God is Good All the Time!
This past week has been a big one for Emmanuel! Way back in 1997, in the “olden days” of the now global cell phone market, Emmanuel’s trustees and vestry leased a portion of Emmanuel’s bell tower to “Cellco Partnership” — now doing business as Verizon Wireless. The bell tower lease has been very good for Emmanuel, producing steady income since its inception. In 2016, when the bell tower was unsafe to climb and couldn’t support additional cell tower equipment, the Verizon lease was even a source of funds to make the needed repairs. Emmanuel and Verizon entered into a lease amendment for the prepayment of around $250,000 in rentals to repair the tower to support additional cell tower equipment and allow Emmanuel to continue ringing its bells. Over 26 years and multiple amendments of the lease, however, Emmanuel’s rights have diminished, while Verizon retained more options to affect Emmanuel’s benefits under the lease. About a year ago, we were presented with the opportunity to assign Emmanuel’s interest in the lease to the largest aggregator and operator of cell tower leases in the country, Vertical Bridge, with over 80,000 properties under management nationwide.
With the assignment, we exchanged Verizon’s monthly rental payments for Vertical Bridge’s up-front purchase price. We’ll invest the proceeds of the assignment conservatively, subject to a vestry-approved policy limiting expenditures to interest only, to preserve the funds’ ability to generate income for Emmanuel until — as we say — the Lord comes. With this assignment, Emmanuel has stabilized revenues and eliminated the risk of future adverse lease amendments, as well as gained an expert negotiating partner with significant market share, whose interests are aligned with ours. We marked this big moment in the Library Tuesday morning with a liturgy more familiar to my past life as a lawyer than to our present lives here together at Emmanuel.
Now, I say liturgy on purpose, because in a documents closing, there are rituals, customs, creeds, laws, and oaths that reinforce our promises and commitments, just like we do here in church. We had authorizing resolutions and exhibits, notary and title affidavits, and plenty of sticky notes and fresh pens. (Think of our candles, bulletins, creeds, prayers, and hymns). Some people would call this liturgy of closing secular rather than sacred, but I think we tend to make too much of that distinction. Anyway to this old lawyer, there’s something wildly hopeful and holy about a transaction thoughtfully negotiated for the long-term benefit of a community.
In our Western culture, we often tend to think of money, business, and politics as separate from the work of the church. Especially in the United States, where our Constitution provides for the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state to avoid the potential tyranny of human-imposed and enforced religious interpretations and requirements, our reaction is often to draw a big, red line down the middle — between faith and work, worship and business, sacred and secular, holy and mundane, and church and money. But when we do this, I think we really miss out on something big. It’s not WHAT we do; it’s HOW and WHY we do it that makes anything — or us — holy. For example, as our annual pledge campaign for the support of our life and work together starts up, we miss knowing deep in our bones that our work — and our gifts produced from that work — are holy if we divide up our lives between sacred and secular. Our work and the support of this community through our gifts are both necessary — that is, essential to Emmanuel’s survival, and in their very essence sacred and blessed on God’s altar.
And the work we do in community, from repairs and restorations to this gorgeous building we’ve been entrusted to use to care for our community, to mowing and trimming the lawn, growing food to support our neighbors, making music to lift our spirits and turn our hearts to worship, creating events and programs to nourish and sustain our connection to each other — this is ALL sacred work. When we divide up the world into sacred and secular, and limit God’s presence in our lives to our hour plus on Sunday mornings once a week, we’ve limited our own access to God’s freeing, saving power. We’ve tried — thankfully unsuccessfully — to make God smaller, made in our image instead of the other way around, and subject to human control. Imagine waving on the way out the door after Coffee Hour — OK, God, this has been great! — See you next week if we’re not out of town! — I’ll call if anything comes up! Thankfully, that’s not how this all works, and I think that’s what Jesus is trying to get us to see in Matthew’s gospel this morning.
Limitless Magnitude of God’s Grace
There are around 40 parables in the four gospels, and 11 of them are about money. That’s more about money in the parables than any other topic except for the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s pretty clear that the “already and not yet” presence of the Kingdom of Heaven is so expansive and universal that it would make no distinction at all between sacred and secular. And doesn’t money give us an insight into justice, fairness, and integrity in the community that clarifies the issues at stake? Don’t money, and debt, give us a score card with actual numbers we can add up ourselves to show us in obvious terms whether we’ve forgiven someone or someone has forgiven us?
Maybe the point is that there really isn’t a fault line between sacred and secular. What if Jesus is using debt as a metaphor in the parable to make the scorecard clear — showing us in numbers and balance sheets not only that forgiveness is needed in community but also that God’s reach and presence is universal? This idea is both completely unsettling and strangely reassuring. We cannot divide up our world neatly into God’s business and our own business, into which God has no reach or influence. Instead, as the East African Church always calls and responds, God is good! (and remember what the Church says back — God is good all the time!)
Remember Peter’s actual question to Jesus at the start of today’s gospel parable: Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus replies to Peter, Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Then Jesus proceeds to explain what he means with a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven, where the king forgives all the servant’s debt to him. But then the servant, instead of forgiving others, has his own debtor thrown into debtor’s prison. It’s not just the difference between the king’s forgiveness and the servant’s enforcement of a debt that makes the point about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. The servant’s debt to the king is 10,000 talents — 1000 times the 100 denarii that the servant refused to forgive his own debtor. The Kingdom of Heaven is about BOTH the limitless magnitude of God’s grace — and the totality of our lives in God — including work and business and money.
Now there’s a lot more we could talk about today in forgiveness, like whether living in the Kingdom of Heaven requires us to be victims and forgive those who continue to take advantage of us. We’ll explore the nature of forgiveness on another day, but suffice it to say that God takes forgiveness very seriously. And God shows us how seriously by showing us the numbers, and referring us to a business metaphor, so that it’s super clear and we can get our heads around it. What I’d like for us to take away and think about today is the totality of God’s potential engagement in our lives. It’s not WHAT we do; it’s HOW and WHY we do it that makes anything — or us — holy. As we think about our commitment of our time, talent, and treasure to our Emmanuel community this pledge season, let’s remember God is good! God is good all the time! Amen