Possessions, what is our priority?
and seeking justice.
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
12 August 2001
Second Bible Reading—Luke Chapter 12:32-40
"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him."(This is the word of the Lord—Thanks be to God)
The passage which we have had read to us today from Luke Chapter 12 follows on from those wonderful verses
"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labour or
spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like
one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is
here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he
clothe you, O you of little faith! Verse 27
In some ways they are therefore very significant because today we have unveiled for the first time in worship the new stained glass flower window at St Mark's Church given in memory of Barbara Leckie and Hugh Leckie by the family.
How sad it was a year last Christmas to loose Barbara and yet this window is something very special which encourages us in the midst even of tragedy to realise that there is no earthly danger which can separate us from the love of God. He who clothes even the flowers of the field cares deeply for us. The words 'consider the lilies how they grow' will I hope be an encouragement to generations of Christians to come.
Appropriate therefore also that we should be reminded of those words today at a time when Jacqueline our new minister has died a cruel death. Taken from us at a time when so many of us had so many hopes for the future of her ministry with us.
Of course the Bible Reading today is all about the fragility of our mortal life and the suddenness with which we can be confronted by the call of our Lord. Jesus spoke of how human life hangs by a thread, so much so that we must be
"dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning,
like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet'
If we believe that this earthly existence is all that there is. If we are convinced that there is no master who might call for us at any time, then we can live very different lives. However if we believe the words of Jesus then we must live by a different agenda. We must be accountable and prepared, the actions of our lives here on earth are not without consequence and neither is our death.
The reading today makes a very stark and persuasive observation and it is this
'We are deeply affected as people by the things that we concentrate upon.'
The result of this is that if we focus upon things which will perish then we will perish with them. Jesus the expert of the sound bite gives us this memorable one liner
"Wherever your treasure lies, there your heart will be" (Luke 12:34)
So our passage today asks us the question,
'is our heart centered on earthly possessions?'
If it is then it must instead become centered on God, in whom alone true power and security rest. Death does not end all and unless we sort ourselves out then our actions have lasting consequence.
I have struggled with this passage trying to make sense of it and make it work in today's world. It was much easier in some ways for the early church followers, they didn't have to find hundreds of pounds to pay bills with the regularity which you and I do. Ecclesiastical Insurance just sent me a bill for what is effectively nearly a whole months salary just to insure my car. We live in a very different world. So I want to try and answer the question of possessions from my own situation and you can work out your own as we go along.
So I ask myself what is my attitude towards possessions, do I love money more than I ought. I have a car, a house, I have financial investments, what am I to do about all this. Should we all go out tomorrow and cancel our endowments and ISAs, sell the house and the car.
Well actually no. If only it were all that simple. I do need a car to get about and I would be breaking the law if I failed to tax and insure it. I would be morally irresponsible if I failed to adequately service and MOT the vehicle. It is not First Century Palestine, we cannot all go out and get a donkey. So also I need somewhere to live and it is a very good things that people make provision for their families in buying a home. One of the problems of being a clergyman is that you live in a church house which is not your own and therefore you can easily fall into the trap of failing to provide adequately for the future. For many years clergy by virtue of their occupation have been denied access to one of the most important appreciating assets, that of residential housing.
Of course this has meant that clergy have ended up renting accommodation from the church in their retirement on a very modest pension. But now that money which was set aside for pensions has dried up. There are so many clergy and clergy widows drawing a pension that the church is in dire straits. There are now moves to change the clergy pension arrangements so that the pension liability of the church as an employer is reduced. I recently received a letter from the Church Commissioners advising me to invest as much as I can to try and help boost what is going to be a difficult financial future.
O dear, any young person who can afford to do so whether they are in the employment of the church or otherwise had better be responsible and start saving. To fail to do so is to abdicate responsibility, be lazy and expect someone else to look after you. If you are in work you need to make full use of those tax free ISAs and stock market investments.
The early disciples did not need pensions, most of them had been martyred within a few years. But we are probably going to live a lot longer and we have to responsible enough to make such provision as we can for ourselves.
