Monday, 9 August 2010

Trinity 10: Treasure that lasts

Luke 12.32-40

There is a story told about St Lawrence, who was martyred in the third Century in Rome. In St Lawrence’s time the church was still just a collection of small groups of people worshipping together in their homes, often enduring suspicion and persecution. Many of them still followed the practice of the early church, holding their property and wealth in common and distributing it to others as they had need. Lawrence was a deacon; and the deacon’s job would have been primarily to share out those common funds, giving money to the poor, to unsupported widows, to the sick and disabled.

It is said that during one particularly savage time of persecution, the Emperor Valerian arrested the leader of the Church in Rome, Bishop Sixtus. Before he was executed the Emperor insisted that he reveal where the Church’s possessions were. Sixtus told him that Lawrence, as a deacon, was in charge of them. So the Emperor had Lawrence arrested too, and demanded that the church’s treasure from him.
“Give me three days,” said Lawrence, “and I’ll bring it to you.” So Lawrence was released, and three days later he came back to the Emperor’s palace bringing with him not bags of gold as the Emperor had hoped but a crowd of people – bedraggled, poor, sick, widowed, all those to whom the church’s money had been given. “Here are the treasures of the church,” he said to the Emperor “you see them in these people”.

The Emperor wasn’t impressed, and promptly had Lawrence executed too, burnt on a grid-iron according to legend, but the point had been made. Treasure comes in many shapes and sizes, and you may not always be able to weigh it or count it or put it in the bank!

“Where your treasure is,” says Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, “there your heart will be also.” It was the people who really mattered to Lawrence, these people who Christ had called him to serve. That was where his heart was and they were his treasure. Money came and went. It could be stolen or lost, but investing in the real lives of those in need was like putting your money into a purse that didn’t wear out. His gift might change their lives, giving them new opportunities, a chance to get onto their own feet. Even if it just provided a meal or two it would have told them that someone cared about them, that they counted, and knowing you are loved can be the most life-transforming gift of all.

Lawrence had his priorities right, and the church honours him because of that, but it has often been hard for us to follow his example both as an institution and as individuals. In every generation we’ve needed people like Lawrence, Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, or a myriad of other lesser known saints to challenge our human instinct to grasp and to hoard.

The reason we find it so hard to follow in their footsteps, though, is that money isn’t just material stuff. It also carries emotional meanings for us. As Jesus put it, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Our treasures and our hearts are inextricably mixed up.

It is said that if you want to know what really matters to someone you only need to see two things; their bank statement and their diary. Money and time are both limited, so we have to choose how we spend them and those choices reveal what we really care about. That’s especially true if they are in short supply. When there’s little to spare we have to think really hard. What must we have and what can we do without? Would we rather buy the children new shoes for school or pay the electricity bill? Should we say no to that immediate demand so we can pay for the longer term expense or meet today’s need today? If it‘s time that is in short supply will we spend it with the family, or at work, in some community activity or on ourselves?

There aren’t necessarily any right or wrong answers to these questions – it all depends on the circumstances - but our decisions will reflect our true priorities whether we like it or not, and it may be that the bank statement and the diary won’t be in line with the values we claim to hold.
We might like to think that we are generous in our giving to good causes, but perhaps the bank statement will reveal that actually we are just giving, what’s leftover when we have got what we want. We might say we want our local communities to thrive, but how much time have we got roped off in the diary to help out? Or perhaps we talk about the importance of family life, but always manage to be somewhere else when they need us, or we neglect our own need for time to reflect and grow – that is a perfectly valid thing to spend time on. The diary will tell us the truth whether we like it or not.

So if we aren’t always living the message we proclaim, what is it that is stopping us? Why do we invest our time and money on purses that wear out, as the Gospel puts it, rather than on things which we really believe matter, which will bear lasting dividends of love, joy, peace and justice? Long experience of listening to people struggling with life – and my own struggles too – suggest to me that its often not just idleness or thoughtlessness. Our most stubborn greed, the desires that we just can’t conquer are usually fed from a much deeper and more powerful source, and Jesus gives us a clue to what that is in the words which open the Gospel reading. “Do not be afraid, little flock” he says, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Do not be afraid.
It is fear that often makes us hoard and stops us living with the open handed generosity we would like to have. It’s not a positive desire to have something because it is beautiful or useful, but a fear of what will happen if we don’t have it and hang onto it.

Some people have a justified and real fear of hunger which leads to unmanageable anxiety. Survivors of the concentration camps, for example, often found that years after their liberation they couldn’t stop hoarding food, keeping crusts under their pillows, despite the fact that there was plenty of food in the cupboard. They could never quite believe that the next meal would come.

