God & Money

Luke 16.1-13


(This is a sermon delivered at St. John’s this Sunday.  The good people of the Ascension will have heard the stories before…)

There is a story of a woman who had been used to enjoying every luxury, and all respect.  When she died, the angels bore her up to heaven.  An angel was sent to conduct her to her heavenly house.  As they walked through one of heaven’s more pleasant suburbs they passed many an imposing mansion, and as the woman passed each one she thought it must be hers, only to be ushered on down the road by the angel.  They passed through the main streets, and the houses started to get much smaller… and smaller… and smaller.  Until they came to the very fringe and stopped at a house that was little more than a hut.  “This is your house,” said the conducting angel.  “What?” cried the woman in disbelief, “That?  I can’t live in that!”  “I’m sorry,” said the angel, “but it the best we could do with the materials you sent up.”

It’s a silly joke, but actually it’s based on Scripture: St Paul describes the way of gaining treasure in heaven as:  “doing good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”  He is echoing the words of Jesus who warns us against “storing up treasures” for ourselves on earth, but rather, by giving to the poor, to “provide… a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

Our reading this morning ends with the chilling saying of Jesus: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Our story of the rich lady may raise a smile, but I feel that it does not really do justice to the glory of heaven, or the uselessness of earthy wealth:

There is another story, the tale of a rich man, who worked hard for success.  He started off on the shop floor, stacking shelves, and rose to be the director of a large chain of stores.  He was religious too, and nightly he prayed for the stock market to be kind, and his workforce to be blessed and productive.

His time came to die, and he looked pleadingly into the eyes of the angel of death:  “Please, let me pack just one suitcase to take with me to my fate.”  The angel looked puzzled, and replied, “but you are going to heaven…”  The man replied that he had worked all his life, travelled from rags to riches, and he wished to have a reminder of all that he had achieved in his earthly life while enjoying the peace of heaven.

The angel agreed, and watched the man open his safe, and pack his bag with huge, gleaming gold bars.

The angel brought the man to the gates of heaven, where St. Peter greeted them and asked “What’s in the suitcase?”  The man glowed with pride as he opened his heavy case, but his smile faltered when he heard Peter say “Oh good, that’s just what we need! – Paving stones!”

In the end, in the very end, gold is worthless.  Or, at least, it has no more worth than a beautiful pebble.  St Paul again:

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.

To be seduced by money is to fall for the Emperor’s new clothes.  I’m sure you all know the story of the Emperor’s new clothes – the Emperor is told his new clothes are only visible to the wise, and he parades around naked, afraid that his tailors will think him stupid if he says he can’t see the clothes.  All the adults on the land gaze at the naked king, afraid to admit that they can’t see his clothes either.  Until, eventually a child sees the King and cries out “the King is in the altogether!” and the King realised that his vanity has left him (literally) exposed.

We are told by our culture, by the TV, most of all by all manner of advertising that more money or more possessions will make us happy.  The entire multi-billion pound advertising industry is based on this premise – ‘your life will be better if you buy our product…’

Because often people have to work hard for their money, because all their possessions need careful maintenance and insurance and effort to keep, we assume that are truly valuable, truly important.  Because of all the effort we put into our possessions we assume that any one in their right mind would see how magnificent they are.  Like the emperor’s new clothes it takes child-like simplicity to ask why do we assume this way is best.

People slave away for the sake of money, working so hard they never see their families, thinking that the money they earn is ‘support’ for they family, that it will be the best thing for their family.  Whereas the most precious thing we can give is our time.  Time is the most precious thing we have.  In fact I’d go as far as to say that it is the only thing we have.  Time is the only thing we have.  All we “own” is only around us for a brief time – we bring nothing into the world and we take nothing out of it with us.  The only thing that is ours is our time.  All we have will eventually belong to someone else, only our short amount of time on this earth can never belong to anyone else, it is the only thing that is truly ours.  What we do with it is the real measure of who we are.

This should not lead us to want to use our time to work harder, but to love harder, and play more.  Jackie Onassis once said “if you bungle bring up your children, it really doesn’t matter what else you do well.”  While not all of us have children the principle holds true, our success as human beings is measured in our relationships, how we help people to grow, and the love and joy we bring.  Our success is not measured by the size of our house or car or paycheck.

One of my favourite quotations was from a back bench MP I can’t remember who or which party, who said “no one ever lay on their deathbed looking back on their life and said I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”  This deathbed perspective that reveals the emperor’s new clothes for what they are, and it is this death bed perspective that we are called as Christians to have.  As we face death we have to ask the big questions of meaning and purpose, and these are the questions Jesus confronts us with every time we read the Gospels.

