An Expensive God?

This post doesn’t really state the question flat out, but I bet it raises it in your mind.  Wander back here after you read it.

The question it raises is one that is frequently raised with a derisive tone of voice.  If the Church cares so much about people, why does it waste so much money on big expensive buildings?  That money could have been spent on caring for the poor.
The short answer to this is, yes, you’re right.  That money could have been spent on the poor.  In which case, there would be no fancy church building next to a slum, as the photo on the above-linked blog shows.  There would be nothing there but more slum, most likely.  Or perhaps a shopping center or some other sort of building.
This sort of question raises all sorts of interesting discussion directions.  We could talk about how many people in our society and congregations are functional utilitarians – defining what is good based on metrics of some sort –  quantifiable statistics demonstrating a maximum amount of good being delegated to the maximum number of people.  There certainly isn’t anything wrong per se with wanting to try and calculate the impact of our decisions.  
The problem with utilitarianism is that it only functions well when metrics are obtainable.  You can measure how many sandwiches the money used to build that church in the slums could have provided.  You can calculate out how many people might have eaten said sandwiches.  Those numbers are very compelling.
It’s harder to measure other things, though.  Such as the satisfaction or hope or even pride that might come when looking up at that church day after day.  It is hard to measure the inspiration that is provided by a faith that comes to the poorest of the poor and dares to see them as anything other than or more than their poverty.  It is hard to measure the way the days of these people who live in the shadow of that church – who enter into it weekly to pray and to be told of a Savior who loves them even if nobody else does – are impacted.  
The question sounds a lot like one that is raised in the Gospels – when a woman comes in and anoints Jesus with a costly perfume and some of the disciples complain about what a waste of money such an act is.  It’s not practical or utilitarian.  The money might have been used to give to the poor, rather than pouring it out (literally) on Jesus’ feet where it will be gone and forgotten within a matter of hours or days.  
It’s interesting to note that Jesus doesn’t side with the disciples on this issue.  He doesn’t chastise the woman and giver her a lesson on cost-benefit ratios.  In Matthew 26:10-13, Jesus reminds the disciples that there are other things that are important, that money can be used in ways that have an impact far outstretching a more utilitarian analysis.  The money could have been given to the poor, where it would have benefited them for a short time, at the end of which they would have still most likely been poor, and the short-term benefits of that money long forgotten both by its recipients and everyone else.  But instead, the story of this woman’s giving to her Lord has been told for 2000 years. 
What might a church in the midst of a slum say to the people in the slum?  It might say to them that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been, is, and will continue to be proclaimed in their midst, both inside and outside that church building.  It might say that people came and created a bit of beauty – however incongruous – in the midst of squalor and ugliness.  It might say that there are people who consider it important and valuable to give a gift of a beautiful building to people who are not beautiful, as a reminder that they are indeed beautiful to the God who created them, and that one day, their ugly surroundings and circumstances will be transformed.  It might serve as a symbol of the glory to come, when the human-induced squalor of our sinfulness is destroyed and we are cleansed and recreated, and when all suffering is eliminated.
It could mean a lot of things, and I can’t authoritatively speak to what it means to the people around it, but only what it might say to me if I were in their place.  
If it weren’t there, the slum would remain.  Suffering and misery and squalor would remain, and there would be nothing – and perhaps no one – to speak against it, to prophecy (as in the Ezekiel 37 text for this coming Sunday) that in the midst of death and loss there might be fullness of life.
I would argue that our God is not a utilitarian.  Were that the case, the infinite cost of his Son’s incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension would hardly be a good trade-off for the definitionally finite benefit of a few billion creatures that inhabit this tiny part of the created universe. Our God is lavish with his creativity and beauty and grace, even knowing full-well in advance what we were going to do to it, how we would abuse it and misuse it and one another.  I don’t think that it’s impossible that the Church that proclaims this glorious God might take the rather curious step of placing a piece of that beauty in the midst of some of the greatest ugliness we can create for ourselves and others.  

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