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Sunday, 26 September 2010

Mr Moneybags and the Big Issue seller

Once upon a time, there was a really big city gent, known as Mr Moneybags.
You might have seen him, dressed in an Armani suit,
with a Philippe Patek watch on his wrist,
being driven through Brixton in a really smart car to his offices in the City, or perhaps in Canary Wharf.
Mr Moneybags did a great deal for charity;
he always gave a handsome cheque to Children in Need and Comic Relief, and quite often got himself on the telly giving the cheque to the prettiest presenter.

But in private he thought that the people who needed help from organisations like Comic Relief were losers.
Actually, anybody who earned less than a six-figure salary was a loser, he thought.
He despised his five brothers,
three ex-wives,
ten children,
twenty-five grandchildren
and the hordes of mistresses,
secretaries,
assistants
gofers
and general flunkies
who surrounded him –
and they knew it, too.
Especially, though, he despised the homeless people,
who he thought really only needed to pull themselves together,
to snap out of it,
to get a life.

Particularly, he despised the Big Issue seller
who he used occasionally to come across in the car-park.
He would usually buy a copy, because, after all, one has to do one’s bit, but once in the car would ring Security and get the chap removed.

Laz, they called him, this particular Big Issue seller.
Not that Mr Moneybags knew or cared what he was called.
I’m not quite sure how Laz had ended up on the streets,
selling the Big Issue
or even outright begging.
It might have been drugs, or drink,
or perhaps he was just one of those unfortunate people who simply can’t cope with jobs and mortgages and families
and the other details of everyday life that most of us manage to take in our stride.
But there you are, whatever the reason,
Laz was one of those people.
He was rather a nice person, when you got to know him;
always had a friendly word for everybody,
could make you laugh when you were down,
knew the way to places someone might want to go, that sort of thing.

But what he wasn’t good at was looking after himself,
keeping hospital appointments,
taking medication,
that sort of thing.
And so, one morning, he just didn’t wake up,
and his body was found huddled in his bed at the hostel.
They couldn’t find any relations to take charge of it,
so he was buried at the council’s expense, very quietly, with only the hostel warden there.
But the warden always said, then and ever afterwards,
that he had seen angels come to take Laz to heaven.

At about the same time, Mr Moneybags became ill.
Cancer, they said.
Smoking, they muttered.
Drinking too much….
Rich food….
So sorry, there was very little they could do.
Now, of course, Mr Moneybags wasn’t about to accept this,
and saw specialist after specialist,
and, as he became iller and more desperate, quack after quack.
He tried special diets,
herbal remedies;
he tried coffee enemas,
injections of monkey glands,
you name it, he tried it.
But nothing worked and, as happens to all of us in the end, he died.

His funeral wasn’t very well-attended, either.
Funny, that –
you’d have thought that more of his
five brothers,
three ex-wives,
ten children,
twenty-five grandchildren
and the hordes of mistresses,
secretaries,
assistants
gofers
and general flunkies
might have wanted to be there.
But no.
In the end, only the ones to whom he had left most of his money were there,
and a slew of reporters,
hoping to hear that the company was in trouble.
Which, incidentally, it wasn’t –
whatever else Mr Moneybags may have been,
he was a superb businessman, and the company he founded continues to grow and flourish to this very day.

Anyway, there they were,
Mr Moneybags and Laz the Big Issue seller, both dead.
But, as is the way of things,
it was only their bodies which had died.
Mr Moneybags found himself unceremoniously told to sit on a hot bench in the sun, and wait there.
And he waited, and waited, and waited, and waited,
getting hotter and hotter,
thirstier and thirstier.
And he could see the Big Issue seller, whom he recognised,
being welcomed and fed and made comfortable by someone who could only be Abraham, the Patriarch.
After a bit, he’d had enough.
“Abraham,” he called out, “Couldn’t you send that Big Issue seller to bring me a glass of water, I’m horrendously thirsty?”

And you know the rest of the story.
Abraham said, not ungently,
‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things,
while Lazarus received bad things,
but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.
And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed,
so that those who want to go from here to you cannot,
nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
And he pointed out that Mr Moneybags’ five brothers,
three ex-wives,
ten children,
twenty-five grandchildren
and the hordes of mistresses,
secretaries,
assistants
gofers
and general flunkies
wouldn’t listen to Laz if he were to go back and tell them –
they really knew it already, thanks to Moses and the Prophets.
You note, incidentally, that Mr Moneybags didn’t ask if he could go back!

