This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Sunday 22 September 2019.
There are two sorts of difficult gospel readings. There’s the sort that is difficult because we know exactly what it means, but don’t want to do it. Love your enemies. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. They are difficult because we think they ask too much. But the parable in today’s gospel reading is the other sort of difficult. We can’t work out what it means. It seems that Jesus is commending someone for being dishonest – and that just doesn’t fit with the rest of the gospels. It goes something like this.
There was a rich man who owned his own business. One day he summoned his manager into the office. “My accountant has been looking at the books, and there are some discrepancies. You are sacked. Before you go, I want a full set of accounts.” The manager says to himself “I’m not cut out for manual work, If I don’t think of something I’ll be begging on the streets! My best bet is to make sure that when I leave I can call in some favours. So he goes through the books and one by one he looks at the unpaid bills, and gives each of the debtors a discount – 20% or even 50% off if they pay now. He gives the books to his boss who laughs “you really are a shrewd operator” he says.
Now we could argue that it ends well for everyone. The debtors have paid less than they expected, the manager has grateful contacts and the boss has got the money now rather than having to waste time trying to make people pay.
So far so good. Jesus is suggesting that his followers, the “children of light” are not very good with money compared with “the children of this age” who know how to look after their finances. The disciples are well-meaning, but not very practical. And we know that that that’s no good – churches don’t have bottomless pits of money, and sometimes we can’t do as we would like because the money simply isn’t there. Jesus is telling them that they need to be shrewd managers as well as good people.
The next bit of the reading is where it begins to get really puzzling. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” So, I set about thinking whether I had any dishonest wealth. I haven’t ever broken financial laws – I haven’t really engaged with the financial world at all. My income comes from a pension, contributions via a salary I worked hard for. But what about the pension fund? Has it always been invested in life affirming projects? Can I be sure that I have never profited from tobacco firms that have made their money from ignoring the health risks of their customers, from arms companies who help shore up oppressive regimes or from those who regard their employees with little respect and treat them as economic units to be used for maximum profit? Is there such a thing as honest money?
As far back as the 1980s I was selling Traidcraft goods in churches. It’s the old saying of “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime”. Giving food to poor people is sometimes necessary – such as when there is a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, and they suddenly have no homes, no cooking facilities and no food. But it only solves today’s problems. Fairtrade organisations work with producer groups to help them market their goods in this country, without intermediaries taking a large slice of the profits. I was lucky enough to visit a project run by the Anglican Church in Peru. This is an Arpillera, an embroidered collage. Groups of women who live in the poorest areas of Lima come together and are taught to make these products. They buy scrap fabric and turn them into these beautiful wall hangings. They meet together once a week and they become good friends, discuss their problems and pray together. The money raised through the sale of Arpillera articles goes directly back to the women who sew the articles. They are encouraged to use the money for the betterment of themselves and their household. For example, the income may be used to take a class in sewing, or build an extra room onto their house in order to host their own Arpillera group, or send their child to a better school or to be educated in a trade. When I bought this arpillera, I chose it from several on display. The woman in charge of the group indicated the woman who had made it, and I handed her the money to pay for it. She took it from me to give to her supervisor, but the supervisor said “No, the money is yours to keep”. It was the first item she had ever sold, and I will never forget the look of happiness on her face. I felt that day that I had not only purchased a beautiful Christmas decoration, but that my money and definitely made a friend who would welcome me into her eternal home.
Jesus goes onto say that “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much”. If we cannot be trusted in money matters, how can we be trusted with true wealth? How we spend our money is a small thing compared with how we work for the coming of the Kingdom of God as a whole – or to put it another way, our mission. Mission means different things to different people, so Anglican Churches Worldwide have subscribed to the 5 marks of mission so that telling people about Jesus is balanced by giving them practical help and engaging with society. The last two are particularly on my mind at the moment, given the things we hear on the news every day.
Mark of mission number 4 is “To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation”. The UK is becoming more and more divided by Brexit. Communities and even families have been divided by arguments and feelings run high. As the deadline approaches we seem no nearer to a solution. It is not my role to tell you which side you should be on but to encourage you to ask some questions when it comes to forming political opinions. The New Testament lesson today asks us to pray for “all in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity”. I for one, find the idea of a quiet and peaceable national life very attractive at the moment. Who is there who can bring reconciliation and build bridges? How can we avoid unrest if one side or the other feels neglected, cheated or betrayed? Secondly, I would ask which policies bring justice for the poorest people. There are wealthy multinational companies avoiding paying taxes, while more and more people are trying to feed families by balancing several zero hours contracts with neither guaranteed work nor the ability to plan their leisure time. The NHS is struggling, with waiting lists, especially for mental health treatments, getting longer. The elderly, the disabled and the long-term sick are increasingly unable to live decently on state benefits. Which politicians or which policies will stop the divide between rich and poor widening any further?
And finally, the fifth mark of mission “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth”. On Friday in 185 different countries millions of people expressed their determination to put pressure on both businesses and politicians to take actions to address the climate crisis. In Manchester a 10-year-old girl from Oldham asked Andy Burnham what he had done in the 5 months since he pledged to help the cause. He replied, “Probably not enough”. People are now taking the climate crisis seriously, and I am proud to be part of a church that takes practical action as well as working with the young people in both the Sunday school and school.
Of course, the reason that we are have a climate crisis is because we have let doing things the cheapest way be more important than caring for our planet. The final statement of the gospel reading is clear “You cannot serve both God and wealth”. And that doesn’t just apply to our personal finances. We pray that God’s Kingdom will come in the governing of our nation, too.