Crossroads

This is a sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 1.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.*

Did you spot why I started with this poem, this morning?

The psalm we just read wrapped some lovely imagery – of fruitful green trees by clear flowing waters, with unfading leaves, and so forth – around what seems like quite a stark division of the world’s possibilities into just and righteous on one hand, and evil on the other.  Two roads in the wood of life, perhaps; and sometimes difficult to choose between.

This psalm is one example among many – both within and outside the Bible – of what is called the “two ways” approach to ethics or morality. Think of Jesus telling his followers, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Similarly, in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the gathered people of Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” and so on.

There are many other examples, and this way of thinking, which – with some variation – was important in ancient Jewish, Christian and Pagan ethical thinking, was prominent in the writings of the early church, and continues to be expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. In his spiritual exercises St. Ignatius included a “meditation on two standards,” in which the person undertaking the exercise is invited to imagine the army of Christ and the army of Satan, drawn up to do battle, and to choose to seek a place under the standard of Christ.

So what’s the appeal? Is it just that we all like a bit of certainty? That there’s some comfort in the idea that there are right answers to life’s puzzles, and that I can know what they are? Superficially, perhaps, that’s part of why this sort of approach has persisted for so long. But I think there’s something deeper to it as well.

You see, if someone tells you that there are two paths in front of you, and tells you about the blessings of one and the dangers of the other, even if that person doesn’t say so explicitly, he or she is setting before you a choice. And in doing so, that person – the author of the Psalm, in this case – is affirming your ability to make a choice. This is an approach to ethics which has at its roots a conviction that a human person is, in a meaningful sense, a moral agent, and that the will and choices of people actually matter.

This view of human beings skirts around the pessimism of the Calvinists, who will tell you that the only choice many humans can make is which sin to commit (because you’re going to be sinning!), without going to the other extreme and saying that since we are justified by grace, all options are open to us and equally good.

No. A “two ways” approach to ethics says to us first, that we are able to choose, and second, that our choices matter. It affirms our dignity as moral agents, neither puppets of greater forces nor completely bound in oppressions that we cannot transcend, and impresses on us our responsibility to choose well; because our own individual happiness, the flourishing of our community, and the healthy functioning of wider society, all are shaped by the choices which we make.

There is, however, a twist to this, particularly in the context of Christian thinking. All too often, people have made the easy identification of the right way – the way of the just and righteous – as simply being part of the Church. So the dualism of right and wrong gets carried over into thinking in terms of insiders and outsiders; we the green trees drinking deep from the waters of the Spirit, and outside, the sinners, the mockers, the evil doers. Us and them. And God on our side, of course.

But it’s not that simple. Christians can make bad choices. We do it all the time. And those outside the church – even if they don’t recognize God in terms we can easily affirm – can and do bear fruit in due season. So if we have meaningful choices in front of us, they have to be more than just the choice to express some sort of party loyalty. The church is a good thing – don’t misunderstand me, if I didn’t think that I wouldn’t have committed my life to it! – but in ethical terms, at least, it’s not an end in itself.

So what is the end? Although the psalm says that the righteous prosper, this is not an encouragement to a kind of prosperity ethics, one which says that if we make the right choices God will bless us by giving us all that our hearts desire. The image of green trees growing by flowing waters is not, ultimately, just about how lovely it is for the trees. Instead, throughout Scripture large, shady and fruitful trees are a symbol of God’s blessing for others.

Think about the parable of the mustard seed; so often what we focus on in that parable is the growth of a great shrub with large branches from the smallest of all seeds, and of the glory of God in bringing about that growth. But remember how that parable ends: “…so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” The smallest of all seeds becomes a source of shelter and security, a place of blessing, a place through which God works to provide good things for his creatures.

I wonder what it might be like to consider our own ethical questions – our own moments in which we are confronted with real choices – and to make our choice in trust that if our heart follows the heart of God well enough, even our very small choices might become opportunities for God to bless others, providing for their real needs through our integrity?

It’s a very high view of human potential. But not, I think – looking out at all of you – too high. We are capable of real and meaningful choices. We are capable of taking delight in the knowledge of God’s way. We are capable of being like green trees, made fruitful by God for the blessing of the world.   And that, if we choose it, will make all the difference.

*The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.

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Meaning

This is a sermon for the second Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it references is 1 John 1:1-2:2, and it was written for a baptism.

