It’s going to cost us, and it should… a sermon by Revd Will Gibbs
I want to begin with a quotation from Basil the Great. Please bear with me, it is quite long, but it wouldn’t make much sense if I edited it or only used a small bit of it.
St Basil says this:
“But whom do I treat unjustly,” you say, “by keeping what is my own?” Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theatre, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all in the common – that is what the rich do. They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of pre-emption. For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be in need.
Did you not come forth naked from the womb, and will you not return naked to the earth? Where then did you obtain your belongings? If you say that you acquired them by chance, then you deny God, since you neither recognize your Creator, nor are you grateful to the One who gave these things to you. But if you acknowledge that they were given to you by God, then tell me, for what purpose did you receive them? Is God unjust, when He distributes to us unequally the things that are necessary for life? Why then are you wealthy while another is poor? Why else, but so that you might receive the reward of benevolence and faithful stewardship, while the poor are honoured for patient endurance in their struggle? But you, stuffing everything into the bottomless pockets of your greed, assume that you wrong no one; yet how many do you in fact dispossess?
Who are the greedy? Those who are not satisfied with what suffices for their own needs. Who are the robbers? Those who take for themselves what rightfully belongs to everyone. And you, are you not greedy? Are you not a robber? The things you received in trust as a stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? Is not the person who strips another of clothing called a thief? And those who do not clothe the naked when they have the power to do so, should they not be called the same? The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided, and did not.
These words from St. Basil’s writing entitled ‘On Social Justice’ have haunted me for a long time now. His words sting with truth. Why? For at least the following reasons:
- Too often we live as individuals, disconnected from and indifferent to, or at least unaware of, the needs of others. Or if not unaware, perhaps not sufficiently aware to the point that we’re actually going to do something about it. We shudder at the TV, or the bad news shared down the phone or in a passing conversation with a friend, and we say we’ll pray about it but we don’t actually want to roll up our sleeves.
- Our fear that there will not be enough only creates the reality that there is not enough – usually for the other person though and not for us. Charity begins at home and all that guff. No – sorry – that won’t do – we’re not generous as God is generous until it has truly cost us something. It cost the Father his Son on the Cross for us, a treat here or there is no sacrifice in comparison. If we don’t notice what we’re giving then we’re not giving enough or generously enough.
- We own nothing. Everything is a gift and a privilege – “grace upon grace” as St. John says – intended to be cared for and shared as a gift.
- As we approach the season of Lent it is a season that asks of us self-denial and fasting. I don’t think it’s enough to simply give up something only to take it back at Easter. Maybe self-denial and fasting are not complete until whatever it is we have let go of has been given to and shared with another in an ongoing way.
- The most obvious level at which to understand St. Basil’s words is the physical level – physical bread, clothes, shoes, and money. But maybe these same things also have symbolic meanings – the bread of love, encouragement, and a good word that feeds life and nourishes growth; the clothes that offer dignity, protection, and identity; the shoes of freedom that enable another to live, move, and have their being; the silver that is another’s value and worth.
How and from whom have we withheld bread, clothes, shoes, and silver, physical or otherwise?
There are (or more accurately, I have) no satisfactory answers to St. Basil’s questions and charges. Perhaps the only satisfactory response is confession and repentance and then to open our hearts and our hands and our wallets and purses. I am rich, greedy, and a robber. I must turn and face the other from whom I have withheld. I must give and share not only my stuff but my life. My salvation is somehow tied to their life, their well-being, and their salvation.
So I wonder, what do St. Basil’s words bring up for you? How do you answer his questions?
Over the last three weeks we’ve been sharing some thoughts about Stewardship. And the point about Stewardship is that it is always an exercise in ‘add up’ not ‘add on’. What do I mean by that?
What I am about to say is very risky but in saying it, I’m deadly serious.
Please do not say – ‘I do this, I give time to such and such a role, I care about this and I’m involved in that, and after all of these things – I want to give x pounds on top to support St Mary’s’.
No, if that is how you think please stop doing whatever you’re involved in at St Mary’s right now. Stop immediately. I will be around after the service to receive your resignation.
Please, please, please never think in such a contractual way because the God we love, the God we worship, the God we follow certainly doesn’t go about things in that way.
No. Instead say – ‘I value this, I give time to this, these things matter and I am pleased to be involved in that. And because of all that, because these things matter to me and they matter to others – I want to make sure they can continue and grow and flourish’.
And they will continue and grow and flourish when we match what we value and what we give in time and effort in what we give financially.
This is your church. I will still get my stipend whatever but what do you want your church to look like? Do you want it to be one of the best churches in the Diocese, one that leads the way in worship, and music, in nurturing and supporting vocations, the quality of our worship and our involvement in our community?
Hear this. Your five hours a week given to St Mary’s are precious and valued in so many ways by all of us and by me. But they count not a jot when I speak to British Gas to negotiate a new tariff for the heating here. (Which costs £1000 a month at this time of year by the way.) They don’t knock a bit off because it is an old church, a beautiful church, a committed church, a happy church full of good people. The bill is still high and challenging and, we think, worth paying to be a church that is open and welcome and comfortable.
We need £22k a month to do the things we do. £22k this month, next month and every month. To do them at all, to do them well, to do them lovingly, to do them for God and to do them for you and for all God’s people. If you think a bit of loose change is going to be your contribution you better start bringing a lot of other people along to throw some loose change in with you!
You get the point, you’ve heard the message, please respond. And I go on record today to say this. If you respond well. If you sign up for stewardship because you’re not in it at the moment, if you are in Stewardship and you review your giving and give a little more – if each of us does that – in whatever way we can – and that will be different amounts for each of us – if we each do this (and I will be doing this) then hear this. I will leave you alone next year. We will be so blessed by the response and can get on with using that money to grow God’s church, in love and service, and in bringing in God’s Kingdom. For we will be rich in so many ways beyond money and blessed beyond measure by the one from whom all good things come.
Revd Will Gibbs