they reached out to do their part in the world, they cared for one another, they kept this place going, they tried to live their best lives.
I have every confidence that, if faced with a similar situation, we would do likewise. That we would not only make sure the ledgers add up but that we would continue to worship, reach out, take care of each other, and try to live our best lives. The economy of faith is not a rollercoaster ride. Our values, our concern, our care do not zigzag. They are secure investments, growing slowly and steadily all our lives as long as we put our hearts and our hands to the tasks before us.