Sermon for Sunday August 22nd – Stewardship

Sermon for Sunday 22nd September – Stewardship Sunday

Luke 16:1-13

The Good Steward

Today is one of those strange Sundays which I can never find in the liturgical calendar, but which almost all churches seem to celebrate, and that is Stewardship Sunday 🙂

Stewardship -I wonder what image that conjours in your mind? What are our expectations on ‘Stewardship Sunday’. I wonder if folk avoid church on ‘Stewardship Sunday’ 🙂

I wonder if this story resonates? I remember a colleague of mine at the Catholic school where I taught, and he recounted how the local parish priest had visited him and his wife on a dark winters evening. He had come in and without asking after them or their family, reminded them of their financial obligations to the church. and then left. . . as my friend said, ‘I wouldn’t have minded all that much, but he wasn’t our parish priest, we worshipped at another church!’ 🙂

Well, I have never preached on the subject of our giving to the church and I’m not about to break the habit of the last 15 years of ministry. Which you might think must be the end of the sermon, for what ELSE can one talk about on Stewardship Sunday, but money, or deceitful money as Jesu calls it. Like the vain person, Money assumes we MUST be talking about it 🙂 Of course  we might think of Stewardship of ‘Our gifts, or time’ and perhaps we’ve heard sermons on that. But I’ve never preached on that either and don’t want to break my duck today 🙂 Partly because preaching on Money, or Gifts or Time, is to preach on things which we instinctively, if wrongly think of as ours, which has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ – which begins with the assumption that Everything is God’s.

That we can say of Nothing – ‘This is Mine’. Indeed things, Money distort us and make us want to Own them. Thus we speak of Ours. That is the way Jesus addresses us about Money. He calls it Untrustworthy – Unrighteous – Deceitful – it’s out to trap you, out to make you think it is yours . . . So I don’t want to dwell on those things because we all tend to thinking they are ours however much we deny it – and we will end up with the sort of unhealthy dynamic where if my sermon is particularly skillful, then perhaps I can encourage you to think about giving a little more in these areas?? No

Rather I want to think what it means to be a Steward in biblical terms – what we are stewards of – and how we should respond to today’s gospel reading.

So what does it mean to be a steward? Firstly a steward is a servant. He or she has a master for whom they works. And they are ALWAYS in view. The Christian is God’s Servant, God’s Steward. In a sense being God’s steward is the Whole Active Christian life. Supremely in The Servant, The Steward of The Lord. Jesus Christ, whose Bread is to do the will of HIs Father. We are the Body of Christ – so we, the church are the Servant of the Lord – our very life is about serving God – that is why we are here. The manager in the story is put in charge of his masters things – but he has squandered them. And he realises his time is up, for his master wants an account!! He knows he is facing the sack.

Similarly our Stewardship is something of which we are expected to give an account. Individually and as a church. Christ calls us to account. ‘How have you stewarded what I have entrusted to you?’ God is asking us. So our Lives and our Life together is lived out with a view to Christ and His command to us. He is the one we must answer to. And here we have a problem, for frankly when it comes to we modern people, we are so full of our sense of it being Our Life to do what We want to do with, that the idea that we might have to give an account is at best vague. Put another way, we tend to think of God and Christ in very abstract terms. The idea of Judgement, of accounts being made is not close to the surface of our thinking, but we cannot begin to think clearly about Stewardship without this. The Steward in the story is FAR wiser than we are in this regard. ‘the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.’ He’s VERY aware of his boss and his responsibilities. Put another way, if we are foolish enough to claim to be Christians, then we should know better in the matter of having to give an account.

So Stewards work for another – and they have to give and account of how they have CARED for that which is not theirs. Stewardship is a matter of taking Care of that which is Gods. This is why I do not think Money, or gifts or talents or out time are in view when we think of Stewardship. I want to suggest that Stewardship has little if anything to do with anything we might be deceived into things we think of as ours. Rather they are those things which we feel detached from. THESE are the things we are given to care for. Indeed THERE in a sense is part of the problem. Dishonest Money actually Detaches us from our sense of responsibility – we do not identify with that with which we have been entrusted as Stewards . . .

Three areas of Stewardship that are given into our hands. They define the Entire Active life of the Christian, God places them into Our Care, and will come to ask us what we have done with them.

