Friday, 24 October 2008

November News from St. Cuthbert's

The new November issue of St. Cuthbert's Parish Magazine is now out.

If you've got the hard copy print edition, apologies for the printing which is rather fainter than it should be. The even worse news is that we have to find a new printer from next month (any ideas?) or do it ourselves. The thought of struggling with our photocopier and then getting a team to collate, fold and staple is not enticing.

The alternative is simply to click here! - and hope that the uploading process has worked...

Sunday, 19 October 2008

A timely perspective on God and Money?...

22nd Sunday after Trinity - Year A

Preached by the Revd. Martin Jackson,
Vicar of St. Cuthbert's

Lectionary: Isaiah 45.1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22

In an attempt to catch him out, the Pharisees - conniving with the government party of the Herodians - ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?...” And Jesus replies, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” They bring him a denarius. And Jesus looks at it and says, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

Most people will know this story well. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” If Jesus says “yes”, then not only will he lose popularity with the people… He will also be seen to cause offence as a religious teacher who advocates the acknowledgement of foreign pagan sovereignty. He will lose credibility and authority. But if he says “no, don’t pay the tax,” then he can be portrayed as advocating rebellion against the imperial power – and Herod’s lackeys are there to report what he says. Now Jesus is supposed to tell the people what he thinks.

Of course Jesus could vacillate. He could try pointing to the benefits of imperial rule with its possibilities for trade, its advantages of law and order, the political stability that it has brought – the jobs it has created with all those wonderfully straight roads, viaducts, acqueducts and the rest. We might expect him to. If we don’t like paying Council Tax, we’ve still got to acknowledge that it pays for services that we need.

But Jesus knows that this isn’t a matter for debate. It’s treated by his opponents as a basic issue of allegiance. Is Jesus really a religious teacher with authority, preaching a message which can set people free? - or is he an advocate of subservience to foreign paganism?

Of course we know the answer Jesus will give. Take a look at the coinage you use to pay the tax. Whose head is on the coin, what’s the inscription? To which his opponents have to answer “The emperor’s.” So, he says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

I don’t think many people today have a problem with the idea that the use of our nation’s civil currency requires us to be any less Christian in our attitude than the use of some alternative - after all, what is the alternative? St. Francis of Assisi might have refused to use money - and ordered his followers to put it where, for him it belonged: on the dung heap. But how else do we pay for all the things we need? Who can grow their own food, make the basic necessities of life, and then barter the goods they have produced for others which they need? How are you going to get your gas or electricity without a cheque or a standing order? How are you going to put fuel in your car without a credit card? They’re all forms of money. And “money makes the world go round…”

But perhaps we need to take more seriously the idea that our attitude to money is about our basic allegiance - that it says something about where our loyalties truly lie. In the time of Jesus it was about whether Roman currency could be used, whether you could use a coin which had the head of an emperor who claimed divine status - and if you used that coin it might be argued that you were devaluing the God you should worship. Now we have a monarch whose coins bear the inscription, “Defender of the faith,” so the problem may seem to be solved for Christians. But perhaps the financial uncertainties of the last few weeks should make us think again… Have we simply trusted too much in money? Get enough and everything will be alright. Build up your savings and your pension fund, and you’ll be able to live without anxiety. As banks crash and mortgages disappear and falling shares reduce the value of pensions invested in them, it seems we need to think again.

Here’s a prayer which forms part of Psalm 17, and which I found myself saying at Morning Prayer on Friday of last week:

Deliver me, O Lord, by your hand •
from those whose portion in life is unending,
Whose bellies you fill with your treasure, •

who are well supplied with children
and leave their wealth to their little ones.

In other words, “don’t rich people get you down?” We’ve heard that refrain especially over the last few days - that the people who’ve been running our banks have been out mainly to make big money for themselves, that no longer must they be allowed to award themselves fat bonuses… Their portion in life really does seem unending and they’ve got the belly for more. But we need to be careful. On Thursday morning, we used Psalm 15 with its understanding of what makes for a godly life:

Who does no evil to a friend •
and pours no scorn on a neighbour…
Whoever has sworn to a neighbour •
and never goes back on that word…

All this is fine, of course - but then the Psalmist continues:

Who does not lend money in hope of gain •
nor takes a bribe against the innocent;
Whoever does these things •
shall never fall.

I hope we don’t take bribes against the innocent, but isn’t the whole basis of the western banking system the idea that we lend money not merely with the hope but with the intention of gain? And you can’t avoid it. With very few exceptions, every newly-born child in this country is given £250 to be invested in a “Child Trust Fund.” He or she receives another £250 at the age of seven. And the money can’t be touched until they’re 18. The whole idea is laudable - it’s to give them a “good start” in life, and it’s an investment which will gain interest. But at the same time it means they’re going to have to learn to use money “in the hope of gain,” as the Psalmist puts it. Perhaps we need to ask again where that is getting us.