But for others it’s not physical huger which drives their acquisitiveness. You may recall the tragic story a few years back of the wealthy businessman, Christopher Foster, who shot his wife and teenage daughter and burnt down his mansion, finally killing himself. It emerged later that his business had run into trouble and bankruptcy was looming. He knew he’d have to pull his daughter out of her expensive school, and give up his membership of the clubs he belonged to. Life would change dramatically, and he couldn’t bear the loss of face this would involve. He couldn’t even bear to tell his wife and daughter what had happened. So he killed them instead, and himself too. The thought of losing his wealth was literally a fate worse than death for him, not because he couldn’t survive physically, but because his sense of himself would be so damaged by it.

His response was very extreme, but I don’t think his fears are unusual at all. Many people share them. Possessions can easily become comfort blankets, safety nets, signs of status, sources of self-worth and self-respect, ways of proving our love to our families because we don’t think they’d believe it otherwise. Lose those possessions and all those other things are lost too. If people feel like this, no wonder they hoard. No wonder they are cautious about giving. No wonder they find it hard to invest in things which don’t bring a guaranteed return, as St Lawrence did when he gave away the church’s wealth to the poor.

But Jesus’ message is that we don’t need to fear – God is here and he is at work and nothing we do in his name and for his purposes is wasted. Jesus rams that message home by telling a story about servants waiting for their master’s return from his wedding with his bride. Weddings in the Bible aren’t about love – that wasn’t at all important in the first century. They are about starting a new family, making a new beginning, creating a new world. They are about the coming of the kingdom of God. This master comes home eager to begin a new chapter in the life of his household, eager to share his joy with them, but will the servants be equally eager, or will they have fallen asleep as if this were just a night like any other? Would you rather invest your time in the new kingdom God is building among the poor and the outcast, Jesus asks his disciples, or would you rather have a few hours extra kip for yourself?

The challenge of today’s Gospel is to go home and look at that all too revealing bank statement, and that diary that doesn’t lie. Where are our treasures of money and of time actually being spent? On things that we really think are worthwhile, or not? If we don’t like what we see, why is that? What stops us spending our money and time in ways which we really feel will be of lasting benefit, bringing God’s kingdom to birth in the world? Is it fear – and if so, what are we afraid of?

I can’t give you the answers to those questions – for each one of us they will be different – but I pray that we’ll find the courage that St Lawrence knew, the courage to invest in God’s real treasures, the people around us who need our help, the things which lead to hope and joy and justice. In doing that I pray that we’ll also discover that whatever we have or don’t have in material terms, God’s love for us is inexhaustible and indestructible.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Trinity 9 Evensong: What legacy are we leaving?

A sermon by Kevin Bright

Genesis 50.4-End, 1 Corinthians14.1-19

When I was listening to the radio in the bathroom this morning there was a discussion about ‘colour blind adoption’ in an American state and whether this would be appropriate here in Great Britain. Those responsible for placing children in families felt that where possible children are best off with at least one parent who shares their race and culture.

However the luxury of choice to match children in this way often isn’t available and it is felt that the love, structure and routine of any family life which could be made available to children otherwise living in care homes hugely outweighed any difficulties which could arise around race and culture.

Those who grow up in care without any family, when becoming adults are thrown out into a world without the support, love and social functions the majority of us take for granted as part and parcel of life.

In our Genesis reading today we heard that Joseph grew to be 110 years old, whether this was possible or not in his day we will never know but the point seems to be that he saw several generations of his family grow and prosper, surely one of life’s greatest pleasures and no mean compensation for some of the more difficult aspects of growing older.

Most homes have photos of family members in them but for those blessed with children and grandchildren the pleasure and pride in seeing them make progress in life is usually well evidenced for all to see. The natural inclination is to want to support the following generations of family, often through childminding, doing jobs, helping with homework and last but not least giving financial support where needed and where possible.

We like to think that succeeding generations will have a chance of a better life than ours and this will be particularly true for those who live in grinding poverty or who are unable to live their lives in peace due to crime and war.

Joseph resonates with this through two sets of circumstances we hear of.

Firstly, following the death of his father Jacob there was great potential for conflict in his family. The same brothers who sold him to be a servant in Egypt had felt safe whilst their father was alive but now feared that Joseph may take revenge. However, Jacob hoping for peace in his family when he could no longer be there to oversee wished the brothers to seek Joseph’s forgiveness.

The language they use is a little bit strange, they seem to approach Joseph without the sense that they are offering a heartfelt apology. It seems a bit like one of those apologies that are made when you don’t feel you are totally to blame for all that has happened. You know the type ‘Sorry that you misunderstood what I was trying to explain to you’ or ‘I didn’t realise you were so sensitive about your mother’ for example and less I’m so sorry to have acted out of anger and jealousy, I am totally to blame and will try not to let it happen again’.

