2014-06-22 by George Kaplan
Preacher: Judith Gardiner
22nd June 2014
Reading: Romans 12 (referenced/quoted later in sermon)
This is the last in our sermon series on Money. Today, having looked at broader themes on the economy, how we earn our money and how we invest our money, we come to what is often the most sensitive topic: how we share our money.
If you went to the sort of churches I used to go to this is where you’d likely get the sermon on tithing…this is not that sermon. Jesus only mentioned tithing once and in a fairly negative context where he criticised the Pharisees who went to great efforts to scrupulously tithe even the smallest of their herbs, whilst blithely ignoring the weightier matters of law and Justice and even respect for parents. I also tend to agree with Donald Kraybill’s The Upside-Down Kingdom that, even in the OT tithing is a fairly minimal standard for giving and tends to put the focus in the wrong place – on how little we can get away with giving away rather than on what we can justify keeping for ourselves (a bit like the argument on how often must I forgive my brother). Kraybill does however put forward an interesting proposal for a graduated tithe that from a given baseline, rises with income – rather like the progressive basis on which our taxes – society’s common purse – is levied. We might want to look at this some time as it could raise an interesting discussion about what that baseline income should be – especially in a society which thinks that £53 per week is a sufficient income for an able-bodied citizen unable to find work.
This might also be the point where, in more left-wing and idealistic gatherings, you might get the sermon encouraging the congregation to pool its income on a “common purse” basis on the model of Acts 2…this is not that sermon. I agree that Acts 2 sets an important standard for Christian communities to aspire to – that there should be no needy among us – and that fact that for the next three centuries and longer in some places, Christians became known, even to their detractors, as a people who were exceptional, sometimes rashly so, l in their care not only for their own poor but also for the needy and especially the ill, in society more generally. To see some examples have a look at the quotations in the chapter on giving and hospitality in Everett Ferguson’s Early Christians Speak.
But I’m not going to pursue this just now for us, partly because we’ve had these discussions in the past and also because, in my view, it’s difficult to practise this unless you are intentionally living close enough to share broadly similar living costs and to allow for the daily accountability and negotiations about practicalities that such a polity would involve. Acts itself, and many of Paul’s letters show some of the difficulties that tend to arise and on which many such faith experiments have founded – see Acts 7 and the arguments about how widows from different racial groups were treated for instance. The story of Ananias and Sapphira in any case demonstrates that it was not a legalistic requirement – they were punished not because they hadn’t given all they had, but because they had lied and tried to look as if they had – and the rebuke given to them is clear that their property remained theirs to dispose of as they wished. Acts 2 however does give a “useful clue” about what our attitude to our possessions should be “no one considered what they had to be their own”. Such a light hold, makes giving more easy and more natural, in keeping with the ethos of family that comes through again and again in the NT. I’ll say more about that later.
The other sort of sermon one might get at this point is the one on “Stewardship and Wise Investment” as Veronica discussed last week…this is not that sermon. Stewardship is indeed an important concept pointing us to the reality that the resources and talents we have been blessed with are not our own but Gods – and I love the bit in the Anglican offertory that says “all things come from you and of your own have we given you”. Too often however, the concept gets twisted to become an argument for undue parsimony or caution in managing our resources and in giving – a tendency that can be encouraged by Charity Commission rules that require charities to obtain the best return when selling property or investing funds – thus sometimes stifling efforts at ethical investment or imaginative gifting of sale of property at less than market value to foster the growth of Kingdom experiments.
If we are stewards of God’s property we might want to consider whether our individual and collective use of resources could look a bit more like his – a bit more prodigal, more generous, more joyful and more indiscriminate. Such a perspective might encourage us not to sit on or multiply things we don’t need as a hedge against the future, when others could use them in the here and now. Or if we do hold on to them – and I admit I am a serious book hoarder – at least we could make sure that we make more effort to make them available for others use – perhaps through a book swapping day or some internal freecycling initiative – or just lending with no expectation of a return which is one of the few ways my library regulates itself! And if we decide to declutter we might want to give stuff to Oxfam or use Freecycle rather than selling or using eBay, but then also consider perhaps buying less in future but buying smarter – buying Fair trade or buying good quality craft made items and making them last, rather than doing the very Menno thing of boasting about the bargains we’ve picked up at the Thrift shop. Second-hand consumerism is still consumerism in my view and there may be others who do not have the choice to shop other than at Charity Shops who might need the items more.
