Giving for Life Quiet Day: Talk 4 – Making a Difference – our behaviours matter

“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers” (James 1.22)

Last time we thought about the basic choice we need to make in approaching money: are we making it an end in itself, or using it to serve the good purposes of God and the common good of his people. When we get this right, we are with the help of the Holy Spirit building up our Christian character, becoming more like Christ. Out of that character we then have the task of trying to establish good behaviours, practical virtues, that will mean that our actions make a real difference for good in the world. The image of the character of Christ being stamped onto us like a seal or coin is one that we find in the Bible: and the point of the coin is self-evidently not sit on the shelf looking shiny but be put to good use.

In preparing as a diocese to try and get our heads round this matter of money, we asked a good number of people what values they thought we ought to have for the way we handled money as a church. Out of that, with some careful consideration of the Scriptures as a foundation, we came up with nine of them that I would like to commend to you now quite straightforwardly, and then give you some time to consider what practical consequences they might have for you and the church you serve. For you personally as well as for the church because anyone in any kind of leadership position sets a tone for the organisation, so our personal modelling of this matters.

Here are the nine values in the form that they were adopted by our Bishop’s Council:

Generous

Freely you have received; freely give” (1 Corinthians 13.3) We pray to be the generous people of Jesus Christ, responding to and showing his generous grace. Giving is part of our core response to the saving and gracing work of Christ, and our attitude to money needs to firmly make it part of our trust in and service to Him. “Do not lay up treasure on earth.” “You cannot serve God and Money.”

Voluntary

“Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9.7) Through God’s grace we are enabled to freely choose to give in joy and love, as part of our deepening discipleship, not a tax grudgingly paid, or payment for services rendered. We are not rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s in our Christian giving, but God what is God’s.

Proportionate

“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”” (Mark 12.41-44) As God’s generous grace wells up inside us we will want to give sacrificially to support the work he has called us to, and the poor like the widow in the Temple are often the most generous amongst us. But the more resources we are blessed with, the more we are called to give away. The biblical principle of tithing sets a standard for our proportionate giving.

Just

“Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”” (Matthew 19.2) The generous gifts of those who are well-resourced create a surplus which allows those who are poorer to give less, and in fact to be blessed with additional help, as valued and generous members of the body of Christ themselves.

Mutual

“Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared.”” (Nehemiah 8.10) Indeed, in the body of Christ all are givers and all are receivers, both from each other and from the riches of God’s saving grace. The relationship is that of a family, not a market or a business. We are called to love one another, encourage one another, bless one another…

To the church

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” (Malachi 3.10) Although the Diocese is in one sense “the local church” and our good order gathers us around our Bishop and saves us from over-parochialism, we recognise that the life of the body of Christ is expressed in each local congregation, and that it is through the local church meant in this way that the mission and ministry of God’s people is extended to every community we serve. We see such churches not as mere human institutions to be maintained, but as part of the mystery of God’s plan for bringing salvation to the world, and we willingly give to them to that end. The part of our giving to the church that supports the operations of the Diocese is a support for the work of the local church not a diversion from it.

Engaged/Missional

“If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (Matthew 10.8) The church is not an end in itself but a God-given means towards the fuller coming of his kingdom. We give not only to maintain its life as it is, but to share through it God’s life with others, so that we all may become people fully alive in God. We can be seen as trustees of God’s mission, passing on its life to the generations to come as well as to those around us today.

Clear

“Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time? 18As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been “Yes and No.”” (2 Corinthians 1.17) We accept the practical importance of being completely clear and open about how church finances, both local and diocesan, are arranged, both to allay concerns about how the funds are being used and to assist local churches in understanding and benefitting fully from them, as simply and helpfully as possible.

Without show

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6.2) In all this we remember that all we are and all we have comes from God, and we are careful to remain humble before him and one another at all times.

Nine values then: as a disciple of Christ, how can you make these the marks of your practical choices and actions as you follow his Way of Life?

Word document of all four talks: http://wp.me/aoSLL-3oT

Giving for Life Quiet Day: Talk 3 – Dethroning Mammon – The Challenge of Money

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. (Matthew 6.19-34)

“You cannot serve both God and Mammon”. It’s the teaching of Jesus taken straight from the Sermon on the Mount so there really is no wriggle room here. So just what is he saying?

Mammon, first, is an old word that Jesus would have used for wealth or riches. It may ultimately be derived from a root meaning “that in which one trusts”. It isn’t the name of a God or being, except by extension as a personification in later use. So the translation I began with is right to get straight to the point, drop the opaque word Mammon, and say we can’t worship both God and money.

