Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Pecking Orders - a sermon for Trinity 11

(Luke 14.7-14)

Last Sunday afternoon I was sitting in the garden of friends, counting the butterflies on their Buddleia. On a warm and sunny day many different species were being attracted to the sweet scent of the flowers. It’s called the “butterfly bush”, and that day it was doing just what it says on the tin. And one thing I noticed was that there seemed to be a definite pecking order - even among butterflies, it seems, some guys get the best seats at the table, while others have to wait their turn.

So there before me in insect form was the theme of our Gospel reading today. In all human situations, there’s a pecking order too. And isn’t it annoying and frustrating when people get noticed not for having the best ideas, not for their commitment, not for their hard work, but just because they’re good at being noticed! “Make sure you’re in the right place at the right time,” they tell you. “Make sure you grease the right palms,” even.

But here’s an important warning we’ll come back to: “A person may spend his whole life climbing the ladder of success only to find, once he gets to the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall,” said by the monk and Christian writer Thomas Merton.

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus engaging with a pattern of behaviour that’s all too familiar. In every walk of life, there’s a pecking order. It’s how we are, and vicars aren’t all that much better. The way we live and relate together is judged by a whole range of status signals, some subtle, some quite brazen and blatant. These signals communicate where we are in the hierarchy, or where we think we are; they say how we want others to see us. Where you’re placed at a formal dinner can be part of that. Are you on the high table? Or are you somewhere down below. And, if I’m honest, even if I really don’t want to be at the top table, and wouldn’t be comfortable there, I can still get cross when I see someone else placed in a better seat than mine when so far as I can see I’m every bit as good and capable as they are, and maybe a whole lot more so.

And it’s not just who sits where at formal dinners: think about all the many ways in which a message of status and standing is communicated. Whether you qualify for a marked parking space, or your own private office. How many birthday parties your child is invited to from school - or indeed how many children come to hers. What the number plate is on your car: is it a 19 plate, a 69? Or your own personal plate, perhaps? Where do you buy your clothes? Everything about us says something, and much of it can be interpreted in terms of rungs on the ladder.

Well, at the time of Jesus the seating at a meal was quite a big thing. Where you sat signalled your wealth or prestige or status, and of course the host might also manipulate the seating pattern. Say you were giving a dinner: you might wish to arrange an advantageous marriage between your daughter and some particular young man, in which case it could be good to place his father higher at the table than perhaps he might have expected. Or you might want to move someone down to a lower place if you’d been offended by him in some way, or if, say, he’d treated you badly or unfairly in some business transaction. In this way a meal became the stage on which social niceties were observed and arranged, and social politics played out. And it might well all be open to the street: anyone passing could assess your standing, and see the honour in which you were, or were not, held.

At first reading, Jesus doesn’t seem to be challenging this. I might have expected him to condemn this ridiculous system of status measured by where a person sits, but instead he seems to be talking about how best to use the system. “Don’t go to the highest place, for you might be sent somewhere lower,” he says. “Take the lowest place, and maybe that your host will say to you, ‘Friend, come up higher’, and everyone will see the honour you receive.” But of course the reason he says any of this is to make this vital point: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus may not have openly challenged the status systems of his day, but he was in fact doing more than just giving advice on how best to play the game. It’s nice to think that if I took a lowly place my host might call me up to sit higher. But he probably wouldn’t; and if my whole reason for taking that holy place was that I’d be publicly honoured, it’s going to be really annoying when that doesn’t happen. The big risk of taking the lowest place is that you might well end up staying there.

Jesus said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled.” Thomas Merton said that those who’re so keen to climb the ladder may find it’s leaning against the wrong wall. What Jesus is really saying is I think that if our greatest aim is to put ourselves above others, we might well find ourselves with lots of shiny things, and we might have the grudging respect of those who’re looking up at us - but we might also end up with cold and empty hearts. All along the ladder was leant against the wrong wall. We exalt ourselves at the cost of our integrity and our soul.