The Creation – If you like, the original model of the Stewards are Adam and Eve – they are told to ‘Till and to Keep the Garden’. As some of us explored last year – the words have overtones of worship – their tending is to be worshipful – in the sense of treating with the greatest of respect. As we heard a few weeks ago in our musings on Colossians, Jesus is the Second Adam, He stewards Creation in healing the sick and casting out demons, and calming the storm, and cursing the unfruitful tree – He is the one in whom the whole created order holds together and for whom it was made. So As the Body of Christ we are to Steward the Creation.

And when we do, The Creation is a source of blessing to us – The Earth hath brought forth her increase and God, even our own God shall bless us Ps 67:6 – As we tend the Earth, then God blesses his servants through the Earth. God looks after the Good Stewards whose eyes are on looking after God’s good Earth. YET . . . we have as it were sought to make the Earth a source of our own gain, We have not treated it as if it was not ours, to do with as we life, we have not been Good Stewards. And so more and more the Creation is not that vehicle of blessing . . .

Just this week I was reading of one of hundreds of examples of this. How in Alaska – for generations people have with tremendous respect and care fished for Sockeye Salmon. Stopping the fishing if the stocks looked stressed. But now it appears that the huge headwater area is also the site of possible Gold and tin mineral extraction on a vast scale – the Financial worth of the deposits estimated at $ 1 trillion US. Although one mining corporation this week announced it was withdrawing one big corp now has what it likes to call ‘Rights’ on the whole lot (How Proud we are, to say we have RIGHTS on that which is God’s) . . . $1tn, or the health of the Salmon?? History which seems in this regard be heading into an abyss tells us who will win in the end. If you like sockeye salmon, enjoy them this season . . . dishonest wealth distorts our view.
We are given stewardship of our own souls – of our lives before God… I wonder if we have thought of that? For as Christians Our lives are not our own to do with as we will as much as the planet is not ours to do with as we will. Creation, Our souls – belong to God in Christ. To mix the metaphor, How do we tend the garden of our soul?

The rich man calls his Steward to give an account – we are accountable. The Steward is not his own boss – neither are we. How do we tend the garden of our souls wisely? By being accountable for our lives.

How regularly do we sit with someone to give an account of our stewardship of our soul? Of our life with God?

We are meant to do this – we are meant to watch over one another in love. And again money distorts it. We have grown up in a church where the only people who are accountable are those we pay 🙂 They have contracts and terms of service and covenants. And we are SO used to money dictating things that we think there is nothing wrong with this, after all Deceitful mammon whispers in our ears, ‘we don’t want to waste our money, do we?’ . . . – but are we as alert to the wasting souls amongst us?

I wonder how many of us come to worship Sunday by Sunday, but think ‘I feel like such a lousy Christian’ – I wonder how few of us dare to voice this to another – to ask for help – to say to someone else, would you help me steward my soul? Would you in love, hold me to account for my life?

The shrewd manager sees the time of accounting coming! He realises he has failed big time  he realises he is about to be sacked . . . so he thinks ‘I need some friends’ and he takes the bills of his masters clients and in a rush cuts and slashes them – ‘quick rewrite your bill so its half as much – you – cut yours by a third – you cut yours by 80%!’ Of course when his master sacks him – these people will look after him, for he has ‘looked after them – and his master smiles. He’s lost his money, and this scoundrel has taken care of himself 🙂 He is shrewder than the children of Light

Which brings us to our final arena of stewardship of One another.

3) Love your neighbour as you love yourself – This is Stewardship – for your neighbour is a bearer of the image of God. They belong to Him. I wonder if we think about this when we think about our neighbour. The person we meet on the street. The poor. They belong to God -they are put into Our hands. Esepcially those of us who have the financial means to help them. Throughout Scripture, ‘The Righteous person’ is exemplified in the one whom the poor know as their friend. Righteousness and care for the poor go hand in hand.

