Sunday 18 September 2022

You cannot serve God and Mammon

Address given at Ballingarry Church on Sunday 18th September 2022, the 14th afterTrinity

I wonder how many of you remember the theme song of the TV series, the Adventures of Robin Hood, back in the 1950s?

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Riding through the glen,
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, With his band of men,
Stole from the rich, Gave to the poor,
Robin Hood! Robin Hood! Robin Hood!

Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 16:1-13) is all about the right way for Jesus’s disciples - whom he calls ‘the children of light’ – to deal with riches, with wealth. But at first sight, it is very odd, because it looks as if Jesus is commending dishonesty, that he is encouraging his disciples to be like Robin Hood, to steal from the rich to give to the poor.

 Now I don’t for a minute think that is what Jesus is saying. So let me try to tease out what message Jesus really wants us to take from his words.

The story Jesus tells, often called the parable of the dishonest manager, sounds very contemporary, doesn’t it?

A dishonest manager is about to lose his job because he has squandered his employer’s assets. Because he doesn’t want to do manual labour or receive charity, he goes around to all the people who owe his employer money and reduces their debts. He does this so that they will help him after he loses his job. To our surprise, the employer commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.

It is a story about as worldly-wise a set of rogues as we might meet anywhere today. The dishonest manager is a rogue who embezzles from his employer. The debtors are rogues, who are quite happy to go along with him. The employer is a rogue too, who admires the shrewd dishonesty of his manager – perhaps he might reconsider sacking him!

Jesus tells his disciples, ‘The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light’. In other words, the worldly wise, like the dishonest manager and his employer, rogues who are always ready to pull a stroke to their own advantage, are shrewder than they are. They should ‘make friends for (themselves) by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes’.

Is Jesus urging his disciples to be like Robin Hood, to steal what is not theirs, to give it to those who will welcome them? I think not. I am reminded of what Jesus said to the twelve disciples he sent out on a training mission as Matthew (10:16) records: ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’.

What Jesus is saying is surely that they must be shrewd enough to see through the machinations of the worldly wise, so that they do not fall into the trap of imitating their dishonesty. Rather they must use whatever wealth they are blessed with, that they make honestly or receive as a gift, to do good for others, so that they may be eternally welcomed.

John Wesley got it right, I think, when he said in a sermon on the use of money: ‘No more waste! Cut off every expense which fashion, caprice, or flesh and blood demand. No more covetousness! But employ whatever God has intrusted you with, in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree, to the household of faith, to all men.’

Jesus goes on to clarify for his disciples the proper use of wealth.

He points out to them that faithfulness and honesty in undertaking a small task is the best proof of fitness to be entrusted with a bigger task. This is surely true in earthly matters. No one is likely to gain a high, responsible position until they have proved their faithfulness, honesty, and ability in a lower position - though recent events in Westminster might lead one to doubt that this always applies in the world of politics!

Jesus then extends this principle to eternal matters. ‘If then’, says Jesus, ‘you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?’

The wealth we have on earth is not really ours, it is loaned to us by God. We may have earned it honestly by hard work, or received it as a gift or by inheritance, but we cannot take it away with us when we die - we are only stewards of it. If we choose to hoard it and use it only for our own pleasure, if we are driven only by the desire to accumulate more, we are being dishonest – in that sense it is dishonest wealth. Even if we have not, God forbid, cheated and exploited other people to get it.

The true riches we should seek are spiritual riches. We will receive these only in as much as we use earthly riches well, as God would have us use them. And if we do not use what God has given us well, how can we expect him to continue to give it to us?

The fact of the matter, Jesus teaches us, is that his disciples cannot serve two masters. ‘You cannot serve (both) God and wealth’.

I finish in prayer with a Collect of the Lord

O God, you are rich in love for your people:
show us the treasure that endures
and, when we are tempted by greed,
call us back into your service
and make us worthy to be entrusted 
with the wealth that never fails.
We ask this through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Tuesday 13 September 2022

The earthly and the heavenly harvest

Harvest decorations in Killodiernan Church

Address given at morning worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on 13th September 2022

Are you feeling cheerful? I do hope so, because we have so much to give thanks for!

Here in Killodiernan last Sunday we celebrated our Harvest Festival with great joy. Whatever bad news the media are full of, whatever fears we have for the future, we should look at the glass as half full, not half empty! Just reflect for a moment on the breadth and variety of our earthly harvest:

·         We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, hay for horses and silage for cattle.