Why is that? I went on to quote the following section of the Sermon on the Mount because as so often in the Scriptures, the context gives the answer. It’s about where we put our trust. Jesus points out that attempts to featherbed ourselves financially against the troubles of life are ultimately futile. They may in fact make us more anxious not less, and crucially prevent us from putting our trust in God, who is the one who can actually give us peace. At that point trusting in money moves beyond being just silly to being outright spiritually dangerous.

Now perhaps you can see why I’ve spent most of the time in the previous talks trying to build up our trust in God and our relationship with him. Our attitude to money is going to be a critical test of our Christianity, our discipleship of Christ. Our task is to “Dethrone Mammon”, so that money does not divert us from God but is put in its proper place as a tool to be used in his service. Let’s be clear: money is not bad in itself; but it absolutely needs to be used in the right way or it will be very bad for us.

It’s no surprise then that that phrase “Dethroning Mammon” was the title the Archbishop of Canterbury chose for his Lent Book this year, very unusually written by himself not commissioned in. I hope you’ll read the book and take it to heart. Just listing the chapter titles will give you some sense of the meatiness of the issues he explores:

What we see we value
What we measure controls us
What we have we hold
What we receive we treat as ours
What we give we gain
What we master brings us joy

Here is part of what the Archbishop says in his Introduction:

“In so many human crises money plays a part. Debt and desire for things enslaves many people I know, and draws them into lives that are in the service of Mammon, a master they neither choose nor want, but who tricks them by playing on insecurities, on good intentions and on reasonable ambitions. At a national and international level, every crisis seems to end in talk about economics – not economics as a tool in the service of human flourishing, but as an end in itself. It seems that in many eyes, and often in mine, personal finances that are in good shape, or a national or global economy doing well, are not merely a means to improve people’s lives, but are seen as the goal in pursuit of a good life. That approach is incompatible with serving Christ.”

We will look at some specific behaviours that we might want to adopt in the next session. The question for now is one of motivation, of the heart. Who are we serving? How is God’s DNA expressing itself in this crucial test case? If you have ever found yourself wanting to still hoard the church’s money that has been saved for a rainy day even when the rain is coming in, for instance, then think now what money for you is actually for and where your trust lies.

Or perhaps even more challenging, how do you react to this true story told by a former Director of Christian Aid:

“A Parsee friend of mine had a grandmother who was very, very rich. Living in Karachi in the last years of the nineteenth century, she was inevitably surrounded by poor people who hoped for the odd crumbs that might fall from her table. A deeply religious woman, she was so generous that her family easily foresaw the early disappearance of the family fortune. They stopped her carrying money so she couldn’t give it away. They ensured that no poor person was allowed to enter the house so she wouldn’t give away the precious furniture and priceless ornaments. They even locked her cupboards so she could not give away her own clothes. One day a toothless old woman somehow managed to wheedle her way into the drawing room and confronted the lady of the house. ‘A sari, a sari,’ she cried, ‘Just an old sari. This rag is all I have.’ ‘I cannot give you a sari,’ the lady of the house explained, ‘for they have locked all the cupboards. But if you don’t mind washing this … ,’ and she took off the richly decorated silk sari she was wearing and presented it to the old woman. She thus offended her family as much by appearing undressed before a stranger as by continuing her profligate generosity.”

It’s time to ponder where we are in how we deal with money, and whether there are things that have got the wrong way up that we need to put right – dethroning Mammon, enthroning God. Are we making money an end in itself, or using it to serve the good purposes of God and the common good of his people?

Word document of all four talks: http://wp.me/aoSLL-3oT

Giving for Life Quiet Day: Talk 2 – The Way of Life – our generous response to our generous God

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24.28-35)

In a moment we will make our Communion. Most of us will have done so many times before. And while it is never a trivial thing to do, it will have become inevitably a habitual one. So it is good to be taken back in time for a moment by Luke to that simple meal of bread and wine on the Road to Emmaus when for a brief moment the veil was pulled back and Jesus’s presence was revealed.

