Sermon 6

St Paul’s, money, and what would Jesus do?

I Samuel ii, 1 – 10 and Luke x 1 – 9

First, I would like to thank your Dean for his invitation to preach tonight. I am greatly pleased to enjoy worshipping with you here today.

You may well wonder why James has invited an art critic to address matters of finance; a bit like asking Mervyn King to give us his thoughts on Rembrandt, perhaps. But the Dean’s memory is long. When I first left University I worked as a Merchant banker here and in America. But that was a long time ago, and, it’s not my fault, honest!

If you want the Art History your Director of Music has happily provided for us Morton Lauridsen’s helpful thoughts on the wonderful still lifes of Zurbarán.

We meet, as we have prayed, on the Eve of the Queen’s Accession to the throne of her father, the late King and Emperor George VI, who died at Sandringham House on 6 February 1952. Two days later, after she had flown back from Africa, the twenty five year old Princess Elizabeth was proclaimed Queen of the United Kingdom, the very estate of which is once again subject to some discussion, in some political quarters, in some parts of the Union.

So tomorrow we begin a year of Diamond Jubilee in which, whatever our views on the rights and wrongs of non elective, dynastic monarchies in the 21st century, whatever our aspirations for the peoples of Scotland, the ‘Lothian question’ and the peoples of England, we might well reflect that for the past sixty years the Queen has served, and I use the word advisedly, as head of The Church of England (and, by a strange Victorian quirk, also that of the Church of Scotland) and that her public duty to the countries of the Commonwealth has been a singular mark of her Christian obedience before God to serve Him in others.

We meet also mindful that this past Thursday was Candlemass, the Feast day of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and so, in a time honoured way ever since 1352, today is your Second Name Day, for your College as one founded by the citizenry of the guilds of Corpus Christi and that of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I hope, therefore, not to be accused of lèse-majesté in choosing the first reading for tonight’s evensong, a passage which, while it is not familiar in the public course of reading the Bible in the church each year, is echoed, deliberately so, in The Magnificat, the Song of Mary, that the Choir has so expressively sung for us.

For in Hannah’s prayer, at the fifth verse of the second chapter of the I Book of the Prophet Samuel we read: ‘They that were full have hired out themselves for bread, but they that were hungry ceased’ and at the seventh we find: ‘The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich; he bringeth low and lifteth up’.

A world turned upside down; a world of our own constructing and of our own financing can never be God’s world.

As Rudyard Kipling has it:
‘Cities and Thrones and Powers,
Stand in Time’s eye,
Almost as long as flowers,
Which daily die:’

The kingdoms of men are at odds with God’s order since all must fall away. This, I hasten to add, is not an unseasonal call to regicide but rather a comment on our fallen world in which all that we contrive and all that we construct with money is only ever partial.

Perhaps if nothing else the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, and the subsequent occupations of other major cities, including London with the camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, is a stark reminder of just how readily we forget this, in each generation. If we are to learn any lessons from the encampment that since October has been found room outside London’s cathedral after being hounded away from the London Stock Exchange, their designated centre of action, it is surely to ask ‘with the world flourishing and progressing, people living longer and longer, wealth multiplying, who is going to believe in another reality?’

‘The state of the world is revealing to us the proximity of another kingdom, another kingdom which will overtake it; and the very people who once loved the world are now revolted by it.
‘The world’s chaos proclaims that we should not love it. If someone’s house became unstable and threatened to collapse, would the y not flee? Surely, those who cherished it when it stood would be the first to run away if it began to collapse. If the world is collapsing, and yet we persist in loving it, then we are effectively preferring to be overwhelmed by it than to live in it. When love blinds us to our bondage, the ruin of the world will become inseparable from our own self-destruction.
‘It is easier for us to distance ourselves from the world around us when we see everything in such chaos. But in our Lord’s day, the situation was very different. The disciples were sent to preach the reality of an unseen kingdom at a time when everybody could see the kingdoms of this world flourishing….
‘With the world flourishing and progressing, people living longer and longer, wealth multiplying, who is going to believe in another reality? Who would ever prefer an unseen world to the tangible things in front of them?’

Those words are not mine, as it happens, but surely they address perfectly the issues raised by those who have encamped at Exeter, at Bristol, Sheffield, St Paul’s, and across America?

In fact they come from Pope Gregory the Great, writing very much at the end of the sixth century – he it was who sent St Augustine and forty monks from Rome to Canterbury at the end of his life, in 597. (Homily iv ‘On the Gospels’ 2-3, PL 76, cols 1090-2.)

So nothing new, then.

‘Cities and Thrones and Powers,
Stand in Time’s eye,
Almost as long as flowers,
Which daily die:’

When the world flourishes why would anybody in their right mind want to change it? When it is possible to get rich with an invention, or by lending monies that no one can afford to repay, or when it becomes desirable to drop your clothes in public on film for a commercial or to gain a few minutes of sexual and physical gratification, what’s not to like?

But what the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ disciples have shown us, however unwittingly, and in some cases unknowingly, is that this world, its financial goals and its distorted values is only a house of cards.

And for that, for that reminder, for that prompt, we can surely all be grateful?

‘The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich; he bringeth low and lifteth up’.God’s over-turning our petty world orders, our carefully, slavishly and lovingly created worlds of our own living is not the action of a malicious God but rather the reminder that in coming among us as man, in all our human frailty, at his Incarnation, He has already re-ordered the world. If we would have surety we will fail. Only if we can welcome into our hearts one who has nothing and has come to us without anything can we hope to understand God’s love and power and our place in God’s plan.

The ‘Occupy St Paul’s’ movement, whatever the headlines, has lacked any real sense of purposeful direction. By and large those whom I talked to outside St Paul’s last October felt a general malaise, a sense that all was not right, that Society was betrayed. That bankers were paid too much, that bonuses were too high. That something had to be done. And, if we are honest, I am sure that most of us can identify with that concern. One man with whom I spoke held an opportune banner: ‘What would Jesus do?’ it read. What indeed?

It is a fair question in many ways, especially when we learn that the Church of England has doubled its hedge fund investments in two years so that about 10% of its capital assets (reckoned as £5.5bn) is invested in Hedge Funds, as against 4% in 2009.

It is a question that I have heard many ask in very different circumstances.

But it is also a question that begins with the wrong premise. Jesus, no more than God, is not some hapless magician to be called up to wave a wand and to make all things right when we have screwed up big time. That sort of god would not be the God of Christian revelation and would not be a god worthy of our adoration and praise.

Rather the question should be; ‘What can I do in the name of Jesus?’

We are the Body of Christ. We stand for him in this world, marked by his sign at baptism, transformed daily by his anointing spirit. Christ Jesus, our guide and pioneer, will surely help us if we ask him to guide us, if we forgive others as they forgive us, if we love our neighbour as ourselves and if we remember that in serving others we can serve him who first called us.

If we learn nothing else let us at least remember Hannah’s song; ‘The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich; he bringeth low and lifteth up’.

Amen

The Revd Nicholas WS Cranfield FSA
Vicar, All Saints’ Blackheath

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