The Responsibility is Ours – church financial appeal…

The Vicar needed to get his parishioners to contribute more to the building fund, so he decided to try to publicly embarrass his richest parishoner into setting an example. “Mr Chumbly-Warbeller,” the Vicar said from the pulpit, “you’re a successful businessman; surely you could contribute more to the building fund?”

Mr Chumbly-Warbeller replied, “But my mother is in a nursing home, my daughter just lost her job, and my son is starting college…

…If I can say no to them, I can say no to you too.”

Today I’m going to talk about something that really embarrasses me.

I could talk to you about my own faults and failings quite happily, I could talk to you about doubt, about sex,  about sexuality…  I’m not easily embarrassed.  Except when it comes to the subject of the church and money.

I feel slightly embarrassed when I talk about giving money to the poor – to our monthly Majority World Appeal for example.  But I get deeply embarrassed when I have to talk about giving money to the Church.

It’s odd that I feel so embarrassed about it, because the Bible talks about money all the time.  Critics think the Bible is all about sex, but in reality it is much more about money: money is referred to over 2,000 times in the Bible. If we give the Bible any authority or value its writings even slightly we have to see how we spend our money as a profoundly spiritual issue.

As Jesus said: “where your treasure is there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6.21)

I was recently on a training course with London Citizens.  Part of what we had to do was examine our lives and think about what really matters to us as human beings.

The last part of the exercise was to write down (i) how I spend my time and (ii) how I spend my money.  This final part of the self-analysis was the crunch point – I may delude myself into thinking I am a certain type of person with certain interests and passions, but the real measure of who I am is how I spend my (i) time and (ii) money!

Even in secular terms how we spend our money is one of the key ways we are measured as human beings.

The Bible if full of references about giving.  We heard three of them this morning.  Including King David’s prayer ‘All things come from you, and of your own we give you.’  These words may be familiar to us from the traditional prayers at the Eucharist, but they originate in the story of our first reading, where they are David’s prayer.  ‘All things come from you, and of your own we give you,’ –  these words put all our giving, and all our acts of generosity into a new perspective.

All that we own, and all that we are, comes from God.  We cannot give God anything new, God has already given it us.  All creation belongs to God.

We are like children who give their parents presents using the money their parents gave them in the first place.

When we give money to God (through giving to the Church or to the poor) we are simply giving to God God’s own belongings.

The Bible is also clear that money and possessions can be extremely dangerous, our possessions can possess us if we are not prepared to part with them at the appropriate time “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

Giving is being in tune with God and what we give, how much we give and who we give it to is one thing that profoundly defines us as human beings.  Our Gospel reading makes it clear that we don’t all give the same, we give according to our ability.

That’s why we should think about money for our own good.  I didn’t find that part of the sermon too uncomfortable.  The next bit will make me squirm:  We need to give our time and our money, and now I need to talk about how the Church of the Ascension needs our money.

There is a hard truth that we have to face at the Church of the Ascension.  We are at the moment a church in financial decline.

It’s not surprising that our giving to the general fund has gone down – we have just raised a huge amount of money to fix our roof.  A huge thank you to all who made the building secure.  But as always happens when a church has a big project on, giving to the day-to-day running of the Church goes down as giving to the special fund goes up.

We have paused the congregation appeal for money for the building fund as we look for trusts and large-scale donors, because the day-to-day giving has gone down to unsustainable levels.

Most of the money you give in the collection or by standing order goes to the diocese – to central Church Funds.  Clergy are then paid from this money.

The Diocese is facing serious financial problems (like most charities it is suffering in the current financial climate) and the Diocese is looking to cut thirty Clergy jobs in five years, and the places they will cut first are churches that are not paying their way.

I am half time here at the Ascension, and the Ascension does not pay half a clergy salary.  We are net ‘takers’ from Diocesan funds.

It’s not that closure is imminent.  Our work in the local community is known and valued in the diocese, there are churches that are in a worse position than ours.  But the bottom line is we cannot sustain this level of giving.

The thought that keeps me awake at night is that in a world where people die every day from hunger and preventable diseases every £10 in my wallet or in my bank account could be used to save a life.  Every time I buy a book or a round of drinks, that money could have been used for the work of God’s Kingdom.

The Bible again helps us out with this guilt and how much to give.  The Biblical principle, which many churches still follow today, is that we should tithe.  A tithe is one tenth of our income, which according to the Bible should be given to God.

I don’t think it’s quite fair for churches to ask for a tithe for several reasons, the main one being that in the ancient world the tithe was given to the temple who took some for the running of the temple (considering the amount of gold in the ancient temple I suspect they took a healthy chunk) and used the rest to help the poor.  Some of the ancient tithe was for the kind of things now covered by the welfare state and you already pay in taxes.