And what a response there was. The disciple Cleopas is seriously disillusioned. He had been expecting so much – the salvation of Israel. And then had come the Crucifixion. He is disillusioned even though –staggeringly – has heard about the Resurrection; but it was a tale told by women. Enough said. But not enough said, because while it is somewhat speculative to match up the names we find in the New Testament and create characters out of them, it is just possible that Cleopas’ companion on the road – who we notice has slipped into backgournd and holds silence as a woman would have then – is his wife, and is Mary of Clopas, who was at the foot of the Cross. And a scholar as serious as N T Wright is willing too to consider indentifying Luke’s Mary of Clopas at the foot of the Cross with the Mary mother of James who is the equivalent character in John, who is also seen as one of the Maries who visited the empty tomb. When Cleopas speaks of “some women of our group” finding the tomb empty, he might be meaning his wife and her friends! No wonder he was in a quandary.

And then the Spirit moves. We have seen how as the New Testament starts, the Spirit too starts to move, slowly drawing more and more people into the story of new life. Pentecost is nearly here when the fire will fully break out and run, and now key disciples like Cleopas are finally being inspired to recognise just who Jesus really was. They had looked and looked – but now they see.

Do you remember that I spoke earlier about the DNA of God, his self-giving love. What is happening to Cleopas is what Jesus called being born again when he spoke to Nicodemus. Using the metaphor of DNA, the fabric of his spiritual being is being remade with a new strand of DNA in it, the DNA of God himself, the likeness of Christ. Here is how St Paul puts it in his classic account in Romans chapter 8:

“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. … For you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

How it happens is a mystery. But that it happens, that we are born again as God’s Spirit and our Spirit come together in a new way, is plain to see in St Paul’s account of the early church and in our Christian lives today. It is a gift we acknowledge in baptism and confirmation, and it is a gift that we find awoken in us at those key times when we for ourselves start to let go of the controlling self-interest of our old natural selves and live in self-giving love like God.

Later on we will come to consider just what that means for our attitude to and use of money. But frankly, any teaching about that is whistling in the wind if our hearts have not first burned within us within the love of God, so that we actually want and will that we should live as generously as we can in the likeness of our generous God. Without that, any teaching is just hectoring, and giving is just a financial transaction to meet a need. With it, our giving is a thing of beauty and love, a genuine gift.

Which would you rather: live in world where everyone just ignored their neighbour and kept what they had for themselves? A world where everyone actively tried to make as much for themselves as they could even if it beggared their neighbour? Or a world where everyone gave to each other so that no-one was left in need?

I once made it into a game at a Conservative ladies’ tea. They were good at it! First, I asked them to look at their teaspoon and hold it tight. It was theirs. No-one was having it. How many teaspoons did each person have, I asked. Just one, of course. Then I invited them to snatch the teaspoon of their neighbour to the left. They did it with gusto: erveryone grabbed a spoon and everyone had a spoon grabbed. How many spoons did they each have? Still one. And then I invited them with due penitence and charm to return their spoon to its rightful owner. And still each had one spoon. So which world would they rather live in: icy isolation, grab as grab can, or making every day a gift-day like Christmas. The answer was obvious. And I hope it is for you too.

We have to choose. We have to choose with all our heart to let the Spirit of God touch our heart and show us Jesus and make us more like him. Or the spoons will go awry. But when we do choose, we are grafted by God into the Vine of Christ, we sense his Spirit renewing our life and know his gifts empowering and equipping us to live that new life, all the way back into the city, all through our lives.

As the music plays, can you once again renew your choice, your choice for God? And if you will, use the water in the font or bowl to renew the sign of your baptism, your baptism into the new life of Christ? And as we break the bread of Communion today and drink the wine, may you know the richness of that life deep within you, by the power of the Spirit of the living God.

Word document of all four talks: http://wp.me/aoSLL-3oT

Giving for Life Quiet Day: Talk 1 – The Divine DNA of our self-giving God

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

If we are going to get our heads round what Giving for Life means for us, and let our hearts be touched by it, we need to start not with ourselves but with God. There is no big sell here, no set of rules or handbook to follow. What there is is God, God whose very DNA is giving, self-giving, sacrificial giving, of the utmost generosity – and all done in pure and unconditional love, placing the gifts in our hands and giving us full freedom to decide how to respond.

Of course his heart burns with the hope that we will discover ourselves as his children, him as our Father, and suddenly burn ourselves with the desire to express that same family likeness of generous unconditional love. Since my father died I have become much more interested in understanding my own human family history, wondering how characteristics have been passed down the gene line. So often when we are younger we take it all forgranted, or even rebel: and then comes a homecoming. The story of the Prodigal Son speaks to us: and was told by Jesus because it speaks to us too of our homecoming to God.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Those famous words from the beginning of St John’s Gospel remind us of how the whole of the cosmos is the creation of our one good God. Everything – and think how amazing we now know that to be – everything is given by him as gift, made good, and given its freedom both through natural processes and the human will to keep on making.

