Thursday, 29 August 2013

To change the world

For the last few days I have been in Dublin at the Anglo Nordic Baltic Theological Conference, on Education, Ethos and Social Transformation. The following is a reflection following that conference.

'We teach to change the world'

We preach to change the world,
We pray to change the world.

We live, move, breath to change the world.

'Your kingdom come,
Your will be done':
Let the world be changed.

Let it be energised,
Aligned with your vision

By stroking against you

Lit up, salted, savoured, sweetened.

We pray to change the world.
We preach, I priest, to change the world.

And the world changed.

And then the Church cried out
In pain, in anger.

Decrying change,
Urging return:

Condemning as new and ungodly
The ways of the world
That we have shaped,
prayed in,
Fought for, struggled for,
shed and sweated blood for.

Your kingdom come

Only in polished mahogany
and jewelled crowns?

Your will be done

Only if it be the same
yesterday, today and forever?

We preach, teach, pray, priest
To change the world.

Let the world be changed.

(The title is a quotation from Stephen Brookfield's book 'Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher')

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Inheritance and Greed: a sermon

These are my sermon notes from Sunday 4th August:
Luke 12.13-21

 Todays readings are about inheritance and greed. It is interesting that the two are put together- puts issues of what we have and what we want very deliberately in a long term context.

And I know these are things that we are asking ourselves about. Just in the last year I have had several conversations with parishioners about inheritance. To take a few examples:

I have been approached by someone who doesnt come to church, but lives in the parish, asking if they could name me as their executor as they didnt trust their children to fulfill their wishes for their estate to go to charity, and didnt want to pay a solicitor (I said no, so dont all ask!).

I have had a heated debate with a friend in church about the rights and wrongs of inheritance tax, and whether as Christians we should prioritise the hopes and security of our children over all the other things we could do with our money.

And both PCCs have debated and adopted a legacies policy, addressing some of the common concerns people have over leaving a legacy to the church in their wills.

What questions nag away at you about inheritance?

Perhaps they are issues about what will happen with your money when you die. Will there be enough left to fulfill your childrens expectations or hopes? How much should you leave to charity, and how much to family? Will there be enough to pay for a funeral? What impact if any will inheritance tax have on the value of your estate? Who can you trust to be your executors? If you haven't thought about these things, please can I encourage you to do so:  I see many families after a death, and uncertainty about 'what they would have wanted' is a big worry, as are arguments about inheritance especially when someone dies without leaving a will.

Or perhaps you have questions about what will happen to your money before you die: will the pension be enough to pay for nursing home care if you need it? Will you have to sell your house to pay for care? Can you trust those who you might give power of attorney to, not to rip you off if you aren't able to take care of your own affairs any more? Will your family argue about your money?

Or perhaps your questions about inheritance refer to your own potential expectations. Who  benefits from the wills of your parents, grandparents, siblings? How much might they leave you? Will it all go on nursing home fees or can you expect a nice lump sum to pay off the mortgage or help your children buy their first home at some point? What if they change their minds and leave it all to the cats home instead?

These might not seem like particularly religious questions, but interestingly Jesus in the gospels talks more about money than any other subject. Todays gospel reading is very firmly focused on worries and family conflicts about inheritance.

And of course in the last week or so the papers have been full of Archbishop Justin talking about credit unions and how best as a church we can help those both in our churches and our wider community who are struggling with issues of debt and credit.

I  don't know very much about credit unions, but I have discovered that there is a local one based in Gilesgate and I have made contact with the co-ordinator and will be meeting with her in September. But I gather that one of the main things we can do that would help would be to invest some of any savings we may have with them, as they only work if there are enough investors to balance the would-be creditors.

What Jesus makes very clear in this story and others, is that what we do with our money is  a religious issue. Justin, when he was Bishop of Durham, called it Theology in Numbers. What we do with our money reveals what we really believe, what our values really are. What we do with our money can change the world and our communities for the better, working with God to build his Kingdom here on earth: or not. And if not, it may well be actively involved in doing evil rather than simply not doing good. It may be funding unethical companies- arms manufacturers, pornography dealers - if we simply leave it in the bank. Remember that factory collapse in Bangladesh earlier this year? The clothes we choose to buy, if we don't think about what we are buying, are probably being made in unsafe conditions and effectively upholding modern day slavery.  What we do with our money, now and after our deaths, is a gospel issue. You could even say, given how much Jesus spoke about money compared to other things, that it is the gospel issue.

