Saturday, August 04, 2007

Rich Fools?

Here is the text of tomorrow morning's sermon (at 8.00am Communion)

Luke 12: 13-21: The Rich Fool

I had an unenviable duty this week...the task of conducting a funeral service for a young man, who lived just a few yards from here. He was an amazingly popular guy. Warblington church was packed to the gunwales with people from all over Emsworth - and quite a sizable number from his workplace in Chichester too.

Young Simon, 21 years old, was a Jaguar Mechanic - and he was accompanied on his final journey by a Jaguar hearse, and Jaguar limousines. He had been a hard working, popular lad - who had worked hard to establish himself in life. He had a good job, a lovely girlfriend. A lovely flat - about which he was so meticulous that his girlfriend described how he would long jump from their kitchen to the bathroom when his clothes were dirty, to save their lovely cream carpets. He had a beautiful car, with personalised number plates - and a motor-bike.

It was, in the end, the motorbike that killed him. Out for a ride on country roads, he took a bend too quickly, and was gone. Instantly. Just like that.

There is another funeral of a young person due to take place in the parish soon as well. I’m sorry but I don’t know the lad’s name - but I gather he was 18 years old - hale and hearty. He was playing football, had just scored a goal, when, without any warning, he just dropped to the ground. Dead. I gather that he wouldn’t have even felt the fall. Just one minute alive and celebrating his goal. The next minute, dead.

What none of us can know, with any certainty, is where these two young men stood in the their relationship with God. We can know, of course, that God loves them both - and that God has been continuously calling to them throughout their lives.

But these two events have struck me with some force this week. There seems to be a basic injustice at work here. We want to cry out with their families “Why God?” Of all the people in the world who we might think deserve to die, why should it be these two young men, in the prime of their lives. We want to cry out that ‘it’s not fair’. How could you do that to them?
And yet. And yet. To make such a cry - as heartfelt and real as it is - springs from a misunderstanding about the nature of the life that God has given us - and of his relationship with us.

It is, for example, a cry which forgets the suffering and death that Jesus himself endured for us. If there is one thing we cannot say about Jesus, it is that he doesn’t play by his own rules. If suffering and death are ordained by him to be an essential part of our life - we cannot say that he didn’t embrace them fully himself. His mother knew the very anguish that the mothers of these young men this week have felt. Jesus himself knows the reality of death.

God has not promised us a life free from pain - in fact pain, suffering and death seem to be integral to his plan for our wholeness - for our growth into people who trust HIM, and do not place our trust in exterior things, in our own health, or in the stuff that we gather around us.

This week we have heard in the news that there has been a 30% rise in the number of house re-possessions. My heart goes out to those families who have saved to get a foot on the rung of the madness that we call the property ladder. But isn’t it the case that this mad dash to acquire property is ultimately about a human need for the security of bricks and mortar. Isn’t it ultimately about the way in which we have taught this generation that their sense of security, and their sense of worth, are dependent on the size of their house, and the smartness of their possessions?

During the last few weeks we have, of course, witnessed the drama of the floods. We can be thankful that we have been spared the flooding here in Emsworth...and of course we should do all we can to assist those who have lost their homes. But I was particularly struck by the anguish of one woman I saw interviewed on the TV. As she shed tears over the destruction of her beautiful home, she said “I just can’t believe that everything we’ve worked for, for the last 20 years has all gone.” She went on to explain that making her home as beautiful as possible had been her and her husband’s project for the last 20 years. Every spare moment had been spent painting and polishing and installing.

And I found myself thinking “How very sad”. How very sad that hers was a life that had been spent entirely on building, and rebuilding, and gilding her nest. What a shame that she had not found other ways to express the image of God in which she was made.

For we are indeed made in the image of God - as the book of Genesis testifies. Our creativity and love of beautiful things undoubtedly come from him. But so do some very other important instincts - that we tend to ignore. We ignore, for example, that being made in the image of God means that, like the Trinity, we are made for community. God’s wholeness is expressed in togetherness - in the inter-relation between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We too, made in the image of God, are meant to live in community...sharing our love, our ideas, our talents, and our resources with one another.

The Parable of the Rich Fool, that we have just heard, underlines these thoughts - with great power. Here is a man who has built bigger and bigger barns to hold all his grain and all his goods. And God says to him..”You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”.

The best part of the eulogy that I had to preach for young Simon Welstead this week was the part when I was able to focus on his qualities as a human being. The very fact that so many people came to his funeral was a testament to the kind of person that he was… outgoing, community minded, someone who (as his girlfriend told us) would literally do anything for soon as they had asked him. None of the stuff that Simon had accumulated mattered. Not the car, not the flat, certainly not the motorbike which was the cause of his death. No, what mattered was that his Mother could call him her friend. And that his girlfriend could call him kind. And that a young man in the town, with learning difficulties, could count him as a best mate.