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Jesus’ attitude to money would have shocked and astounded his disciples.  Riches were seen as a reward from God, as was good health.  The healthy and wealthy were obviously favoured by God.  Jesus turns this assumption upside down, and says that the poor and the sick are more likely to be closer to God “the first shall be last and the last first.”  He said it is impossible to serve God and money, and it is as hard for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.  Difficult words, especially when you consider that taking a global perspective, compared the majority of people in the world, everyone is this room is fabulously rich.

St Paul said:  “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, [or “the root of all evil” in some translations] and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

Money and possessions do not bring the smiling happy faces you see on the TV adverts, as St Paul said the people seduced by them have “pierced themselves with many pains.”

Jesus tells us that ‘one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’, If we carried on reading in Luke’s Gospel we come across the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  Again, Jesus’ disciples would have been shocked.  If they heard about a rich man they would assume he was enjoying God’s blessing, they would also assume that the poor man must have sinned in order to end up begging on the street. 

I guess some people today believe that the rich deserve their wealth because they work hard and the poor must be poor because they are lazy. 

But Jesus does not allow us to judge people like that, Jesus is clear that wealth is not a sign of godliness – it is a dangerous thing for our souls.

In the story of the rich man and Lazarus the rich man is a fool because he does not know what is important in life.  He ignored the poor man at his gate and valued status, wealth, power, but these are all addictive drugs that after the brief high of achievement leave us unsatisfied and thirsting for more.  The Romans had a saying that money was like sea-water: the more of it you drank the thirstier you became. 

When we are born we bring nothing into the world, when we die we can take nothing with us.  God lends us what we seem to own so that we can use it for our own fulfilment and the fulfilment of others.

Our Christian faith teaches us that all our possessions and money and position, do not bring fulfilment.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux, writing in the twelfth century, said that ‘It is stupidity and madness to want always that which can neither satisfy nor even diminish your desire.  While enjoying those riches, you strive for what is missing, longing for what you lack.  Thus the restless mind, running to and fro among the pleasures of life, is tired out but never satisfied; like a starving man who thinks whatever he stuffs down his throat is not enough, for his eyes see [only] what remains to be eaten.’

‘It is stupidity and madness to want always that which can neither satisfy nor even diminish your desire…’

Bernard recognised that possessions and money and position are never enough to satisfy us, no matter how much we gain.  The more we have, the more we want.

We are to build our lives on what does not perish; on the Kingdom of God;  on love;  on that which is eternal and will never fail us.

Our example is Jesus.  A penniless wanderer, who was executed for treason.  A failure by all worldly estimations.  Yet he built a Kingdom that shall never end.

To build our lives around anything less ….  Spiritual riches, that come through prayer, meditating on God’s word, meeting God in the Sacraments, and sharing the love that we receive with the world, these are the only riches that have the power to satisfy, the only riches that last, everything else is like dust and ashes.

As St Paul:

            [You] are to do good,
             to be rich in good works,
             generous, and ready to share,
            thus storing up for [yourselves]
             the treasure of a good foundation for the future,
             so that [you] may take hold of the life that really is life.

Death & the Life Eternal

A sermon by Trevor Donnelly

2 Kings 2.1-14; Galatians 5.1-25; Luke 9.51-62



As most of you know, my father died very recently.  I wondered if I should mention it in my sermon, and risk getting emotional (and we are Anglicans, so that would be terrible!) or should I ignore it and maybe that would be the ‘elephant in the room’ (this is a big building, we could probably fit an elephant in here without too much trouble, in fact an elephant would be less conspicuous than an emotional Vicar!).

     While I was trying to make up my mind I came to Morning Prayer, and had a reading all about toil and death.  I went home and listened to one of my favourite radio programmes, The Infinite Monkey Cage (with Professor Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince who discuss scientific issues of the day) the title of this weeks show “What is death?”  I thought I’d look at the set readings for today for something life-affirming and cheering: our readings begin with the death of Elijah (Margaret talked about this last week) and then the young man who wanted to bury his father! I thought I could look at what was current in the news for sermon inspiration, and found the top story to be Nelson Mandela nearing the end of his long and inspiring life.

     So  my first sermon after some ‘compassionate leave’ following the death of my father, which in turn followed a stretch of compassionate leave earlier in the year after the death of my mother is all about death!

     I am reminded of the words that Oscar Wilde put into the mouth of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent… may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”?

