Deepening Discipleship 2019 - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Deepening Discipleship 2019

1 Timothy 6: 6-19

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But godliness with contentment is great gain.

For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.

And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.

But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.

10 For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

11 But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.

12 Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.

13 I give thee charge in the sight of God, who quickeneth all things, and before Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession;

14 That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ:

15 Which in his times he shall shew, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords;

16 Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen.

17 Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy;

18 That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate;

19 Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.

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It may surprise you to hear me say this, but it was a very long time before I finally grasped what the Ten Commandments were actually about.  Which will probably sound an odd thing to say because they are surely one of the more straightforward bits of Scripture - a simple set of rules determining what one should and shouldn't do.

You see, the key element that is almost always overlooked is the sentence that introduces them - a sentence that appears in both the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions of the Ten Commandments, which is this: 'I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.' 

Out of the house of slavery.  You see, when placed in its proper context - namely God's liberation of his people from slavery in Egypt - what we have here is not merely a rather officious list of rules and regulations - it is instead a charter for a freed people; a set of guidelines to ensure that they never fall into slavery again.

Because enslavement can, of course, take many forms.  There are many different factors that can diminish our humanity, and keep us in chains.  And some of these are perilous because they are subtle.  We may not even recognise they are there, although they are no less real for that.  If you have ever seen someone close to you suffering from any kind of addiction - including, incidentally, those whose lives are consumed by envy, or covetousness, or sexual desire, or an obsession with work; anyone who worshipped something other than Almighty God (because idolatry can take many forms) - then the likelihood is that you will also have seen the distorting impact that such enslavement will have had upon that individual's life and well-being, and the trail of damaged relationships it has left in its wake.

If our faith and our relationship with God is to liberate us, so that we can become the flourishing and fulfilled human beings that God created us to be and calls us to be, then we need to ensure that we, too, do not fall prey to any kind of enslavement - and, by the way, everything I say this morning is addressed to myself as well as you.

It constantly strikes me as bizarre that the Church is currently tearing itself apart over the issue of homosexuality (about which Jesus says precisely nothing), but is strangely silent on the subject of wealth and social injustice (about which Jesus says a great deal).  And we need to ask ourselves, why was Jesus so concerned about money?  I suspect because he recognised that its corrupting influence is so subtle, and can be the more dangerous because of that.

There is a profound and dangerous paradox embedded within our relationship with wealth.  We desire it because we believe that it will give us the freedom that we crave, including freedom of choice and freedom from care - because if we are honest, I suspect that most of us still believe at some deep level that such things can be bought.  Whereas in fact, wealth has a terrifyingly consistent record of doing the exact opposite.  And the biblical wisdom on that issue really is timeless and changeless.

Our first reading from Ecclesiastes observes with devastating clarity: 'The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth with gain.'  In other words, if the thing that ultimately motivates you is the desire for money, then you can rest assured that, firstly you really will never have enough of it; and secondly, you will spend a heck of a lot of time worrying about losing what it is that you have, because if your sense of security and well-being is ultimately invested in money, that leaves you very vulnerable.  Trust me: I was the vicar of one of the wealthiest parishes in the West Midlands during the time of the 2008 financial crisis - and goodness me, was that revealing, when individuals who had had everything materially, suddenly found themselves with far, far less than they ever imagined they could possibly lose.

Because, ultimately, wealth does not set us free - it keeps us in chains; it distorts our priorities, and if we don't watch it, it can slowly eat away at our souls.  Our second reading from 1 Timothy expresses this perfectly:

There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.  But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

Ouch!  But goodness me, how true that is.  Incidentally, one of the saddest things I have ever witnessed, and I have done so on a number of different occasions, is seeing previously happy and united families suddenly tearing themselves apart in a dispute over inheritance, sometimes with devastating and lasting consequences. 

Conversely, the most joyful and contented of people that I have known, are those who delight in what they have, but who are always ready to share it freely and generously.  Many years ago I met a young Franciscan novice - in the early stages of testing his vocation to the religious life - whose family was still struggling to come to terms with his rather bizarre and counter-cultural life choice.  His mother had sent him for Christmas an absolutely beautiful, and clearly very expensive sweater.  Knowing that he was committing himself to a life of poverty, as well as chastity and obedience, he consulted his novice guardian about what he should do about this inappropriately extravagant personal gift.  His novice master replied, with the wisdom that comes from years of faithful discipleship: 'Wear the jumper.  Enjoy it.  And then, once you have enjoyed it, find an occasion to give it away.  Because the point about possessions, particularly those that are of any material value, is not that they are intrinsically evil - but that the moment comes when we have to discover, do we own them, or do they own us? - and it is that that ultimately matters.'

And what of our Gospel reading:

 '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.

I have to say that this text is uncomfortably pertinent in my own life at the moment: central London is currently subject to a plague of clothes moths, and despite my purchasing every anti-moth device known to human science, they are systematically and relentlessly chomping their way through one of my carpets, as well as my wardrobe.  Which for me is an uncomfortable daily reminder of the ephemeral nature of 'stuff'.  So, the message of Jesus is both obvious and straightforward: don't waste your time, and your energies, and your desires on things that do not, and will not last.  Concentrate on the things that do.

It is absolutely appropriate that we enjoy what we have, and even more importantly that we appreciate what we have.  I find it a sobering thought that those of us here today who have a roof over our head, food in the fridge, and a place to sleep - myself included - are already better off than 75% of the world's population by virtue of having those few basic essentials alone.

And this makes it the more important - in terms of our Christian discipleship, our life of faith, and our flourishing as God's children - that we respond to God's gifts not only gratefully but generously.  That we take nothing for granted, and that we learn to give and to share what we have thankfully and joyfully. 

What you give, and how you share your resources, is a matter that remains ultimately between you and God.  Some of you, I know, already give immensely generously, both to this church, and to other charities, for which we all have need to be profoundly thankful.  Others among you, I know, have very limited financial resources, and give what you can in other ways.  But in between those two extremes I still find it startling that the level of per capita giving at this church continues to be the lowest of any church at which I have ever ministered.  Which suggests that there is still some scope for soul-searching.  Indeed, it is the kind of issue that we should all review from time to time.  Where is our treasure?  Where is our heart?  What is it that threatens to keep us in chains?  The wonderful news is that those who do give, and give generously, really do receive far more back in return.  And very often the most lasting and most valuable of those return gifts are not material things at all.

Some of you will be familiar with the famous prayer sometimes attributed to an unknown Confederate Soldier from the American Civil War:

I asked for strength that I might achieve.
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do great things.
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy.
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything that I hoped.
My unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men most richly blessed.

Amen

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