Think about what jockeying for position can do to a person. We’re seeing enough of it I think just now in our own nation’s political life. But it happens everywhere. We’re annoyed by the unfairness of it all: one person is rewarded without really deserving it, while another gets shoved down a rung despite all their best efforts. We’re exhausted by the endless competition. The working environment can become toxic when ambitious personalities clash. Things get twisted round so that it’s all about them. We walk on eggshells; and the truth is the first victim, when people are in it for themselves.

Jesus says, “All who humble themselves will be exalted.” But not necessarily within this system. If I humble myself in order to be noticed, and sit low down in order to be invited higher up, I strongly suspect I’m going to be deeply disappointed. Jesus is really talking about not playing the status game any more, he’s telling me to get off that ladder.

And if I’m no longer playing the game, maybe I’ll find I’m making some creatively different choices. Maybe I can stop looking for a way to get to that next rung on the ladder, and instead look for ways I can lend a hand. Maybe I can move from being a toxic element in the organisation to being a healing one. Maybe I can get away from a “what’s in it for me” view of the world, and start thinking about what the world might need from me, rather than what it ought to be doing for me. Then maybe I’ll find I’m beginning to get things the right way round. I may be climbing a few rungs even, but this time on the right ladder.

That’s a matter of spiritual discipline, to start with, anyway. I need to make the decision to go against my natural desire to aim for my own comfort and status and power. But maybe as I make that effort I’ll find that craving to be the best and to have the most begin to ebb away. As I work at it, taking small steps, maybe there’ll be something Christ-like within me that begins to grow.

We can’t free ourselves from the status system, because that’s how human communities, and animal communities work, even butterflies on Buddleia bushes. There’ll always be a table and there’ll always be people jostling for the top positions on it. But we do have a choice about whether we go along with all of that. I can choose where I want to sit. I can choose to be where I’ll be useful, rather than where I might be noticed, or have the best shot at success and money and power. And if I’m making the right choices, for the sake of Jesus and seeking his help, it’ll be his ladder I’m climbing, the one that frees me from being tied to status and worldly styles of success.

I don’t need to make a big show of things, or pretend to be something I’m not. Jesus knows my true worth, and I know that that worth isn’t a matter of where I sit, but how I love, and by whom I am loved. And I am free to live a life thankful for what I’ve been given, rather than anxious about what I can get. Amen.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Sermon for this Sunday Trinity 10 (Proper 16)

"Happy holy days" said the sign outside the United Reformed Church by the English Bridge in Shrewsbury. Well, it’s a holiday weekend, and holiday and holy day are really the same word. We’re reminded that back in the days when our fore-fathers were mostly serfs and villeins, the only time they had off from their labours was when the Church had its holy days. Some modern bank holidays are still Church festivals, but not this weekend. Still, the weather's come right for us, and the roads will be packed and the beaches crowded, and anyone with any sense knows they’re much better off staying at home.

But all work and no play is never good for us. We need our rest and recreation, and 'recreation' is of course re-creation, being re-made. We get used up if we don't rest, we become less effective, less what we should be, not just as productive workers, but as people. Old Testament prophets like Isaiah told the people that God wanted them to keep the Sabbath, in order to be right with him, and so that he would bless them. Refraining from Sabbath journeys was part of the deal, I recall, with this weekend’s crowded roads in mind.

The people should also honour the Sabbath by not pursuing their own interests, I find, when I look at Isaiah. And that phrase,  not pursuing their own interests, provides an important clue to what the Sabbath is for: it’s not just a rest and break from, it needs also to be a positive means towards. Sabbath should be time away from the slog and routine of work, but not only that: also a time to tune ourselves back into what is divine, to what is of God. If we’re to be re-created we surely need to be seeking the mind and heart of our Creator.

Religion should be a liberating force, but all too often it isn’t. So easily religion fails to liberate, and cramps and imposes instead. As Sabbath often did at the time of Jesus.