The recommended Church of England figure for giving is 5% (see the table of recommended giving).  Although I suspect that leaves us considerably worse off than the ancient temple, but if everyone gave (or committed themselves to raise) that much money we would be on a secure financial footing.

I am reminded of a preacher who announced from the pulpit, ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news is we have enough money to complete the church building fund.”

A great cheer went through the congregation.

The preacher continued: “the bad news is: the money is still in your pocket.” 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn…

Image“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” 

The famous words with which we introduce of two minutes of silence on Remembrance Sunday every year.

I was speaking to someone this week who hates those words – “what kind of comfort is that?” she asked “not growing old?”; and suggested that we would do better to read the Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen.

I had to agree that Anthem for Doomed Youth is a more profound reflection on warfare, but I always though the traditional words were full of irony: it’s puny comfort but it’s  the best we can say.

I will end my sermon with the Anthem for Doomed Youth, but I will also spend some time with the traditional “Ode to Remembrance” and use those words to introduce the silence.

Whatever it’s merits as a poem, the fourth stanza of the poem, which gained the title the “Ode of Remembrance” is regularly recited at memorial services all over the world commemorating World War I, such as ANZAC Day, Remembrance Day, and Remembrance Sunday. In Australia’s Returned and Services Leagues, and in New Zealand’s numerous RSA’s.  In Canadian remembrance services, a French translation is often used along with or instead of the English ode.  Most touchingly, it is read every evening at the Menin Gate in Ypres at 8p.m., after the last post and followed by a minute of silence.

There is something to be said for knowing that we are hearing the same words as thousands of others across the world this morning. 

The “Ode of Remembrance” is a stanza taken from Laurence Binyon’s poem, “For the Fallen”, which was first published in The Times in September 1914.  Here is more of the poem:

From ‘For The Fallen

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

As I said, I have never taken the idea of not growing old as a source of comfort.  I’ve always held to Woody Allen’s view on the ageing process; when asked about the subject he said “growing old isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”

I think the irony is appropriately disturbing.  Binyon does understand the tragedy that  “They mingle not with their laughing comrades again /They sit no more at familiar tables of home…”  I have always been happy to see ‘not growing old’ as a bitterly ironic response to the death of soldiers, because I have never seen Remembrance Sunday as a source of comfort.  If remembrance Sunday is about comfort or celebration we have missed the point.

In the ancient Jewish tradition their thinking was greatly influenced by the idea of our ancestors and successors.  There was no clear idea of eternal life, immortality was obtained through having children and grandchildren who we lived on through after our own deaths (ideas that reemerged with an atheistic facelift in Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene).  This is why to be infertile was seen as such a terrible burden; and to kill someone before they had children was to blot their name out from the land.  To kill someone was not just to end one life, but to destroy the lives of the children they never had, and the grandchildren those children would have had, and so on… 

Wilfred Owen’s story reflects to us the tragedy of war:  he spent considerable time on the front-line: he was blown up, concussed and suffered shell-shock; then he won the Military Cross by seizing a German machine-gun.  He lived through so much, then, just as the war was about to end on 4th November he was shot and killed near the village of Ors. The news of his death reached his parents home as the Armistice bells were ringing on 11 November 1918.

Anthem for doomed youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? 
Only the monstrous anger of the guns. 
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle 
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; 
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all? 
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes 
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. 
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; 
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, 
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

“One Size Fits All” Spirituality

ImageThe Tax Collector and the Pharisee

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 

A Catholic priest, a Rabbi, and an Anglican minister were discussing sin, and the Anglican asked, “Tell me, gentlemen, have you ever sinned and broken the laws of your religion?”

“I must admit,” responded the Rabbi, “I was always very very curious about how pork tastes, so once, just once, I stopped at a bar-be-que restaurant when I was on a holiday and ate a pork sandwich. In fact, it was so delicious, I ate four of them, knowing I’d never have the nerve to sin again like that.”

  The Catholic joined in, “Well, I had the same curiosity about sex, and that being forbidden, I didn’t know which sex would appeal to me more, so I once, while in seminary, had an affair with a married couple, husband and wife at the same time. I was so overcome with feelings of guilt that I’ve never done anything like that again. Well, what about you, Reverend?”

  The Anglican said, “My besetting sin is GOSSIP, and I just can’t wait to tell everybody in town what you guys have said!”

  Guilt is a powerful emotion, often used (and abused) by religion.  It’s the starting point for my sermon and one of the themes of our Gospel reading.  Unfortunately, I have a problem with this morning’s Gospel reading.  It doesn’t fit easily into how I want us to see ourselves before God.  I’m not one to encourage bowing and scraping and beating our breast.  I think guilt is often needlessly piled on us by religion.  I believe that God calls us to stand stall, to rejoice that we are a wonderful part of God’s wonderful universe, to celebrate the amazing gift of life.

