Blog Archives

Sermon: Is Wealth Meaningless?

Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:12

Peter was known as a bit of a lad in the office where I used to work. But one day, his world was turned upside-down. His girlfriend became a Christian. She joined a local evangelical church, and invited him to the Sunday night youth group.

Knowing I was a Christian, he talked to me about the experience on the Monday morning.

“I just don’t get it,” he said. “I thought you Christians were not supposed to be worried about wealth and possessions. But we went to the home of the old boy who ran the group, and he kept going on and on about how much he loved his expensive new three-piece suite. How do you square that with Christianity?”

You can’t, can you?

Peter had a point. And maybe behind it for me is a thought that we as Christians have more of a problem with wealth and materialism than we like to admit.

And so in a week when our time in Ecclesiastes brings us to this trenchant passage about money, I think we need to consider the subject. Is it possible that we are not as distinctive from the world as we might be? Is it even possible that rather than hearing the biblical admonition not to love the world, we are more like spiritual chameleons, adopting the local colour with ease?

Make no mistake: we cannot dismiss this as just some stereotyping of Surrey residents. The statistics support it. Measured by property prices, we live in the wealthiest county in the UK. We have the second highest ratio of multimillionaires, beaten only by the concentration of Premier League footballers in Greater Manchester. I can assure you that my children have noticed it. They ask me why their school friends have multiple foreign holidays every year, while we always stay in the UK. I’m not complaining about being on a stipend, which technically is a living allowance and not a salary – I knew what I was letting myself in for. (Although I confess I’m touched when Mark observes that ministers do one of the most important jobs in the world, so they should be highly paid!) I just want you to know how obvious it is.

And if we do merge in with the local background, then consider this: I think I have told you before that in my first few weeks here, one of my colleagues raised this question: ‘Is the Gospel against Surrey?’ Does the Gospel stand against the values espoused by so many people in this wealthy county?

I would have thought it does. I am aware that there are a number of people in our congregation on very limited, fixed incomes, and if that is you, I promise you I do not have you in mind. I also know that there are people here on considerable incomes, who are also generous. I am privy to some wonderful stories of generosity in this congregation. But generally it is always a danger for Christians that we accommodate to the culture. Partly that may be out of a desire to be accepted, but it is also partly because we find that culture attractive anyway.

So do we need to hear the force of the Preacher’s words in this passage, that wealth is meaningless? Hear chapter 5, verse 10 again:

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.

One of the extremely rich members of a past generation – and I confess I can’t remember whether this was Rothschild or Rockefeller – was once asked, ‘How much money is enough?’ He replied, ‘Always just a little bit more than you already have.’

Furthermore, increased wealth is to some extent an inbuilt factor in Christian conversion. John Wesley noticed the phenomenon called ‘redemption and lift’. Finding Christ led to a reduced spending on bad habits, making for more disposable income. Not only that, imbibing Christian values of hard work led people to earn more money. Put these effects together and conversion helped people financially. Indeed, as Wesley’s own fame increased and he sold more books and pamphlets, he noticed that his own annual income rose from £30 (remember we’re talking about the eighteenth century!) to £120. However, he calculated that throughout those years he only needed £28 on which to live, and therefore he gave away any income he had over that amount.

I shall come a little later to some of the thoughts about how we might handle the financial blessings many of us have, but that was Wesley’s approach.

All around us we find the trappings and the temptations of wealth. I am fast thinking that there is a local catchphrase. I have heard it so often in this village: ‘You should go private.’ Whether we’re talking healthcare or education, there seems to be a local assumption for many: you should go private. More than one person who knows we have a very bright son has told us we should send him to the Royal Grammar School at Guildford. If we’re lucky, they have a second thought along the lines of ‘Oh, I suppose you can’t afford that.’ There can be occasions when there is no alternative but to take the private route, but around Knaphill I find many people who treat that option as an easy default.