And that’s why Jesus needed to tell the people: 'The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath'. He wanted them to get things the right way round. Our Gospel finds him in the synagogue responding to the desperate need of a woman suffering from what sounds a lot like rheumatoid arthritis. He heals her, but on the Sabbath it’s wrong to do that. Perhaps the synagogue leader feared he was losing control. Maybe he thought his service might become a free-for-all healing session. “There are six other days in the week, so come and get healed on one of them,” he tells his congregation. 

What would I have done, if Jesus had turned up at my service and done this? Would I have rejoiced that one of God's children had been released from slavery and suffering, or would I have moaned about the disruption of my carefully planned and ordered act of worship? About lack of discipline and things not being done properly? Would I have felt my nose being pushed out of joint?

Maybe so! And yet, how had Jesus really broken the Sabbath?  He’d not been pursuing his own interests or attending to his own affairs. For surely God wanted this woman released from her imprisonment to disability. To make the Sabbath an excuse for not helping her surely would have been to misuse it. For God wants the Sabbath to benefit us, to heal us, not to oppress or imprison us. He made the Sabbath for us, and not the other way round.

Sunday isn't the Jewish Sabbath, which was Saturday, the seventh day, on which God rested from creation. But it’s our holy day, and often used in the same way - as God's day, when no work can be done. As recently as when I was young, the Sunday Sabbath was a day of enforced stillness and inactivity imposed on the whole of the land. Mum didn’t dare hang out the washing in case the neighbours saw it. Shops were closed. Buses and trains didn’t run. Even the pubs were closed, over the border, anyway.

Now Sunday’s pretty much a free for all. Has the pendulum moved too far the other way? Perhaps so. Many people work on a Sunday, so maybe our churches should be doing more during the week to cater for those who can't come on a Sunday even if they want.  But Sunday leisure activities have grown out of all proportion, Sunday sport too - and it’s big business these days. Even Sunday telly. It was the Forsyte Saga that first did for evening prayer, and the TV companies have never looked back; Sunday early evening is regarded as a prime slot, and Songs of Praise gets shunted off into an early afternoon corner.

And people tell me they’d like to come to church but it’s the only day they can visit the family, or the only day their children can do football, or swimming, or ballet, or whatever. As a Rotarian, almost all our district events are now programmed for Sundays - and a higher proportion of Rotarians are churchgoers than would be true elsewhere. And that’s without the lure of Sunday sports, or Tesco.

We can moan about that. But does the Church have any right really to insist that those who aren’t members should have to observe its holy day. We've ceased to be a Christian country, not so much because of the impact of other faiths, but because we prefer to be secular. And though for better or worse the Church still has a stake in the structures and hierarchies of British society, the decline of its influence is inevitable and unstoppable, or so it seems. The loss of Sunday as a national holy day is just one of the more obvious symptoms of that.

Where does that leave us as Christians and churchfolk? With an opportunity for witness, perhaps. It’s a witness to our faith if we keep our holy day even though the world around us doesn't. Like Muslims keep Friday, or Jews Saturday, as holy day even though the rest of the world carries on regardless.

Well, most of us probably don't keep a Sunday Sabbath as well as we might. It's uncomfortable to be different in what we do from our neighbours and friends. We may well end up paying little more than lip service to our holy day, maybe squeezing in a visit to church when we can, or watching Songs of Praise if we manage to work out when it’s on. Or of course we could go to the other extreme, and become super-zealous holier-than-thou Sunday keepers who can look smugly down on those who don’t manage to do what we do and what everyone ought to do. Either of these would be a shame. They both sell the Sabbath short, as God’s special day. 

Vicars often get comments like, “Not a bad job, yours, you only work one day a week!” But I don’t work on Sunday, I reply. I go to church, and for me Sunday isn’t Sunday if I don’t go to church. It feels wrong, like something important is missing. But I don’t work. Vicars work five days a week, take one day off, and take the first day for worship. So I was told, back in the day.