Despite this Joseph only seems to hear the ‘sorry’ part and is moved to tears closely followed by the tears of his brothers. Joseph clearly doesn’t want to perpetuate a cycle of anger and hatred which may be passed down through the generations and reassures his brothers as he says ‘have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones’. He has found the grace to move on in a positive way and finds peace of mind in acknowledging that the final judgement will be God’s not his. In doing so peace can be restored and people set free.

I’m sure that it is our shared prayer that similar actions could apply one day in Afghanistan and other war blighted areas where acts of revenge and retribution perpetuate a seemingly endless cycle of suffering, not only for those involved in the fighting but also for huge numbers of helpless innocent victims.

Secondly Joseph shows faith that God keeps his promises, he also shows a sense of God’s time and not that constrained by our human bodies. Though he is about to die Joseph makes arrangements to have his body embalmed and put in a coffin in Egypt. He tells his brothers that God will restore them to Canaan and at that time his own body should be laid to rest there.

Today’s readings may prompt us to reflect on where we, both individually and as a church can play our part in breaking cycles of hatred, oppression, poverty and injustice. One area has to be to help future generations to grow up without the ill founded racial prejudices many of us have had to struggle to shake off.

We also need to be thinking about the legacy we will be leaving for future generations and be ambitious about finding sustainable technologies for our planet and play our part in recycling and reducing energy consumption where possible.

But what about us as a church? If we are honest I doubt that many of us feel we have a very positive image at a national level. The press seem to portray the church as full of people who are obsessed with sex and sexuality. When did you last hear a report about a project set up by the Church of England to help people on the fringes of society, to provide companionship to the lonely, to campaign for justice and raise funds for the poor.

I did a quick internet search and immediately found an Evening Standard story about a former Anglican vicar in an alleged sex scandal, he’s one of Boris Johnson’s former deputy mayors. But try looking for a positive headline and they are virtually all published by the church itself.

Of course we mustn’t overlook the fact that one type of story sells papers and one doesn’t but we need to care how we are perceived by those outside our church because we have a responsibility to make it an open and inviting place where the possibility of knowing God’s love can be found.

We heard in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth that he had concerns about those who were speaking in tongues. Corinth was a place of great trade and wealth with many links to the West and Asia, but it was also infamous for many bad and lurid activities often associated with a large transient population.

It’s possible that those speaking in tongues wanted to show how they were fully engaged with God and had no part in the bad activities. If this was the case they were building up a religious elite which could not be understood by those unable to interpret their sounds and such talking would no doubt appear insane to those outside the church. Paul is keen to impress upon his Corinthian congregation that a truly spiritual believer will wish to ensure their gifts are used not to further their own standing but to build up the church.

I know that many look out for visitors to help them follow worship and I’m also aware that the paperwork we have to follow has been simplified and made more accessible at this church in recent years.

No one can benefit from a message which cannot be understood so it is for us to put in the effort to make what can initially appear complicated simple and to remember that this remains God’s church, open to all and not simply what we want it to be for our own convenience.

Rev Peter Flynn was here last week taking our morning service, afterwards he was staring at the former priests of this parish on the wall in the Vestry and commented ‘they all looked so formidable don’t they, it’s hard to imagine anyone approaching them with some sensitive problem.’ Of course some may have been very friendly when you met them in the flesh but it reinforced the need to make church accessible for those who find the whole institution a mystery.

What’s important for us now is to act in a way that will eventually leave the best possible legacy both for those that will succeed us in this church and in the world. In doing so, like Joseph, we can show our faith and move a little closer to seeing things in God’s time rather than just that of our own lifespan.


1 August 2010

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Trinity 9: Living and Dying

Eccles. 1.2,12-14; 2.18-23, Luke 12.13-21

I recall a time, a while back now, when my husband Philip was in charge of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme in his school. That meant taking pupils away on outdoor activity weekends with other local school groups. One weekend I went along to help him. It was the first time most of the young people had been camping, so, on the first evening one of the other trainers got them together to show them how to use their Trangias, the methylated spirit stoves which they would be cooking on. Quite rightly he emphasized to them how dangerous these stoves were. Get it wrong and you would blow them up and incinerate yourself in spectacular fashion.
I wonder whether he might have laid it on a bit too thick, though, because, by the end of his talk the girls were absolutely terrified. They had decided that, if it was that dangerous, they weren’t going to bother. They were going to eat cold food all weekend. One of them turned to me, her eyes as big as saucers, and said, “It’s so scary, Mrs Le Bas! We’re all going to die!”
Alas, I had to point out to her that she was quite right – we were all going to die – but perhaps, if we followed our instructions, it wouldn’t be that weekend…!

We’re all going to die! What a gloomy thought for a Sunday morning. Gloomy, but true.