All this happens in a world where at Addlestone we host one of the three hundred food banks in this country, where our denomination has contributed to the ecumenical report by the Joint Public Issues Team called ‘Truth and Lies about Poverty’, which forcefully exposes the demonisation of the poor in our society. In the USA, a film has just been released called ‘A Place at the Table’, which documents the fact that 49 million people in that nation including one in four children – don’t know where their next meal is coming from. How appropriate is it for us to drink in Surrey values, especially in the light of this, let alone what is happening elsewhere in the world?

Some people deal with this by downsizing and simplifying their lives. A dear friend of mine quit as a director of his company, and he and his wife moved to a hamlet in the West Country, where they got involved in the local community in various ways. However, that approach isn’t possible for everybody. For some Christians to do that would involve denying the position of responsibility they have been given at work, and their sense of calling to it.

How, then, might Christians respond and live distinctively within a culture that ignores God and worships Mammon instead? I would commend a passage such as 1 Timothy 6 as a great antidote to the perils of caving in to our culture. In the face of people who have wandered from the faith into deep distress due to their love of money (verse 10) he urges ‘godliness with contentment’ (verse 6). He then commands the rich to be generous, while at the same time remembering that God provides us with everything for our enjoyment (verse 17).

So what kind of Christian lifestyle might we pursue if we were content with the basics God gives us? It will look different for each of us – there is no uniform response – so if you are looking for a very simple ‘We should all just tithe’ sermon, I’m sorry. But let me offer the following thoughts.

I said earlier that I am paid a stipend, not a salary, and that the key difference is this: theoretically, a salary is ‘the rate for the job’ (or, perhaps, simply the result of a power struggle in bargaining between employer and employees). A stipend is a living allowance. It is meant to be enough so as not to be in want, and to free me to concentrate on my calling without the need to spend a lot of time elsewhere, supplementing my income. Now while that is a rather idealistic description and the reality can be somewhat harder, let me ask this: what if we as Christians prayerfully determined what would be a reasonable level of income for ourselves (including savings) and gave money away that would otherwise take us above that standard of living?

You could say I am suggesting something that is a variation on Wesley’s approach. You’ll remember I said that he continued to live on £28 a year, whether his income was £30 or £120. His motto was ‘Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.’ Is that an approach that commends itself to us?

I said also this wouldn’t be a simple ‘We should all tithe’ response, but tithing needs a mention. The tithes of the Old Testament were rather more complicated than some people like to make out, and the simplified version that is often preached – ‘Give ten per cent of your income to the church’ – doesn’t do that justice and also puts a disproportionate burden on the poor and lets the rich off lightly. However, back in the late 1970s, the American Christian social activist Ronald Sider suggested a variation that tried to address this problem. He called for Christians to adopt the principle of what he called the ‘graduated tithe’. People started out at a base level of giving a certain percentage of their income – say, the ten per cent. However, as their income increased, not only would their giving increase pro rata, they would also increase the percentage of their income that they gave away to the church and to the poor. Alongside that, he proposed other lifestyle decisions, like only buying a new suit no more frequently than every three years. If you want to read more about his ideas, pick up his book ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.’

Let me commend another practice to you. I believe this won’t be entirely new to some of you. I call it the ‘Bob and Kay Fund.’ Bob and Kay were a couple – both now sadly deceased – who were great friends with my parents. Bob had been an executive in the advertising industry but quit that to be the publicity and appeals director of the Shaftesbury Society. I know of at least one occasion when Bob and Kay were generous to my parents in difficult times. When pressed about it, they said they kept a special fund into which they put money, in additional to their regular giving to their church. They then used that sporadically to meet specific needs they came across. Is that something you could do, perhaps administering it out of a separate bank account?

What about our homes? I have heard it said that many people in this area are ‘asset rich but cash poor.’ Hospitality is one of the sadly unsung spiritual gifts in Scripture. Are there ways in which you could be more hospitable, and not just to your close friends?