Life today has so much changed from when Jesus spoke those words.
So are they useless today?
Have they just been made obsolete?
Well the answer of course is no. Like every passage of scripture which we read we have to ask what it said then and then try and re-apply it now, and some of the results may be quite challenging.
I am not a disembodied spirit, and I have a God-given right to certain possessions necessary for personal realisation and growth. Possessions form an integral part of life. As human beings we can be sanctified only in time and space and flesh.
Jesus stresses the need to avoid greed in all its forms. If we take scripture seriously and study it we find that Jesus was not against possessions or reward for our labour. I know that we are studying from verse 32 today, but if we look back to verse 15 of this chapter we are reminded of where Jesus real attentions lie. Listen to verse 15
Then he said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."
The Greek word used here means
"to be present in superfluity."
In other words the person has more than he or she needs. Jesus of all people affirms the right of every child of God right to have their basic needs fulfilled, while at the same time he pinpoints the negative, destructive notion of desiring more than we need.
If we look at Jesus we know that his ministry was well supported by wealthy women especially who gave of their money. Jesus often associated with the rich, felt quite comfortable to attend meals with wealthy businessmen and was not averse to expensive perfume being poured over him.
Even Zacchaeus when he repented for the money he stole, only returned half of the money!
The point which Jesus was constantly trying to make was that we must do everything we can to get our priorities right. Getting things in their right priority is the real key to happiness. The wise person does not grieve for the things which they do not have, Rather they rejoice in what they do have.
Let's try and see the big picture and it is this
The thrust of the gospels, indeed of the whole Bible, is consistently opposed to the accumulation of wealth. The rich farmer who builds bigger and bigger barns rather than give any of his money away was wrong. He had the wrong priority. By all means plant and sow and reap and harvest, but for God's do not have more than you need—Life is far more important than possessions.
This key insight is crystallised in the story of the rich young man, that self-righteous leader who rejoiced in strictly observing the commandments, but who was so involved with his wealth that he could not respond to Jesus' call to sell all and become a disciple. In this instance (Luke 18:24) we see that riches proved to be the great obstacle to responding positively to Jesus. The man could not "let go," could not see the shallowness, the transient hollowness of possessions. He succumbed to the subtle call of "things."
Jesus teaching on the poor
It is worth remembering that Jesus said ,
Blessed are you poor; the reign of God is yours" (Luke
These few words form the heart of Jesus' attitude and teaching. For while recognising and respecting people's existential need for material things, Jesus asserted that the "poor" manifest a deep hope and trust in God. Because they are acutely aware of their dependence and need, they are most gratefully receptive to the Kingdom. Throughout Luke it is usually the poor who readily receive, and trustingly respond to, Jesus' proclamation. The rich are smugly secure, resting in comfortable inertia -- self-reliant, self-sufficient, self-satisfied. Their "possessions" present an ever-present obstacle to their spiritual growth. Jesus knows that a lack of material possessions, a being "poor," facilitates a wholehearted response to God's gift of mercy and love.
It was said of a self-centered young lady,
"Edith lived in a little world, bounded on the north, south, east and west by Edith."
Our attitude towards our money and our possessions betrays an inner spirit of heart, that is what is so important. John Wesley's rule of life was to save all he could and give all he could. When he was at Oxford he had an income of 30 pounds a year. He lived on 28 pounds and gave 2 pounds away. When his income increased to 60 pounds, 90 pounds, 120 pounds a year, he still lived on 28 pounds and gave the balance away. The Accountant-General for Household Plate demanded a return from him. His reply was,
"I have two silver tea spoons at London and two at Bristol.
This is all the plate which I have at present; and I shall not buy any more,
while so many around me want bread."
Edith on the other hand would have always wanted to give and do less for others as she gained more, because her concern was for herself. Despite having a surplus of goods the one thing that would never enter her would be to give any away. Her whole attitude was the very reverse of Christianity. Instead of denying herself she would aggressively affirm herself: instead of finding his happiness in giving she would try to conserve it by keeping. The result would have been that Edith would be a wretched and miserable human being, because our real wealth is measured in direct proportion of what we do for others.
