A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Think back two or three years to the time when we were all living with the social restrictions of the pandemic. Among the things you remember – apart from the Downing Street parties – perhaps you can recall yourself thinking, or at least someone saying, “We need to do things differently when we all get back together again.” There as a strong sense of taking the opportunities that a sudden and abrupt disruption to our lives brought.
Three years on, and how is that going? How much is different in your life, as a result of the Covid emergency? This question is the one that has been in my mind as I have thought about returning to a subject about which we occasionally preach, the practice of Christian stewardship.
The disruption caused by Covid-19 to our social life has changed a number of things about the way we live. Many of these changes simply amplify problems already present in our society. The British Academy, a group of academics from the social sciences and the humanities, have identified nine of these, including both negative and positive consequences. For example, on the plus side, the geographic inequalities in our society – what we call the North/South divide, is set to grow worse; on the positive side, the pandemic only served to emphasise the potential and importance of local communities in delivering care and support, what Christians and Jews would call, ‘Loving our neighbours’.
One of the things that I have sensed has been a change in the way people belong and engage with the wider world. Walking through the City on Monday night, the pubs and streets were deserted; doing the same on Wednesday and the place was crowded: so many people now work from home on a Monday (and a Friday). This means that, to take but one example, the City economy is facing big challenges. In the world of voluntary associations, churches and charities, talking to clergy colleagues and others who rely on volunteers, everywhere people are talking not about just a slow return to church and charity life, but a bigger change in patterns of the way people engage. As a general rule, people still consider they belong, but their engagement is less regular, and more often less direct.
Not all of this is bad, I should add; how much wasted time has been saved by not having to go out to meetings but being able to join them online; and there are opportunities to engage with people in the virtual space that previously we would not have imagined in church or charity life. But, what it does mean is that how we engage with one another and how we seek to work together as church or charity has changed. Whether we like it or not, people are belonging to St Mary’s in different ways; attitudes to belonging have subtly changed. And so, the Christian church – which has always adapted its preaching and living of the Gospel to respond to the world around it – also has to face up to and adapt to these new realities.
One area that the church has to adapt is in the practice of Christian Stewardship, the way in which we offer a proportion of our lives – our time, our treasure and our talents – to God through the Church. If people are belonging differently, and therefore getting involved in different ways – then how we invite people to contribute needs to change too. This sermon, and the two that follow in the next fortnight, is something of an attempt to invite us at St Mary’s to reflect and respond.
Some things haven’t changed of course. Biblical principles of stewardship remain simple and profoundly true today. Let me put them simply:
When it comes to the use of our time, we are really talking about the most fundamental aspect of our human lives. All we have is time. Imagine that time in the light of those three stewardship principles. Imagine that God has given you your span of days as a gift. Imagine that each day and week is full not of opportunities missed but of potential, potential to both be enriched and to enrich the lives of others, to make the world better. Imagine, thirdly that part of what that potential that time represents could be offered to the service of God through the church. That’s how we think through the stewardship lens.
Thinking like this, particularly about time, offers a quite different way of seeing and living in the world. It’s easy to think of time as a decreasing resource, more about the time behind us than the time we have. But, friends, we can do nothing about the past, nothing about the road not taken. But, if we think through the lens of stewardship, we think not about a lack of time, but of the potential of the time we have available to us. Writing in the New York Times last February Tim Urban said this, in the light of the changes the pandemic has brought, “The life we’ll be living ten years from now will largely be determined not by our past selves but by our present and future selves. If we imagine what we might regret down the road, it’s very much in our hands to do something about it now.”
The pandemic of 2020-22 forced us to slow down and I think that this has been a wonderful gift to continue to hold on to. So, while it might be right for the anxious charity or the anxious vicar (or the anxious Church Council) to worry about the resources we have available – and here I’m talking chiefly about time not money – I’m beginning to see opportunities in the changes that are emerging. They are opportunities to re-evaluate the purpose and potential we have as a church.
Every Wednesday now, a small group of us meet for Lectio divina, a prayerful form of bible reading. We tend to look at the Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday, and so last Wednesday, it was the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading that we’ve just heard, “The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few…therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” That’s a verse about the potential we have as disciples to make a difference. There is an abundance of opportunity in the world to do the work of Jesus, and we are invited to pray and discern how we can play our part in doing that. The stewardship question here is of course what you can do, not what anyone else can do. What part can you play in this? And what can you offer, as a proportion of the time you have, to labouring in the harvest through St Mary’s? Let’s be clear here: we shouldn’t get too churchy here. If the pandemic has taught us anything it is the difference we can make to our neighbours when we can serve them in straightforward ways. Think of our Coronavirus Angels project, which enabled us – forced us in some ways – to think outwardly. I for one missed the freedom to worship together in this building for a season, but rather than wallowing in regret (and a high level of online anger in some cases), what we did at St Mary’s was rolled up our sleeves and got on with serving people.
So it shouldn’t be too churchy. But the offering of a proportion of our time does need to ensure that the church is nourished and growing. If we are to labour in the Lord’s vineyard, we need feeding, and for that we need to worship and encounter God, be strengthened by teaching, preaching, fellowship and prayer, and to be good stewards of what God has given us physically (including this extraordinary building) to fulfil our calling. So it’s right that some of the time that some of us offer is directed to feeding this community and building up this church.
But the stewardship question is also about potential, and that is why Jesus sometimes challenges our priorities. As we look back on the pandemic, we can see that there have been many opportunities to evaluate our use of time. Perhaps that has been part of God’s challenge to us as a result. One example from my own life arose only in that same bible study on Wednesday as I looked at the same passage. A few verses later, Jesus says to his followers, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near!’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” As I reflected on that verse, I was struck forcibly of the contrast between what I do as Vicar of the parish and what Jesus sends out his disciples to do. I realise that, slowly, without realising it, I had become more the CEO of St Mary’s Church, and less the sort of person who preaches the kingdom and does all this curing, raising, cleansing and casting out. True, I don’t think in the main the clergy of the Church of England are trained or even expected to raise the dead or cure the sick, but it was a forcible reminder that before I am a priest and leader of this church, I am a disciple of Jesus sent out to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, and that perhaps – and here’s the stewardship question arises – the way I use my time ought more to reflect that priority of the work of the kingdom rather than simply running the church. I think that’s my response to the stewardship of time question that I’m inviting you to reflect on for yourselves this morning.
Stewardship sermons tend to turn people off because, more than anything, people know that there’s the bottom line of a request for something more: offer more time to the church, offer more of your talents to the church and, worst of all (we will come to this next week), give us more of your money. But, in these sermons, I don’t want to do that. I want to invite you to ponder the stewardship questions for yourself. This week there’s a few questions to ponder on the order of service, and the anthem is long enough to give you a bit of time to do that; next week there will be a brochure on our financial situation to help you ponder the giving question. But, instead of asking for more, let me ask you to reflect on your own use of time. How can you make most of the time you have available? How does your faith in God shape the way you use your time? And how is the time you have to be lived generously. Writing to the Romans, and reflecting on suffering rather than stewardship, St Paul writes in our Second Reading that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” If God loves you like that, and if God’s love has been given to you and me so lavishly, how do we respond? How do we use the love we have found, as the modern song goes, to reshape the world around? How, friends, both in your church and in all that makes up the life you have been given, do you use our time well?
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