Light and dark, life and death, good and evil… the last couple of weeks, in different ways, have given us a lot of reason to focus on those themes.  And this morning, we’re looking at the same themes again, but from a slightly different angle.

Partly because it’s Samuel’s baptism day, and in the rejection of selfishness, injustice, and evil, and turning to God, we come again to some of the fundamental things in the Christian life.  But also because of our readings; in the letter from John, he wrote, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.”

There’s more than one aspect to light; more than one thing that’s meant by saying that “God is light.”  By that we can mean that God is truth; that God is essential to life; that God is dynamic; and so on.  But the aspect I’d like to pick up on this morning is the idea that in light there is meaning, as opposed to the darkness of meaninglessness.

If God is light, and light is a mediator of meaning, there are some things which flow from that.  One of them is the value of every human person – including Samuel – because we each have a place in the meaningful creation of an intentional creator.  As one ancient poet put it, that each person is “a jar full of delight,” suggesting that God delights in us, and that we’re invited to delight in each other.

Another is that every person has something valuable to bring, a part to play, in human society; because each one of us is created uniquely as we are and is irreplaceable in the network of relationships that make up community.

Another is that faith – or religion, if you prefer – is supposed to operate on a different level than a set of rules.  Becoming a Christian isn’t about committing to be “good,” as if goodness meant no sex or chocolate or freedom; it’s about committing to a system of meaning; a system of meaning in which we discover and cherish and nurture the goodness God has given to all aspects of the created universe in which we find ourselves.

Some ethical boundaries will arise from that, of course; but not because religion is a controlling force in our lives, but because boundaries are a healthy part of knowing who we are, and what we’re about.

And this parish’s long connection with various social justice causes is part of being committed to Christianity as a system of meaning; because it says that the vision of human flourishing being open to every person which is at the heart of the quest for social justice, is also at the heart of God’s system of meaning for human life.  They’re two different ways of relating to the same truth.

Having a system of meaning involves a sense of identity, of knowing who we are, and to whom we belong.  Of course on one level we can talk about family – and when you’re as young as Samuel, that’s pretty much your whole framework of meaning – but as we grow, it includes friends, work, leisure, a sense of what one’s life is about.  But there’s a level of meaning deeper than the daily routine of work and leisure, or even the personal connections of family and friendship; without denying the value of family, friendship, work and so on.

But that deeper level of meaning has to do with being children of God; with all that flows from that, as I’ve already touched on, giving meaning and significance to all the other, more mundane aspects of our lives.

This identity as a child of God can give us a self-confidence that’s not broken by adverse circumstances in life.  How can we hate or despise what we know God created to be good, our very selves?  It’s not about image or external success, but about something that remains even when we’ve messed up or failed or been the victim of external forces.  Who we are created to be can never be taken from us.

And it can give us a sense of purpose; a sense of the direction of our lives as contributing to the overall good of the world around us.

God is light, in whom there is no darkness at all.  God doesn’t do anything meaningless or make anything worthless, but everything God creates is good, and has value and purpose, including each of us.  That’s part of what we say yes to, in baptism.  It’s part of what we say yes to, as we gather week to week to worship together and be community to one another.  And it’s part of what we ought to say yes to, as we live our lives out in the world, the rest of the week.  That’s what it means to live as a disciple of Christ.

So with all of that in mind, I encourage you each to reflect on your baptism, and what it means in your life, as we continue to celebrate the season of the resurrection.

Stumbling conscience

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

Some of Paul’s letters deal with social situations so far removed from our own culture, that we have to do some work to understand what’s going on, and what he’s talking about.  Today’s reading from Corinthians is one of those, I suspect; so let me start by filling in the background a little bit.

In the first century, in a city like Corinth, meat was – if not luxury food – in somewhat limited supply.  The main suppliers of meat in the marketplace were actually the temples; people would go to worship their god or goddess of choice, sacrifice some sort of bird or – if the situation were significant or the worshipper was very wealthy – a larger animal, and the temple would then sell the meat to the public.

It was a win all around; the population got meat, the temple got money, the gods got worshipped, and – for the consumer – you got to participate in this pious system by eating meat which had been given to the gods, and so, by extension, to participate in honouring those gods.  Perhaps even attracting some sort of blessing from those gods for doing so.

It was not, conceptually, anything like picking out a pot roast from the fridge section in the supermarket is for us; but had a whole range of social connections to other people and their gods, and the worship of those gods.