God has never promised us wealth and an easy life. In some ways, the floods of the past weeks, and these two recent deaths are seem almost designed to help us get our heads around that very fact. Jesus expressed his ministry through people, not through things. As he himself said, “foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head”. His disciples followed his example, travelling continuously around the known world, unshackled by a mortgage, or cart-loads of possessions. Sandals, a cloak, and a walking stick were as much as any of them required to set about the Lord’s work - among their communities.

And I guess most of us know that, deep down, we don’t need anything like all the things we have. I know that when Clare and Emily and I go on holiday in our caravan, we invariably end up commenting to each other just how few possessions we need to be very content...for a few weeks at least!

So what does all this mean for us? I guess it means each of us taking a long hard look at where we place our sense of security. It is, for example, very sad when someone tells me that they don’t have time to enter into the life of the church because they have too large a garden, or house, ...and that it takes all their time to look after it. It is equally sad when parents I know spend every waking hour at work, in order to provide a large house and garden for their family - and which they only get to enjoy together for maybe one day a week.

Instead I find that I want to say to them...Stop! Don’t be the fool that Jesus spoke about in this very parable. Your security should lie in the love your share with your family, not the number of bedrooms your family has, or the size of their garden. Your security should lie in the relationship you have with God, and the rest of the community, not the relationship you have with your mortgage company or bank manager. Jesus’ words ring with clarity down over the centuries…”You Fool! This very night your life may be demanded of you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself? This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God.”

Let’s pray:
Heavenly Father - we confess that sometimes we struggle to get the balance right between the things we are, and the things we own. Help us, Father, to get the balance right. Teach us to put our security in you, and not in the transient stuff of life. Help us to lead new lives that follow your example, and live your way. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Babel - and the real problem of Globalisation

There is something, I suspect, in most of us that is uneasy about the process of globalisation. Of course we recognise many of the benefits it brings - such as the ease of movement around the globe (if, of course, you hold the right sort of passport), improved communications, and the inability of despotic regimes to do their evil work without being noticed. Being part of a global community helps us to celebrate with 'hands across the sea' such events as this week's celebrations of 100 years of the Scouting Movement (whose local celebration I shall be attending in about an hour's time, here in Emsworth).
But with these positive aspects come many dangers. Anti-globalisation campaigners point out to us the problems of a 'McWorld' in which different cultures are watered down by the all pervasive power of the dollar, and in which poor people can quickly become wage-slaves to wealthy international corporations.

But according to Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, those are not the real problems of globalisation. In his profound and fascinating book 'The Dignity of Difference', Sacks outlines traditional philosophical views of the nature of humanity - beginning with Plato... and then compares them with the Hebrew Bible's (a.k.a. the 'Old Testament') wisdom on the subject.

According to Sacks, Plato (and all the western philosophers who followed him) sought to find universal truths about the nature of Man. Philosophy, he argues, "focuses on what we have in common: rationality (Kant), emotion (Hume), or our desire for pleasure and aversion to pain (Bentham)." (Sacks, 2002, page 56).

Against this universalism of western philosophical thought comes the striking realisation that the Bible resists such ideas. Instead, the Bible celebrates difference. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the story of the Tower of Babel - an illustration of which adorns the cover of Sack's book. "The men on the plain at Shinar make a technological discovery. They learn how to make bricks by drying clay. As after so many other technological advances, they immediately conclude that they now have the power of gods. They are no longer subject to nature. They have become its masters. They will storm the heavens" Like so many civilisations which came after it, the builders of Babel "attempt to impose an artificial unity on divinely created diversity" (Sacks p.52).

As an ancient Jewish teaching puts it: "When a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they all come out the same. God also makes every person in the same image - His image - and each is different." (Sacks p.60)

Plato sought the universality of the perfect mathematical form, the archetype of all things...the perfect bird, the perfect leaf, the perfect political state (hence his book "The Republic"). But God creates 250,000 different types of leaves, and 9,000 different types of bird. He revels in diversity. As a Christian I would add to Sack's essentially Jewish thought that God himself reveals himself as diversity incarnate, in the form of the Trinity.

So the real problem of globalisation is that it assumes that there will be one way, one path, to world peace and world prosperity. By forcing the whole planet into an essential American/British understanding of the way things should be done (the 'McWorld' as Benjamin Barber has called it). Such a project utterly fails to build on humanity's greatest strength - the sheer wonder and potential of a diverse population.

Sadly - there is not space here to say more. I do, however, heartily recommend Sack's book for anyone who wants to think deeper about these things.