Sunday 31 July 2016
Tenth Sunday of Trinity
The Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Rich towards God: Luke 12:13–21
It is hard not to start this morning from anywhere other than the barbaric death of Fr Jacques Hamel whilst celebrating mass in his church in Normandy. Naturally our prayers and concerns have been with his family and community as we all plead for God’s mercy and God’s peace.
How does this affect you and how does this affect our life as churches and cathedrals? Well at one level I think we need to publicly admit that it makes us feel rather uncertain. Like Mosques or Synagogues targeted by hate crime, we sense a degree of worry. However, as I well know from growing up during the worst of times in Northern Ireland, the best response to terrorism is always to resolutely live life to the full. We are called to shun the temptation to act out of fear instead of acting out of love. We do so with a sense of care and wisdom, but we respond with grace and openness; finding partners of peace wherever they are to be found.
We are all greatly shaped by experience and in particular by the media and by events in our world. The last weeks have been especially difficult and the challenges across our world are manifold so how can we hold fast to a proper sense of being Christian when it seems that so much conspires to pull us in other directions? As ever religion gets blamed. Presently it is Islam but terrorism is never motivated by good religion, it is fed by bad religion. So can good religion help? Can good Christianity help?
The gospel for today picks up a particular way into this question through the lens of wealth and greed. Jesus says’ take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’. Then we hear the parable about building more and more barns, opening more and more accounts and investments so that in his soul, the person can ‘relax, eat, drink and be merry’. Jesus is teaching the crowd to live focussed on the things that really matter, the things of eternity. As ever Jesus is subtle – he is not saying that money is bad – indeed we know money is necessary. But he is saying that money is a very limited way of understanding life and further that greed is foolish especially when it results in a poverty in our relationship with God.
I can’t imagine that many people will publically admit to being greedy or to being particularly conformed by the contours of money. Yet it is abundantly clear that our society is becoming generally over time more split between rich and poor. We’ve seen the inexorable improvements of the middle classes being called into question since university no longer guarantees a good job for life or access to buying a home. Equally, greed cannot only exert its impact with those who maybe have lots of resources; a combination of it alongside covetousness with those who have little can be equally distasteful. However, I think for us in modern Western societies we need to think harder and deeper about the potential corrosiveness of money.
I was speaking to a mum in the week about the school holidays. She spoke of her wish for her children to be out playing and romping in the fields but she said all they wanted to do was for her to take them shopping. She said wistfully ‘we have not brought them up like that’. That’s the point; we are influenced by a whole raft of understandings, beliefs and commitments and especially about money.
Michael Sandel is Professor of Philosophy at Harvard. He is back on Radio 4 presenting ‘The Global Philosopher’ but a few years ago he wrote a seminal book entitled ‘What Money Can’t Buy’. He recognises the importance of money and international markets for human flourishing but he also shows how understanding things increasingly in terms of money has lots of unforeseen consequences in spheres where it doesn’t belong and this is detrimental.
So he cites some compelling examples. In the States there are US congressional hearings or free outdoor music and theatre performances. There are now companies which allow the well off to hire a homeless person to go and queue until the wealthy person turns up just in time for the main event. It corrupts the whole thing. It debases it. Or he cites a children’s nursery who responded to parents turning up late to collect their children by introducing monetary fines. What was the result? The number of parents turning up to do late pick-ups increased. The old norm of turning up on time, of a sense of collective responsibility had been monetised. In a world where everything has a pound sign attached, where everything can be bought and sold, we lose track of why some things shouldn’t be and even can’t be.
This is all to be found in the words of Jesus’ parable. These are the new larger barns holding all our grain and goods and very often we don’t even notice them. We build edifices which purport to be full of goods and treasures that in the end have become empty and meaningless and hence impoverishing our sense of who we are – in and because of God’s good gifts.
Good religion helps us to reflect and work with the space created in our imaginations by the parables of Jesus allowing us to notice what is happening without us realising. For us to come face to face with this, to work out how to live with this or to work ways against this which will allow us to develop on in ways which are rich towards God good religion helps. When the world is mad and difficult, I return to church as a place where I can begin to reconnect with my true identity as a child of God eternally bellowed made by love, made for love not in the case of our gospel someone in the first and foremost someone summed up as a Euro or Dollar or Pound sign. Or in the case of Fr Jacques he had become a symbol of French or Western Imperialism. No! He principally is a person.
All human beings have the potential for true personhood because all have the capacity for self-awareness and when such self-awareness is perfected in communion with God then we become both more like God and more truly human. It is prayer, and contemplation and in particular through the challenging experience of silence that we often discover most about this process – what Rowan Williams has described as the ‘the perilous exposure to God in solitude which is the basis of contemplation (p. 30 ‘A Silent Action, Engagements with Tomas Merton’, Rowan Williams, SPCK, 2011). In prayer as we invite the Holy Spirit to come into our lives then we begin to engage afresh with a Godly vision, with a fallen human world and with a self which has a sense of being a precious son or daughter of God but diminished. Indeed at times a deluded self shaped by visions and values we hadn’t fully comprehended. This is both something profoundly individual yet can only happen fully and deeply in relation to others or as Paul Evdokimov says (who was a Russian Christian who lived most of his life in France) ‘he/she will be saved who saves others’.
When we are faced with tragedy our reactions bear witness to whom we really are. The church calls us to good religion and to pray. This is not a soft option but rather as a way of learning how to intentionally reflect, so that we might learn to respond even better as children of God. In such prayer we often discover that fear stalks the corridors or our hearts and that it has other companions including greed or misplaced currency. We also we notice treasure which suggests the richness of God which we like Fr Jacques can manifest in life and which insistently goes on manifesting itself even in death.
© The Very Revd David Monteith