Whatever giving you do, I recommend this question: am I doing this as a sign of my desire to build for the kingdom of God, and to play an active part in the kingdom community, that is, the church? Or am I just putting something in that I regard in a similar way to the subs I pay to the golf club, the tennis club or the fitness centre?

A final story: Martin Smith was the lead vocalist of the Christian rock band Delirious? Even if you don’t follow Christian rock, you may well know some of their songs, such as ‘I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.’ They sold huge numbers of CDs – at least, by the standards of the religious scene. Also gaining royalties as the main songwriter, Smith earned a very comfortable living. The band toured the world and occasionally made the pop charts.

It was on a visit to India, though, that Smith had his heart broken by meeting a young girl through an outreach to prostitutes and their children. He realised that these girls witnessed things they should never see, and would almost certainly soon end up in prostitution themselves. As a father himself, this distressed him hugely. He and the band set out to support Christian outreaches to them and their mothers.

But at a later date, he realised that he needed to build his own recording studio. He then had an attack of conscience. Could he really do this when the need in India was so great? The money he planned to spend on the studio would fund ten workers with the Indian poor. What should he do?

He built the recording studio. It was central to his calling to make music to promote Jesus Christ, and therefore he concluded it wasn’t greedy to do so.[1] Hence that’s my last point: in the use of your wealth, consider God’s calling on your life.

How, then, will you and I determine to use our resources in a way that makes our wealth meaningful rather than meaningless?

Silence And Darkness

The last of the Tenebrae candles is extinguished, as I suffocate its fire with the snuffer. Peter has denied Jesus. The congregation sits in near-perfect darkness, observing the silence they read about in their orders of service before the light of the final candle died. I have a little assistance as I oversee the service: I have brought the reading light I bought for my Kindle and attached it to the lectern. Together, we enter the dark silence of God. Or should that be the silent darkness of God? Perhaps it is both.

I resurrect the candle flame, and we are to continue sitting in silence. However, the presence of light makes that silence more difficult. People shuffle. I become more aware of the cramp in my toes, and wish I could take my shoe off to put my foot on the cold stone floor. “Could you not wait?” said Jesus.

We leave in silence. The clearing-up is done in a quiet not usually experienced.

This morning, we gather at Holy Trinity church to begin our silent walk of witness to St Hugh’s for our united service. On a cool, bright morning we prepare to remember darkness. As we pass by the Chinese takeaway, the children of the owners are sitting in the window, munching prawn crackers and watching us with innocent puzzlement. Our cross is large, and only tall, strong men are able to carry it. We walk in silence, surely in contrast to the crowds who witnessed Jesus carrying his cross beam. It was a public holiday then, and it is today. But not for us the usual jollity. Instead, we are solemn.

The quiet, slow pace cannot continue for me, though, as I have no time to attend the united service in Knaphill. Instead, I walk home, unlock the car and drive to Addlestone for their united service. Before I engage clutch and gear lever, I check my mileage: it may be the holiest day of the year, but it is also the first day of a new tax year and I have to enter in my records how many miles I have driven in the last twelve months. Even on Good Friday, I am not in a bubble that insulates me from the usual world.

As Richard leads the service, we are invited to write on paper crosses those things we would like to bring to the foot of Christ’s Cross. While singing the Taizé chant ‘Jesus, remember me’, we do just that. I name some fears and feel some peace in placing them at the Cross.
Richard asks us to leave the service in silence. If we want to talk, we can do so over hot liquid caffeine in the vestibule. Except the silence is broken by an announcement that the teas and coffees must be brought into the worship area, because outside the staff of the Addlestone Food Bank are preparing to serve those in need. Noise and chatter, yes, and no silence – but it seems like a fitting response to the ministry of the Cross, as does my conversation with a colleague from another church about the hosting of an Alpha course.

