It is our duty and our joy
A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter
Readings for this service: Luke 6.17-26
Our Gospel today is from Luke and Jesus is presented at his most outspoken and challenging. He presents us with stark contrasts. First the poor and then the rich. Notice unlike in Matthew’s Gospel he doesn’t say “blessed are the poor in spirit.” He is much more direct than that. He says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” No escaping that. More challenging still is when he starts to attack the rich: “Woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now for you shall be hungry.” These are tough words. Unlike in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus calls his followers up a mountain here in Luke he speaks to them on a plain. No high position here it’s as though they are all on the level- all equal before God. No special privileges rather we are all called to give account for the way we live and the way we share all that has been given us.
Jesus words challenged then and they must challenge now. No one who hears this gospel can have failed to notice the vast and disturbing inequalities of our time and the amount of deprivation, need, and destitution not only in our world but in our own capital city. You must have seen the level of homelessness just getting here along the Strand this morning. Human need, poverty, suffering challenges us. How do we use the gifts and resources we have, what choices should we make?
I saw a man driving a very expensive car yesterday
A Rolls Royce it was,
down a narrow London street, past the bundled blankets and mess of the rough sleepers, and the man with mental health needs shouting on the corner.
For a moment this car was hemmed in by a Tesco truck.
I imagined how anxious the driver would be not to scratch its sleek polished sides.
I wondered who it was we could see in the back seat beyond the shaded glass
I wondered how much of the real world they were missing
Its touch, its smell, its grime, its love
Behind the glass they were like an exhibit in the British museum.
Preserved in a controlled environment
We all need the chance sometimes to travel in style and to taste luxury
But we also need the chance to get out and walk.
I wonder how many lives could be transformed for the cost of that car.
The widow’s mite
He was on the steps of our church and trembling with the cold
He told me that it had rained heavily in the night and his clothes had been soaked while sleeping.
He was wrapped in a sky-blue crocheted baby’s blanket and shaking so much I was worried he had hyperthermia
Some of those who had come for morning prayer responded with such kindness and encouraged him to come into the warmth of the church while another went off to get him a hot cup of sweet tea.
It was a very cold morning but he was only wearing just a thin cotton jacket.
“You need a jumper” I said
Another homeless young man rummaged in his small bag.
“Here take this” he said, pulling out a warm long sleeve sweatshirt and leaving his own bag nearly empty.
The trembling man pulled on the sweatshirt with the help of the one who gave it.
And he drank his sweet tea.
I could not forget the generosity of that homeless young man’s gift
More than half of all that was in his now nearly empty bag
And all day long I too felt warmed by the gift of that sweatshirt and the kindness of the parishioner who had brought the hot tea.
I bought a sleeping bag at a camping shop last year
It was an expensive one- a three-season sleeping bag
It was warm and pleasing, the way good quality things are.
One day, I was asked, as I often am, by a man at the International Group who I knew was homeless –
For a sleeping bag
But I had none left, only this one which was mine.
It felt wasteful to buy a sleeping bag for your own holiday and then just give it away.
But I thought of this man trying to sleep on the street
It kept nagging at me
He will use it far more than me.
Or was it the realisation that if I didn’t give it I would never be warm?
So I gave it to him, somewhat grudgingly.
He took it without realising how much it had cost, that giving.
Took it with no more thank you than if it had been a cheap one.
A few weeks later I saw him again and asked him:
“How’s that sleeping bag”
“It’s really dirty now” he said “from sleeping on the streets”
“Yes but it’s warm” I said.
“Yes it’s warm,” he said “and waterproof in the rain – the best sleeping bag I have ever had.”
I felt good when he said that
I had not just given him any old sleeping bag
I had given him the best I had.
I tell these stories because all of us are constantly are surrounded by these moral dilemmas. What is ours? What does that mean? And what should we share. I have begun to realise that Jesus in the Gospel is not attacking anyone. Is he not rather sharing an important truth? The truth that we are all on the plain. We are all equal before God. We are all in some ways rich and in some ways poor but all called to account. Blessing is not a right – it’s a realisation of our own humanity, it’s the realisation that our lives are all gift. That we are actually interdependent. We need one another and we need God. All of us are dependent on the gifts of God. We do not own life, God does. We all need to be filled.
And the reverse realisations also true. Riches, wealth, self-interest and plenty by themselves will not ultimately bring blessing. These are not things in which we can put our ultimate trust. Wealth of itself is not an eternal treasure. Instead the Gospels show us a different way. The meaning of GIFT. When we give, we give the most precious gift we have. We give what is alive in us, we give our joy, our attention our understanding, our knowledge, our humour, our anxiety our compassion, we give the manifestation of that which is alive in us. We are giving our humanity. In this giving we enrich the other person. But the giving cannot help but bring something to life and enrich us too. In truly giving we cannot help receiving.
This real exchange and sharing of gifts is at the heart of all community and relationship. It is not a one-way thing. It is mutual a to and fro of gift. We reflect God’s generosity. It is what binds us together and unites us with others. It is what makes flourishing possible. A system which creates a sense of entitlement or privilege quickly divides and disempowers. It makes us dependents rather than members of Christ’s body.
To deny a person the opportunity of giving is the worst form of poverty. A person becomes dependent- a beggar. The whole theology of Jesus’s incarnation is about releasing in us all the grace and the gifts of God. Time and time again we witness that when we recognise in those who seemingly have least- the power to give, then we begin to see the meaning of Mary’s Magnificat. In the Gospel the receiver of God’s grace and mercy becomes the sharer of that grace. In the South Pacific, where I lived, when they build a house in a village many people come together to help. They sow the roof of the house together from sago palm and there is a sense that it is this weaving together and sharing of gifts that they are able to make a single roof and build a shared community. Each member of the community offers what they can land, wood, or leaf, or binding, or food or time or skill How true this is of church too. We do not come to church as consumers but those who are called to sow together, to weave the roof of God’s house in which all can gather and be fed.
We often see Giving Sunday as the Sunday in which the church, as something separate from us, wants our money. But it is not. We are that church. We are the body of Christ and we who receive from Christ are also given the opportunity to share our gifts. Again and again I am completely staggered by the kindness and generosity of this community. And I am also amazed by the opportunities and diversity of life this church offers. Ofcourse we all like to give the gifts which are visible and have visible outcomes. Nothing wrong with that. But often the most valuable gift of all is the gift that goes unseen and pays the hidden cost which makes life of the community possible, which makes this church and all it stands for possible. We want to meet a particular need but forget that unless this church was open and lit and heated and staffed and cared for- there would be no place for that need to be met. We want to give a sleeping bag rather than contribute to paying for a church that is warm and whose door is open everyday and which goes on and on offering its gifts to all who enter.
On the portico of our church there are some great posters. I always feel hopeful when I read them. They say things like: “When there is no where to turn, we are here.” “This beautiful building provides sanctuary from the busy pace of London life.” “It’s our mission to build stronger futures through understanding, companionship and opportunity” or “Our doors are open to all from a quick coffee to a life time of discovery and everything in between” “We help asylum seekers to feel safe and welcomed.” “We stage inspiring concerts and support young musicians to reach their dreams” “We understand that everyone is equal not only in the eyes of God but in the eyes of humanity.” We’ve all glimpsed the truth of this vision and the realisation of the blessing. But the kingdom of God is not here yet. It needs each one of us. it really does – to realise that vision and to live that blessing. For it is our duty and our joy both to receive and to give. Today’s gospel is a call to live to become part of this generous giving and receiving, receiving and giving. So that all of us can witness God’s abundance.