And that worked just fine, as long as everyone basically shared the same worldview and religious system, and had no real problem with each others’ gods.

Enter the Christians, who of course didn’t have the same worldview and religious system as the pagan population, and who did indeed have significant problems with the pagan gods, and the worship thereof.  And who then had to work out what their attitude and behaviour was going to be in this matter.  And – because it seems some things never change – who managed to disagree about that.

From what we can tell from the letter, it seems there were two main opinions on how Christians should react to meat sacrificed to idols.  On the one hand, there was a group who said that the idol was powerless, there was no real god there to worship, and as such the meat that the temples were selling in the marketplace was spiritually no different to meat you might butcher yourself.  Go ahead, buy and eat, or accept it as a guest, without having any issues with it.  Knock yourself out.

On the other hand, there was a group who felt that participating in the worship of that idol was, in some sense, still wrong, and that Christians should avoid that meat.  Not buy it, not eat it, and not accept it if given it to eat by a host.  Better safe than sorry, perhaps.

And it seems that Paul was asked for his advice in the matter, to settle the dispute, because this part of the letter seems to be his reply to a question posed by the Corinthians.

And this is where it gets interesting, because, Paul agrees with the group who say that the idol is no god and you can go ahead and eat.  But – and this is the key thing – he says you shouldn’t do it, if it’s going to cause a problem for your brother or sister.

So even if you know that you can do something, if someone else believes it’s wrong, and might be encouraged to do something they believe is wrong, because they see you doing it; better to refrain.  Your brother’s conscience is more important than your appetite.

This is, I think, something we struggle with in our society.  Not the meat market and all of that, but the idea that we each have some responsibility for each others’ consciences.  We tend to be very individualistic; my conscience is my business, your conscience is your business, and the less we talk about that, the happier we generally are.

But I would suggest that contemporary Western individualism is not something Paul – or Jesus – would have understood.  And I’d go further to say that in some ways, it distorts the picture of human wholeness given to us by the earliest Christians.  While we each need a healthy sense of our own personal identity, our society tends to encourage us to carry that to a point that is destructive of healthy communal identity.

To put that another way, my best human self isn’t something I’ll find by striving to be as independent and internally isolated from others as possible, but is something I’ll find in relationship, in connection with others, in shared life.  Each of us, even before we are born, are beings-in-relationship; and the paradox of being human is that it’s only in relationships that we can be most fully and authentically ourselves.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons why the gospel breaks down the old social categories.  Elsewhere in his letters Paul writes that “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free;” or again, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”  Why?  Because those social categories put barriers between people which made authentic loving relationships impossible.  This is not about abolishing diversity, but about overcoming divisions.

When the gospel calls us to be human beings in relationship, anything which impairs that relationship – anything which creates dynamics of resentment, mistrust or envy between human beings – is called into question.

And this is where this principle becomes relevant for us.  We have a society riddled with resentments, mistrusts, envies and so on.  A glance at all the competing arguments about how best to observe – or not observe – Australia day would tell you that.  Being aware of refugees in detention centres, or all the arguments about how to structure tax reform or how best to care for our most economically vulnerable citizens, says some more.  We have divisions where there ought to be diversity held in mutually respectful and advantageous relationship.

The overriding principle Paul was trying to teach the Corinthians was that we’re in this together.  Your success is my success; your suffering is my suffering.  Your sin is – to the extent that I could have prevented or discouraged it – my sin.  And vice versa.

Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak, Paul wrote.  If we share responsibility for one another, we are also all supports and resources to one another in our need.  We are stronger together than we ever could be each on our own.

It’s probably not something that comes naturally to us, to think of ourselves in this way.  So I’d encourage you to ask yourselves; this week, what one thing could I do to reach out and build or strengthen real relationship with someone else?

If we all did one thing each week, how might our community be transformed, a year from now?

Becoming one spirit

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is 1st Corinthians 6:12-20.

I had to make a decision this week.  I’ve signed up to one of the local gyms, and a couple of times a week I try to get to one of their group classes.  (It’s nice to have goals about being healthier and fitter, isn’t it?)  Anyway.  So I turned up to the class I usually go to, to discover that they’ve cancelled that class and replaced it with yoga.  And so the helpful staff member I spoke to suggested I stay for yoga.