But also to keep on making it good – and there’s the rub. It was made good – but doesn’t always stay good. The very gift of freedom and unfettered possibility means that in the natural world what can evolve does evolve, the good, the bad and the ugly. That in the physical world forces have effects that are indifferent to the wellbeing of what they affect. And that our choices too are often far from good and often downright damaging to nature and humanity alike.

I want to dare to say that God must have known all this when he said “Let there be light”. In our own minuscule way we make the same choice. When we choose to have children in particular we too, if we stop to think, realise that they will be born into a most uncertain world and will not escape its effects. But in our love for them we say they are worth it, better that they should be with all that they will face than that they should not, and in our love for them for we also say that we will stay by them all the way.

So too with God. He chooses in love that we should be. He knows that we will be not only his children but children of the Fall. And he is willing to go the whole way to stay by us and rescue us back to him. He “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” In the moment the world was made, God must also have known the price he would have to pay for its purpose of love. This was Love’s endeavour, and this was Love’e expense.

O generous love! that he who smote
in man for man the foe,
the double agony in Man
for man should undergo.

So we see the same DNA of self-giving love that defines our generous God in both his work of Creation and and his work of Redemption. No surprise then if we also see it in the work of his Spirit. As we follow the work of the Spirit through the stories of the Old Testament we see that though moving over the face of the waters of all creation and being breathed into all flesh, nevertheless after the fall the Spirit’s gifts are sporadic – prophets and kings, judges and craftworkers – but there in the prophecy is also the memory that the Spirit’s gift and gifts were for all and will be for all. Joel looks into the prophetic future and hears God say, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

And then follow the presence of the Spirit as the New Testament begins – especially in Luke – and see how this all starts to come true. John the Baptist, Mary, Elizabeth, shepherds, Simeon, Anna, Jesus himself… Right through the Gospels and Acts we see a new democratisation of the Spirit, a Pentecost, and gifts begin to be given – not as wilful presents but so that God’s good purpose could be fulfilled, making us the members of the body of Christ truly more like Christ, stamped with his character, growing into the fulness of his likeness, equipped for his service. As the letter to the Ephesians puts it, “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people… that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

Ours is the God who cannot stop giving, extravagantly so that everything that can be will be, as it seems; expensively, for it will cost him his very life; expansively for the gifts are to be for all. In the words of the poet John Oxenham:

Love ever gives, forgives, outlives,
And ever stands with open hands
And while it lives it gives:
For this is love’s prerogative –
To give and give and give.

In the time of quiet that follows now, can you let your eyes and your inner eyes too stand open to see afresh the amazing gifts of our generous God?

Word document of all four talks: http://wp.me/aoSLL-3oT

This and That: a sermon at Little St Mary’s at the Confirmation Eucharist on Ascension Day

e77e705c8cf6ca01b15b4c414b0c8442“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures… and lifting up his hands he blessed them.”

Do you remember how Jesus did just the same thing with the Scriptures for the disciples on the Emmaus Road? Now at his Ascension he is doing it for the whole disciple company, for the church as a whole. In Jesus Christ God is doing a radically new thing, but one that is in radical continuity with his Old Covenant as well, opening up its full meaning and promised future. Jesus is both Alpha and Omega: he was in the beginning, he is now, and he will be when we stand in judgment before him.

So this new thing by no means ends with the end of the Scriptures. The story goes on. Jesus promises the Paraclete and his promise is not in vain. The trajectory of the Spirit in the Old Testament as his work slowly spreads from the favoured few to the promised pouring out on all flesh is wonderfully fulfilled, in a grand democritization of the work of God. Nor is there any hint at all in Scripture that this is a temporary arrangement.

So as we meet today, celebrate today, are confirmed today, live out our lives today, staying in the city as it were, how are we to inherit the promise of the Paraclete? How are we to meet with Jesus, see the Scriptures fall open before us, know his presence and the fire of his Spirit?

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Singing a Song of Science and Faith

More than 300 children congregated in Ely Cathedral on Wednesday to perform songs based on science and faith. In a one off performance all of the schools involved presented their work in the hope of spreading their music across the UK. Trevor Thorn, lay minister in the Diocese of Ely, masterminded the project, which I had been privileged to encourage and help gain funds.

And here are the children after I presented their certificates to them:

 

 

 

Photo ©Denis Payne