But look at how today's gospel starts. Someone asks Jesus a question- 'tell my brother what to do!' And Jesus' reply is startling: 'Friend, who set me up to be judge over you?'. Now I don't know about you, but this isn't what I'd expect Jesus to say here. I rather tend to think of him as being set up as a judge over me. But he refuses that position.

And then what does he say? I first read this passage as 'don't be greedy', but that's not quite what he says. 'take care', he says. 'Be on your guard against all kinds of greed'. We know we are not meant to be greedy: Jesus tells us to be careful, to examine our motivations.

Jesus doesn't tell us what to do. He doesn't give us rules to follow about what we do with our money. How much easier it would be if he did, however challenging they might be! You can see the attraction of churches saying that everyone should give 10% of any earnings to God, for example: we might resent it as a rule, but at least we would know where we stand. And we could feel smug if we were doing it. But thats the great danger of rules and regulations: they encourage righteousness, smugness, guilt and hypocrisy, rather than encouraging responsibility, thoughtfulness, love and honesty.

'Jesus, tell us what we should do with our money' might be our prayer. But all too often I fear that we are even more like the man at the beginning of todays story, and what we are actually asking is 'Jesus, tell other people what they should do with their money'! Tell them to give us more of it. Tell them to spend it on things we approve of. Tell them to be more responsible so the welfare bill is lower and our taxes less taxing, or tell the government to spend more or less on the things we want more or less of.

But Jesus' reply remains, 'Friend, who set me up to be judge over you?'  Instead of giving us simple rules to apply, he tells us to take care, be on your guard against greed. To  examine our motivations, take responsibility for our own financial decisions. And in doing so, hear and reflect on the stories Jesus tells us about money: about life, and death, and jealousy, and excess, and greed, and investment and profit and eternity. To be aware of a bigger picture than our own comfort, our own families, our own church, our own lifetimes. To try to make our judgements in the light of something like a Gods eye view of the world, with a sense of Gods perspective of time and fairness and generosity.


Monday, 5 August 2013

Wedding Hymn

So, a twitter friend,  @artsyhonker, is getting married; and being a church organist has chosen her hymn tunes first and was struggling to find suitable words for one of them!

I love a challenge, so I had a go. The tune is 'Cornwall' (886 886): you can hear it here.
(this post has been edited 6th Aug, to add my thoughts and to change the text of the hymn a bit: thanks to Kathryn and Paul for comments).

My main inspiration - apart from having to fit that tune! - was the wedding service itself. It has always seemed odd to me that we don't have wedding hymns that celebrate the amazing vows that are being made. So as much as possible I have quoted from the wedding service. The first line, 'Unending love and faithfulness' is from the blessing of the rings: it fit the meter perfectly, so I knew I wanted it in there.

'All that I am I give to you, all that I have I share with you' is part of the words the couple say to each other at the exchange of the rings, and has always seemed to me to be the most amazing words any one can promise to another person.

The second verse begins a version of the sentence that opens the wedding service, 'God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them'. Apart from being a lovely phrase, it seems particularly helpful and appropriate for use in a context where many at least of the guests, and often one or more of the couple, are a little agnostic about their faith: it helpfully explains God in terms of the love that everyone is there to celebrate, and assures everyone that they can speak of God in this context with a clear conscience.

I was also very conscious that, whilst this is a commissioned piece and I wanted it to be meaningful for the couple involved to sing, it needed to work sung by the whole congregation. So places where it uses 'our' are deliberately slightly ambiguous, referring both to the couple and to the congregation. And the direct quote from the vows is in inverted commas.

Finally, I was conscious at the back of my mind that I wanted to make sure this could be sung at a same sex commitment ceremony (and indeed by feminists!), so I wanted to focus on celebrating the quality of commitment rather than any particular baggage about what marriage has meant historically.

I don't think this is particularly brilliant poetry, if I'm honest, but it does work better sung to the tune (try it!).
I really enjoyed the challenge...and am inspired to try to write more hymn words for places where the canon seems to have gaps!

Unending love and faithfulness
We sing with heartfelt thankfulness
And celebrate today;
Commitment, comfort, honour, joy
Our hearts and minds and tongues employ
And may our lives display.

For God is love: living in love
We live in God, and God above
Our hearts and lives enfolds.
Family and friends to share our bliss   (NB, 'Family' needs to be sung 'Fam'ly'!)
Our joy, our heaven on earth is this     (Acknowledgement: this line is from Wesley)
All love this love upholds.

All that I am I give to you
All that I have I share with you”:
These vows fill us with awe.
This promise will be our delight
Our inspiration day and night
From this day evermore.

You're welcome to use these words if you would like to under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported licence.