I must have seemed less than enthusiastic about that, and he seemed surprised that I wouldn’t jump at the chance, so I had to explain.  I can’t do yoga for religious reasons.  I can’t, as a Christian, participate in what is fundamentally a Hindu worship practice, even if it has become the darling of the “spiritual but not religious” wellbeing movement.

Anyway, the point about that is not really to carry on about yoga, but to illustrate the idea that sometimes, saying “yes” to God means saying “no” to something else.

That’s part of what Paul was talking about in our reading from Corinthians today.  For him, the issue wasn’t yoga but prostitution; but his argument about why you can’t run around having a good time with prostitutes is that you can’t “become one” with something that’s incompatible with God, at the same time as “becoming one” with God.  Because “anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”

The thing about this “becoming one spirit” with God, though, is that it helps us to understand what salvation really means.  Salvation is an immense gift, but sometimes we’re tempted to think of it only in terms of what happens after we die (getting into heaven, or at least, staying out of hell).  But what Paul is trying to get across here is that salvation isn’t just about that; it’s a fundamental re-shaping of our lives now, so that our lives become a participation in the life of God.

Last week we thought a bit about baptism and what it means for us, this sacramental reality of dying and rising with Christ.  And I say sacramental because I want to say something stronger than “symbolic;” we know that people don’t physically die in the font, as if I were to drown them, but something real is happening in them nonetheless.  Their story and Christ’s story, their life and Christ’s life, are being joined together in a way that can never fully be separated.  They are beginning to participate in the life of God; they are becoming one spirit with God.

The body is not meant for fornication but for the Lord, Paul said in today’s reading; and elsewhere he refers to our bodies as “weapons of righteousness;” a weapon is wielded with a purpose, and the implication of Paul’s words is that God wields – or at least sends – us into the world with a purpose, too; one that shouldn’t be undermined by getting involved in things incompatible with that purpose.

This all means that becoming one spirit with God – participating in God’s very life – is ultimately about action.  About being in the world, doing the things God would have us do.

As this is what it means to be Christian, then we can’t say that Christian belief or faith is just a matter of assenting to the Creed (without crossing your fingers), or even trusting God’s goodness.  It has to be more than that; a taking up or embrace of our whole being into God’s being in such a radical way that we consistently act as living extensions of God in our world.  That’s what it means that we have died and yet have been raised to new life; it is a new life; the life of God, with its priorities and loves and joys.

In his other letter to the Corinthians (well, the other one that we still have, anyway), Paul puts it this way: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  Participating in God’s new creation – becoming one spirit with God – means our transformation; and in different places in his letters Paul talks about how that transformation means we become the glory and the righteousness and the justice of God; ultimately we become the image of God; the image of God that we were originally created to be, before sin and the fall meant our alienation and disfiguration from that image.  So we become like Christ – the perfect image of the invisible God – by participating in the life of Christ.

And here’s the thing: all of this points us towards mission.  To be transformed into the image of God revealed in Christ; to participate in God’s new creation and to become God’s righteousness; to discern and do God’s will; to present our bodies to God as a temple for the Holy Spirit, and as weapons to be wielded for his purposes; all of these things mean that we are meant to be in service to what God is up to in the world.

Becoming one spirit with God means that God’s purposes become our purposes, and God’s priorities become our priorities.  God’s mission becomes our mission.  Those of us who believe the gospel and are baptised enter into a life of participation in God’s mission, along with all the other people who have also entered into that life.

That means that our salvation, our renewal in Christ is not the point; it’s not an end in itself.  It’s part of a much broader and deeper divine agenda; to bring together a body of people who participate in the new creation, doing God’s will in the world.

And let me push this just a little bit further; this is for all Christians.  Not just for the clergy or the particularly educated or gifted.  But each Christian person, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, participates in the new creation; and carries out a living witness to the gospel.  This is what it means to be part of the church; every single person has a part to play in the mission of God.

Do you know what your part is, today?  Do you feel equipped for it?  If not, what do you need in the way of equipping?  (That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way.  My role in this mission is to see to it that you are equipped; so if you see that your knowledge or skill or confidence is lacking in some way, tell me; and together we’ll find a way to work on that).

But to come back around to the prostitutes – or the yoga – this is why Paul says “no.”  Not because it’s a matter of being a puritanical killjoy, but because it’s incompatible with the mission.  To exploit a woman’s body for pleasure does nothing to recognise or honour her as an image of God, or to encourage her towards becoming a co-worker with you in God’s purposes for our world.  To worship another god – even at a distance – detracts from my ability to participate fully in God’s life, God’s purposes and God’s mission.

“Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”  It is a process of becoming; we grow into it over time.  But what I wonder now, is where do we need to grow into it some more, here in this parish, in order for us to live that out most fully?  What needs to happen for us to move another step closer to being one spirit with the Lord?  I leave that with you to reflect on.

Power

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Advent.  The Scripture it references is Luke 1:46-55.

We began this sermon with an interactive exercise; I read out a series of statements and asked people to place themselves on a line indicating how strongly they agreed or disagreed.  This was designed to stimulate people’s thinking on the themes of the reading, and so I suggest that you also read the statements and reflect on your agreement or disagreement before reading the homily.

Statements for agree-disagree spectrum:

  • Not having power makes us vulnerable
  • Power is something other people give you
  • Knowledge is power
  • Power changes people
  • Power is about control
  • Words have power
  • Having power means being able to do what I want
  • I create my own power
  • Power gives us the opportunity to be our best
  • Sharing power makes us more effective
  • Believing in God makes us more powerful

Well, hopefully that made you think a little bit.  It’s interesting to see how we interpret things differently, isn’t it?

But if you’re wondering why we’ve done this today, let me say just a little bit to flesh things out.

You’ll remember that over Advent I’ve been preaching each week on the Psalm, as a series on “songs for the journey.”  Except this week we have, not a psalm strictly speaking, but a song from Luke’s gospel; Mary’s song while she was pregnant with Jesus.  Well, that’s a song for a journey, isn’t it?!

But while there are lots of things we could draw out of it, what struck me this time round was how much it gives us a theology of power.  In it God shows strength, scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty.  It has a lot to say about power, and about the relationship between God and people who have power, and between God and people who don’t have power, and – by implication at least – between the people who have power and those who don’t.

It puts forward what Rowan Williams described as “the one big thing that Christianity had brought into the world of human imagination.”

And that was – and is – the truth of what power is for.  Power exists, held by God or in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves.  Scripture is crystal clear that this is the standard by which the God who is all-powerful judges the powerful people on this earth.

It’s worth remembering this startling idea that the goal of the supreme power in the universe is that we should be nurtured, respected and loved.  What does that say – to the “powers that be” in church and society, and even all of us too – about how we understand and use the power we have, power which, in Christian terms, is only ever held by us on loan from God?

It occurs to me, too, that many of our churches’ worst failures have come about when we have not recognised our own power in relation to the powerlessness of others; when we have not realised our own potential, whether by action or by inaction, to do harm.  And if you’ve been following the news about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean there.

Power doesn’t exist for its own sake.  Becoming more powerful – whether that’s measured in wealth or education or social position or in any other way – is never an end in itself for someone whose heart is in pilgrimage towards God.  I’m not saying power is bad; I’m saying it’s a tool, a means to an end; and that as we go on our journeys of faith, we need to check, from time to time, that we haven’t made power the destination rather than fuel for the journey.

“My soul magnifies the Lord…” Mary sang.  For our lives to magnify the Lord, we need to make sure that our use of power is a focussing of God’s use of power; that we pay attention to the lowly and the hungry, and marshal our resources – because let’s not kid ourselves, by world standards the resources we have at our fingertips are extraordinary – to do what God would do for them.

This final song for the journey, this Advent, might be our most challenging, because I think it asks us to examine ourselves honestly and take account of our own power and how we use it, or refuse to.  But perhaps as we go through that process of taking account, we may well find our hearts moving much closer to God than they were when we began.

 

Gain a wise heart

This is a sermon for the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 90.

Thirty thousand and ninety-four days.  That’s the average life expectancy in Australia (it works out to a touch over 82 years).  Put like that, though – thirty thousand and ninety-four days – it sounds like a lot.  It sounds like maybe I have all the time in the world for all the things I want to accomplish, to experience, to relish.

That’s not how life is, though.  I don’t have to labour that point; you’ve all lost loved ones.  No matter when life ends, there’s always more that person could have been, done, or loved.  We often like to pretend to ourselves that our potential is infinitely open-ended, but death is the final, immovable human limitation.

It’s not really a cheerful thing to think about, though.  But the psalmist today did want us to pay attention to it, just for a moment, when he wrote “teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart.”  Teach us to count our days; teach us to remember that they have a number, and after that, we die.

