Sunday, September 12, 2010

C: Proper 19

Luke 15:1-10
Exodus 32:1, 7-14
I Timothy 1:12-17

As the economy has tanked over the last couple of years, a lot of good people have had to make some awfully difficult business decisions. Nothing personal, you know, but we have to lay a bunch of you off, or lay all of you off, or close the plant, or move the plant to another state or another country where the labor is cheaper. Sorry about that, but there’s nothing we can do. You understand, don’t you? It’s just a business decision.

Various versions of this story have played themselves out all over the country, especially in parts of Indiana that are very close to us here in Warsaw. Indeed, it seems that Indiana has heard more than its fair share of such news. The phrase “business decision” may or may not be invoked, but the underlying assumption is the same—the assumption that the financial best interest of a corporation—otherwise known as the bottom line—must take precedence over the welfare of employees, customers, or whomever.

Now, I realize that very often such an action truly is necessary for the survival of the company. Nonetheless, “business decision” is an interesting expression. It’s supposed to remove the moral stigma that would otherwise be attached to any action that causes large-scale economic or social or emotional dislocation. I mean, if you deliberately set out to throw someone into bankruptcy, or put unbearable stress on a marriage, or cause feelings of depression and despair—why, that’s morally inexcusable. But if it’s a “business decision”, that’s a different story. If an attempt to improve operating efficiency, or show some more black ink on the quarterly report, has the same negative effects as I’ve just mentioned, then it’s, well, a business decision.

This sort of moral irony has a pervasive influence on the way we as a society think and act. Almost on a daily basis, it influences the decisions made by legislators and government officials on the way public revenues are going to be allocated. It even influences—and I’m sure this comes as no shock to anyone—our relationships as members of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church. For several years prior to entering seminary, I was closely involved with the preparation of adults and young people for the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. We chose to follow an unusually intense and fairly long process modeled after the catechumenate of the ancient church; in fact, it was very much like Focus on Faith, which many at St Anne’s remember very fondly.
We had a team of between three and five lay catechists, and each candidate was linked with a sponsor who also attended the instruction sessions. We met as a group two hours a week for the better part of nine months. During Lent, the candidates were prayed for by name at each Sunday liturgy. Yet, the parish in which we were doing this was slightly smaller than St Anne’s, so in any given year, it was very typical for us to have only two or three candidates in the process.

On more than one occasion it was suggested to us—and on more than one occasion we on the catechetical team suspected ourselves—that this was a terribly inefficient way of meeting our objectives. To put it in business terms, it was a terribly labor intensive process, wasteful of the human resources that are so precious to any parish church, large of small. A good “business decision” would have been to find a different way of doing things.

In a somewhat obscure novel from many decades ago, called The Keys of the Kingdom, the main character is a missionary priest who spends thirty years in China proclaiming the gospel, with only one solitary convert to Christ to show as the fruit of his long labor. His superiors in the order eventually—very belatedly by their own estimation—made the obvious “business decision” and recalled Father Chisholm back to the equivalent of a desk job at the home office. He and many of his peers considered his ministry to have been an abject failure. Yet, the reader of the novel learns that Father Chisholm has always been revered by God, and in the end acquires the respect and admiration of his peers as well.

And, the parish in Oregon which sent me to seminary continues to hang in there, going on nearly thirty years now, with the inefficient and wasteful process of the catechumenate. Most of us will go along with the severe but compelling logic of the business decision only so far, when something deep in our hearts rebels with a resounding “Yes, but ...”—or even a contemptuous “So what?” Several years ago I had the moving experience of touring a state of Wisconsin facility for the severely developmentally disabled, people who are physically, mentally, and emotionally completely helpless. The ratio of care-givers to care-receivers in that place was astonishingly low. Care and concern and affection were lavished on these people. About that same time, I became familiar with the work of the now-departed Roman Catholic scholar and spiritual director Henri Nouwen, who chose to leave the prestigious academic community of Harvard University and make his home in Canada, in a community dedicated to the same sort of developmentally disabled men and women whom I met in Wisconsin. Father Nouwen died while living in that community.

From the standpoint of the most efficient use of tax dollars, the kind of care given at Central Wisconsin Center is not a sound business decision—the patients could be kept alive in a sort of warehouse fashion for less money. From the standpoint of Father Nouwen’s “career path”, his departure from Harvard was not a sound business decision, for many reasons. Yet few of us, I would imagine, are inclined to stand up and cry “foul” at either of these examples of “wastefulness”. There is an impulse in the human soul that challenges the ethical supremacy of the business decision.

How many stories have you heard about conspicuous bravery in combat by men who are motivated not by the strategic objectives of their superiors, or even by the opportunity to save their own lives or the life of a colleague, but by the irresistible desire simply to recover the body of a fallen comrade? Such risk-taking is surely not a good business decision, but neither is it one with which many of us would care to argue. There are in the human psyche certain emotional and symbolic instincts which defy the absolute sovereignty of efficiency.

I would suggest to you this morning that these instincts are telltale signs of nothing less than the image of God present in human nature. Today’s liturgy proclaims to us that God does not always, if ever, make what we would recognize as a sound business decision. In effect, the scribes and Pharisees who complained about Jesus’ consorting with tax collectors and sinners were accusing him of making a poor business decision.
One would think that, from a P.R. standpoint, it would have been in Jesus’ best interest to cultivate a relationship with the religious establishment—you know, a weekly golf date with the High Priest or an occasional round of drinks for the Sanhedrin. He certainly did not help his prestige by socializing with those who collaborated with the Roman Empire or whose occupations were less than morally circumspect. But Jesus responds to this indictment with the parable of the shepherd who abandoned 99% of his capital assets in order to recover the 1% which was lost. And he didn’t leave the 99 in the safety of a sheepfold or a bank vault, but, the text says, in the wilderness, where they would be easy pickings for a hostile takeover by wolves or ... whatever. If there was ever a bad business decision, this was it!

Yet, Jesus suggests, such is the nature of God—to be wastefully labor intensive in pursuing each individual wayward human soul—in pursuit of your wayward human soul, and mine. Indeed, the image of Jesus the good shepherd, with sheep #100 lovingly carried on his shoulders, warms our hearts and fills us with gratitude, for we are that sheep. In our Old Testament lesson from Exodus, God, as chairman of the board, announces to Moses, as chief executive officer, a business decision he had made. There would be a corporate restructuring of the nation of Israel which would involve “out-placing”—perhaps with a few well-directed thunderbolts—the “human resources” of the company. Moses couldn’t argue with the logic of the decision as it was presented on paper—or, perhaps, carved in stone. Each of the twelve divisions of the company showed a disastrous bottom line on the quarterly report. In fact, there was strong evidence of a planned employee takeover with the intention of selling out to a competitor. Yet, as much as the move made sense, Moses didn’t like it. He felt like the plan betrayed the memory of the company’s founding fathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God wasn’t so sure, but purely out of his regard for his CEO, he abandoned the restructuring plan and called back the thunderbolts.

And when we hear the story once again of God changing his mind and sparing the people of Israel after the intercession of Moses, even though they had lapsed into infidelity and idolatry, our hearts are warmed and filled with gratitude, for we, too, are, as the hymn says, “prone to wander”. We, too, have lapsed into infidelity and idolatry and are the beneficiaries of God’s bad business decisions—his abundant, labor-intensive, inefficient, and wasteful grace shed abroad into our hearts even at this moment by the Holy Spirit.

As St Paul reminds the young bishop Timothy, and us, in today’s epistle: “The saying is sure, and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. ... [we have] received mercy that in [us] ... Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the king of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever.” Amen.

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