Sunday, 22 September 2019

Good stewards of a Common Home

First preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster reflecting on the 'Dishonest Steward' on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity as we continue to focus in prayer and reflection on the Creation and Care of our Common Home. The readings were Amos 8.4-7; Luke 16.1-13


In a world of ethically murky financial dealings - of tax avoidance and tax evasion on colossal scales by individuals and corporations; of pay day loans that escalate debt at eye watering rates; of the exploitative business model of the gig economy – in that world, the parable that we have heard this morning holds a mirror up to the ways in which money is used, is moved and is acquired.

Money is a delicate subject. It’s particularly delicate in church. And yet Jesus frequently speaks about money. The Bible as a whole - our reading from the Prophet Amos being a case in point - speaks more of money justice and distribution of wealth than it does about other matters that often preoccupy religiously minded people.

The parable touches on the way in which human beings relate to money. For a start the rich man has someone else dealing with his money. So he is detached from the consequences of what his money is doing for good or ill.

The problem with wealth is not the wealth itself, there will always be disparity in income and accumulated wealth, what is a problem is when the rich subcontract the management of the wealth to others. They lose the connection with what wealth and money is and how it can be used.

As the parable shows the behaviour of the rich man opens up the possibility of a careless approach to money by his manager. And his manager, or better translated ‘steward’ has done just that. He has been squandering the rich man’s money and property.

Once found out, the steward feels shame. Money seems hardwired to our shame reflex. Is that why we squirm when money is talked about? And closely associated to shame and money is embarrassment and guilt: I am generous enough? Can I afford this? Should I pay for that? Am I wasting my money?

In the parable the steward addressed his sense of shame, and potential to be ostracised, by turning to what one commentator has called ‘ethically murky’ practices. He settles debts quickly by knocking off some of the debt.

But it’s not his money to do that with. And don’t we see that in the way in which financial systems and economies work? Other peoples’ money: in pension funds, do we know what’s going on with our money ethically, or not? And so often it is the poor who suffer. The words of the prophet Amos don’t need a huge amount of updating; human nature is absolutely recognisable in sharp practices of short selling and getting a fast buck.

So it’s little wonder perhaps that the master, the rich man, commended the dishonest manager: because he had a casual relationship with his money he wasn’t bothered by justice and probity.

So where does all that leave us? Well, read on. Read on because Jesus gives practical wisdom and sets a higher vision and standard which he links to faithfulness in financial matters to service of God. You have to engage with the world of money: don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re of no earthly use! In a murky world be faithful, in small things so that the true treasures, the riches of heaven will be yours.

In his Encyclical Letter to all Christians, called Laudato Si’, Pope Francis speaks about our Common Home. He makes the point that we human beings inhabit a Common Home with all God’s creatures. The Greek word for ‘Common Home’ is oikomene. From the word oikomene we also get the English word economy. Pope Francis recognises in Laudatio Si’ that the environmental crisis of our times cannot be separated from economics.

The economy is not just about money, it’s much wider than that. A Christian vision of economics is more than money: it is about the good running of our Common Home, the oikomene; about being good stewards of the earth, of human society, of our household budgets and our church budgets. The steward in the parable – in Greek oikonomos - failed at that. He was not a good steward, and in that way he mirrors the poor human stewardship of the earth. And faced with his own crisis he used unjust means to get out of it, not unlike the way the rich trade carbon emissions without reducing it from their private jets.

We are stewards of the earth not possessors of it; we are stewards of wealth and money not possessors of it, and when we think we possess money without realising it possesses us, then are then we are serving wealth not God.

That’s where this parable takes us. So what we seek is not mammon but the Kingdom of God, and as Jesus promises, if we seek the Kingdom of God first then everything else we need will be given to us. And faithfulness in the little things will replicate in faithfulness in the big things. In other words small acts of generosity make a big transformative impact; small acts of caring for the creation – like fostering habitats or cutting energy usage - make a big impact when added together.

This is why we should be talking about money, the economy and the Common Good in church and not be bashful about it. What we do with our money tells us about what we value: ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’ (Luke 12.34). That’s why praying about and pondering our giving to the church is important and should be talked about – and will be in the coming weeks – as a response to God’s generosity. That’s why we should encourage our children in church to think about and plan their giving.

As stewards of the riches of creation - the teaming seas and the fruitful land - may we be faithful in our enjoyment of them not exploiting but tending, and may our use of money be to the glory of God as we spend, invest and plan. Amen.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Rejoice with me: what was lost is now found!

First preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster 13th Sunday after Trinity Luke 15.1-10


This morning’s gospel reading gives us two of the best known parables in the Gospels. It’s little wonder St Luke is traditionally thought to have been an artist, because he paints very vivid images in words. You can picture that woman - probably poor – to whom one coin really matters. There she is, in her little house, searching high and low, pulling the furniture out, getting a torch to look for the coin in dark corners. And Luke’s description has been drawn upon in Christian art associating the shepherd who has found the sheep with Christ, the Lamb of God, bearing the lost sheep on his shoulders.