But not just for the sake of being morbid; the point of remembering, the psalmist says, is “that we may gain a wise heart.”  So how does remembering our mortality and limitations help us to become wise?

There are two key aspects to this.  The first is remembering who and what we are.

Here’s what I mean.  I said before that we like to pretend that our potential is infinitely open-ended, but that that is an illusion.  The problem is that because we like that illusion, we deny our own nature.  We forget that we are creatures made of dust, who have borrowed the breath of life for a short time, but who have no power to sustain ourselves.  And, because we forget that, and deny our own nature, we also deny God’s nature.  You see, if we refuse to acknowledge our utter dependence on God for every breath of our existence… then we distort the relationship between us and God.  By repressing the truth of our creatureliness, we also repress the truth that only God is God.  And we often fail to let God be God.

Isaiah said the same thing when he pronounced:

“You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
‘He did not make me’;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
‘He has no understanding’?”

In failing to let God be God, we grasp for control over things we can never really control; and we harm ourselves and one another in the process.  In failing to let God be God, we use all our ingenuity and creativity for destruction and oppression rather than for human flourishing.  In failing to let God be God, we fail to acknowledge the brokenness of human life, and turn away from the possibility of finding healing.

Here’s an example of what I mean: for messy church this afternoon, we’re going to explore the concept of slavery.  I realised that I couldn’t really explain the gospel passage I wanted to, with the kids, unless they first had some idea of what slavery is about, so I thought I’d better lay that foundation first.  And as part of my background reading on how to teach children about something which is actually fairly intense to get your head around, I came across this little online calculator designed to help people in first world countries estimate how many slaves are involved in the production of the things we consume.*

Now of course it’s an estimate.  But based on the demographic data I gave it, and the details about things I have – like how much technology, how many pieces of jewellery, and so forth – it suggested that perhaps 46 people were involved in slavery in my consumer chain.

46 people being compelled to supply their labour, for the commercial gain of others, who keep me in the lifestyle to which I rather enjoy having become accustomed.  Of course I knew modern slavery existed and is an atrocious evil, but when it becomes personal like that, it seems much more real.

But my point in using that example is that slavery is a good example of our refusing to let God be God.  Our grasping for control over and exploitation of one another, as human beings.  Our failure to honour God’s creation and allow others the dignity and full personhood they were created to have.  And so on.  I won’t labour the point, but it has reminded me of how much the price difference between fair trade chocolate and the other variety isn’t just about what I pay, but about the human price paid in its production.

So when we fail to let God be God, we try to take his place… and end up doing a very thorough job of messing it up.  So that’s one way that learning to count our days helps us to increase in wisdom.

The other side of it, too, is that counting our days reminds us that we need to make choices.  If I only have so many days to live, and I can’t do everything, what am I going to spend my time on?

In a way, that’s part of why I got ordained; the prospect of spending decades in big business making money for shareholders was enough to make me run screaming to the church.  (And that’s saying something!)

But seriously, it is a case of, “We can’t do everything.”  Learning to count our days means we need to choose.  And if we think about our choices, and remember that God is God, and have some sort of measure for our priorities that puts us in line with God’s priorities… then we’re living wisely; in that Biblical sense of wisdom which is all about knowing what God wants and being willing to do it.

I’m told that in some monasteries, there’s a custom of always having a fresh dug, open grave; so that as the brothers walk past they’ll be reminded of the prospect of their own death.  I’m not sure that we need to go that far.  But it is good, sometimes to pause and be reminded of the aspects of life that we’d rather forget; because that helps us to keep ourselves, and our lives, in perspective; and it helps us to focus on making wise choices about how we steward our days.

If we’re paying attention to these reminders; in the psalms, and in our lives; that will help us to truly gain a wise heart.

*http://slaveryfootprint.org/survey/#where_do_you_live

Striving

This is a sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  In our parish today it is “Stewardship Sunday,” the day that people return their giving pledges and there is a focus on the needs of the Church; and as such the sermon is focussed on that, with reference to Philippians 1.

I read a story this week about a wealthy young man who had donated one and a half million dollars to a local youth centre.  The youth centre was fantastic; giving young people without many opportunities, skills and tools and – most importantly – hope, that transformed their lives.