The other sort of sermon that you might get is the one given by proponents of the Prosperity Gospel who rather than seeing investment as a form of giving – as Veronica suggested – tend to present giving as form of investment – usually into the bank balance and lavish lifestyle of the pastor or the magnificence of the Church decorations in the hope of some nebulous multiplied return in the future…this is definitely not that sermon! As Kraybill points out, Jesus’ promises that those who give up things for the Kingdom will get them back abundantly is meant as an encouragement to a very literal leaving or risking of one’s security and family ties as one steps out to take the Kingdom message to others. It simply promises that those who do this will find as they go that they will receive a warm welcome and hospitality from fellow believers, and new family network to provide for their emotional and spiritual needs – just as is common today in some cultures and as the Mennonite-Your-Way tradition tries to embody. Kraybill notes rather acidly that those who are most fervent in arguing that if we forsake sacrificially, God will, in some divine Ponzi scheme – double our return, are generally those who have forsaken nothing…
So if I’m not giving those sermons, and I’m sure you’ve heard a few other standards, what do I want to say? I could talk about the principles of Jubilee, but that’s been done better by others – including Kraybill – and in any case I think it has some pretty complex macro-economic implications which are all very interesting but can divert us a bit from the practical politics of “how do we then live?”. So I’ll bookmark that for now and content myself with reminding us of the two key terms that Alan Kreider always used to sum up what Jubilee is about – namely “Equality and Enoughness”. Jubilee works against the flow in capitalism that Thomas Piketty has flagged up in his book Capital – it prevents the accumulation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands over time and combats widening inequality by ensuring that, over time, property and wealth are returned to their original owners so that they can return to their place in society and regain a sense of worth and inclusion. Early Christians demonstrated a similar spirit when some of them sold themselves into slavery so that others could go free… Jubilee also reinforces the principle of limits to greed and growth that is demonstrated in other OT injunctions to landowners to not squeeze every last profit out of their primary resource – land – but instead to periodically leave the land to regenerate and, when in crop to leave some of it ungathered so that those without land can glean food and survive. Symon Hill talked about these themes and we might at some point want to do some though – experiments about how these principles could be put to work on a more micro level within our community.
At this point however, I want to be more modest and just pick up a few points from our reading in Romans 12 – not a chapter we often go to for sermons on this topic but which to my mind sets the question of” how do we share?” in its proper context of “how are we church?”
1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function,
5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith;
7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach;
8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.
11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.
12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.
18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In the first part of chapter 12 Paul talks about “your rational worship” which he explicitly contrasts with the sacrificial worship structure of the Roman Empire. He calls on Christians, as members of the Church to BE, not to give, a living sacrifice – something even the poorest, who own nothing but their bodies, can do, even if they are slaves they still have some moral agency. He goes on to urge them not to be conformed to the world’s standards or ideas with regard to sacrifice or status, but to test for themselves what is good, acceptable and perfect – surely an allusion here to Micah’s definition of the good sacrifice required by God – to do justice, live kindness and walk humbly with your God.
This radical non-comformist stance to worship also upturns the usual societal and household structures , as Christians are told not to judge each other by the world’s standards – which , even as now, tied honour and moral value to wealth – regarding the rich as the epitome of the good (Kalos in Greek) , those who are morally superior and destined to rule, whilst the poor (the kakoi) are regarded as not merely socially inferior but morally suspect – shirkers, scroungers, chavs in IDS parlance. Paul will have none of this and, with his view of leadership being tied to spiritual rather than financial gifts, breaks the link between patronage and office – the benefactor dynamic and trap that Jesus warned against. The Church is not to be a Bill Gates Foundation with power and control resting in the hands of a few , and resources being dependent on their benevolence graciously passed on to others, but just as easily choked off at their whim. Rather, the Church is to see itself as a family or better still, a body where each part is of equal worth and all are members of one another, interdependent, connected by a solidarity that extends beyond the limits of natural family or kinship ties and beyond national or racial identity, with each contributing the gifts God has given them for the benefit of the whole.
Some of the gifts he mentions have economic and social implications that we sometimes miss. Ministry for instance (diakonia) refers in common parlance to table servants – those who wait on others, who cook and serve and, by extension, in the Church, to those who administer what Tertullian calls the “trust funds of piety” used to provide food, financial support and famine relief – and not just to those who exercise the more obvious teaching and leadership roles.