     You are not quite sure if it’s ok to laugh at that!  Well I think it is.  At the end, my father was lying on his bed, not able to talk.  I was on one side of the bed, my brother, Glenn, on the other.  My father tried to say something.

     “Do you want the blanket off?”  I asked.

     He shook his head.

     “Are you too warm?”  Asked my brother.

     He shook his head.

     I tried “Are you too cold?”

     He shook his head.

     Glenn said, “Do you need some pain relief?”

     He shook his head.

     “Do you want the window open?”

     “Are you thirsty?”

     Then I noticed the corners of my father’s mouth start to lift, and his shoulders start to shake.

     “Hang on,” I said, “are you laughing at us?”

     And he was!  Even at the end, in the frustrations of not being able to communicate there was laughter.  There were tears too at times – but laughter to the end.

     When we turn to our readings today we find a distinct lack of humour or gentleness.  A man wants to follow Jesus, but first wants to bury his father.  Jesus says ‘let the dead bury the dead.’  As someone who has just taken several weeks off to bury his father, Jesus words seem unbearably harsh.

     Scholars debate this story – it seems too cruel to be literal.  Jesus was all about teaching love – it does not seem very loving to leave a dead relative unburied in order to go off on a teaching trip.  Indeed the 10 Commandments insist on honouring your father and mother.  Was Jesus using hyperbole, exaggerating his demands to make a point?

     Or was, as some have suggested, the father not dead yet (some have even suggested that his father was perfectly well) and the young man putting ordinary family commitments ahead of following Jesus…  ‘One day,’ said the young man, ‘when my father is not around to be shocked, I will follow you.’

     Jesus was clear that the demands of the life of faith should be central to our lives, and if our families try to prevent us from expressing our faith we may need to choose faith over family ties.  But I simply cannot believe Jesus would be that harsh to a grieving man.

     From my recent experiences in Belfast I have encountered a lot of religious comfort.  None of the chaplains who visited the hospice or the minister who took the funeral quoted this story.  What I did hear, however, were much more traditional religious beliefs than I am used to.  I have talked to Presbyterian chaplains and the Baptist minister who conducted my father’s funeral.  All spoke with great certainty about heaven.  To them faith was primarily about finding a way to survive death.  This certainty and version of faith is something I cannot share.

     I’m a liberal, and I find it hard to believe in miracles, and surely the greatest of all miracles is surviving death.  I find it hard to accept the idea of life-after-death.

      Perhaps my problem is that I have a bit of an obsession with science.  I find it hard to believe things that cannot be scientifically proven, or at least scientifically investigated.

     Heaven seems too-good-to-be-true.  We want to believe that we will see our loved ones again, so we chose to believe it, not because it is true, or even likely, but because the alternative is too gloomy and depressing.

     How can heaven fit into a reductionist, scientific world-view?  Some people find comfort in Einstein’s theory of relativity.  Einstein, in a letter to a bereaved friend, wrote: “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”  Einstein tried to comfort his grieving friend with the belief that being separated from someone by time was really like being separated from them by distance.  The past still exists, and so our dead loved ones still exist; it’s just that we, poor linear creatures of time, cannot step back in time to visit them.

     (This was a serious attempt at comfort, he was not trying to be humorous.)

     Einstein does not propose ‘heaven’ just that the past is not lost.

     Can other scientists offer us any hope?  I have said that an afterlife seems very unlikely, but one thing that science tell us, especially quantum science, is that the extremely unlikely can also be true.

     John Polkinghorne is both a theologian and a scientist and has had many different thoughts on life after death, including the only explanation that could satisfy my rationalist tendancies.  As a scientist Polkinghorne explained that our thoughts are basically ‘software’ in the ‘hardware of our brain.’  So basically our brain is like a computer and ‘who we are,’ our ‘soul,’ is a bit like Microsoft Office.  It’s not quite the same as a computer because the way we think forms neural connections and how we run the software helps shape the hardware (but, in computing terms, an emulator could overcome this).

     Polkinhourne suggested that if God knows us in our entirety then every neuron could exist in God’s memory, and have continued life in God’s memory after we die.  God’s memory would be a virtual world – indistinguishable from a physical world.  Maybe this world is simply God’s imagination, if you are God there is no telling what your mind can do…!

     It’s a neat idea, but I can’t say it answers all my questions or is fully satisfying.  The truth is that I don’t know what happens after we die.