The rushing from Knaphill to Addlestone has seemed so inappropriate for reflection. It is only now I have got back that I can home in on the value of the silence and the darkness. Today and tomorrow, as I remember Jesus lying in the tomb, I can prepare for a different kind of rushing on Sunday. In three morning services, I shall be facilitating joy. I have to link the two. Today is not merely about despair, and Easter Day is more than the happy ending. They belong together. The silence and darkness of betrayal and death, with the noise and light of an empty tomb.

Methodists Working With New Frontiers

When I was training for the ministry, I remember bridling in one lecture at the assertion that when we chaired meetings, we had to stay neutral. Weren’t we there to give a lead? But rules of meetings took precedence over leadership, apparently.

I found myself in this position last week. I had to chair a complex discussion at my Addlestone church about some proposals to develop our relationship with the local New Frontiers congregation, Beacon Church.  They had recently taken over from some Salvation Army people the running of a toy library that hires our hall. They also wanted to run their debt counselling service from our hall, and they suggested starting a post-Alpha course Bible study group on our premises.

This situation would be a problem for some Methodists. While Methodism and New Frontiers agree on core gospel issues,  there are some areas of Christian belief where we are at opposite ends of the spectrum. We are Arminian, New Frontiers have big Calvinist influences. We are egalitarian when it comes to gender relationships, they are complementarian. My friend Dave Warnock regularly documents these differences, especially the latter one, with some passion.

But despite the potential pitfalls, the story of last week (and the negotiations leading up to our Church Council) is one of grace on both sides. There had been a gap of several months between the old toy library finishing and it restarting, but during that time the rent to us had mistakenly still been paid. There were errors on both sides, and the new manager suggested that each party took a 50% hit. Our Church Council would have none of it. It decided to refund 100% of the overpayment, and calculated there had been a further overpayment which it wished to give back. We knew that although we were not rolling in money, the toy library needed not to be short of funds.

As to the debt counselling, my small and to some extent quite elderly congregation rejoiced that our friends wanted to use our premises. (Beacon don’t have any of their own, and we are located in a prime position in the town.) So yes, have the church hall free of charge for an experimental three-month period. Don’t start until you’ve publicised it properly, but this is a serious social need and if we were younger and fitter it is what we would have wanted to have done. If you can do it on our premises, then God bless you.

And the Bible study? We’re not there yet, because the exact proposals are not firm yet. However, Tom, the senior pastor, has assured us that he will run any study material past us first to ensure we are happy doctrinally with it, and is only too happy if the Methodist deacon and I participate in the group.

Neither side has changed its core convictions. If we debated them, neither of us would convince the other. We would both passionately cling onto what we believe, and to why we think the other party’s views are seriously wrong. However, grace and love can make a way. I hope that is what will continue to characterise the relationship, and will make for a positive witness to the community.

So I was sitting in that meeting straining at the requirement to be neutral. It had some advantages: it made me ensure I was as scrupulously fair as possible to all sides of the debate. But inside? I rejoiced when the Church Council voted as it did.

Being a good (neutral) Christian, though, I had to  be sure I didn’t smile.

Does God Play Jazz?

I don’t know whether he does, but we had jazz in church this week. My little church at Addlestone is used to hosting concerts in the annual Addlestone Arts Festival, but on Wednesday night we not only hosted a concert, we organised it as well – complete with a pre-gig supper for anyone who also booked that.

One of our church members, Phil Brown, is a jazz trombonist, who leads a band called the Phil Brown Swingtet. Jazz musicians don’t always feel comfortable in church, but we were glad to have Phil and his crew with us. Footage I shot with our Flip Mino can be found below.

I was asked to introduce the band with a short talk. I didn’t want to sermonise (and besides, I’m speaking on Sunday night at the thanksgiving service at the end of the festival – text to follow in the next day or so). That meant doing some research.

Firstly, I found a piece by a Christian jazz musician called David Arivett. He quotes some of the prejudice launched against jazzers. From the Women’s Home Journal of 1921 comes this tirade called ‘Does Jazz Put The Sin In Syncopation?’:

“Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality. That it has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.”

