June 25, 2023

Stewardship after the Pandemic: Treasure

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

Matthew 10:39

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:39)

This is the second of three sermons on stewardship after the pandemic. Today’s focus is on our treasure, especially money. Like a good financial advisor, the Gospel today asks us to think in terms of profits and losses.

Gains and losses are much more than about the ups and down of the market, more than our national obsession with property prices and share portfolios. Think for a moment about the pandemic. We discovered a number of gains. Lockdowns enabled us to profit from time at home, gave us the opportunity to value things – relationships, peace and quiet, the gift of the nature on our doorstep as we took exercise. The ability to work from home has been widely seen as positive.

But there were also losses: losses of liberty and freedom to choose; as time went on, the staying at home sometimes felt more like a prison than a gift; we are becoming aware of the costs to children’s education and to mental health; and our current economic situation, exacerbated by some very turbulent politics since the pandemic, is quite challenging. We went through the greatest civilian crisis since the Second World War, so it is not surprising that the economic consequences are long-lasting. Be that as it may, many are very worried about the short-term future.

When things are tough or uncertain, basic psychology tells us that we become more cautious, especially in our relationship with money. It is worth reflecting on your own: how you experienced it growing up, what you think money is for (keeping or spending), your experience how of generosity, what you understand by the word ‘enough’. Such formative attitudes affect the decisions we make and the priorities we set when it comes to our money. I vividly remember when off to Junior School on a Monday morning my parents emptying out their last coins to find the final few pence for my dinner money. Money was tight for them in a way that it isn’t for many. For some here that will resonate, for others from more prosperous backgrounds, your attitude to money may be shaped differently. More recent life experiences can also affect our relationship with money. During the pandemic we saw a clear uncoupling of the relationship between wealth and wellbeing: we discovered for a moment that being happy and well does not equate with retail therapy. I wonder whether that experience has lasted for you.

I come back then to the stewardship question, the lens Christians view our treasure through. Remember those principles from last week: first God’s goodness and  generous grace which has given us so much, above all life in Jesus Christ; second, our response to Jesus in the offering up of our whole lives, and not just the bit we call ‘religious’ in service to God; and third, the idea that we give a proportion of our time, talents and treasure generously to God as a thank you for his goodness.

For Christian disciples, what we do with our money has always been a critical question, from the earliest days. There are far more Bible verses and teachings of Jesus in the Gospel about money and its use than about sexual morality. And this relates to the second of those stewardship principles, that the whole of our lives are to be offered to Christ in his service. If we have a box which we call ‘religion’ which is a sort of partitioned-off corner of our life, or a part of our lives cut off from the day-to-day business of what we call ‘real life’ then it is not surprising that, from a financial perspective alone, it’s easy to avoid seeing our money through the lens of our faith. But when Jesus says to you and me, “Follow me,” there’s no limitation here, no reduction of that call to a narrow, spiritual part of life. Rather, it’s the other way around: Jesus invites us to allow the Spirit of God to shape our decisions about the whole of life. This is the calculation behind the language of the verse I read at the beginning of the sermon, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” We talk about the peace, the joy and encouragement that comes from knowing Jesus Christ, about ‘finding our lives’ if you like. But Jesus goes beyond that into a demanding call to action, and to shape our lives around his way of life, founded on generously giving of himself to the world. Remember that famous verse in the bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” However much we find peace, comfort and joy from God and from his Church, he directs us to a much more demanding path to real joy, which is found through living as he lives, in laying down our lives for others. The true path to life is to follow the path of discipleship, to walk the way of the cross. If we find this difficult, if we conveniently forget that the way of Jesus Christ is demanding, then our Gospel reading today is an antidote to that forgetfulness. This is what you might call a ‘stone in the shoe’ kind of Sunday, a Sunday to remember that the grace of God comes most of all from a costly discipleship. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that partial commitment is not what he wants. He wants each and every one of us, and all of us, the whole of our lives. Every hair on our heads, every ounce of our dedication. The path to real life, the richest life, the biggest profit we could ever turn, is to be found in turning the whole of our lives over to Jesus and to allow him to shape the whole thing.