     The Bible is vague about the afterlife, it speaks in poetry and metaphor.  Sometimes it speaks of ‘the grave’ is a land of shadows beneath the earth; sometimes you can reach heaven by flying off in a chariot or building a huge tower…

     The best and truest answers to all our questions about eternal life is found in the reading I have not mentioned yet.  In St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians he describes the ultimate goal and reward of the life of faith:

     The fruit of the Spirit “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

     Our faith is not about what happens after we die.  Jesus clearly believed in life after death, but that was a tiny part of his teaching, which was almost all about how we life this life, the one life that we can be certain of.

     And when we die?  Who knows?  We will be in the hands of God, and there is no better place to be. 

     I want to see my parents again, but the better way to honour them is to try and keep alive the best of their values in my own life: faith, kindness, humour (humour even in the face of death).

     Or as St. Paul puts it, let our life and our faith be about “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

     I close with a prayer:  O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen, the evening comes, the busy world lies hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then Lord, in your mercy grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.  Amen.

The Science & Theology of Creation

This year we have been observing the Season of Creation. We have talked about the world, we have considered humanity, made in God’s image, and today I want to give a thought to science.

Too often when someone talks about the ‘theology of creation’ the conversation instantly moves to the supposed debate between sciene and religion.

I want to look at the scientific view of the origin of the world, but rather than see theology as opposed to science, I want to draw some theological reflections from scientific theory:

Einstein, Albert said: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” So this sermon is an attempt to bring Science and religion together…

In the beginning was nothing.

Then 13.7 billion years ago, in a singularity, an infinitely small pinprick of existence, the big bang was sparked into existence and there was light.

As the infant universe expanded faster than the speed of light, and within the first fraction of the first second of existence the laws of physics crystalised out of the chaos. At first the universe was only a hot soup of quarks, gluons and leptons, but while the universe was one ten-thousandth of a second old protons, neutrons and electrons (the famalier building blocks of atoms) had appeared.

The whole universe remained hot enough to be nothing more than constant nuclear reactions until beyond the first three minutes.

There were still no atoms yet – just the raw materials – the universe was not cool enough for atoms for half a million years.

At this point the gross nuclear structure of the universe was left at the ratio of today with a quarter helium to three quarters hydrogen. (Although the ratios of protons to neutons and electrons had made this inevitable three minutes after the initial big bang.)

The greatest miracle, ever had already occurred. Water into wine? Feeding 5,000? These are nothing to the laws of physics created in the first second of existence and the protons, neutons and electrons that formed in the first minutes. If any of these forces or measurements were even slightly different, no life would exist. For example if gravity were slightly stronger, or any of these nuclear particles just a little bigger (giving them a stronger pull, and so having the same effect) then the big bang would have been followed by the universe pulling itself together within a few billion years in a big crunch with no opportunity for suns and planets to from. If gravity were slightly weaker, or any nuclear particles just a little smaller (giving them a weaker pull, and so having the same effect) then the big bang would have been followed by the universe expanding so fast that stars would never form, and the universe would be an ever-expanding and ever-thinning cloud of hydrogen and helium.

But in our perfectly ballanced universe, once atoms formed, the forces of gravity started to draw them together, forming larger and larger clumps of matter, until some clumps became so vast that their internal forces of gravity became so strong that they broke apart the atoms in nuclear reactions and the first stars were born, about 1 billion years after the Big Bang.

In these first stars the atoms of hydrogen and helium were broken apart, and they reformed as new elements, including the carbon that is the elemental building block of life were formed – every atom of carbon in your body was created in the nuclear reactions in the heart of a sun.

Our sun and our home planet were formed in the second generation of stars.

Around 4.5 billion years ago life on earth began. (Just 3 million years ago the human race appeared.) The evolution of life is every bit as wonderful as the physical origen, but I will not go into it, as we will run out of time, and I was always much better at physics than biology.

But I would like to echo the words of Carl Segen who said of human civilisation: “These are the things hydrogen atoms do given 13.7 billion years.”

Science has its own miracles that can inspire awe, and wonder, and spirituality.

Atoms are mostly empty space, if you were able to remove all the space from and atom and compress it, then the entire human race could fit into a space the size of a sugar cube.

Some of you may know that I edit the Newsletter for the campaigning charity, Inclusive Church. The editorial that recieved more comment & feedback than all my others put together was based the sermon I delivered here on Ash Wednesday. I hope those who were here on Ash Wednesday will forgive me repeating what I said back then.

