(Friends, these meditations and stories are based on the readings for the Sundays of the Church Year. The reading this week is Matthew 22:15-22, You can find the readings under http://www.episcopalchurch/Lectionary,calendar. You’ll want the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and you’ll find there also many wonders and inspirations that connect us with the communion of saints)
Taxes and God
There was a time when Episcopal Clergy were held hostage by parsimonious parishes. Men, in those days, who had spent most of their professional lives in marginal parishes, on retirement, were sometimes left as paupers. About thirty years ago the Clergy organized and offered a salary scale for clergy and later, administrative assistants and others who worked for the church, based on years of service. The parishes also were required to pay into the pension fund, the very model for our current Social Security system, and cover health insurance.
When I went to New Jersey to work with Urban Churches, a sizeable portion of the Diocesan Budget was set aside to support full time clergy and their families. The presence of the church in the inner cities such as Camden, Elizabeth, Trenton and Atlantic City was and remains a beacon of hope in houses of desperation. To keep enough of that money in the budget became my primary goal. A few years into the 8 years I worked as the Urban Coordinator for the Diocese, the Diocesan Council came with requests to cut our budgets by 15%. I refused. I gave in to a 5% cut but except for my salary and a secretary, the rest of the funding went straight to urban congregations. I was thrown into a fury of grant proposals to cities, the national church and foundations. In this way we were able to support the clergy and their families and to “plug the hole in the dike.” Indeed, some of the clergy and parishes from outside the city were our most ardent supporters. Each year, however, the request from the Diocesan Council to cut our budgets increased. By the end of the eight years the only place to cut was my salary. I was now looking for a new job at 50 years of age. If the work at the Diocesan House had not been stressful enough, the wait to find a new call was more intense. That call came two months before I was to leave my position. I was to become the interim rector at the Cathedral in Philadelphia. Here, a sigh of relief.
Archbishop William Temple of Canterbury said during his tenure, something akin to this: “The church is the only institution whose purpose is to give its life away for others.” So we clergy are caught in a paradox: to insist on protection for our families and to live our lives totally into the divine. To live in this place is the beginning of wisdom. It is in the tension between money and taxes and the sacred that true faith is lived in action. I wish I knew that when hot disputes arose during budget discussions. Often crumbling infrastructure drained resources from our mission. And yet the buildings, in some neighborhoods, were the sacramental signs of the presence of the church amidst the ruins. Now as I look back, I see that the more we lived into God, the more we gave to the holy, honored the sacred; blessings were showered on our families and communities. As we struggle with church budgets year after year, maybe it was a blessing to be surrounded with cares and disputes that compromised our mission. At least we had a mission; I had taken the words from evening prayer as a kind of slogan for the urban department: “So that the hope of the poor will not be taken away.” At least we had and have the reminder to “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.” To live into the paradox of living in the world and still being attuned to the sounds of the holy is what my priest, Max, used to quote when I was a young teen: “To be in the world and not of the world.”
And so each year around this time we live into the paradox. It is the churches eternal reminder to be still, alert and creative in the work of budgets and lest we forget our purpose and lose our edge, to trust God. The calling we have been given, that has been laid on us, is about the discovery of the holy in the midst of contentious and ordinary times. Don’t, dear ones, let your faith be worn down. Keep your eye on the heart of God. And perhaps when you look back some day, you will find the blessings and teachings that were given to you.