The fact is that the government invests money on behalf of each child because they’re soon going to learn how much they need money. If they go into Higher Education they’ll face filling in forms which will commit them to years of debt to cover university fees and loans. And they’ll find financial advice that they should take out bigger loans than they might need, because they might be able to invest that money at a higher rate of interest than the loan repayment will require. Then when they get a job they can perhaps find themselves with more money and still more credit so that they can take out a mortgage. And from there they can join every other house owner in the country in taking pleasure at rising house prices or finding despondency and anxiety as the market falls. No one is immune, because those of us who don’t own houses wonder if we’ll ever be able to afford to.

Nearly everyone has become caught up in the pursuit of material things - and especially money. If you had money in a building society that turned itself into a bank, you suddenly found yourself a shareholder. I’d never wanted to own shares, but when I found myself given some and plotted their rise in value from £7 or so to more than £12 it felt good. When they fell back to the original level, I told myself they’d rise again. And now they’re worth less than a pound each. I should have got out sooner, I sometimes think. But actually I think the experience has been good for me. It shows what an empty thing money is. I’d never bought the shares in the first place. They just happened. Someone said they were quite valuable. And now they’ve been found out… They’re simply dust, and in dust there is no hope.

At Morning Prayer on Friday, having said Psalm 17, the prayer that followed asked this:

Generous Lord,
deliver us from all envious thoughts,
and when we are tempted by the desire for wealth,
let us see your face;
for your abundance is enough to clothe our lack;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

“… when we are tempted by the desire for wealth, let us see your face…” We talk about the “face” of a coin - and the profile of the monarch, whether the Emperor in the time of Jesus, or our Queen today, is her face from the side. But when we consider where true wealth is to be found we need to seek another face, the face of God. When the notional value of your house falls, but it’s still probably quite a bit more than the amount you paid for it, you need to ask - what makes me truly wealthy? If the fall in house prices has left you trapped in negative equity, then you’re in really difficult circumstances - and it’s a reminder to us all that money doesn’t merely help us acquire what we want; it can damage people’s livelihoods and families.

There’s no escaping the use of money, and here perhaps we need a reminder that the verse in the Bible which goes to the heart of our dilemma over its use is not “Money is the root of all evil.” What you find if you look up the First Letter to Timothy is that we’re warned: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

Where do we direct our love? Where is it worth investing our energy for the greatest return? Jesus was challenged with the choice between God and money. And each has their place. But the final words need to be those of Jesus: “Give to God the things that are God’s.” We need to recognise the illusory nature of worldly wealth and the hollow claims that so much of life’s busy-ness makes upon us. From the beginning we are God’s creation, his children. We are called to recognise his love and forgiveness, and his grace to support and strengthen us day by day. And we are called to give back to him what he truly deserves. We need to discover again that this requires effort on our part and time: to make time for prayer and worship, to be ready to listen to him and learn from him. And if we make that sort of investment, we can expect to see the return.

Friday, 17 October 2008

A Golden Couple

Last weekend saw the celebrations of parishioners Sammie & Alan Hewlett's 50th Wedding Anniversary. Saturday 11th October was the actual day - celebrated with a Ceilidh in the Church Hall, and continuing the following day with a presentation in St. Cuthbert's Church and delicious cake.

Typically, we failed to get a picture of Alan and Sammie together, so separate pictures show Alan holding forth on the joys and achievements of their years together, and Sammie responding in like manner.

The original wedding dress was on display throughout the weekend (and later, drawing the curiosity of Brownies when they met on Monday). Sammie still fits into it, but sadly didn't demonstrate.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

What not to wear - a sermon for Trinity 21

This sermon is by Paul Heatherington, one of our Readers. Or it would be - if I could get the document to up-load properly! Sorry I can't provide a working link.

Paul looks at St. Matthew's take on the invitations to attend the king's son's wedding feast (not the one illustrated at Cana, though I wonder if this was in Jesus' mind when he told his original story) - and he makes a good point about connections with themes in the Isaiah reading given as the Old Testament reading for Trinity 21. I'd be interested in exploring further the contrasts with St. Luke's take on the story. Why is there so much violence in Matthew's version? Why the point in Matthew about the man who came wrongly dressed being thrown out "into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth"?

In short, I wonder if Matthew really "gets" the point of the story? This wonderful image of a king / God, who distributes "admit for free" invitations without limit - but mustn't there be a catch?

Isn't that the problem so often with the Church? We can't quite grasp the sheer limitlessness of God's grace, so we look for the catch. We try to explain the parables, rather than simply let them speak. Matthew seems to be trying to apply this story to a world of violence and rejection. He wants it to be relevant to his readers. But the problem of seeking relevance is that we straightway limit the Gospel message. We need to let Christ speak for himself.

How... is the quandary that the Vicar of St. Cuthbert's is wrestling with. I'd like you to be able to read Paul's sermon, and have a think about it yourself. But until I can get our "esnips" account working properly...

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Harvest Gratitude - Uncertainties and Anxieties

The interactive homily I shared at our Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist has been evolving on the weekdays since - as I've been developing it at assemblies in our local schools. The main thrust of my approach has been to ask the children what people get anxious about (cf Matthew 6.25: "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink..."). Alarmingly the children - aged 4 to 11 - have picked up on every point that I wanted to illustrate: financial uncertainty, banks, mortgages, energy and fuel costs. And when I've asked them what people say they need, it's been the same refrain: up-to-date mobile phone, Play Station, fashionable clothes... They're really too young to get all these answers. But it's a warning as to how astute they may be, how they may pick up on adult anxieties, and how they're already fashioned with materialistic assumptions.