But for me Sunday, however I spend it, is a day to do honour to God. And I’ll always try to keep it with serious intent, and to use my Sunday in a way that preaches and proclaims the love of God and the desire of God that everyone should find healing and salvation in him. It’s the Sabbath, a chance for a change of pace. And even for people who aren’t religious, some sort of Sabbath would be good. Not one imposed by me and my Church, just a day off from all the other stuff. It’s how God made us to live, it’s how we are re-created.

But for me to keep Sunday as a Christian Sabbath must be a positive thing; it’s about what I do, not what I’m stopped from doing, it’s me saying that God comes first in my life. Sabbath is his gift to me; and I should use that gift to seek his grace and learn of his purposes, so as to use every day in his service.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

An evening sermon for next Sunday, Trinity 9

Texts: Isaiah 28.9 to 22 and 2 Corinthians 8.1 to 9:

To be honest, it doesn’t look as if politicians have changed very much, from the days of the prophet Isaiah to now. A babble of meaningless noises, says Isaiah, who might well be describing the House of Commons on a bad day, or even on a fairly good one.

In fact, Isaiah was of course accusing the leaders of his day of listening to every voice except the right one, the one they should be taking to heart, the voice of God. These leaders claim to have the keys to success and safety and salvation, but they’ve ceased to pay attention to the Lord, and to take his words - indeed, his offer of rest and comfort - to heart. Their boastful confusion dooms them to failure; even the word of the Lord itself has become meaningless babble to their confused ears.

I don’t want to make any comment on any topic within the confused world of our present-day politics, and certainly not the one beginning with the letter “B”. But I can’t help but think that the adversarial nature of our political system is beginning to fail us, and I hate the ease with which people in high places lie and dissemble and cloak the truth. To recover and move forward, our nation is seriously in need of reconciliation, or else our society as a whole may become too deeply fractured to repair.

Perhaps that will be a role for the Church, though Church itself isn’t always a harmonious and peaceful place. How do we find ways to belong together, when sometimes we deeply disagree? It isn’t easy, but we need to remind ourselves that love isn’t conditional upon the person loved getting everything right. If it were, God wouldn’t love me, or you; and yet he does.

I think that perhaps our two readings tonight contrast a group of people in it for themselves - the leaders of the nation so firmly condemned by Isaiah - and a group of people who, potentially at least, are there for one another, as Paul encourages church folk in Corinth to contribute towards the needs of their sisters and brothers in Jerusalem.

Chapter eight of second Corinthians contains verses much used by preachers on Christian giving and in stewardship campaigns. Paul was very anxious that the church he had helped to found in Corinth should play its part in helping the mother Church in Jerusalem, where things were not going well. And as he urges the Corinthians to give generously, he uses a number of different ways of appealing to them.

Firstly, he challenges them, by telling them how generously the Christian communities in Macedonia has responded; secondly he urges them to complete what they’ve already started - a bit like the teachers along our cross-country course at school: “Come on, Rowell, you’ve run this far, you can’t give up now!” That, presumably, was the role to be fulfilled by Titus, as Paul writes “We have asked Titus to bring your share in this work to its  completion.”

Thirdly, he praises the past record of the Corinthian church, and encourages them to recognise just how rich they are in so many ways. They’ve set themselves a target to keep to, that’s part of his argument. But maybe also he’s saying something about not just feeling sorry for someone in need, but actually acting on how you feel. Pity that remains only that, without being turned into a generous action, is without value. The New Testament scholar William Barclay, commenting on this passage, notes that the tragedy of life isn’t that we have no high impulses, but that we fail to turn them into fine actions.