It is in regard to This stewardship that the story Jesus tells hits home most clearly. The manager – the steward of the rich mans affairs has made a mess of it – we are told he has squandered his property. The man puts money to work, to buy himself friends. And Jesus says we should do the same, and particularly with respect to The Poor. Until Very recently Care for the Poor was understood as Central to Christian piety. But less and less so, as so many Christians ironically grown wealthy, and increasingly separated from the poor. One of the ways Money is deceitful is in hiding the wealthy from the poor. It is worth considering how we live in our society – are the rich and the poor cheek by jowl? No, there are rich neighbourhoods and poor neighbourhoods. HOw many of us know people as friends whose daily lives are a struggle to feed a family, I wonder? The Righteous are known and welcomed by the poor.
We live separate lives and so The Poor are just an abstraction to us . . . just like God and judgement and giving an account. For many in our society, and indeed sadly in the church, the poor are just an abstraction – we do not sit at table with them, or share their lives, yet I regularly hear them condemned as deserving their poverty, written off as wastrels. THese people who are by and large strangers to us

And the Owner of the house is coming. Next week the door closes. Week by week we have heard Jesus warning his people about dishonest wealth, about caring for the poor. Next week we have the chilling tale of the Rich man and Lazarus. The door closes, The judge has come and the one who lived without a care for the poor man at the gate finds himself in hell . . . This week we are a week shy of this – the manager realises that the judge is on the way – so what does he do?? He transfers his masters wealth to those amongst whom he will have to live. and Jesus notes – the Master commended him for his shrewdness. When the accounts are settled, the man will find himself amongst friends and Jesus says ‘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.’

He acts out of fear . . . he is not a child of light. He does what he does because he knows he’s out on his ear. We Know that we are utterly loved by the One who has given His World, His people and indeed His Life to us. We have nothing to fear from Deceitful wealth, however loudly it may whisper in our ears that we have to look Care for it. We have been given a far more glorious task of Caring for Creation and Others and through that our very souls

I said at the outset that God wasn’t in view in the Rich man, but perhaps in a sense he is. Yes we like the scoundrel manager have squandered what belongs to HIm. We have squandered the earth, our souls and indeed the lives of others, but perhaps at the last, he might smile upon those who have come to their senses, Woken up to who they are in Christ, and have sought to be the Good Stewards they were created to be.


Sermon for Sunday August 19th – Evensong

Sermon for Sunday August 19th – Evensong
Exodus 2:23 – 3:10
Hebrews 13:1-17

‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.’
Exodus 3:5-6

Standing on Holy Ground and, like Moses, we do not know it. Yet Unlike Moses, there is no fear of God before our eyes.

A good friend of mine some years ago took her family to see the USA. Amongst other things they visited Las Vegas, just to look. My friend’s eldest son, a young man of a sensitive disposition, walked into one of the Mega casinos, blindingly lit by a million 100 watt bulbs, turned to his mother and said, ‘It’s true, we’re doomed’. He was of course referring to the obscene use of electrical energy when understood against a background of rapid climate change, but he could have been talking about the debauched human behaviour he saw presented there – they are not disconnected.
Amongst my interests, I have for the last 25 or so years had a keen interest in Climate Science. I was teaching on it in High School long before most people had heard of the Greenhouse effect – and I am a sceptic. Not a sceptic about the science which is not only compelling, but whose predictions are coming true at an accelerating rate. No, rather as an observer of human nature, I am sceptical of those who suggest that ‘humanity’ for want of a better word, is in any sense capable of doing anything to change the course of events. Of course such scepticism is academic now as the total collapse of the planet’s complex systems of which we are the beneficiaries is already well underway. But how have we come to such a dreadful place?
Thinking upon this this week, I was reminded of a Victorian tale – the only novel written by Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Grey. In it Wilde depicts a young aesthete who has his portrait painted and muses that he would sell his soul if he might retain his youthful beauty and the painting age in his place. Well that of course is what happens. Grey hides the painting in his attic and embarks on an increasingly debauched hedonistic life, not denying himself any of life’s ‘pleasures’ – a life without boundaries, which leads him finally to committing murder. In the final scenes he comes face to face with the painting, it is utterly scarred and disfigured beyond imagining. Trying vainly to redeem himself, Grey attacks the painting with a knife and is found the next morning by his servants – dead, with a knife through his own heart, so hideously disfigured that he is unrecognisable except for his jewelry, and the painting, never seen previously by anyone except Grey – restored to its original beauty.
And I couldn’t help reflect, that the creation is our painting in the attic. That in our desire to satiate our desires – something understood as a universal human right in what passes for contemporary ethical discourse – we have as Grey did, destroyed our own souls and that this is rapidly confronting us in the environmental devastation for which we are responsible. But of course we do not live in an age that believes in the Soul in any meaningful sense. We have no sense that Christ by his sacrificial death, by the shedding of his blood, has created within us something that is, to use an unfashionable word, Holy. Something which must be treated with reverence and awe. We do not think that most of what we do can in any sense harm us, unless we are talking about abusing our bodies, in the crudest of senses through bad diet or drug abuse of one kind or other. We have no sense that everything we do with our bodies is of Great Significance. We have little sense of what Jesus is saying when he says that the eye is the lamp of the body. THat, as we have destroyed the creation, we also have souls which we can all too easily destroy