And it is that thought which seems to preoccupy the author of that first lesson we heard from the book of Ecclesiastes. It is the work of someone puzzling over an ancient, yet also a very contemporary question. What’s life all about? What does it mean? What’s the point? He looks at the work we do – scurrying around like ants. Yet in the end, he says, it all comes to dust and ashes. The fruits of our labours are left behind for others to use – or misuse. There are no pockets in a shroud, as the old proverb put it. “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.” In a sense the book of Ecclesiastes is the stable mate of the book of Job – one is a meditation on the meaning of life, and the other on the problem of suffering. And both Ecclesiastes and Job end up in the same place, scratching their heads, shrugging their shoulders, forced to admit that, having pondered these great questions, the only answer they can come up with is a resounding “don’t know”. God might have the answer, but we don’t.

It all sounds rather negative and depressing. But does Ecclesiastes mean to depress us? I don’t think he does.

What we take away from the book of Ecclesiastes really depends on how we translate one Hebrew word in it – a word that comes up again and again. It is the word “hebel”. In the version we heard this morning it is translated as “vanity”. “’Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ saith the preacher “ – that phrase comes again and again throughout the book. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that it is nothing to do with standing in front of the mirror wondering whether a bit of cosmetic surgery would be justified. It isn’t that sort of vanity that he means. Some modern translations use words like “emptiness”, “futility” or “meaninglessness” instead. But I’m not sure that they really catch the meaning either. The word “hebel” literally means “breath” or “mist”. It describes things which are wispy, hard to pin down, here today and gone tomorrow – that is where the idea of futility comes from. But we can very soon see, when we stop to think, that sort of leap of interpretation isn’t really justified.

Sure, breath is hard to pin down, but that doesn’t mean it’s futile. Quite the opposite – it is absolutely vital. Without it we die. Mist may be wispy and transient, but it is part of the cycle of evaporation and rainfall without which nothing could live. Both these things – breath and mist – are passing. You can’t hold onto them, but without them we could not survive.

So the point that Ecclesiastes is making is not that life doesn’t matter – this life lived here on earth with its joys and sorrows, its labour and its rest. The point he is making is simply that it is transient. Like the breath which we breathe – in and out – life passes. Each moment passes. You can’t put it in a box, save it for later. You have to live it – a second at a time, a breath at a time. It comes once, and then it is gone. There’s a sadness about that – we can all look back on chances we missed, or mistakes we wish we could undo. But there’s also a sense in which the transience of life makes us aware of its preciousness. It is not just a drag to be got through. It is a gift, given to us to treasure.

The man in the story Jesus tells learns that lesson the hard way. He has heaped up so many possessions that he literally doesn’t know where to put them, having to build a bigger barn to fit them all into. There, he thinks, they will be safe, “laid up for many years”. But he discovers to his cost that he doesn’t have many years; he doesn’t even have many hours. And all that he has will go to others – others who he seems to feel no connection to. It’s an odd story, because if you read it carefully you realise that there is actually just this one man in it. There is no mention of family, or even servants, and yet they must have been around. He couldn’t sow, reap, harvest, or build barns all by himself. Yet he is portrayed as a solitary character, and that probably tells us what we need to know about him. It’s all about him; no one else matters. Not God, not family, not friends or neighbours. He may be rich in possessions, but he is utterly unconnected in the world or beyond it, and that means that he is cut off from the kind of joy and love which can make you feel wealthy even if you have nothing in worldly terms. This is what Jesus means when he talks about being “rich towards God”. It’s not just about spending time in worship and prayer. It is also about loving your neighbour, working for justice, building communities where we are; priorities which feature very often in the Bible. They are God’s priorities and the Bible makes it clear that doing them is just as much a holy task as anything we do here in church.

Of course Christians believe that this life is not all there is – it grows into the life of heaven. But it begins here, in this world which God has given us. This life is not a waiting room, a dummy run, or a trial ground to be endured so we can win our ticket to something better. It is the gift of a loving Creator – made all the sweeter because it is not limitless. If this life was all there was, it would still be worth it.

Like the teenagers I told you about at the beginning of this sermon we all have to face the stark truth that “We’re all going to die”. But we do have a choice about how we respond to that. We can huddle up fearfully, refusing to take any risks - physical, spiritual, or emotional - refusing to live - deciding to eat cold food rather than risk getting burnt. We can decide to squander what we have indiscriminately on our own selfish pleasures – eat, drink and be merry...
Either of those choices, though, will probably mean we come to the end of our lives feeling we have wasted them.

Fortunately there is a third option for us. We can decide to look on life as a precious gift, given to us to delight in by a God who delights in us, in which even the greatest sorrows are mingled with the joys of love, laughter, beauty and friendship. We can view each moment – passing as it is – as a moment to be lived as fully as we can, rich towards others, rich towards God. We may not end up with the biggest barns, or bank balances, by doing that but we will end up with the biggest hearts, and it is the size of your heart, not your bank balance which will tell you at the end of your life, whether it was worth the effort of living it.