And – perhaps even more worryingly because it comes from as recently as 2007 on an extreme fundamentalist website:

“Like the blues, boogie-woogie, and ragtime, jazz was born in the unwholesome and sensual environment of sleazy bars, honkytonks, juke joints, and whorehouses. The very name “jazz” refers to immorality.” This website goes on to list just about every negative quote on jazz that has ever been written and their main purpose for posting this is to “provide information to assist preachers in the protection of the churches in this apostate hour”!!!! Are you shocked yet? Read on, “the world’s music, in any era, has never enhanced the Lord’s message. The devil was not able to be as blatant in the jazz era as he is in the rock generation, but the same raunchy fellow is behind both styles. Both mediums represent classic worldliness.”

Worse is the thoughtless criticism that he quotes British Christian jazzer Mike Brett as having received:

“I feel that in many Christian’s minds Jazz is a dirty word, so I think for many years now it is music that has been ignored in the church. I have been taken to task for playing jazz as a Christian, the reason given is because of the unsavory and sinful places it has come from in past years. I have been told to get away from it and ‘Touch not the unclean thing.’ Yet the same people who have told me this might have an interest in things like photography which could be used for much more unsavory and sinful purposes like pornography…”

(Oh, and I cite that as one who enjoys photography.)

Well, yes, I know many jazzers have lived deeply broken lives. I recall the line in Steely Dan‘s song ‘Parker’s Band’ (about hearing Charlie Parker):

We will spend a dizzy weekend, smacked into a trance

However, Arivett develops some thoughts about a spirituality of being fully, physically alive that enables us to see things rather differently from these blinkered comments.

Elsewhere, in a sermon I found by Michael P Brown from Canada, we have an argument from history that effectively the roots of jazz are in the church. He refers to two groups of people that moved continent to the USA. One group willingly did so: they were Gaelic-speaking Scots, who brought with them their Presbyterian tradition of ‘line Psalm singing’. One person would sing a line of a Psalm, and others would respond and improvise.

These Scots, to their shame, were slave owners, and that is where the second people group comes in: Ghanaians, who were forcibly transported from their homeland to be slaves to the Scots in North and South Carolina. When the Scottish slave owners took their Ghanaian slaves to church, the Africans heard this call-and-response-plus-improvisation style of singing. They added their own rhythms. Out of that came spirituals, gospel music and eventually jazz.

So we took jazz back to its church roots on Wednesday night (without the slavery, of course). Ladies and gentlemen, will you please welcome the Phil Brown Swingtet:

Methodist-Catholic Relations

Richard Hall nails it: in a week when the Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool’s hospitality to hold Methodist ordinations has been spiked by a word from the Vatican, Richard writes:

My experience for a long time has been that the Methodist and Catholic communities get along very well together ‘on the ground’. We’ve come a long way from the “catholics are the anti-Christ” attitude that was very present during my upbringing …

Sadly, the powers that be in the Catholic Church just don’t seem to get it. They seem content to turn a blind eye to local co-operation as long as no one makes too much fuss about it, but they remain committed to a worldview which sees their church as the repository of truth with the rest of us being second class Christians at best.

His summary chimes with my experience. My best man (and best friend since the age of seven) is a Catholic. In my ministry, I have almost always got on well with the Catholic priests in the localities. But at ‘top’ level, we’re still in the Dark Ages. In fact, you get the impression they wish the Second Vatican Council had never happened.

Some of it does filter down to ordinary Catholics, sadly. Go to the Catholic Herald report on this story and you will find some utterly spiteful remarks from lay Catholics in the ‘comments’ section. Go to one of the Catholic blogs that first protested the original invitation and you will see commenters saying things like this:

It reminds me of the Imam preaching in Westminster Cathedral, or ++Vincent Nichols laying flowers on a heather altar in Willesden, or the idol on the Catholic altar at Asissi.