Just this week, I marked my first anniversary as Vicar here. On that rather chilly evening of my installation, there was a moment that had a profound echo in this last verse of our reading from the letter to the Hebrews. I knelt before the bishop who handed me his license, passing on his legal authority to me, with these words ‘Receive this cure of souls, which is both yours and mine’. And as I read the passage set for this evening I couldn’t help think of that phrase ‘cure of souls’ in the light of the exhortation to all Christians to Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. It was that bit that was addressed to me – that I am to watch over souls and will have to give an account of my work to God.
It reminded me of something my first Spiritual Director told me – she was a very wise and skilled Priest, but she herself had found herself given a sharp reminder of the significance of her work once with her own Spiritual Director. Christine had been having a particularly rough time with her congregation and casually said ‘Well, at least I’m not responsible for the salvation of their souls’ – and her director came back to her as quick as a flash – ‘whatever gave you that idea – of course you are!’

But really?? Salvation of Souls? Isn’t that just a bit old hat? How many of us would respond with any degree of seriousness to the counsel I was given by a friend just over a week ago. I had been considering going to what promised to be a rather tetchy and rancourous public debate on one of the ‘issues of the day’, and my friend said – ‘Don’t go – you need to guard your soul’’ In our world it is hard to take the idea of guarding our soul with much degree of seriousness I mean, seriously – could exposing oneself to such an event as a public debate have a deleterious impact on one’s soul? Why, it has a quaint almost Victorian ring to it – it seems like an idea that we have pretty much discarded – but is that because we have sold our souls and have little idea of what we have lost? That we have lost any sensitivity of the soul, that our souls are dead or at the very least barely clinging on to life.
Thinking of the soul of the modern world, not only Dorian Grey, but of course the tale of Dr Faust comes to mind. Someone who to all external appearances has much, just like us, yet is dissatisfied with life – so he does a deal with the devil – the devil can have his soul if he can have limitless knowledge and worldly pleasures. The Prince of this world is always ready to cut such a deal. And we may well say that we live in a Faustian age, where the pursuit of knowledge and sensual pleasure has led to the destruction of the soul. ‘We must have all we desire – we must cast off all restraint. The strictures and Wisdom of Scripture are but infantile attempts to stop us enjoying ourselves.’ We say, until at the last we discern that it has all turned to dust in our hands

I am reminded of the words of the sage from the book of Ecclesiates  Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; . . .Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

Whatever my eyes desired. It is perhaps no surprise that an age which has lost touch with any sense of the soul is an age increasingly dominated by spectacle – by the visual – the image is Everything – the Image is God – our eyes are entranced and we do not heed the words of Jesus, that the eye is the light of the soul. That that which we feast our eyes upon can harm us. We think we know better. Not believing in the soul we think that sensuality and reason are all we need – but our reason is like that of Faust and Grey, making foolish bargains, not realising what horrors are happening within. We look outwards – we never visit the portrait in the attic. We do not look at our souls. So entranced are we by what we see – we have no sense that we are being constantly degraded by that which we see – we have no Inner sensitivity

This is revealed for example in the continuing increase in violence in the movies. Whilst it is not possible in simple terms to make the connection between violence in the world and upon the screen – there was a terrifyingly clear note about this in the latest mass killing in the United States at the screening of the Dark Night Rises. When the gunman started his spree – people thought it was part of the movie – the movie was so violent that the external violence was normalised. The level of violence on the screen merely being mimicked by the young man with a gun in the theatre. It was Orson Wells who said of movie violence ‘We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.’ The respect for human life seems to be eroding.” And that was 40 years ago. We are careless with our souls.