  I think that spirituality that flows from guilt is not healthy.  To my mind the truest spirituality must flow from love.

  Yet our reading has the poor wretched tax collector bowing his head, beating his breast and repeating ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

  [It reminds me of a traditional prayer that I refuse to say.  It’s a famous one, and many people’s favourite – it’s called the ‘prayer of humble access’ from the 1662 Prayer Book:

“We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.  But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.  Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”

  This prayer misquotes a bible story where the point it that we were more worthy than the dogs that licked the crumbs, and I see this prayer as an exercise in spiritual masochism – to me the message of Christ is that we are worthy – even the tax collectors and sinners, the prostitutes and demon-possessed are worthy of God’s love.  Our service for God springs from love, not from guilt.]

  But in our reading the tax collector comes to God wracked by guilt.  This approach to God means that the snivelling tax collector leaves the synagogue justified before God, whereas the Pharisee who stands tall is condemned.

  I don’t think Jesus is telling us to always be like the tax collector.  Jesus is showing us extremes of behaviour and his listeners would have assumed that the Pharisee was pleasing God by his worship, but Jesus is saying, no, even the tax collector, who is aware of his faults is closer to God than the pompous, self-righteous Pharisee.

  Tax collectors were collaborators with the invading Roman authorities.  They were well-rewarded for exploiting the poor.  He was a sinner – that was his genuine approach to God.  The Pharisee was a respected pillar of the community, he was also arrogant, and snobbish, and felt superior to those around him – his prayer was an opportunity to show off – and was far from genuine.

  When I worked as a prison chaplain approaching God as a sinner in need of repentance and forgiveness was exactly the right approach.  Here in Blackheath, I’m sure we all get things wrong from time to time, but the central message most of us need to hear most of the time is about God’s love for us, and his invitation to join in the work of the Kingdom.

In truth, there is no ‘one size fits all’ way to approach God. 

  I spent the week before last on a course with London Citizens, learning alongside Rabbis, Imams, Priests, Ministers, lay workers, community leaders and trade unionists about community organising.  It was clear that there was no one way to live a good life and do good works.  Here were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, and those-who-would-not-be-pinned-down-to-any-ideology wanting to work together to make the world a better place.  If I can just be a religious and cultural imperialist and use Christian language to describe their deeds, here were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, and those-who-would-not-be-pinned-down-to-any-ideology wanting to work together to build the Kingdom of God.

  I’ve seen the work of the Kingdom in other places too, closer to home.  I have spent some time with the people of St. John’s over the last few weeks as they prepare to advertise for a new Team Rector.  Those of us who have been to St. John’s have found it, to be honest, a mixed experience.  Their exuberant style of worship, which sometimes includes clapping, dancing and hands raised to God has both delighted and appalled members of our more reserved congregation.

  I confess I struggle with the theology of some of the words of the hymns and songs, but I have no problem at all with the clapping, dancing and raising of hands.

  The Bible exports us to ‘make a joyful noise to God,’ and clapping our hands is fine by me.

  The Bible also describes the posture of prayer as raising our hands to God.  That’s why I follow the old tradition of raising my hands during the Eucharistic Prayer.  But if, as they do in many more evangelical churches, someone wants to raise their hands to say that they are making the words of the hymn their prayer, a way of saying “I really mean this” – that’s ok with me too.

  But I don’t want to just stand up for evangelical worship – there is no ‘one size fits all’ – the Catholic tradition has a lot to offer us too.

  Those who cross themselves do so for a variety of reasons, to me it is about saying ‘this ancient story of Jesus and his cross is part of my story too, I place the cross on myself because I have a personal connection to it…’

  Genuflecting or kneeling is another traditional poise for worship – although one I would handle with more care.

  I believe God calls us to stand up tall, so kneeling isn’t a posture for prayer that comes easily to me.

  We have been talking at the worship committee and decided that we need to make it clear that kneeling is not compulsory when it comes to taking communion.  You can come up to the altar rail and stand if you prefer.

  (The only thing I would say is that you must help guide the chalice if you are standing – because the person giving you the wine can’t see the level when she or he is giving it!)

  But there is no ‘one size fits all’ if you want to stand or kneel, cross yourself of raise your hands, clap or sit quietly, that is fine (although it may not work if you clap disputing the prayers and stand up and cross yourselves during the sermon – but hopefully you get my meaning).

  In our Gospel reading we see two approaches to God.  Standing bold and proud, and kneeling in humility.  What matters is not the stance, what matters is that we find an approach to God that is genuine. 

  Wether you sit or stand or kneel or cross yourself or raise your hand is up to you – but do it because you have chosen it, not because it’s what you have always done it…

  I end my sermon with the words from John’s Gospel, often used to introduce Book of Common Prayer Evensong:

  God is Spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.