Sunday, 26 September 2010

17th Sunday after Trinity : An attitude problem

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so 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 a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Luke 16:19-31
The Rich Man and Lazarus
‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

I have a very good friend who is very much a classic car buff. He knows his stuff, but he’s not arrogant about it in any way. In fact his job precludes him having the kind of budget to buy a classic of his own at the moment, but he is well-known in that world and is a mine of useful information. He’s also a really nice guy, but he was relating a story to me last week about how the attitude that people have towards others can be changed by their possessions and therefore their perceived place in society.

He had been invited to drive a beautiful Aston Martin, which I have to admit is one of my favourite marques so I’m more than a little jealous. While he was out on the motorway with the car’s owner, and with my friend in the driving seat, they came up behind a BMW M3 coupe. Now if you know about these things you’ll know that this is one of the top of the range BMW’s. It’s extremely quick and much sought after. But it’s not an Aston!

So as they came up behind this M3 the Aston’s owner said to my friend, ‘Go on, flash your lights; he’ll move over.’ Now my friend is really not like that at all, and is one of the best behaved drivers I’ve ever been with, so he was rather reluctant. But the Aston’s owner carried on saying, ‘Go on, you’re driving an Aston Martin. Flash your lights. He’ll move over.’

Eventually and reluctantly my friend flashed his lights and indeed the BMW driver did move over allowing them to pass.

Now why am I telling you this story? It’s because of the kind of attitude that we find in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. When we read through scripture we often find that those with money come in for a lot of criticism by God through the prophets and by Jesus himself. Living in a parish like this can therefore make these passages uncomfortable reading, and perhaps we should be prepared to take note.

But why exactly is it that the rich keep getting criticised throughout scripture. Well the answer which is often given is that it’s to do with trust. When you have plenty of wealth and lots of possessions you are not going to have to worry too much about trusting God for your daily bread since you’ve dealt with that very nicely, as well as your daily other needs, the holidays, the cars, the holiday home etc.

And of course there is a lot of truth in that, but I don’t think it’s the whole picture by any stretch of the imagination. I think that a huge part of the difficulty of wealth is that it changes our attitude to other people and that was ably conveyed to my friend by the owner of the car he was driving. That car’s owner knew that his car was superior to the BMW in front of them.

And I would have to agree. That’s absolutely true. But then he made a mental leap, taking on a natural arrogance, that owning the superior car therefore made him more superior. He had earned the right, in his own mind, to get the driver in front to move over, and that, I believe, is exactly the kind of attitude that we saw in the rich man in his dealings with Lazarus.

Now in some ways this is a difficult parable to deal with. I know that some people use it as proof texts for the existence of hell, but I’m not going to do that here.
No, what I am most interested in is the attitude of the rich man. You see what we find in him is someone who is apparently in hell, yet able to communicate with Abraham, and what is the first thing he does? He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to help him. He has walked passed Lazarus every day for years, and has done nothing to help him ever. Why?

Perhaps it’s because he thought himself better than Lazarus. Perhaps what was going through his mind, maybe almost unconsciously, was, ‘Well he got himself into that state. It’s his own fault. Why should I help him?’ It’s similar to the attitude that we often show to those stuck in poverty in the UK. We blame them for not getting out and getting work, or helping themselves.

So for all this time he has grown used to feeling superior to Lazarus. Then when he needs help he assumes that Lazarus, who is beneath him socially, can be ordered to come and help him. When Abraham says there is a great chasm fixed between them, I also find myself wondering who put the chasm there? We naturally assume it was God, but maybe the chasm between rich and poor is built by the attitudes of the rich.

You see this development of the attitude of the haves to the have-nots is so insidious that we may not even realise we have it. It develops slowly with our wealth until we unconsciously assume we are better than others. If you’re wondering whether this applies to you, ask yourself what makes you angry. Is it other people? Is it that you get angry when they don’t do things the way you think they should be done?

Or it may not even be anger; it may just be annoyance at something done differently from, ‘your’ way. Ask yourself how you behaved last time you were in a restaurant and the waiter made a mistake. Did you treat him as an equal? If we note that characteristic in ourselves, and I know I see it in my own attitudes, then we may well be on the rich man’s path, believing ourselves to be better than someone else; believing ourselves to be socially superior. So what is the cure?

I believe we find it in two sections of St. Paul’s words to Timothy in our New Testament reading. Firstly he says, ‘...if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these,’ and, ‘...there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment’. How contented are we with what we have? It’s possible that some of us actually have all that we need and could possibly want. Some of us are in retirement and have made wise investment decisions and have all that we want.

But there is more, and it is all about pursuit. I have watched people pursue wealth and power with all their strength, and observed how it is their spiritual undoing. But in the second half St. Paul says, ‘...pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.’ Imagine the kind of Christians we could become if we put the same energy into pursuing these things as we might have put into our own well-being.

Because if we put energy into righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness then I promise you that we will begin to sense that godly contentment grow within us, and we will see ourselves more humbly and as we really are, and we will notice the other people who we might formerly have considered ourselves better than, and our actions towards them will change.