These parables come from the fifteenth chapter of St Luke’s gospel which contains three parables in all: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, often known as the parable of the ‘Prodigal Son’. They focus on loss or estrangement, on being lost and, crucially, on being found. Because of that they continue to speak to us today, speaking into our human predicament.

On an individual level these parables speak to a sense of isolation and loss that many people experience in life. Young and old feel cut off. Lost: searching, not for a coin or a sheep, but for meaning and purpose. Often that search is internalised. So rather than looking out of ourselves we look in. Archbishop Rowan Williams often described spiritual death and dying as ‘life shut in on itself’: literally introspective.

We are turning inwards as individuals and a society. We are told that we have the resources to save ourselves. But that’s akin to the woman searching for the lost coin in her purse and looking nowhere else for it; or the shepherd looking for the lost sheep in a barn and not going out to find it. These parables remind us that the search for meaning and purpose is to be found beyond ourselves in God.

Writing in the twelfth century, so this is not new(!), St Bernard of Clairvaux, said,

The whole of the spiritual life turns on these two things: we are troubled when we contemplate ourselves and our sorrow brings salvation; when we contemplate God we are restored, so that we receive consolation from the joy of the Holy Spirit. From contemplation of ourselves we gain fear and humility; but from the contemplation of God, hope and love.

This theme of longing and desire located in God is at the heart of the spiritual teaching of St Augustine of Hippo too. We desire, we search, but we so often search in places where we will never find: in self, in other peoples’ bodies, or in the trappings of ambition and worldly success. Augustine knew that in his own life: ‘O God’, he writes, ‘you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’. God is the beginning and end of our search.

On a societal and global level these parables speak to our disorientation as something that is precious seems to have been lost. Each generation in time ends up feeling something precious has been lost. The message of the prophets throughout the millennia is that we should not nostalgically lament what we thing has been lost but that as a society together we need to look to God, paralleling the personal search, and saying that we must look outwards and upwards for salvation and not get sucked into ourselves.

In a time of reflecting of Care of our Common Home and the giftedness of Creation we might also ponder what we lose as a human family as we inhabit this world with the whole creation: I have in mind lost species, that it seems may never be found again. Loss is real. Nevertheless the pain of knowing something can never be found highlights the joy of finding something assumed to be lost. And we get glimpses of this. Only in this last week I have heard about the huge rise in the Painted Lady butterfly this year, so many more have been found and counted, and the genetic possibility of reintroducing a species of White Rhino.

So in these parables something or someone is lost and something or someone is found.

These are parables of redemption. ‘Redemption’ is one of those words that has fallen out of the day to day language of the church. Quite why this is, I don’t know.

Perhaps it is because we are becoming so terrified of being lost, that we cannot contemplate being found. Our society so often tells us: ‘if you want it you can have it’ or ‘just believe in yourself’. It sounds liberating but in the end it’s saying ‘sort yourself out, and there’s no help beyond you’. That in itself cuts people off – loss and estrangement again - and places a huge burden upon individuals to save themselves.

So what of redemption? Exploring the origins of words often gives us insights into their full meaning and richness. The word redemption originates for the Latin word redimere which means to ‘buy back’. The word’s deeper theological meaning is about deliverance and bringing back from sin. And that may be why we don’t hear the word ‘redemption’ too much now: it sounds as if the church is dwelling on sin. Sin abounds – don’t we know it? But where there’s sin, there’s redemption; where there’s sin, there’s grace!

Redemption needs reclaiming. We need to be proud to be redeemed sinners: found, brought back. The wonderful theologian Gregory of Nyssa reminds us of the healing redemption of Christ, the Good Shepherd:

When the shepherd had found the sheep, he did not punish it, nor did he get it back to the flock by driving it, but rather by placing it upon his shoulder and carrying it gently he united it to his flock.

Each parable ends with the deepest of joy on the coin, sheep and son being found again. Redemption is not punishment; redemption is not blame: redemption releases joy; redemption releases grace.

In each parable the climax is not self-satisfaction or self-congratulation, but rather the redemptive moment - the finding of the sheep, the finding of the coin - is met with absolute delight and gratitude and the impulse to share that rejoicing with others.

The woman, the shepherd, the father, ‘call together’ neighbours and friends for a celebration. This is what our worship is. When we arrive at church we are not simply gathering together as random individuals, but we are, in the Greek of the gospel synkaleo’, ‘called together’ and we become a congregation, which literally means ‘a flock joined together’.

As people who wander, err and stray, but now are found and redeemed - declared worthy to be sons and daughters of the Most High through baptism - let us rejoice that we have been found and are now coming together as the Lord’s flock. Let us enjoy the foretaste of the heavenly banquet in bread and wine, the supper of redemption; a pledge of the fullness of life and hope.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Magnifying the Lord: A New Creation in Christ

A sermon preached at Croydon Minster on Sunday 8th September as we honoured the Blessed Virgin Mary during this time of prayer for the creation, our Common Home.


We honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Lord, the woman who proclaims the Magnificat, and inspires us to do the same: as we honour Mary today may our souls magnify and praise the Lord too!

Mary is the most wonderful example of a human being saying ‘yes’ to God’s purposes, of loving fidelity to Christ, of bringing Christ to birth in the world and of deep, attentive pondering and prayer.

Acknowledging Mary’s place in the life and devotion of the Church more clearly focuses us on Christ.

Mary the dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;
Mary the gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!
Mary the root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!
Mary the wheat, Christ the Living Bread;
Mary the rose tree, Christ the Rose blood-red!
Mary the font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the cup, Christ the Saving Blood!
Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord;
Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored!
Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!
Mary the mother, Christ the mother’s Son
By all things blest while endless ages run. Amen.

This woman’s faith-filled ‘yes’ opens the door to God’s grace in her life, and ours, and enables us to say in the Creed, ‘for us and for salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man’.

Jesus Christ, present at the creation of the cosmos, becomes born of one of God’s creatures so that we might be raised up to share in the divine life of the Creator.

Jesus Christ connects us to the Creator, to Mary and the creation.

Pope Francis writing on the World Day of Care for Creation last week said:

“And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:25). God’s gaze, at the beginning of the Bible, rests lovingly on his creation. From habitable land to life-giving waters, from fruit-bearing trees to animals that share our common home, everything is dear in the eyes of God, who offers creation to men and women as a precious gift to be preserved.

Tragically, the human response to this gift has been marked by sin, selfishness and a greedy desire to possess and exploit. Egoism and self-interest have turned creation, a place of encounter and sharing, into an arena of competition and conflict.[1]

The goodness of the creation and our response to it is at the heart of the contrast between Mary and Eve, Adam and Christ (the New Adam, as St Paul calls him).

This is not a misogynistic or gendered approach, claiming that a woman caused the fall - there is a man equally complicit in it – but an image of human response, male and female.

Eve’s name literally means, ‘Mother of all the Living’ (Genesis 3.20): we are, as C.S.Lewis put it, ‘children of Eve’, creatures made in the image and likeness of God. God’s gaze rested lovingly on Eve and Adam, and still does on us. And we have also chosen not simply to mar the image of God within us but to mar the creation too.

That is where Mary’s ‘yes’ to God and our identification with Jesus Christ says that we want to be renewed in God’s image and to restore, preserve and know the creation and environment as ‘a place of encounter and sharing, not competition and conflict’.

This is where we can turn to the reading this morning from the Revelation to John the Divine.

The Book of Revelation describes or, to put it better, reveals, the turbulence that precedes the inauguration of the coming Kingdom of God, what is known as the End Times, or eschaton, from which we get the word eschatology.

It is full of confusing images and signs: beasts; monsters with countless eyes; slaughtered Lambs; the birth pangs of a woman clothed with the sun appearing in the heavens. It conjures up images that resonate with our times: fires in the Amazon; melting ice flooding low lying countries; of plague, blight and famine caused by a human disrupted climate. It speaks of the creation in turmoil and disruption.

Revelation is not meant to be a comfortable read. Born out of the close reality of martyrdom, and intensity of prayer, it vividly and mystically portrays the dramatic choices to be made: to be children of light or darkness; those who are ready either to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to God. It speaks of the image of God erased from the face of human beings by guilt, shame and sin.

How depressingly recognisable; how depressingly real! Where is hope, life, good news in all of that?

Well, in Christian theology Creation is not a one off, past event. In Genesis God rested on the seventh day in order to continue his creative and passionate love for all that he saw, which was ‘very good’.

That’s why our Christian ancestors spoke of the eighth day of creation, when all is made new in Christ. As the opening of St John’s gospel asserts:

[Christ, the Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and that life was the light of all people’ (John 1.3-4)

God’s creative action of restoration continues. St Paul puts it like this, ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’ (2 Corinthians 5.17)

At the heart of the Revelation to John is a vision of the New Jerusalem, which is an image of the New Creation that Christ comes to bring, that we anticipate in our worship and yearn for as we pray, ‘thy kingdom come’.

Revelation mirrors the birthing of the Creation. The New Creation is the first creation transformed, renewed, fulfilled.

Humanity’s ‘no’ to God is transformed by Mary’s ‘yes’ to life in Christ, God-with-us.

To be a new creation, to live in a New Creation, first demands a ‘yes’ - a declaration of intent - and then action with life, priorities and habits re-directed towards God, the creation and our neighbour.

As we pray for and act in the creation that is increasingly damaged and disrupted by human activity and sin, let us pray that we will embrace Mary’s ‘yes’ to God, allowing ourselves to see God’s image not erased from our lives but renewed, so that like the woman clothed in the sun we may bring Christ to birth in the world today.