===oo0oo===

Jesus had a lot to say about money, and our relationship with it
didn’t he?
And about our relationship with other people, too, for that matter.
Do you remember the story he told about the sheep and the goats?
This was when he reckoned that at the Last Judgement it would be those who had cared for Jesus in the persons of the sick, the prisoners, the hungry and, yes, the Big Issue sellers who would be welcomed into heaven, and those who had ignored him, in those guises, would not.
“For whoever does it unto the least of one of these, does it unto Me”, he said.

It must have come as a shock to Jesus’ hearers.
They had been taught that if you were rich and successful, it meant that God favoured you, and if not, not.
I am always rather amused when I read Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes and compare them with Luke’s –
Luke says, frankly, “Blessed are you when you are hungry, or thirsty, or poor”, but then, he was a Gentile and didn’t have the background that Matthew, a Jew, had.
Matthew can only bring himself to write “Blessed are you when you are poor in spirit, or when you hunger and thirst after righteousness.”
For him, still, poverty is not a sign of God’s favour, but rather the reverse.

Even today, you know, there are those who preach prosperity, they preach that if you are God’s person you will be rich and healthy.
But that isn’t necessarily the case.
Jesus never said that!
Okay, so he healed the sick, but he had a great deal to say about the right attitude to possessions and to other people.

It’s in this sort of area, isn’t it, where what we say we believe comes up smack bang against what we really believe.
We discover, as we study what Jesus really had to say, that being His person isn’t just a matter of believing certain things, it’s about being in a relationship with Him, and about letting him transform us into being a certain kind of person.
It’s no good believing, says St James, if that faith doesn’t transmute itself into actions.
And this seems to be what Jesus says, too.

It’s no good saying you believe in Jesus, and ignoring the very people Jesus wants you to look after –
the dispossessed, the refugees, the downtrodden, the marginalized, the exploited.
It’s not easy, I know.
We do hesitate to give money because of the very real possibility it might be spent on drugs or drink.
But there are other ways of giving.
There are various charities we can give to, or even lend a helping had at.
I believe one organisation sells meal tickets one can give away.
Of course, one can even buy the Big Issue!

Seriously, though, we need to take this sort of thing seriously.
Quite apart from anything else, our very salvation may depend on it.
We say that salvation is by faith, and so it is –
but what is faith if it doesn’t actually cost us anything?
What is faith if it is mere lip-service?

And anyway, what sort of picture are we giving to the world if we just talk the talk, and don’t walk the walk? (I mentioned something here about Back to Church Sunday, and how we need to show people who we are, as well as tell them)
Do you remember Eliza Doolittle, in My Fair Lady, exclaiming “Don’t talk of love, show me!”
I reckon the world is saying that to the Church right now.
Don’t let’s just talk about Jesus, let’s show people that he is risen and alive and dwelling within us by the power of his Holy Spirit.
The best way to cultivate a right attitude to money, people and spiritual things is to see the “beggar outside our gate” –
quite literally the Big Issue seller, if you like, but basically anybody who is not like ourselves.
The miracle is that the more loosely we hold our possessions, the more we enjoy them, the more we serve the needs of others, the more we value them, and the more we listen to God’s words, the more we value ourselves.
And, of course, the more we are able to show people Who Jesus Is, and that he is alive today.
Amen.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Of God and Money

I don’t know –
today’s Gospel reading!
What are we to make of such a story, do you suppose?
The steward has been doing a rotten job,
so he gets told to put his books in order and pack his bags.
And he decides to make a few friends for himself en route,
to build up a few favours he can call in when he is homeless and hungry.
So he starts adjusting the debts of those who owe his master some money –
you owe my master a hundred jugs of oil?
Okay, let’s call it fifty.
A hundred bushels of wheat?
Hey, eighty’s just fine!

So what do you think his master would say to that if he found out?
Call the police, shouldn’t wonder.
Have him done for fraud.
But no –
the master was pleased!
One modern paraphrase puts it like this:
“Now here's a surprise:
The master praised the crooked manager!
And why?
Because he knew how to look after himself.
Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens.
They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.
I want you to be smart in the same way –
but for what is right –
using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival,
to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials,
so you'll live, really live,
and not complacently just get by on good behaviour.”