The rich man erected a chasm between himself and Lazarus in this life by the treatment that flowed out of his superior attitude to him, brought on by his riches, little knowing that the chasm he erected in this life would continue into the next one. Let us not make the same mistake, and pursue godliness to find humility. Amen.

Friday, 17 September 2010

16th Sunday after Trinity: Fairness

Hi All.
Following Greenbelt I've been off on the summer hols, but now it's nose back to the grindstone (ouch...) Here's this week's offering.

1 Timothy 2:1-7
Instructions concerning Prayer
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For
there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all
—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Luke 16:1-13
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager
Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave 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.’


I’d like you to imagine a scenario. Let’s say I brought in five of your children or grandchildren. Here in front of you I give each one of them five chocolates from a big box of Quality Street. Does that sound like fairness to you? Of course it does. But what if I asked them to show you how many sweets they’d had in their pocket when they arrived?

What if, before the service I had already given ten sweets to one of them, five sweets to the second, three sweets to the third, one sweet to the fourth and no sweets to the fifth? In that light, do my actions in giving them five chocolates each during the service still seem fair? Wouldn’t it have been more fair if I had given more sweets to the one who had arrived with empty pockets and fewer to the one with more so that they all ended up with the same amount?

Or how about this? Many, perhaps all of us, have played monopoly at some time or another. The rules of the game are that everyone starts with the same amount of money, and then, through a mixture of chance and skill, one person gradually takes over until they have bought up everything and bankrupted everyone else.

But what if the game started with people having different amounts of money? Would that still be a fair game? Would you want to play with your children or grandchildren if you had twice the amount of monopoly money that they had? It’s just not fair is it.

Fairness is at the heart of the reading from Luke’s Gospel today, and it’s not an easy parable to understand. In a sense it reads as if Jesus is condoning a man for being dishonest with his boss’s belongings, giving them away. But what if there’s more to it than that? What if I suggest that it was the rich man in the first place who was in the wrong by charging interest, something that a Jew was prohibited from doing to a fellow Jew?

And what if the reason the manager was being sacked was because he wasn’t asking for enough illegal interest and so wasn’t making enough money for the rich man out of the people who owed him? And what if the manager’s actions, as well as being to look out for his own needs, were also to try and make life bearable for the poverty stricken who couldn’t afford the interest the rich man wanted to charge?

That would put a whole different face on it wouldn’t it. You see when it comes to fairness and justice we find it at the top of God’s agenda. Parables like this challenge our morals because they ask us to consider what is really fair. But even more challengingly, they then invite us to live that way.

Of course it’s not fair to give children all the same number of sweets in public whilst having favoured one or two with a lot more sweets in private. Of course it’s not fair to play monopoly with children if you have given yourself more money to start with.

So how fair is it to buy chocolate that’s not fair trade? How fair is it to buy really cheap clothes when we know that the only reason they’re so cheap is because they were made in a place where the owners can get away charging an ultra-low wage because in some places people will take any work for any pay. Is that fair?

Let me be a little more controversial. What about when politicians choose a minority to pick on so as to bolster their own position in society? Is that fair? In France there are fewer than 2,000 Muslim women, according to the Guardian, who wear full face veils as a part of their religion. In a population of more than sixty million people, why on earth did their parliament decide it was worth taking a vote, won by a majority of 335 to 1, to ban the full face veil?

What was the real message there? Or how about this? Again reported by the Guardian, in May 2008 the Italian interior minister, Roberto Maroni, reportedly declared: "All Romani camps will have to be dismantled right away, and the inhabitants will be either expelled or incarcerated." Two days later, when a mob of 60 razed a Romani camp in Naples with Molotov cocktails, Maroni quipped: "That is what happens when Gypsies steal babies, or when Romanians commit sexual violence."

Scape-goating, the art of finding a defenceless minority to blame for all our troubles, is rife in society. It seems it always has been. If you remember Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire of Rome because they were a minority group who nobody cared about. If we think what he did was so awful, and it was, then what about the unfairness of our society?

Let me be even more controversial. The role of a parish priest is not necessarily to give answers but to sometimes ask people the difficult questions. So how about a local business whose owners are trying to make a living and who have perhaps not always been too wise about their business practice? If they make enemies in their locality, is it fair that the wealthy and the intellectually astute should be able to gang up on them with their knowledge of how to work the system?

Is it a fair fight if they don’t have the same financial resources to fight their corner? Is justice in favour of those who can afford it? I don’t suggest I have any understanding of the deeper and more political issues. I stay out of that because I am called to be the priest to everyone in this parish, but I do find myself wondering what the Lord thinks about the route local politics takes.

You see it comes down to this. God, it appears, is always, always, always on the side of the powerless and the defenceless and the exploited. Always. God is always about trying to restore the balance and to look out for the needs of those who have even what little is in their possession taken by those with no sense of fairness.

So the question we have to ask is, if God is always on the side of the downtrodden, whose side are we on? And this is not at all about philosophical arguments. Whose side we are on will be determined entirely by how we live and how we actively treat others, not by what we merely think is right or wrong. Thought is cheap. Amen