The Romans had a proverb which said that:
'money was like sea-water; the more a man drank the thirstier he became'.
And so, to have the attitude always to get more, is the reverse of the Christian way. Dependence on the goodness of God is the only thing that will prevent us from a false dependence on material, created goods. Possessions in themselves are neither inherently good or bad; it is the choices that one makes concerning them that determines their significance.
Our actions on behalf of the poor and justice.
So here you are, as a result of the sermon today you perhaps feel more comfortable in your understanding of Jesus teaching about wealth
- Perhaps you will recognise that your pension arrangements are not contrary to Jesus teaching
- You might even be reassured if your house is worth more than you paid for it, it was a wise use of your talents such as Jesus would have approved of.
- You can try and ensure that your possession of material wealth does not blunt you to the need for spiritual resources
- I hope that you can go home from here today determined to try and ensure that you have the right priorities.
So, here endeth the sermon? Well sadly no. That was in some ways the easy part. Now we have a real challenge on our hands. Of course the more you have the more you must give.
It is our responsibility as part of God's creation to participate with God in that creation by rectifying the imbalances we see all around us.
In Matthew 25:35 we read:
"I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me."
We are called to be actively involved in levelling up the playing field. And this ministry is not just to those near at hand. It is particularly to those as described in verse 45 who are "...the least of these...." Those who lack most, who are at the bottom of the heap, for whom there seems to be no justice at all; the poor, the widow, the children, the sick and the outcast. It was our Lord who favoured them the most because their need was greatest. It is for us who have much, to ensure that all God's children have a fair share of God's gifts with which we have been blessed. It is a ministry of giving, not taking, of sharing and caring.
But justice is not a case of the "haves" giving to the "have nots." That is far too unworthy and shallow an interpretation of God's intent for us. We must recognise that all people are our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are all members of God's family. We would want the best for our family. We would want good education and health care for them and we would willingly help in any way possible for that to happen. If they are being victimised and oppressed we would move heaven and earth to speak out against such evil.
If dictators do not respect their rights, we will not stand by and say it is not our business. It is our business to be where there is pain and suffering and to oppose injustice with all our strength. Our brothers and sisters are in trouble and we cannot enjoy peace of mind and make peace with God if we do nothing. It is our responsibility as part of being God's children to actively try to make God's Kingdom come on earth. To bring about that idyllic perfection he would wish, as an offering to him, the source of all perfection. How imperative is this ideal to our relationship with God?
Look again at our passage from Isaiah today
The vision of Isaiah son of Amos, which he saw
concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and
Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah! "The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?" says the LORD. "I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. "Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword." For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
These words from Isaiah are an echo of the words in Amos
"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beast I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
So today when you go home recognise that the Bible Readings are not about how much money you have got saved up in the building society. It is typical that we turn passages in on ourselves and make big issues into little matters of personal piety. The big issue is one which makes our financial affairs pale into insignificance. The truth is that we are all wealthy beyond the dreams of millions upon millions people without homes or food or medicine.
Whilst we burn thousands of animals because to tame a disease which threatens our exports, millions of our fellow human beings have no food to eat.
I would not want to become embroiled in party politics from the pulpit, but suffice to say that the voices of Christians must be raised in the cause of justice in our world. We cannot become preoccupied with our comfort and neglect the plight of others.
This is an imperative that we ignore at our peril. There are several places in the Bible where God rejects the worship of his people because they lack justice (eg. Micah 6:6-8; 1 Tim. 6:9-10, 17; Matt. 6:19-21), but there is nowhere in the Bible where God rejects the justice of his people because they lack worship.
Does this mean that social, political and economic justice are more important to God than worship? Possibly it does, what is most certainly does mean is that worship which doesn't grow out of justice is worth nothing.
Leo Tolstoy said
'Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.'
Today is one of those special days. Our reading challenges us to change ourselves. When that change has taken place and we started to adjust our priorities so that they align with God's, then we will find ourselves unable to avoid seeking justice for others.