·         And there’s so much more than staples for us to enjoy, isn’t there? There’s milk and honey, butter and cheese, beef and pork, lamb and chicken. There are fruits and nuts, blackberries and mushrooms, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips. There are pumpkins and marrows, peas and beans, cabbage and lettuce, and gardens full of flowers!

·         For those who work with animals, there are this year’s foals, and calves and lambs and chicks. And there’s also the fruit of our own bodies - our children and grandchildren born this year, and older ones growing apace as mine are. Thank God for them all!

In this rich corner of the world today, no one will starve because of a poor harvest or recession, as our forefathers so often did. With our God-given cleverness we have invented ways to store food and to transport it, and economic and social systems to distribute it to where it is needed. And if we consume a little less, it will probably be good for our health - and perhaps the whole planet will benefit.

Yet for all our cleverness, the earthly harvest is perishable and uncertain. Why has God not given us perpetually good harvests – and recession free economies? Perhaps to remind us that we are not masters of the universe: God is. God’s laws don’t change. Nature is as God has made it - and what we sow, we shall reap. We remain as we have always been, totally dependent on God’s continuing fatherly goodness.

In the passage from John’sGospel (6:25-35) that we’ve just heard, Jesus asks us to look beyond the earthly harvest, to a different heavenly harvest.

He tells the crowd: ‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’ ‘The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’, he says. And finally he makes this great claim: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whosoever believes in me shall never be thirsty’

What is Jesus talking about? This teaching is difficult. I find it so - but then so did many of those who first heard his words, as John tells us in the next few verses. One way to look at it, which I find helpful, is this:

Just as God has made us clever, able to till and keep the world of which we are part, so he has made us in his image to be moral beings, to be souls. Souls with the capacity we call conscience to distinguish right from wrong, truth from lies, love from hate - and to prefer good to evil, as he does. If we use our conscience to make the right choices, we sow a heavenly harvest of good for others to reap, which nourishes us for eternal life. As the old saw says, the good we do lives after us.

But we are not masters of our own souls, any more than we are masters of the universe: our souls are as God made them, with free will, vulnerable to temptation, beset by our own greed. So it’s hard to be good. We have to work at it, just as we do for the earthly harvest. It is hard work resisting temptation, putting what is right above our own desires, cultivating generosity. All too often we fail. We name that sin. And when we fail and sin, the evil we do poisons our soul, and that evil too is eternal – a bad deed done can never be undone!

What a mess we are in! How can we possibly be as good as God wants us to be? As good as God has made us want to be, in our best moments.

This is where Jesus’s teaching speaks to me: he promises us all the help we need to reap the heavenly harvest. All we require is the faith to come to him. As the bread of life, he strengthens our souls. He helps us to resist temptation and to do good. And when we fail, he sucks out the evil that poisons the soul – in other words he redeems us. The only cure for a bad deed is to repent and be forgiven!

It is in this sense that Jesus is the bread of life that nourishes us for eternal life.

So to sum up:

·         Let us thank God our loving Father for bountiful earthly harvests. God makes them possible, and we work hard for them, so it is right to celebrate and enjoy them together.

·         But let us work just as hard for the heavenly harvest of goodness, to nourish our souls.

·         Let us also thank God for the gift of his Son Jesus Christ, whose help we need to reap this heavenly harvest.

·         And let us pray that Jesus will transform our selfish natures into the generous natures on which both our earthly and heavenly harvest bounty depends.

·         If we believe in him, if we come to him, we will never be hungry or thirsty for good things.

Sunday 4 September 2022


Jesus teaching, Carl Bloch (1877)

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 4th September 2022, the 12th after Trinity and the 1st in Creation Time

Do you know the difference between supporting a cause and being committed to it?

Well, the next time you sit down to a nice cooked breakfast you might think of this: the hen that laid the egg you’re about to eat was certainly supporting your high-cholesterol breakfast, but the pig from which the rashers came was truly committed to it!

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke (14:25-33) is about commitment – about commitment as a disciple of Jesus. Jesus is telling the crowds travelling with him what it means to be his disciple.

But at first hearing, what he says is really quite shocking, isn’t it? Surely Jesus can’t have insisted that his disciples must hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters? It sounds as if he wants them to be cold-hearted fanatics!

What I want to do today is to tease out what Jesus really did mean in this passage, and what it might mean to us today.