But finally Paul reminds his Corinthian readers of the generosity of Christ. He was rich, writes Paul, but for your sakes he became poor, so that you in turn might be rich. We might think of wealth in terms of possessions and assets; but for Paul things we own should always be understood in terms of opportunity: our way to do in the world something that reflects what Christ has already done for us: Christ who, in Paul’s words to the Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”

The imitation of Christ is our highest call. Paul himself speaks of completing the work of Christ in his own poor body. And when Jesus says to his disciples, “Follow me,” he’s not really meaning the physical act of walking along the highway. He’s saying, see what I do, and do the same. Learn from me, take my example to heart; be as like me as you can be.

So let me now turn back to say a little more about the first point Paul made to the Corinthians, which was about how open handed and generous was the response of the people in Macedonia, in Thessalonica and elsewhere. These Macedonian Christians had been having a pretty hard time of it themselves, and they weren’t  by any means well off in terms of money and possessions; and yet, writes Paul, “from their poverty they have shown themselves lavishly open-handed.”

Doing some research recently in advance of a Christian giving campaign I want to carry forward on my patch this autumn, I discovered that the highest weekly giving in the Church of England comes not from some wealthy stockbroker belt diocese in the south-east, but from an old industrial region that has to be one of the least well-off bits of the Church.

That surprised me, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. Often those who have least to give are among the most ready to give. I’ve experienced standards of generosity and hospitality in African villages and South American shanty towns that leave the often measured and careful hospitality of these parts far behind.

The Jewish feast of Purim - which celebrates the saving of the people from a plot by an official of the Persian Empire to kill them all (you can read the story in the Book of Esther) - anyway, at Purim, gifts are part of the celebration, and it’s a firm rule that, however poor you are, you must find someone poorer than you and give them a gift.

Maybe, of course, a degree of poverty helps you to understand what it’s like for others going through the same thing, and so to sympathise with their plight. A man with a single piece of bread tore it in two and gave half to a man next to him who had nothing. “Here!” he said. “Now, though neither of us has got enough, at least each of us has something!”  Whereas Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, when told that the people had no bread, replied, “Let them eat cake!” That sounds like a scornful response, but really she simply was unable to imagine a situation where someone might have nothing to eat. She was too rich to interpret and understand poverty.

Isaiah tells the Marie Antoinettes of his day that the Lord is about to measure them, and the measure he’ll be using will be the measure of justice: justice as a plumb line and righteousness as a plummet, is how Isaiah puts it. They’ve this one chance to turn aside from their thoughtless and arrogant ways. This is one of the places in the Old Testament understood as a prophecy of the Messiah - as Isaiah speaks of the corner-stone of great worth that will be laid in Zion. Against it, those who rule without really caring will be found wanting.

One last thing. Speaking of the generosity of the Macedonians, Paul writes that “they gave themselves.” Charity is a word that has become somewhat degraded these days. That’s partly the idea of charity as something that allows you to look good and maybe boast a bit, maybe done mostly with the aim of drawing favourable attention to oneself or reviving a flagging celebrity career. Or we may think of charity as what you do with the spare coppers, the bits of cash you can spare without noticing. Nothing wrong with that as such, of course, but maybe there is if it’s only that. Really though charity is a word interchangeable with love - or it was, anyway. Those who truly give, give something of them-selves, not just the spare cash.  I have things given me that immediately call to mind the person who gave them.

So personal giving is always something special. And the highest example of personal giving, and the motivation for all that we give, is or should be that Jesus Christ gave everything for me, and for you, and for the world. In him, and him alone, we find the corner-stone on which our own generosity and sharing rests and finds its foundation; in him, and him alone, we see the one who makes plain in a life that gives all it can God’s love for me and you and the world; and God’s call to us to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him.

A morning sermon for next Sunday, Trinity 9 . . .

Texts: Hebrews 11.29 to 12.2, and Luke 12.49 to 56:

I reckon that this morning’s readings are among the hardest to understand, hardest to accept, and hardest therefore to preach from, in the whole church year. The Gospel especially. Back at the start of the year, within our Christmas services, we joined the angels to acclaim the birth of the Prince of Peace. And yet now we hear the man that child grew up to become say to his disciples, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division and dissent!”

