The Spiritual and Fiscal Worlds

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.

An old college tutor of mine, a Methodist Minister of the old school, was driving a friend of mine to college from my friend’s home town, where he had been invited to preach that Sunday.

As they were driving along, he said to her, “Keep your eye open for a petrol station, as I’m not sure we’ve enough fuel to get back to college.”

Taken aback by his candour about the possibility of being stranded in the middle of rural Derbyshire, she readily agreed. However, so rigorous was the conversation between tutor and student that the one petrol station they could have stopped at was nearly upon them when she called out, “Peter, look – petrol!” – and by the time he responded they had, of course, sailed past it.

“Oh well,” he said. “I don’t like to buy things on Sunday anyway, so it’s probably for the best.”

Sunday trading these days is something most people don’t bat an eyelid, and even your curate has been known to panic at ten to four on a Sunday afternoon when the milk runs out and there might not be time to get to Sainsbury’s for more.

But the concerns about the commercialisation of the Lord’s Day have never gone away – the children’s retailer The Entertainer made headlines a few years ago because its one hundred and fifty stores are never open on a Sunday, a decision taken by the owner because of his Christian beliefs.

Questions about money, and the attitude we should take to it, underlie our readings this morning, too. 

In the reading from Amos the prophet characterises the people of Israel as being so fixed on their riches that sabbath days and festivals were an annoyance, as it stopped them trading, but more than that – when they were trading they raised prices and lowered the weights – lowering their bushels and raising their shekels – by using crooked scales to swindle the poor who had no choice but to pay.

The parable of Jesus, meanwhile, is a funny one, and nobody’s ever been sure quite what to make of it, because on the face of it Jesus is commending the dishonest manager for what seems to be fraud.Throughout the centuries, different theologians have suggested different things. Some have said that Jesus isn’t saying he did the right thing, only saying that he was clever in his use of money, and  that we should be clever in the use of our gifts. Others have said that the steward had repented of his sins, and what we see here is actually him foregoing the commission he would have received, so that the person only paid what they actually owed.

Whatever way you look at it, Jesus’s final words are key: you cannot serve both God and wealth.

Harvest time is upon us: Thursday was the Harvest festival service at Goodwins Hall, and our Harvest supper is coming in a few weeks. AT this time we celebrate the fruits of the earth, but we celebrate them for what they really are: gifts from God. 

One of my favourite harvest hymns is “We plough the fields and scatter” – with the refrain, “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above.” The gifts we have – food, drink, shelter, money – are not ours by right but come from God, and as such, we use them all in his service. That’s why at Harvest we raise money for those in need, and why there’s the long tradition of bringing food to donate to the Food Bank and places like it. 

The other gift we can use in the service of others is our relationship with God, and this is why Paul is so keen in his letter to Timothy to make sure prayer is offered for everyone, and especially for those in authority. Every week we pray for Her Majesty the Queen, for her government and all in Parliament, as well as for the leaders of the nations.

This prayer, day by day and week by week, is needed now more than ever. At a time when Brexit has split our country in two, with protests and counter-protests, I urge you all to pray – whatever your views may be on this or any other issue – for unity, so that, in Paul’s words, “we may be able to live religious and reverent lives in peace and quiet.”

Uncle Ben in the Spiderman comic books said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” – and earlier in Luke’s Gospel Jesus said, “When a man has had a great deal given him, a great deal will be demanded of him.”

Our Lord has given us much: our food, our material posessions, and above all he has given us access to the very throneroom of God through our prayer. So let us use all these things for his glory and for the good of our fellow human beings, and our Lord will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.