Sharing and Showing Mercy are more obviously financially related gifts, and many at the time and now would have assumed that these gifts were the exclusive province of the wealthier members of the Church – the donors, the patrons, the householders and the almsgivers – but whilst it is true that such people may have more scope for this, it was clearly not a gift restricted to them and should not, in Paul’s view lead to them receiving any more deference or right to rule. Peter Oakes in his superb book Reading Pauli n Pompeii points out that, in any case, very few members of the sort of craft worker’s homegroup that Paul was probably addressing would have much disposable income and many would have been near destitute. Sharing therefore for such people would not have been a superficial thing – an occasional potluck supper or the loan of a lawnmower – but a matter of life and death. It would have involved, as Paul enjoins, real sacrifice and possibly real cuts in their living standards and aspirations – craft workers for instance giving up precious space and working hours to host a church gathering, or slaves giving up money they had painstakingly saved to buy their freedom, to support others. And when Paul asks them to support not only each other but fellow Christians in Jerusalem (Romans 16) then the sacrifice of sharing becomes all the greater.
“Showing mercy” similarly has a particular resonance in the Roman world and here, as in the Sermon on the Mount, is related not only to kindness, good treatment of others and magnanimity towards enemies but to very specific financial issues – forgiveness of debts, setting free from slavery and providing for the indigent, which again involves real sacrifice and a readiness to go beyond the call of household obligation. Christians therefore quickly became known as the only ones who were willing to step out to support the poor, the ill and the foreigner not only among their own groups but in the community more widely – often to the bemusement of external observers who either marvelled (with some being converted) or derided them as credulous dupes or subverters of the public order – rather like the Tory Party’s view of the Oxfam or the Trussell Trust. (see Ferguson – Early Christians Speak).
The rest of chapter 12 reinforces these points giving in verses 9-12 a number of exhortations aimed at building up this sense of solidarity and kinship among the family of the Church, encouraging Christians to extend philadelphia – real egalitarian “brotherly love” – to all through practical action rather than through the traditional and hierarchical forms of societal or familial obligation. Such solidarity and inclusion would have been particularly important to those who had no family or household or position – the refugees, the migrant workers and the homeless who found their home in the family of faith. It may also have provoked conflict with others who saw Christians as stealing allegiance that was owed to the State, to non-Christian householders and slave owners and husbands.
Paul expects this philadelphia to be expressed in a number of concrete ways with everyone being encouraged to hard work and service as the embodiment of their living sacrifice. Thus he calls them to:
– Express solidarity with those who are suffering physically, emotionally and financially and demonstrate endurance when things get tough, building the congregation’s resilience and ability to absorb that suffering and not give up on giving when becomes a strain to keep on supporting those under pressure.
– Offer hospitality and share in the needs of the “Holy Ones” – the Church beyond their doors. Paul presents his request for the collection for the saints in Jerusalem as a matter of equalisation not obligation or charity. He also expects the Church to provide hospitality and a home for those who like him are travelling on ministry – something we have done a lot over the years and which, as we know, carries emotional as well as financial costs.
– Focus our attention and our orientation towards the lowly and the poor (tapeinos in Greek), not only in terms of attitude, but also in activity and possibly location so that we are grounded in reality as Christ was, rather than getting drawn into the more rarefied worldview, preoccupations and aspirations of the cultural and economic elite that dominate so much political and theological discourse. This was one of the motivators behind our decision to move here but we are still trying to work out how we live it in practice.
– Do good even to our objective enemies, or those were are encouraged to see as enemies, not seeking revenge but overcoming evil with practical good – food, water and shelter – and, as I indicated before, doing it with a cheerful and indiscriminate spirit that looks like God rather than a from a purse-lipped sense of duty.
It is these principles which we have tried to embody in our covenant, in the structuring of our koinonia and jubilee funds and in our campaigning to change minds and reshape the uses to which our taxes are put – campaigning against the arms trade for example and in solidarity with those affected by welfare cuts – and being very generous in our support of individuals. But we can’t rest on our laurels and I have the feeling that, in these straightened economic times, and as our numbers have reduced, that it has become harder to sustain the zeal, the ardour and the cheerfulness in giving that Paul calls for. But let’s take some encouragement from the fact that he wouldn’t have needed to call for that, if the Romans themselves hadn’t also been finding it hard and difficult to find the love and the joy. As in marriage such covenant commitments may fell easy and even delightful when all is new and all is well, but our vows, our commitments are there to keep us going when things are hard. So let’s keep going, let’s persist in welldoing, let’s keep talking about how we share our lives as well as our possessions and let’s keep praying to our generous God to give us what we need for the living of these days.