We’ve seen already in our first reading, from Hebrews, how lots of bad things happened to lots of good people in the Old Testament stories. I have to admit that as a young choirboy I used to really enjoy singing those bloodthirsty words from Christopher Wordsworth’s hymn “Hark the sound of holy voices”: “Mocked, imprisoned, stoned, tormented / Sawn asunder, slain with sword . . .” Though at the same time I did rather hope that none of those things would have to happen to me.

And Jesus says on many occasions, to many different people, that there’s a cost to following him. Here he pulls no punches at all, as he speaks about families divided, one against another. That’s difficult to accept; our families are really important to us as Christians, and even beyond our families we’re surely supposed to be doing our best to live together in harmony and peace.

But there is peace, and there is peace, you might say. The Hebrew word for peace is “shalom”, and shalom means a lot more than just that the guns are silent, and we’re not actually at war. Shalom is respecting the rights of every person, and reaching out to the poorest and most vulnerable, making space for them; shalom is about wholeness, wellbeing, safety and health. If those things are lacking, then whatever peace we may have is conditional at best, incomplete, not the peace God desires. Shalom is the peace of God that passes our human understanding: true and lasting peace, the deep peace of the anthem by John Rutter that will close our TaizĂ© service this afternoon.

And that godly peace is fundamental to the life and message of Jesus, from start to finish. He was what he was born to be, the Prince of Peace; when he healed people he pronounced God’s forgiveness, and sent them on their way with a blessing of peace. On Easter Day the risen Christ greets his disciples with the words, “Peace be with you!”

There can be no doubt of the desire and longing of Jesus to bring a deeper health and wholeness to our world. His message is all about the shalom peace that is his Father’s will for all creation. And yet he says, “The members of a family will be divided against one another.” There’ll be those who refuse to hear and accept his call, those who can’t accept the change in their own lives that’s required of them. And so the peace that God desires - shalom - comes at the cost of lesser forms of  peace.

What do I mean by lesser forms of peace? You can get a form of peace by balancing arms against arms. In the United States the National Rifle Association seems to believe that peace is better preserved by handing out more guns than by controlling them, despite all the evidence to the contrary. As countries we aim missiles against one another that we hope we’ll never have to use in what’s known as MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction.

It’s the difference between peacemaking and peace keeping. You can keep the peace by holding people apart and preventing them from landing their punches. But making peace requires a change of heart, a spirit of forgiveness, and a reconciliation that allows all those involved to begin again. It’s hard to do, and it’s not always possible. Sometimes peacekeeping is as much as we can manage, but it should never be what we allow ourselves to be content with; it should never be our benchmark.
Lesser forms of peace are kept in communities, institutions, families even, too. We may hide the truth, try to look as though it’s all right, pretend that something bad isn’t happening.

Like the family whose lives are distorted by the emotional or even physical abuse perpetrated by one member, but who won’t let on to anyone else that life at home is anything but perfect. Like the child falling into drug addiction, or maybe involved in gang culture, while parents perhaps choose to ignore the signs and hope that somehow it’ll all come right again. Like the workplace where the toxic behaviour of a colleague or maybe a boss has to be tolerated, because maybe the alternative is you get handed your cards.  Like the many situations where we see problems and we know they’re there, but we pretend not to have seen them, say nothing and try to keep the peace. Or some kind of peace.

There is, alas, a long way to go before all God’s children can know the wholeness and well-being of shalom. In the meantime often we have to make do with the avoidance of conflict. But we must always recognise that there is more to do, and further to go. Peacekeeping is never really enough. Being members of God’s kingdom - praying as we do, “Thy kingdom come” - commits us always to desire more than the small and incomplete forms of peace we can manage to keep.

Jesus was, let’s be honest, an uncomfortable person to have around. He reached out the wrong sorts of people, made time for those who were outcasts, people other folk shunned, and upset the status quo. Eventually they put him to death: the price of the peace he preached was division, rejection, and the cross.