Just three short observations on that, in relation to money. First, in the light of the pandemic, with all its gains and losses, Christian discipleship invites us to prioritise our service of the poor and the vulnerable. The question that Jesus asks us in this setting is a question about priorities. How much of your financial priorities are about shaping your own future, feeding your own appetites, and how much on meeting the needs of those in worse shape than you? That’s a discipleship question about our priorities. It’s challenging to think about money because it represents so much of our power and potential; so much of our formation as people in our culture and especially in prosperous Battersea culture is about ‘getting on’, ‘living your best life,’ so-called aspirational living. We often talk today about the entitled millennial, with their expectation that life will be easy and served to them on a plate, but how many of us older folk live with the attitude in our hearts of “well, I’ve worked hard for this, it’s mine and I deserve it”? Do we check our own privilege? It’s incredibly hard to wean ourselves off this addictive and attractive narrative. But disciples will commit to doing so with he help of God, or at least trying, because deep down we know that this sort of language appeals to the selfish ego and not to the generous heart. As we face economic challenges, trapped as many of us are in an economic system that keeps us quiet by keeping us in debt, the Gospel rings out loud and clear. Serve the poor. Prioritise the most needy. Lose in order to gain.

Secondly, a word to the 55+ generation among us. We are perhaps the most fortunate generation who have ever lived in our country, we have lived through a time of peace and prosperity, where the State has put its arms around us in a way that is unlikely to be the case in the future. We have been blessed with the most enormous windfall too, in that we have owned property at a time when its value has sky-rocketed. We are among the most blessed of generations. As you think, therefore, about what you do with that windfall, much of which has been outside of our own effort and more about the place of market economies in the 20th century West, think about it as disciples. What will you do with your inheritance? How will it be left to the world? I recall a conversation with an aging priest in the US some 15 years ago who had bought property in a poor part of Washington DC only to watch its value massively increase as gentrification took hold. For him, it was a spiritual dilemma simply to leave it to his kids. “What will it do to them?” ‘How will it make them relate to the wider world to leave them all that money that they never earned?” These are serious ethical questions, and they are ones that this aging generation, above any that have gone before it and maybe are likely to come after, have to face. Remember the discipleship words of Jesus as you ponder your writing of your wills: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

And finally, and only lastly, think as a disciple about your giving to St Mary’s as we ask you to respond to our financial needs. I don’t want to labour the point this morning, because the brochure and letter you will receive at the end of the service will spell out things in more detail. But, in the context of this sermon, I simply ask you to think about one question: what place in your discipleship, in walk with God, does this community and church play? Or, to put it another way, what do you love and value about St Mary’s? And then, do the calculation about how to respond. On the one hand consider the response as one of generosity and commitment, consider the responsibility you have for the wealth you have been given, and the call to give a proportion of it away in thankfulness. And on the other hand, consider your responsibilities to others, the financial realities that you face, and what wise provision for the future looks like, and work out, as it were the profit and loss. And do that in prayer.

This is a sermon not a sales pitch, so there’s no hard sell from me, but I think it is fair to say that the PCC would much prefer a regular, more modest gift, than a gift that is irregular or only given when you are here in church. That helps us plan not just our budget but our mission expenses too.

And this is a communion service, a sacred meal, not a fundraising dinner. In this Eucharist, we encounter week by week the generous love of God in Jesus Christ, who laid down his life in service to the end. That grace and love will be poured out on us whether or not we choose to give, and whether or not we are able to give. God will bless the most generous, the most mean-spirited and the poorest among us as we feed on Jesus in the Eucharist. There is no qualification or entry fee into the kingdom of heaven. Apart from the whole of our lives, of course. Amen.



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