Another paraphrase goes: “You see, that’s how it is.
The people who belong to this present world are far better equipped to dodge and weave their way through their dealings with one another than you lot are, and you belong to the light.
So take it from me, if you’ve got a fistful of filthy lucre, use it to help other people out. That way, when it runs out, you’ll have friends for eternity.”

John Wesley, who preached his famous “Use of Money” sermon
on this very passage, sees it slightly differently.
He reckons that Jesus is saying that those who seek no other portion than this world, and I quote: "are wiser" –
not absolutely;
for they are one and all the veriest fools,
the most egregious madmen under heaven;
but, "in their generation," in their own way;
they are more consistent with themselves;
they are truer to their acknowledged principles;
they more steadily pursue their end.”

We, Christians –
and I think this is as true today as it was in Wesley’s time –
aren’t very good at talking and thinking about money.
We remember that “the love of money is the root of all evil”
and shy away from the subject.
We might or might not talk about holding lightly to our material possessions and living simply and all that, but by and large, we don’t talk about it.
It was the same in Wesley’s day.
But we all need money, we all use money.
Wesley concluded that Scripture shows that we should earn all we can,
save all we can
and then give all we can.

He then went on to explain further.
I rather love this paragraph, as isn’t it true in today’s world where people spend so long at the office:
“We ought to gain all we can gain, without buying gold too dear, without paying more for it than it is worth.
But this it is certain we ought not to do;
we ought not to gain money at the expense of life, nor (which is in effect the same thing) at the expense of our health.
Therefore, no gain whatsoever should induce us to enter into, or to continue in, any employ, which is of such a kind, or is attended with so hard or so long labour, as to impair our constitution.
Neither should we begin or continue in any business which necessarily deprives us of proper seasons for food and sleep,
in such a proportion as our nature requires.
Indeed, there is a great difference here.
Some employments are absolutely and totally unhealthy;
as those which imply the dealing much with arsenic, or other equally hurtful minerals, or the breathing an air tainted with steams of melting lead, which must at length destroy the firmest constitution.
Others may not be absolutely unhealthy, but only to persons of a weak constitution.
Such are those which require many hours to be spent in writing;” –
or, perhaps, these days, at a computer screen –
“especially if a person write sitting, and lean upon his stomach, or remain long in an uneasy posture.
But whatever it is which reason or experience shows to be destructive of health or strength, that we may not submit to;
seeing "the life is more" valuable "than meat, and the body than raiment."
And if we are already engaged in such an employ, we should exchange it as soon as possible for some which, if it lessen our gain, will, however not lessen our health.”

He goes on to add that:
“We are, Secondly, to gain all we can without hurting our mind any more than our body.
For neither may we hurt this.
We must preserve, at all events, the spirit of an healthful mind.
Therefore we may not engage or continue in any sinful trade, any that is contrary to the law of God, or of our country.
Such are all that necessarily imply our robbing or defrauding the king of his lawful customs.”
These days, of course, it’s her Majesty’s Government, rather than her person, which is robbed by tax evasion and smuggling –
as prevalent now as in Wesley’s day, if not more so.
All the same, could it harm our souls to engage in it?
I suspect so.

“For it is at least as sinful,” said Wesley, obviously forgetting for the moment what story he had taken to base his sermon on,
“For it is at least as sinful to defraud the king of his right, as to rob our fellow subjects.
And the king has full as much right, to his customs as we have to our houses and apparel.
Other businesses there are, which however innocent in themselves,
cannot be followed with innocence now at least, not in England;
such, for instance, as will not afford a competent maintenance without cheating or lying, or conformity to some custom which not consistent with a good conscience:
These, likewise, are sacredly to be avoided, whatever gain they may be attended with provided we follow the custom of the trade;
for to gain money we must not lose our souls.”
Slave trading springs to mind, of course, or trafficking as we call it today;
or again, drug-dealing.
“There are yet others which many pursue with perfect innocence, without hurting either their body or mind;
And yet perhaps you cannot:
Either they may entangle you in that company which would destroy your soul;
and by repeated experiments it may appear that you cannot separate the one from the other;
or there may be an idiosyncrasy,
a peculiarity in your constitution of soul, (as there is in the bodily constitution of many,) by reason whereof that employment is deadly to you, which another may safely follow.
So I am convinced, from many experiments, I could not study, to any degree of perfection, either mathematics, arithmetic, or algebra, without being a Deist, if not an Atheist:
And yet others may study them all their lives without sustaining any inconvenience.
None therefore can here determine for another;
but every man must judge for himself, and abstain from whatever he in particular finds to be hurtful to his soul.”