We haven’t had many christenings this year: next Sunday’s at Leighton is I think only the third of the year. In it I shall mark the sign of the cross on the forehead of the little girl who’s being baptized, and her parents and godparents will say, for themselves and also for her, “I turn to Christ.” All of us who’ve been baptized have made that promise, or it’s been made for us: “I turn to Christ.” At confirmation we make it for ourselves, and every time we receive holy communion we do in fact remake that baptism promise: “I turn to Christ.”

And turning to Christ, and taking seriously the promises made in baptism, is about a change of heart and a change of life. It commits us to shalom, to God’s deep and forever peace. The tension in that is that we naturally want to avoid conflict, we want to be liked, and it’s tempting to settle for a lesser peace, to accommodate and to compromise. There’s nothing wrong with compromise, and we have to do whatever is possible as we serve God and serve one another. But Christians should always be aiming higher and wanting more. Shalom, God’s true peace, calls us to stand against injustice, to make no cheap deals, and to truly love our neighbour. To preserve a lesser peace at someone else’s cost, or by turning aside from a someone else’s pain or unjust treatment, is to trade God’s shalom for a poor imitation.

Christians are not called to be nice; we’re called to be loving, to be generous, to be forgiving, to be true, and to stand firm against all that seeks to deny the true reign of God’s love. But not necessarily nice. There’s no Christian ministry of being a doormat, and letting other people walk all over us, even though that, too, might preserve some kind of peace. Let’s never confuse humility with inertia. It’s not enough; it’s not what God wants; it’s not what the cross stands for.

Hard readings today, indeed. But maybe the more important question when you look at them isn’t “Why did Jesus teach that following him could lead to division?” but “Why doesn’t our faith disturb people more than it does?” Do we hold back when we should be speaking out? Should we be bolder, more challenging, more questioning, less accepting?  Those who speak the truth in love may not always be heard gladly, but if we’re too afraid of dissent and division maybe we’re turning aside from that deep shalom peace for which Jesus lived and died, and for which our troubled world, and our own souls, long.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Not a sermon about money?

 . . . proper 13, year C, preached at Holy Trinity, Leighton:

On the front page of last month’s magazine I said that I’d be talking a bit about money and Christian giving during the autumn. This sermon isn’t it; we’re not there yet. Having said that, today’s Gospel is one example of the many places where Jesus talks about money and possessions, and about how we relate to the stuff we own. You might not think so, but Jesus said more about money than about most things.

The story St Luke gives us begins with Jesus surrounded by a crowd of people, and he’s teaching them. And a man comes up to him and says, “Tell my brother to give me my share of the family property.” That may sound a bit brazen, even a bit odd, but a rabbi or religious teacher would have been regarded as having the right to arbitrate in a dispute of that kind.

But Jesus refuses to get involved. And instead he uses the opportunity it gives him to tell a story about what’s really important in life. We sometimes call it the Parable of the Rich Fool. And the first thing I’d want to say about it is that the main character isn’t a bad man. He’s worked for what he’s got, and as a farmer he’s done well.

None of his wealth has come from cheating anyone or stealing from them. And his plans make sense as well. To build some bigger barns to store it all seems not an unreasonable thing to do. He needs somewhere to put the good harvest he’s brought in, and what’s ever wrong about saving for a rainy day?

Nothing, is the answer to that question. So why do we call him the Rich Fool? Why is he called a fool in the parable? Not because he wants to build some new barns. Not because he’s rich, even. Not because he’s ambitious, either. All of these are things we’d be right to praise in many an entrepreneur. But there is a spiritual hollowness in this man, and we can see that most plainly revealed in the dialogue he has with himself.

Here’s what he says: “What am I to do? I have not the space to store my produce. This is what I will do, I will pull down my barns and build them bigger. I will collect in them all my grain and other goods, and I will say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid by, enough for many years to come: take life easy, eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.’”