And one is thought a spoilsport to suggest this – must I be denied pleasure – that which was once seen rightly as infantile petitioning is in our age understood as the height of rational discourse, encased in the slippery language of rights. Thus when the writer to the Hebrews writes – Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Well such an idea is scoffed at. Indeed even Christians have pretty much given up on the idea of God judging anything or anybody.
Much as we scoff at the idea that watching violence on the big screen in any sense damages us – we similarly think that there is no great harm in having multiple sexual partners in and through life. Violence? Watching people being shot? Oh it’s just Entertainment. Sex? It’s fun, it’s an expression of our sensual nature, but in reality no more than a physical transaction between two consenting adults, in a sense nothing more than shaking hands. As long as both people freely want to, where’s the harm in that? There is no sense of something Other about our lives, about the Holy – something that says, when you live out your life, every action has a profound Spiritual dimension.
It is horribly ironic that in an age where we are increasingly told we must be careful about physical touch – where in England at least teachers are forbidden from giving a crying child a hug, where on the one hand we treat touch as highly dangerous, we seem to imagine that the most profound human contact in being rendered meaningless is ‘harmless’. There is no sense of the Spiritual – there is no sense of the soul. There is little or no sense that sexual intimacy outside of the Given bounds of marriage might in some sense be ‘harmful’, in and of itself. That watching violent movies might harm us. That that which we look upon has the capacity to destroy something which is infinitely precious.
It strikes me that current debates about marriage even within the church completely lack this dimension. Both conservatives with their ‘the bible says’ rhetoric, and liberals with their ‘rights’ rhetoric all singularly fail to acknowledge that sexual union is a profound mystery. That there is more going on than we can see. That it is Holy – that we were Given sexual boundaries – that they were Good and Grace, for we were blind to the Spiritual reality. So we had the Law – thou shalt, thou shalt not – not in a sense of denying pleasure, as this is popularly parodied, but in the sense that here we are touching on the Holy, playing with Fire. We needed to Know where the boundary lay for e could not see it. But to be a Christian is to be anointed by the Holy Spirit – to See that deeper reality – to know what we are doing to our souls. It is to be freely responsible before God, Knowing the nature of reality – Seeing that adultery and fornication, that violence, that deceit, that many many other things trash our souls, spreading chaos, undoing the very fabric of the created order

To be a Christian in this age is to find oneself sometimes the object of scorn – as if it is to be a flat earther – ‘Ah we know so much more nowadays’. Yet rather to be a follower of Christ, to have the merest sense of the Holy, of the Sacred, of the Beauty and fragility of the human soul, makes us Deep Magic people in an age stripped of the deep sensitivity which signals we are spiritually alive – a sense of the Holy. The irony is that those who call Christians flat earthers are engaged in an act of Projection, for all depth has been stripped out of our common approach to this matter of Life. And so such texts as we have heard tonight can seem to us utterly alien.

The Gift of Scripture – the Gift of sitting underneath such ‘Other worldly’ texts as we have heard this evening is that it reminds us that the Life of the World is not as flat and devoid of Ultimate meaning as we have been taught – that when we show hospitality to a stranger, we may well be entertaining angels – that ‘love of money’, or ‘sound financial management’ as we have disingenuously renamed it – harms us. That the ground we are standing upon might in some sense be Holy to the Lord. That we have souls that are so important that we are all to put ourselves into the hands of others, to keep watch over them. That we have been redeemed and sanctified, made Holy that is by one who suffered outside the city gate, for the sake of our souls, the one who is as St Peter reminds us ‘the shepherd and guardian of our souls.

This morning we heard in our Epistle, these words – Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Week after week it seems news comes to us of one Christian leader or another who has fallen. We do a terrible thing when we say, ‘ah but they are just human’ – for that is not human. Such talk reveals that we have become far too comfortable with the painting in the attic, a ghastly parody of the human. I am thankful to GOd for my friend who counseled me to guard my soul, I had not received such counsel for many years. When we hear of those who fall from grace, we should not say ‘Ah but they are just human’ – rather we should ask, ‘Given that the days are evil, who was looking over this man’s soul, who said, for the sake of your eternal Soul do not take this path for what can you give for your soul?’

Dorian Grey realised at the last the horror of what he had done. The coming environmental collapse will horrify the world. We are facing times of deadly seriousness, yet still the sensual spectacle goes on. As the Olympics, our fascination with movies and good food, and the brutal sexualisation of our culture reveals, we are like the Romans at the last, still consumed with bread and circuses. The times have always been deadly serious, but for most of history we have understood the significance of the soul and guarding it – let us strengthen that which remains.