Wesley then goes on to explain that, just as you shouldn’t earn money doing things that might hurt you physically or spiritually,
similarly you mustn’t do anything that might hurt other people, either physically or spiritually.
Within those limits, you should work hard, concentrating on what you’re being paid to do and not wasting time on Facebook or Twitter.
Well, Wesley didn’t exactly say that, but that’s more or less what he meant!
And Wesley reminds us to use our God-given intelligence to do our jobs as well as we can.

He then goes on to discuss his thesis that one ought to save all one can.
He reckons you shouldn’t fritter money.
Buy your necessities, by all means, but don’t go mad for luxuries you don’t really need.
Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses.
And don’t spoil your kids.
“Why should you purchase for them more pride or lust, more vanity, or foolish and hurtful desires?”
And, foreseeing today’s massive inheritance tax, “Do not leave it to them to throw away.”
He was actually talking about kids wasting their inheritance, like the Prodigal Son, but it’s nevertheless a good point.

Finally, he discusses the third, and arguably most important clause:
“Give all you can”.
For him, it wasn’t about tithing, or giving away a certain proportion of your income.
He reckons you should start from the premise that everything you are and have is God’s, and take it from there.
Your property, he thinks, isn’t your own, it is God’s.
You’re just the steward.
And if, says Wesley, “you desire to be a faithful and a wise steward, out of that portion of your Lord's goods which he has for the present lodged in your hands, but with the right of resuming whenever it pleases him,
First, provide things needful for yourself;
food to eat, raiment to put on, whatever nature moderately requires for preserving the body in health and strength.
Secondly, provide these for your wife, your children, your servants, or any others who pertain to your household.
If when this is done there be an overplus left, then ‘do good to them that are of the household of faith.’
If there be an overplus still, ‘as you have opportunity, do good unto all men.’
In so doing, you give all you can;
nay, in a sound sense, all you have:
For all that is laid out in this manner is really given to God.
You ‘render unto God the things that are God's,’ not only by what you give to the poor, but also by that which you expend in providing things needful for yourself and your household.”

Almost everything I’ve said this morning has been Wesley, not me.
But talk about why keep a dog and bark yourself –
what Wesley had to say all those centuries ago is still true for us today, I think.
We should still be careful how we earn our livings,
not harming ourselves or our neighbours in so doing.
We should still work hard while we are at work,
not distracting ourselves or faffing about.
We should still live sensibly and frugally, especially in the light of climate change and reducing our carbon footprints and all that –
we are, after all, stewards of the planet God has given us.
And we should still regard ourselves as God’s stewards in our attitude to what we do own –
fine to spend money on ourselves where we need to, and God is totally not mean!
There’s no need to be a miser, but just to be aware that maybe one day God will ask you to do something for, or give something to, someone else.

And do pray.
I haven’t mentioned our first reading so far, from Paul’s letter to Timothy, but it seems that prayer was, and should remain, a priority.
When did you last pray for David Cameron or Nick Clegg?
And I mean really pray, not just “Oh God, David Cameron!!!”
Maybe if we all prayed for him, not just “God bless,” or “Oh God”, but really holding him and Obama, and other world leaders up to the Throne of Grace,
well, maybe things would be different.

I forget, at this instant, who it was who said that the world has not yet seen what one person truly dedicated to God can do.
I actually disagree with whoever it was –
Dwight L Moody, I think –
we’ve seen loads of people who have dedicated their life to God and made a huge difference, from Wesley himself, Mother Teresa, all sorts.
But the point is, if we are truly dedicated to God, if our whole lives are about being God’s person, then how we live may or may not make a difference to the whole world, but it probably will to our own immediate community.
Let’s be good stewards, but let’s also be streetwise and know how to use what God has given us! Amen.