And that from a man who describes himself as a ‘Former teacher, banker, teacher, investment consultant, project worker in London homelessness charity’. The clear implication is that this educated man still thinks that all non-Catholics are non-Christians.

I am glad I shared a Good Friday walk of witness this year with very different Catholics. But the bad old days are clearly still alive and kicking like a mule in other places. No wonder Richard says he thinks ‘that the ecumenical movement is well and truly stuck’. I guess we’ll just have to remain subversive at the grass-roots level, and support those of our Catholic sisters and brothers who quietly have to ignore or defy these oppressive policies.

How I contrast this with the meeting I had in Addlestone this last week, where representatives of our small and largely elderly Methodist congregation considered overtures from our local New Frontiers church to use our hall for reaching out to people in debt and for running a post-Alpha Course Bible study. We don’t agree on all matters, but the spirit of the meeting was about co-operation in the Gospel. And the more of that there is, the better.

I’m sorry if some of this sounds angry, but the arch-traditionalist Catholics need to understand what their attitudes are doing to other people who also follow Jesus Christ. And that’s a serious matter.

Good Friday Experiences

I began Good Friday today with a united walk of witness here in Knaphill. Beginning at the Catholic church, we walked to the King’s House Coffee Shop, then to the Methodist premises, followed by the Baptist church, and finally to Holy Trinity C of E. At each stop someone read a portion of the Passion story. Different people volunteered to carry the big cross on each leg of the journey.

Most moving for me was the final leg, when a man with learning difficulties asked to carry the cross. Nothing like as physically big as his predecessors in the task, he struggled in places and had to be helped by two other men. It was a small glimpse of Jesus falling down and needing help from Simon of Cyrene.

As the one co-ordinating the walk, I found myself at each stop standing on one side of the person with the cross, while on the other side was the reader for that particular episode from the story. In a tiny way, it was like being one of the two thieves either side of Jesus.

In these two ways, I found myself entering into the Passion story in new and unexpected ways this year. The sadness was in having to leave the following united service at Holy Trinity fifteen minutes in to get to the tail end of a united service at my other church, Addlestone Methodist. I arrived at that, just as they were singing the closing hymn. Having to flit between the two communities felt like it undermined a sense of belonging. Can you belong in more than one community at once? If missional Christianity includes earthing ourselves in a particular place by incarnational ministry, does this militate against it?

I wasn’t the only minister facing this issue: the Methodist deacon left at the end of the service to go to his other church, and two of the New Frontiers church leaders came over from Chertsey, where they used to be based and still share with other Christians.

Unlike in Knaphill, there had been no united walk of witness in Addlestone. Some of the people in Addlestone said how much they missed it. A discussion on why we think the procession of witness on Good Friday is important would be interesting. As I’ve said, it hit home for me today in unexpected ways. On other occasions, I’ve watched passers-by as Christians walk behind a cross on this day of the year, and wondered whether they felt we were doing it as a reproach against them. I don’t suppose most Christians do have that attitude, but I’m curious to know how it’s perceived, if at all. A judgement? An anachronism? Other reactions?

In contrast, my wife and children didn’t come with me on any of these events or services. They needed something more child-friendly. Happily, the nearby church of Holy Trinity, West End Village had a suitable act of worship for children for Good Friday. Too often we are so caught up with the solemnity of the day that we exclude children by the tone of what we offer. Holy Trinity West End knew better. They provided a service called ‘Paradox’. It included two songs, a very short talk by the Rector, and plenty of crafts. Rebekah had her photo taken with her cross on which she had chosen to write, ‘Jesus died for me.’ If Christ died for all creation, then he died for the children – don’t we owe it to them also to find a way of including them in on this most holy of days? I’m glad Holy Trinity did.

I’ll be interested to know your thoughts on our experiences. But I’ll stop typing there and go back to finishing preparations for Easter Day.