The assemblies in fact were great... joyful occasions, and the children see the point of thankfulness. For any clergy who moan about having to do a school assembly, I think they need to ask what they think they're in business for. Grumpy as I might be beforehand, assemblies (nearly) always cheer me up. And these are all normal state schools - no church schools in this parish.

And I've been reflecting on just what I have to learn from the last few days. Yesterday evening I loaded up the car (a Citroen Berlingo which is really a rattly van with windows) with the offerings made at our Harvest Eucharist. Even with the back seats down, the bags and boxes had to be piled up. Cause for self-congratulation as I headed off to The People's Kitchen in Newcastle to deliver our offering for their work with homeless people. I knew that they would be open for free meals, warmth and hospitality - but the gates for the car park and entrance to the food store were locked. Reality hit home when I went to the main door. There was quite a lively crowd of "customers" gathered there, but amid the hubbub and strong whiff of alcohol, I identified a volunteer worker. I began to say why I'd come, but then realised that some of the raised voices were about a young woman with quite a deep cut in her hand. The volunteer was trying to offer advice on what to do while having to deal with all the other advice her friends were offering him - and me turning up just to confuse matters.

I felt chastened. Homeless people are not just passive victims who wait for and gratefully receive our charity. Many of them are young, strong, opinionated, addicted. When open wounds and blood (and all its attendant risks) come into the equation, that's a lot to handle. But day-after-day that's exactly what is going on at the People's Kitchen.

We unloaded the goods which were speedily locked away. Then I found my diary wasn't in its usual jacket pocket. Had it fallen out in the car? (it wasn't there). Had I dropped it into one of the bags or boxes? Was it somewhere on the floor of the store room? Or had it been opportunely removed from my pocket? I could only say that there was nothing of monetary value in it, and that it had my contact details inside. It also had the contact details of quite a lot of other people, and I had visions of what might happen if someone looking further than the centre of Newcastle decided to visit my parishioneers and other contacts.

Very unworthy of me... Thankfully the diary was sitting on my desk back at the Vicarage. But it was a reminder of a harsh world which most of us merely glimpse, the need for proper security and the reality of what charity calls us to do - and what those people at the People's Kitchen do so much more of. Above all it's a reminder of our need for thankfulness.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Harvest Time is here again

... and you're not going to find a scripted sermon to go with it.

I've some ideas as to what I'll say tomorrow morning - and some visual aids. But visual aids and homilies are rather superflous, I suspect, on a Harvest Festival Sunday. The whole church will be a visual aid - thanks to the skill of those who decorate it. And it's an occasion for real participation as people bring up their harvest gifts - we encourage everyone, but it will be the children who take the lead.

This year we're going to use an introduction to the Offering of Harvest Gifts from Common Worship's volume Times and Seasons. It starts like this:

Let us bring forward symbols of the harvest,
gifts that God has created and his sun and rain have nurtured.
Thanks be to God.

Bring forward the harvest of the cornfields,
the oats and the wheat, the rye and the barley.
Thanks be to God.

Bring forward the harvest of roots,
the swedes and mangolds, turnips and sugar beet.
Thanks be to God.

Bring forward the harvest of seeds for next year’s crops,
for clover, for hay and for corn.
Thanks be to God....

And continues in like manner. Because we take our Harvest offering to a centre which works with homeless people we ask people to bring dried food, tins, tea, coffee, toiletries etc which can be stored. So we may invite people, "Bring forward the mangolds!" but we'd have a long wait if we expected them to appear.

And what is a mangold? Also known as a mangel - and more properly as a mangold-wurzel - I think it's time we brought it back into our harvest services. It's a form of beet, generally fed to cattle, but also popular - it seems - for hurling (at whom or what?). I guess you have to move in the right circles. See the picture to recognise it when it's in growth mode.

R. S. Thomas, famously grumpy Welsh priest and poet - and a very good thing - mentions the mangel in his poem, A Peasant:

Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,
Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,
Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.
Docking mangels, chipping the green skin
From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin
Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth
To a stiff sea of clods that glint in the wind -
So are his days spent, his spittled mirth
Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks
Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week.
And then at night see him fixed in his chair
Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.
There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.
His clothes, sour with years of sweat
And animal contact, shock the refined,
But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.
Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season
Against siege of rain and the wind's attrition,
Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
Not to be stormed, even in death's confusion.
Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,
Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.

All rather better than the sugary fare which many might prefer for Harvest Thanksgiving. Perhaps it should be required reading in place of a homily?

Meanwhile, a team of St. Cuthbert's folk has been getting things sorted out in preparation for our Harvest Lunch. I suggested that perhaps I should miss out the preaching bit tomorrow. "Oh no, you can't do that," was the response. "We need time for the jacket potatotoes to cook."
You can learn more about mangel-hurling by clicking on this link. The site is well worth a look!