If you add up all the personal pronouns, all the I me my words - and the you and your words because after all it’s himself he’s talking to, you’ll find there’s an awful lot of them. One commentary suggests it’s not far short of a quarter of the words - I, me, mine (and you and yours as well, as it’s himself he’s talking to).

There’s the spiritual emptiness of this man. It’s all about himself. He’s probably got family, friends, and presumably a workforce to help him bring in all that great harvest. None of them gets a mention. Nor does God, by the way. It looks very much as though he thinks he’s produced all his wealth himself, and that it’s his entirely to possess, his alone to control.

Today’s world is sometimes described as the “I me my” generation. Think of what Gordon Gecko, as played by Michael Douglas, says in the film “Wall Street”: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works.” It seems a self-centred view of the world finds less challenge than it used to; almost everything is assessed in terms of the money it makes. But this story suggests this is nothing new. Jesus wouldn’t have told it otherwise.

The other delusion that distorts this man’s relationship with his wealth is this: he seems to think the clock is going to go on ticking. He’s forgotten, or he’s chosen to ignore, the uncomfortable reality that one day time runs out for every one of us. None of us is here for keeps. And ultimately, what we keep for ourselves, we lose.

My old parish church at Minsterley has memento mori above the main door people used to enter the church by, on the west front. They’re a bit gruesome, skulls and cross bones, and glasses with the sand running through them, copied I think from one of Wren’s churches in London. They remind everyone as they enter of the Ash Wednesday words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

For the man in the story, that happens that very night. And so the truth is made plain, that wealth and possessions can never save us. The clock one day will stop ticking. We might invest in new and more expensive clocks, but even so, one day they will cease to tick.

Let’s turn for a moment to our first reading, Paul writing to the young church in Colossae. Paul’s colleague Epaphras had taken the Gospel message to Colossae, and the people there had embraced it with great enthusiasm. But one thing Paul wants to tell them is that there need to be some radical changes - the way they used to live can’t be the way they live now.

And what that boils down to is this: where before they lived an every man for himself kind of life, now they need to be living for one another. Christ has so freely and completely given you life; now you must be giving life to each other.

The new church at Colossae was learning to live as people who belonged to Jesus. And if we belong to Jesus, then so do the things we own. So nothing I own really belongs to me. Nor does the talent and skill that helps me to earn. Nor does the time. All of it is God-given, and mine only on loan.
That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t delight in it and enjoy what I’ve been given; but it does mean I think that the way I use what I have should reflect the generosity and the love of God. Unlike the Rich Fool, I should plan with more than just me in mind.

We live in the consumer society, and it can be hard to move away from a consumerist analysis of ourselves, or to shake off our need to keep up with the Joneses. But this parable calls on us to shift our priorities: to move from being consumers of resources to being instead stewards of what belongs to God. We may find we begin to ask different questions about how we use what we have, questions like: “Do I really need this, or could I live without it?” “How can what I have benefit the wider community?” or “What opportunities do I have to do some good?”

That doesn’t mean our own personal needs drop out of the equation; that doesn’t mean our own lives should be cramped or uncomfortable. It’s about restoring the balance. Does Jesus condemn wealth or ambition? I don’t think so. But he does see these things as there to be used in his Father’s service. And if they’re not seen and used and valued in that way, they can become spiritually dangerous. For if our possessions get too important, do we still own them, or have they started owning us? That’s what happened to the man in the story.

As he tells the story, Jesus invites us into a new way of living, and a new way of relating to the things we own. Paul was saying something similar to those new Christians at Colossae. He wrote, “Put on the new nature which is constantly being renewed in the image of its Creator and brought to know God.” Jesus calls us away from the inward focus of I me my. He invites us to be outgoing and outward-looking. He calls us into a deeper relationship with God and therefore with one another. A new and thankful way of living, marked by generous love and by caring compassion. And the treasure we find there is far greater and much more enduring than anything we might pack into our storehouses and barns.