I was preaching this morning, and it was all so nearly so good. We had a grandfather baptising his granddaughter, a collect about how we are all children of God through adoption, which warms my heart as the father of an adopted boy, whose birthday it was on Friday, and if the Gospel began just a few verses earlier, we would have had the complete set – a Gospel about Jesus saying “let the children come to me, for such is the kingdom of heaven”. Instead, I had to preach to the good people of Morningside, renowned as being the wealthiest part of Edinburgh, about howit is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
We want this story to say something different, less demanding. The story, perhaps of the comfortably well off young Episcopalian. Jesus says to him “give everything you have to the poor, then come follow me”. And the young Episcopalian says unto him, “But Lord, when you say give everything to the poor, surely the poor wont’ appreciate my vintage forty year old single malt?” And the Lord said, “oh I’m sorry my love, I forgot you were an Anglican. Try giving up sherry before Sunday lunch and let’s go from there.”
This is an uncompromising story, It’s a tough story, but it’s a story for our time, and it’s a good news story, and we mustn’t let any sense of guilt about being well off blind us to that.
There’s no denying this is a story which, as the relatively well off west, should give us significant pause for thought. Did Jesus want us to give away everything we have? The answer is probably yes. Does that make me a hypocrite for living in a really very nice house and within reason having almost everything I want? Well, very possibly, and that’s why we should take this story seriously. Just because we find it impossible to do what we think Jesus is asking us to do, doesn’t mean we should pretend that he isn’t asking us in the first place.
And I’m afraid I can’t do this one. I get a lot of spiritual enrichment from my possessions, my books and CDs. There is no way I’m going to make my wife and son homeless. I find this Gospel very difficult, very uncompromising. And I sympathise with the rich young man.
This is a story about wealth, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s is not simplistic – being poor doesn’t make you intrinsically good, and being rich doesn’t automatically make you bad. But being rich means you have far more opportunity to do either good or bad. The wealthier you are, the more moral decisions there are to make.
This story is certainly about money, but it is about more than that. It is about how we are to live as people of “good news”. It is about being free to be joyful, it is about God’s abundance, and about not being trapped by our worries about not having enough.
It’s interesting that Jesus says not just “give all your money away” but “give all you have to the poor”. The rich young man in this story, would have known the poor in his town, probably by name and by family. The widows, the elderly, the orphans, the childless, those who sat at his gate daily, begging for food. Even the able bodied who could work but had no work and no land. We know from other stories of Jesus that people hired casual labourers on a need basis. Times were good for everyone during harvest, but there was no responsibility to the workers at leaner harder times.
But of course the richer you were, the further removed you were from poor people. You had a steward to manage the farm, and to manage the labourers who were begging for work, and the poor who were asking to glean the fields. You might have had a house in the City, where the poor were nameless and unconnected to you. And as we all know the further removed we are from people, the harder it is to be compassionate. And that is I think a lesson for our time. We are far removed from those who make our clothes and gadgets and toys and food.
I love bargains, I love finding things cheaply, but often that comes at the expense of those who have made those things. You can buy a suit in Tesco for £25. It is impossible that the people who made that suit are being paid what we would regard as a reasonable wage. We don’t see it because unlike the rich young man, we don’t know their names and so it’s harder to be compassionate.
So one lesson from this story is that if we are wealthy, we have to work harder than others, we have to be more compassionate, we have to be global in our love for others.
And at the moment’s that’s difficult, because everyone is anxious. There’s a global economic downturn. Banks aren’t lending because they’re afraid of making less profit, the environment seems to have gone out of the window as an issue, because the whole world is covered in a tightening grip of anxiety. And that’s the real problem of having lots of possessions, that’s why the young man went away grieving, that’s the real tragedy of his condition. He was trapped by his wealth
The more we have, the more anxious we are about the possibility of having less. And it is anxiety I think which is the root of this story, the anxiety which wealth produces.
Churches often get locked into this Gospel of anxiety, of privation, where churches are struggling, attendance declining, standards slipping, futures bleak. And what happens when churches buy into that anxiety, is that that they do what the rich young man did. They grieve, and they walk away, and they retrench. Churches become embattled and sometimes embittered, a holy huddle who resents that other people are not there keeping the place financially afloat. This sort of anxiety, although money is not always the root cause, is the same sort of anxiety we have at the idea of having less. And that is not what a church is for. A church is for spreading good news.
When we welcome a child into our church, we aren’t welcoming them into a church which is anxious for the future, or guilty about the wealth we have. It is not our purpose to hand on a burden of worry, or feeling sidelined, or worrying about money. Neither should we hand over an inheritance of guilt at us having so much, and giving as a way of offsetting that guilt. If we are going to live up to the promises we make in batism, we must spread good news, not anxiety.
In our Christian story there are plenty of examples of rich young men who did give away all they had. People like St Benedict and St Francis, whose lives were rich, lives which they abandoned. But the amazing thing about them, is that they were not full of worry about tomorrow, they were full of joy in their new, poor life. Do you ever wonder how they did it, led lives of owning nothing, having no comfort, were near starvation, and yet were full of joy?
Well I’m tempted to say they did it by hanging onto their vintage single malt. But the reality is that they didn’t see their lives in terms of what they didn’t’ have. They didn’t have a Gospel of privation or worry. The saw their lives in terms of what they had, which was the love of God and a beautiful and abundant world. They saw the world in terms of blessing and beauty, they preached a Gospel of God’s incredible abundance.
When people think like that, the church grows, and people are given hope, and the world becomes a better place. When we think like that, the church, the world becomes a place of joy, not worry. When we stop worrying about the future and see the blessedness of the present, then we realise the world is not the frightening place what we thought it was. Our lives are not what we think they are. We lead blessed lives, and sometimes when we are poor enough, either in money or in spirit, to need the help of others, then we realise how surrounded by kindness and love we truly are.
Churches are places of blessing. I am proud to welcome a child into this church because it is my privilege to see just how generous this church is. Churches get a terribly bad press, but I know from my work in it, that people in church will give everything they possibly can, in terms of time and effort and money and resources, for the welfare of those not only they know and love, but those they will never meet and who will never say thank you. They give not according to the amount of thanks but out of sheer goodness. Churches are often very quiet about it, but they are places of reckless generosity. That is the reality of the world that God gives us, that world of abundance, of blessing.
The monks and nuns of old, they prospered and grew, because they had to give everything away. The bought up land, because they kept earning money which they had to do something with, and so the folk who worked for wealthy landowners worked instead for the monasteries, and they received healthcare, some education, and far more feast days, days off. And of course those institutions became corrupt, but when they were at their best, they were places of blessing for everyone because those who had the power to make their own lives better at the expense of others chose not to, because their lives were blessed enough.
We don’t need to try and thread ourselves through the eye of a needle. Because we have enough. And it is our job, our duty and our joy, to go into this anxious fretfulll world, and tell them that good news – say to people, to rich people to the well off, that it will be alright. That there is something richer than worrying about money. That all will be well, and that all manner of things will be well. And if we can share that news, in the rich and anxious west, well then I truly believe that all of God’s children might be fed.