As I have already said, after the Big Bang, scientists believe that the only elements that existed were hydrogen and helium (the lightest and simplest elements). No carbon or metal or any complex elements. Then these atoms of hydrogen and helium slowly clustered over unimaginable aeons of time the clusters became enormous balls of matter that had so much gravity that the atoms were pulled apart in a nuclear reaction, and the universe’s first generation of stars sprung to light.

All of the heavy elements that exist in the universe – metals, and the carbon of our bodies was created in the heart of the first generation of stars.

On Ash Wednesday we say “remember that you are dust…” we are not just made of dust, as Genesis tells us, we are made of stardust! “Remember you are stardust…”

Our human bodies that we so often feel ashamed of (or are made to feel ashamed of) are the stuff of stars, made by God, loved by God, inhabited by God.

We are stardust! We need to learn to stand tall and not be ashamed: regardless of gender, sexuality, race, disability, social status, education: you are stardust. You are a child of God. You matter.

We are frail, but we are also part of a holy adventure reflecting God’s love over billions of years and in billions of galaxies.

Our lives are strange and sometimes difficult, but life is also wonderful and beautiful.

“Remember that you are (star)dust…” A sermon for Ash Wednesday 2012

I hope you will forgive a self-indulgent prologue to tonight’s sermon:

I have had a difficult start to 2012. My Father-in-law died on the 2nd January, I was asked to take the funeral, which proved to be a great privilege, but also very time consuming, complicated and emotionally draining. Then at the start of this month my mother was taken into hospital with a litany of medical problems. Our family has struggled through the start of the year. But ours are not the only problems: our own community here at the Ascension has been struggling with three people known to us dying very recently, many illnesses (several of them serious), a house-fire, and unpleasant break-ins at the Wash House Youth Club.

Traditionally Ash Wednesday liturgy focuses on the transient nature of human life, with ash smeared on our foreheads to remind us that we come from dust and will all too soon return back to dust once more. I do think there is a real value on reflecting on our mortality, but I have done a lot of that this year already, and I feel we have all done a lot of that already in 2012.

For our forbears in the faith, the primary purpose of Lent was a gloomy, miserable season in which they gave up something they enjoyed in order to prepare themselves for eternal life. This kind of salvation required turning their back on the joys of ‘the flesh’ and the supposedly shallow beauties of the earth. So in Lent faithful Christians turned away from the material world and trained their eyes on heaven. They used the season to forsake time for eternity. It is true that human life is fragile fraught with difficulties and short. Life is a risky business, and to quote Jim Morrison of the Doors “no one gets out of here alive.”

But is ‘salvation’ about ‘escaping this world of perpetual perishing’ or is it more about ‘seeing everlasting beauty in each passing moment?’

I think our spirituality should treasure the natural world, not despise or reject it. The natural world has lessons to teach us if we have ears to hear. For example:

After the Big Bang, scientists believe that the only elements that existed were hydrogen and helium (the lightest and simplest elements). No carbon or metal or any complex elements. Then these atoms of hydrogen and helium slowly clustered over unimaginable aeons of time the clusters became enormous balls of matter that had so much gravity that the atoms were pulled apart in a nuclear reaction, and the universe’s first generation of stars sprung to light.

All of the heavy elements that exist in the universe – metals, and the carbon of our bodies (and of the ashes that we will use soon in this service) was created in the heart of the first generation of stars.

So when I put ashes on your head tonight, and say the traditional words, “remember that you are dust…” by all means reflect on your mortality, but also “remember you are stardust…”

Our human bodies that we so often feel ashamed of (or are made to feel ashamed of) are the stuff of stars, made by God, loved by God, inhabited by God.

This Lent some of us do need more humility; but more of us need to learn to stand tall and not be ashamed: regardless of gender, sexuality, race, disability, social status, education: you are stardust. You are a child of God. You matter.

This Ash Wednesday, I want to let go of everything that keeps me from rejoicing in the passing beauty of the earth. Yes, we are dust, but we are earthly dust, springing out from a multi-billion-year holy adventure. Dust is good, after all; it is the place where life can grow, of moist dark soil. We are frail, but we are also part of a holy adventure reflecting God’s love over billions of years and in billions of galaxies.

So this Ash Wednesday, let’s consider the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air. The ashes I’ll put on the foreheads of those who want it will be the ashes of transformation, of awakening to beauty and love, of seizing the moment.

The traditional words of the imposition of ashes ask us to “turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’ the sin I want us to turn away from is the sin of failing to appreciate the beauty around us, of denying the good news that our lives are strange and sometimes difficult, but life is also wonderful and beautiful.