Now, the young man who gave this gift was also a very committed and active Christian. In church every Sunday, involved in various activities, and so forth.  But when he was asked whether he would consider giving a gift the size of the one a half million he had just given to a secular cause, to the church, his answer was “Lord, no, they wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

An extraordinarily generous gift to the youth centre changed lives.  The same gift given to his church – he was afraid – would be met with incompetence and a lack of vision.  So he didn’t give anything like that to his church.

And – to the extent that his assessment of his church was correct – I’d say he was right in his decision.  Money given to the church is supposed to be about fulfilling our mission – about changing lives by bringing people into encounter with God – and if we don’t have a vision for doing that, or if we’re not good at doing it, why on earth would anyone want to give us money?  Or how could I justify standing here and telling you that it’s good and God wants you to give?  Giving has to be matched with results.

Here’s the thing.  It’s not that God wants you to give, as if the church existed so that the vicar could have a comfortable house and we could turn the heaters on.  (Although the vicar is glad to have a comfortable house and that we can turn the heaters on).

It’s much more than that.  It’s that God wants us all to participate in the church as a community which makes a difference.  A church which changes lives.  A church which proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ, which teaches and nurtures people in living relationships with God, a church which responds to human needs with loving service.  And that takes our time and our skills, and yes, also our money.

We don’t give to keep the doors open.  We give so that, by keeping the doors open, we can change lives.

This is what Paul means when he writes to the Philippians and praises their “sharing in the gospel,” and implores them to strive side-by-side with him.  He doesn’t just mean that they had come to a point of personal conviction, or even that they came along to worship once a week, but that they had decided that they were going to dedicate their lives to achieving God’s purposes in the world.

That’s what it means to be a Christian.  To strive side by side with one another in God’s mission of transforming the world.

It’s good to give money to that end.  My pledge to you, on receiving these financial pledges, is that that will be our priority in what we do.  That our planning is going to prioritise projects and activities which make a difference.  That if something doesn’t contribute to the mission of God, we’re not going to waste your time and energy and money on it.

More than that, I also pledge to you that we’re going to seek to be as effective as possible in doing so.  There are a number of areas where, frankly, we need to improve how we do things, so that what we invest of ourselves can have maximum impact.  This is why, by the way, in my email message from the vicar last week, I asked for a volunteer who might be willing to create and maintain a parish Facebook page.  In this day and age, if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t exist; and if even the like-minded people who live within easy walking distance of us don’t know that we exist, how can we build relationships with them which will further the mission of God?

That’s something of an aside but it illustrates an important principle; we need to be very intentional in how we do things, to maximise the difference we can make.  We have to put the days of just doing what we’ve always done behind us, and instead commit ourselves to doing the best we can in a constantly changing environment.  That may well involve drawing on expertise we don’t currently have, and developing skills we haven’t needed before.  And seeing that as an invigorating challenge rather than a heavy burden.

We are positioned to make a unique contribution to our local community.  There are other people who teach, nurture, care, and strive to establish justice.  Those secular endeavours are good and I’m not knocking them.  There are other churches who each offer the particular strengths of their own tradition.  Their efforts, too, are good, and I’m not knocking them either.  But as each of us have benefitted from a Christian tradition which is open, liberal and progressive in its outlook, as well as deeply rooted in Scripture and the prayers and insights of millennia of the saints, we too should offer that to our community as a treasury of resources.  Our society is crying out for real relationship with its creator, and we are poised to make the introductions… if we’ll only step out and do it.

In my letter which went out with the stewardship materials, I described stewardship as “the inspired and hopeful use of God’s gifts” to us.  I chose those words very deliberately.  I talked about our giving as inspired because it ought to be the result of our catching a glimpse of what is possible.  And I talked about it as hopeful because it ought to be done with the intention of making real and concrete what is, right now, only in the realm of possibility.

I also said that our giving was a response of love, not obligation.  I know that talking about giving and money in church can often be uncomfortable; that some people are under significant financial strain, and that money in general is a focus for enormous stress and worry.  Please don’t hear anything I’ve said this morning as aimed at contributing to that strain or stress, or as intended to manipulate you into giving more than you would freely choose.  I believe – and Scripture teaches and the church throughout the ages has insisted – that giving financially is a non-negotiable part of the Christian life.  But the level of that needs to be your free choice, chosen because you believe that what we’re going to do together with that money is actually worthwhile and something you want to be part of.

So thank you, all of you, for what you have pledged.  It matters, and what we’re going to do with it matters.  Thank you for taking up the challenge of striving side by side together to make a difference.  I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together over the coming year and beyond.