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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?

Jack Rutter

On Saturday, I had  the privilege of conducting a memorial service for a church member who had recently died. His professional significance was such that an obituary will be appearing in The Guardian, probably next week. This text will soon be cross-posted on our church site, along with the audio of this tribute.

Jack was born within the sound of Bow Bells to Arthur and Amy Rutter. He had three younger sisters, Frances, Cecily (who died in 1989) and Noel. He grew up in Worcester Park and then Guildford, where he attended the Royal Grammar School.

From the Royal Grammar he went to Imperial College to study Botany. He graduated in 1938 and then began PhD research. With the advent of the war, he was called into a reserved occupation, where he studied how to increase crop yield to reduce British dependency on imported food. Alongside this, he joined the Home Guard, where he learned how to make Molotov Cocktails.

During the War, he travelled across the country – difficult journeys that often meant cycling. On one occasion he was at a wedding in Bristol where he met Betsy Stone, a nurse from Bridgwater, who was working at Bristol General Hospital. He was the first of Betsy’s boyfriends to win her mother’s approval! They married in 1944, and had three children: Margaret, Bill and John.

Jack completed his PhD and began lecturing at Imperial. Later, as we know, he would become Professor of Botany, until his retirement in 1979. His research centred on the hydrology of the Scots Pine, and his work would carry him from Forestry Commission land in this country to Rhodesia (as it was) and the island of Aldabra, 250 miles north of Madagascar. He also went on an academic exchange to Pakistan, and was able to take the family with him. While he was there, he had dysentery, only to be cured when a colleague made a goat stew and fed it to him. He and the family also explored up the Khyber Pass to the border with Afghanistan, where they met some ‘interesting’ tribesmen with guns.

He gave an illustrated talk about his work on Aldabra to a women’s meeting here at the church. His knowledge of Botany also meant giving advice to the Queen on her gardens. Then more humbly he ran a garden stall at the church bazaar, assisted by Helen Baker and Robb Peters. He also contributed a Christmas tree to the church for many years, once digging up one from Pauline and Jim Holden’s garden in Mayford. He helped Christine with the cultivation of a Mahonia plant that still flourishes as a bush in her garden. She is offering cuttings from it to anyone who would like one in Jack’s memory.

Back home, the family lived in Brookwood and then in Knaphill, where their house had a one-acre garden. Jack mowed the grass, cut the hedges, took care of the thirty fruit trees and grew fruit and vegetables. Betsy produced the jam. Jack also made wine from the grapes on the vine. He was also a beekeeper and produced several jars of honey a year. Through Marilyn Meller’s involvement in the Guides, he tested the one Guide who was brave enough to take on the beekeeper’s badge.

For all Jack’s professional foreign travel, family holidays were generally taken in England, and usually in locations that offered opportunities for good walking and visiting cultural locations as well as the seaside. So places such as Pembrokeshire, North Wales, Northumberland and the Yorkshire Dales featured.

Betsy was a nurse, and worked with Pauline Holden at the Health Visitors’ Clinic at Pirbright Village Hall. When she became terminally ill, she was under no illusions about what would happen and set about teaching Jack housekeeping and cookery.

Betsy died in 1978, the year before Jack retired, and in his retirement these skills became useful, not only for himself but for others. He cooked for others, and invited people to stay with him in his home. He cared for a teenage girl who had been thrown out of home by her father and stepmother. He fed two or three street people, who sometimes used to stay for two or three days. He took in someone who had had a breakdown, even though he hardly knew the person at the time. He also took over one particular concern of Betsy’s. She had always taken an interested in a lady in the village called Jean who had a son with special needs. The son went to live in a home and Betsy took her to visit him in Botley’s Park Hospital, Chertsey, every Sunday afternoon. When Betsy died, Jack took over these duties until both son and mother died about ten years ago.

Jack was extremely active in church life here. I have just noted his particular care for people, but there are some other incidents to mention. He was a class leader, as we sometimes call them in the Methodist Church, or pastoral visitor. One family he visited was Marilyn Meller’s. He visited her mother, Irene Elliot, in the farmhouse delivering the monthly magazine on a Thursday evening and would help her pack eggs into boxes ready for Marilyn’s egg round the next day. He would visit Marilyn and Tom at White Lodge after he had had his lunch, and talk about farming with them. he took an interest in their family, including their two daughters.

On other Thursdays he attended the Thursday evening fellowship group. Members of the group enjoyed sharing with him, and valued the contributions he made to the discussions. He could recite poetry and biblical passages.

Then there is the Spice Girls story. For those of you who don’t know, the Spice Girls recorded their earliest tracks in Knaphill. They used to have lunch breaks at the King’s House Coffee Shop, which is run by four of the churches in the village. A film was made of their early days, and a scene was recreated in the King’s House. Jack, who worked in there voluntarily, played the rôle of the waiter. He had to reel off a list of the available snacks – cheese sandwiches, ham rolls and so on. Finally, he had to deliver a line, the significance of which he did not understand:

“Tell me what you want, what you really, really want.”

He took an interest in the church youth club, often turning up on a Saturday evening to chat with everyone and make sure that the heating was working.

Indeed, the heating was but one aspect of the church property for which he cared, but the boiler room was the location where one day a fairy godmother left him a bottle of his favourite Guinness. He also made a new wooden gate for the car park and put in posts to hold up the fence around the church building.

However, not all Jack’s adventures with the church property went smoothly. Famously, he was one day climbing through the loft space to change some light bulbs when he accidentally put his foot through the ceiling. How he didn’t fall right down, nobody knows. Later, though, he made an almost invisible repair.

Then there was the time when he once covered the church cleaning for Helen Chamberlain while she was on holiday. During that period, he and Robb Peters decided to sand the church floor. They only did half, due to the sandstorm they created, which took twelve weeks to settle.

Finally on the subject of church work, as well as his pastoral and property duties, Jack was also for a period of time the church treasurer in an age before computerised accounts. He scrupulously kept a contingency fund for emergencies, decades before the Methodist Church required all local churches to formulate a reserves policy.

In the last few years before Betsy died, she and Jack holidayed in the Western Isles of Scotland. He continued to do this after they died, until he was about 90. He planned his routes, travelled light and walked long distances, befriending many B & B owners on his travels. He also continued to travel abroad, visiting relatives in Canada several times and attending a wedding in India.

In 1994, he could see that one day he would not be able to cope with the large garden in Knaphill, and moved to his bungalow in Goldsworth Park. He remained fit, active and independent until around the age of 90. That was when those close to him started to notice a change in his mental powers. He gave up driving a few months before reaching 92.

Jack leaves six grandchildren: They are: Margaret & Adrians’s children: Henry, Thomas and Emily;

Bill and Corrie’s son, Philip; and John and Esther’s children, Jennifer and Jack. He also leaves a great-grandson, Arthur, Henry and Cat’s son.

But he also leaves behind many more friends, and so many others whose lives he touched by his love and through his great gifts and talents. No longer for Jack the confusion of these last two or three years, but the peaceful sleep of rest, and the resurrection to come into a new, healed body in which he can continue to serve Jesus Christ.

And who knows what talents a resurrected Jack Rutter will have in God’s new creation?