INDULGENCES, 16th CENTURY. The selling of indulgences. Woodcut, German, 1525, from a pamphlet by Martin Luther.

I have a book that is tagged and torn and marked because I have read it and checked it and sometimes memorized parts of it.  It is  “Charity in the Early Church” by Gerhard Ulhorn.  Ulhorn’s premise at the beginning is that that Jesus introduced something brand new to the world and that was love.  The early church exercised that love freely and generously because they practiced  a free and generous mercy following Christ who is mercy incarnate.  Up to that point in the world there was no real mercy because there was no real community and Jesus invented a community of faith, His body, the Church. 

That community was free and generous because it had no elaborate buildings and no property.  It had no large numbers of paid clergy or organized auxiliaries, no foundations or planned giving cadres roaming the countryside looking for donations.  It had the Word and the Sacraments and a fellowship based upon love.  That love was so free and generous that even the Roman Government took notice and at some point began to “endow” the church.  Within a few hundred years of Pentecost the church became an “institution” and the essential characteristic of an institution is that it needs to protect and enlarge itself.  At some point even the first love of the church grew cold and people began to hang onto what they had.  What does an institution do?  It “institutionalizes” giving as well.  Suddenly giving and acts of mercy are not spontaneous and generous and free, they are hooked and tied to eternal life.  “Your almsgiving will forgive your sins” was one phrase that was used.  In our ongoing discussion Prof Herrmann has written –

We all know that Jesus warned against the dangers of self-aggrandizement in the giving of “alms” (a word that has its roots in the Greek, “eleēmosynē,” derived from “eleos”–“mercy” or “pity”), but boasting is not the only danger. In the Middle Ages, almsgiving began to be tied to a system of merit, so that “the poor” were instrumentalized. That is, they were not so much the object of Christian love and care a they were a means to an end, a path towards personal salvation. The result was often a nasty perversion of Christian charity, with “works of mercy” (opera misericordiae) now the context for the selfish spiritual gain of the rich, while the poor would grow in their disdain for those who had greater means. Luther and the reformers helped to change this entire orientation of mercy and generosity so that the neighbor was lifted out of one’s feverish striving after salvation and could become the genuine object of love for the neighbor’s sake. Still, because of our sinful proclivities all of these dangers in giving remain real and current.

The “selfish spiritual gain” of the rich was the direct result of the need to maintain the “institution”.  Because of our sinful proclivities all of the good first article gifts are subject to abuse and contamination but it is no reason to abandon them.  I told a friend of mine that all of the good “mercy” types of things her newly formed mission start was undertaking needed to be maximized because once they got it onto their heads that they needed land and a building those things would cease, or would be used to bring in more bodies to pay for the land and the building.  It is no longer the free and generous exercise of mercy, but a calculated effort to feed the beast of an institution that is about to get up and running.  This is the old “entrophy” idea.  At some point organizations that become institutioanlized forget their reason for being in existence and they now exist to continue to exist, if that makes any sense.  Cost is added to all it does, but not necessarily value.

Think about these things for a moment with me and don’t get mad – just think.

I was told by fund raising “experts” undergoing some new plan that a key part of the plan was a large corps of “volunteers”.  At the end of our discussion they informed me that the first 5 million dollars raised would be used to “pay for the cost of the volunteers”!  Why should it cost a dime to pay for a volunteer?  And what do you think a volunteer is going to say when he/she finds out it “cost” five million dollars to get them to do something for nothing?

Since Prof. Herrmann teaches at a Seminary let us pick on Seminaries for a moment.  When I graduated back in the 70’s the cost of a Seminary education was high but the Church could be expected to get back the cost of that education in length of service.  Like a plow horse I was expected  to put in 35 to 40 years of reasonable service and then perhaps another 10 of fill in work in my dotage until I drop dead in some pulpit supply operation or they simply have “mercy” on me in my dotage and ask me to stay in the pew.  Since those thrilling days of yesteryear, the cost of the Seminary education has multiplied by a factor of 5 or 6 and the length of service formula has been cut in half.  Now let’s remember that the folks in the pew cover those costs at both ends.  They pay for the education and all that it entails and they pay the cost of the worker once he/she starts to serve.  Can anyone make an argument that the cost/benefit ratio is anywhere near reasonable or even realistic?  Now I can hear the howls that we are dealing with eternal things here and how can we put a price tag on those things and that is kind of my point.  The Seminaries as institutions do it everyday. 

Let’s push this one a bit since I am probably in hot water anyway.  Since we have ntroduced into this discussion “sinful proclivities” lets say a graduate of the Seminary is called to a large well functioning congregation that was happy and out there being church.  Let us say for whatever reason that graduate basically destroys that church and within a few years it is down to a handful of members that can no longer pay the salary of their preacher let alone send money to District and Synod.  Will the Seminary “have mercy” on that congregation and rebate the cost of the education and the cost of the salary paid back to that church and District?  I think I know the answer.

So back to the question – should we use the word “mercy” when speaking of an institution? – probably not.  That is the reason that we need to get back to the notion that we are all – members, churches, seminaries, Districts, partner churches world wide, and Synod a “community”.  Most of the problems that we have are “body of Christ” issues and that is the only way to work through them.  That is why I like President Harrison’s phrase that the church has a “corporate” life of mercy.