Would the crowds travelling with Jesus have found his teaching as shocking as we do?

At one level, I think they might have been even more shocked. For a Jew to hate mother or father would be more than shocking – it would be a blasphemy against God himself, a violation of the 5th Commandment given to Moses. If you remember, this reads: Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee’.

And again, although the idea of carrying the cross is a very familiar metaphor to us, two Christian millennia later, it would have been quite repulsive to a Jew at that time. Stoning was the Jewish punishment – crucifixion was a barbaric practice recently introduced by the hated Roman occupiers. To say that disciples must carry the cross would have been like saying today that they must travel in the cattle-trucks to the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz.

But at another level, I think they would not have found Jesus’s words at all as strange as we do. There’s a long tradition in the Semitic languages of the Middle East of using over-the-top rhetoric to make a point. It continues to this day – think of Saddam Hussein’s rhetoric about ‘the mother of all battles’ for instance. Here as in many other places in the Gospels, I think that those who heard Jesus’s words would have understood very clearly that they weren’t to be taken completely literally, but that they were used to make his point as vividly as possible.

So what is the point that Jesus is making? Actually, I think there are two.

First, Jesus is warning his followers that to be his disciple, to follow his road to the Kingdom of God, may cost them everything that they hold dear. Everything; absolutely everything.

Matthew (10:37-38) puts different words into his mouth, in what seems to be another report of the same teaching, when he has Jesus say: Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.’ The point is not to hate your family – that is just a rhetorical device – the point is that to be a true disciple of Jesus you must love him - you must love God - more than family, more than anything! And you must be prepared to suffer unjustly because you love God more than anything else.

And Jesus is also warning his followers that before they commit themselves they must ask themselves if they can see it through. Just as they would with any other project. They will be taken for fools if they make a commitment that they can’t live up to. Just as if they were building a tower – the reference is probably to a watchtower which people built in their fields so they could protect their crops. Or just as a wise king would – or any wise leader - before leading his people to war. You cannot make a true commitment without having calculated whether or not you can live up to it.

And second, Jesus is seeking to inspire his followers to make that commitment to be disciples.

Think for a moment about Churchill’s great speech to the British parliament and people when he became Prime Minister early in WW2: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’. That speech was calculated to rally the British nation behind a determination to fight on for victory. He went on: ‘You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terror — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival’. Churchill used shocking language in his rhetoric, to draw on the human quality of altruism, in order to rally his people behind him. And he succeeded in this aim. This is also what President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is trying to do when he speaks to Ukrainians today.

Altruism is characteristic of our humanity. No doubt it evolved with our species – but I prefer to see it as a gift God gave us when he made us in his image. Was Jesus drawing on that same quality of altruism when he chose to use his shocking language? I think so. And Jesus offered his disciples a vision even finer than Churchill’s victory, a vision of the kingdom of God, which they would help bring to pass.

I can’t believe that Jesus expected every single person in the crowds that day to feel able to make that great commitment. Perhaps there’s a role for camp-followers, for fellow-travellers, for supporters, as well as for committed disciples in the service of God. And Jesus must surely have known that even those who did commit themselves would at times be unable to carry it through - they would find their courage fail them. Even that great disciple Peter denied his teacher three times!

But Jesus promised those first disciples that he would always be with them, helping those who wavered to renew their commitment. They experienced his resurrection and received the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. With his help they went the distance. They obeyed his command to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’. And succeeding generations of disciples have continued to do the same. We are here as Christ’s church 2000 years later, to give witness to their success in continuing Jesus’s project of salvation.

We Christians are the crowds travelling with Jesus today.

What should we take from the words he spoke 2000 years ago? Well, just the same things, I believe, that Jesus wanted those who listened to him then to take: warning and inspiration.

Jesus warns us that we must not set out to follow him lightly – he teaches us that his disciples must be prepared to give up everything they hold dear, if that is what is asked of them. And he warns us to consider carefully whether we can pay that price before we commit ourselves to being his disciples.

But if we listen to him, Jesus also inspires us to make that great commitment, and will help us to live up to it, as the first disciples did, and as so many others have done over the centuries. Will we commit ourselves to follow in their footsteps?

St Ignatius Loyola understood this, I think, when he wrote his beautiful prayer, which I shall finish with:

Teach me, Good Lord,
to serve you as you deserve:
to give, and not to count the cost;
to fight, and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen