A propos of “turning my Father’s house into a market” (John 2:16, referenced in the good Bishop’s sermon), the recent decision by Judge Ferris Lebous in the case of the Diocese of Central NY against Fr. Matt’s Church of the Good Shepherd (http://www.standfirminfaith.com/media/decision_and_order_03_20_09_good_shepherd.pdf) provides a textbook example of how to misconstrue motives. As I read the Judge’s rather cursory opinion, the parishioners of Good Shepherd are to be punished by further legal proceedings for having the temerity to decrease---nay, even withhold---their voluntary contributions to the Church while the Diocese sought to confiscate all of its property and assets in a lawsuit. The Judge says that he is “troubled” to find that parishioners stopped putting money into the collection plate beginning about April 2008, and that this decrease meant that the parish “was doing everything it could to spend down the assets, divert new income, and perhaps even actively interfere with the Diocese’s right of ownership.” (Bold emphasis added.)
Could any words more appropriately convey the sense of what Jesus was doing when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and ordered the dovesellers to get out? Notwithstanding the Dennis Canon, which expressly states that all parish property is to be used for the benefit of the parish while it remains in ECUSA, Judge Lebous (and apparently the DCNY, which asked him so to find) thinks that a parish has no right to spend down its assets if parishioners stop contributing because the Diocese is suing them to get all their property. Instead, the poor parishioners must continue “business as usual"---making their Sunday contributions as though nothing was wrong---all the while that the Diocese plots how quickly it can take over everything they have.
Under this view, a parish is nothing more than a local business which finds itself on the “market” once the Diocese sues it, and must continue with its “business” as though nothing was wrong (pending its confiscation by the Diocese). But this “market” is completely rigged from the get-go by the Dennis Canon: “heads ECUSA/the Diocese wins, and tails you (the parish) lose.” So by all means, suckers, keep putting your money in the plate, otherwise the Court will see to it that you have to spend even more money to explain why you weren’t overjoyed to do so while you were being sued.
Not only that, but we will find you blameworthy of even daring to think that you might have a right to take certain property which you donated to the Church when the Court orders you out on just a few days’ notice. For that property was not donated to the parish, don’t you see? No, it was donated to the people who were suing you---because you are a Christian, are you not? You are supposed to give the people who are suing you the shirt off your back, and then to be ashamed that you didn’t think to leave them your coat, too.
The problem with Judge Lebous’ thinking is that it requires Fr. Matt’s parishioners to live fully up to the Christian ideal while it rewards the DCNY for insisting on the terms of a very un-Christian, unilateral contract (once you join our church, all your property is ours when you leave) that the parishioners never knew about or assented to. (Cf. Bishop O’Neill in the recent Colorado case: “Oh, we don’t expect the average parishioner to know anything about the canons.") Well, Matt is fully up to the standard laid on him by Judge Lebous. If you want a perfect example of Christian charity while under siege for all that you have (and then some), you have only to read the letter Matt+ wrote to his parishioners (http://binghamtongoodshepherd.blogspot.com/2009/04/letter-to-church-of-good-shepherd.html) explaining why they had to hand over all the things they thought were theirs to control, and to let the Diocese have all that it wanted. Blessings upon you and your parishioners, Matt+ --- you have set an example for all Christians to emulate, and have demonstrated the simple truth of our fathers’ adage: “A good example is the best sermon.”
I want to particularly ask for prayer that we as a church, and me in particular, would be able to maintain a steady calm in the ongoing roller coaster of this legal mess. After an unhappily cold winter, and the pain of sudden loss, and the difficulty of a complete move in a short time, we are settling in brilliantly and contentedly to our new house and church. The swing set is up, the older children are eager to study and learn, Romulus has stopped asking to go home every day, the baby is her cheerful exhausting self, and we need to keep our eyes fixed forward, on Jesus, and on the work he is giving us to do. I need a super natural miracle to maintain a steady spiritual life as daily we continue in this battle waged against us.