A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on September 10, 2023 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Focus on Finance Sunday
We’ve just celebrated the baptism of young Wilf. I want to ask a simple question. What kind of a community do we hope St Martin’s will be if and when Wilf comes to have his own child baptised here in say 30 years’ time? I want to attempt to answer that question in a general and a particular way. Let’s start with the general.
Beyond the immediate consequences of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, I sense our society experiences three principal challenges. The first is the climate emergency. The second is the likely impact of artificial intelligence. The third is the threat to democracy coming from populist leaders and movements in the US and elsewhere. I want to show how St Martin’s is shaped to make significant responses to all three.
In relation to the climate emergency, what the world needs is a change of heart by which we cease to understand human flourishing as coming at the expense of the planet, and increasingly see our flourishing as coinciding with and enhancing the flourishing of the planet. We need to live not just sustainably but in ways that positively enrich the wider creation. St Martin’s, through its green initiatives and its almost inaccessibility by vehicle, is already doing that. It needs to become more integral to our identity; but we’re well on the way.
In relation to AI, the crucial thing AI can never give us happens to be the single thing St Martin’s values most highly: the capacity to be in genuine, respectful and profound relationship with one another, across social, economic and racial boundaries, and through doing so to be in relationship with God. In our Sunday International Group, Being With courses and cafes, even our after-service coffee hour, we’re seeking to model what such relationships are like. We’re trying humbly to offer an alternative to what could soon become the world’s biggest problem.
In relation to the threat to democracy, we need to model ways of relating to one another on contested issues and finding constructive ways to disagree that reverse the breakdown of civil discourse and don’t cancel or ostracise or demonise others. Again, in our education programmes and in the extensive and dynamic programme of artistic events all around the site, we’re trying to present an alternative to the abrasive and disrespectful tendency of leaders offering simplistic solutions and rhetoric that tramples on the carefully calibrated balance of our constitution. I’d like to think last week’s intense but courteous debate over Israel and Palestine in our first Autumn lecture was a healthy and invigorating example of that.
I hope if Wilf brings his own child for baptism here in 30 years’ time, he’ll experience an institution that embodies and models healthy and life-giving responses to these three challenges, which I suspect will still be with us, and to the new challenges that will doubtless surface in the intervening years.
Now I want to be more specific about what I hope and pray will be the St Martin’s of Wilf’s adult years. I’ve come to the realisation that an enormous number, perhaps a majority of people in our culture have in their latent imaginations an assumed story that goes something like this. Long ago, in fact in a mode of existence we can’t really describe as time, they had a foundational conversation with God. In that conversation they were no doubt busy with something or other, and God interrupted them with a remarkable proposition, which went something like this. ‘I’m going to guarantee you comfort, security, decent health and significant fulfilment, and on those conditions, I’d like you to agree to be born.’ They obviously pondered the matter, but after significant reflection they agreed to go ahead with the deal. Now, all these years into life, there’s a sense of resentment. They, after all, have kept their side of the bargain: they were indeed born. But God has not kept the bargain. God has not provided the full promise of comfort, security, decent health and significant fulfilment, and they feel badly let down.
The secret that you’re well aware of but seems to have largely been forgotten is that there never was any such conversation. There never was any such deal. The whole notion that we’re entitled to anything in life is a total and complete fantasy. It’s all gift. Every single tiny element of it. Even the bits we feel we worked hard for – because don’t you see, we worked with hands and feet and a brain and colleagues and raw materials all of which are a total and utter gift. The last thing we should feel about our lives is a sense of entitlement. The first thing we should feel about our lives is an overwhelming, humbling, constant and transformative sense of gratitude. Gratitude is our first and most abiding form of relation to God.
If you walk across the countryside or drive from town to town, in every community you see a church – sometimes several. And what’s the effect of that assortment of churches, dotted around the landscape? They may tell you there’s a community of faith everywhere. They may tell you that people of faith and means built churches out of a range of pure and mixed motives. But more than anything else, every single one of them should be a reminder to us of gratitude for creation, for life, for existence, for God’s love and presence among us.
It should be obvious to everyone that every single one of those churches dotted around the landscape needs paying for. The building needs upkeep and insurance, the clergy need to be trained and remunerated and provided with pensions; if there’s going to be any music or programming during the week or proactive communication or genuine activism there’s likely to be money needed to ensure it’s done reliably, and someone needs to pay for central administration and leadership. For all our many and diverse activities at St Martin’s, we’re no different. But offering money in a collection plate or through a bank account or QR code isn’t fundamentally about paying these bills. It’s about gratitude.
God’s creative gifts, the love of God displayed in the life of Christ, the empowerment of the community through the work of the Holy Spirit: these are not services rendered we pay for, like a subscription to a newspaper or a membership of a gym. These are graces that shower us and overwhelm us and surround us and embrace us, for which no payment could ever suffice, that no sacrifice could ever match, no service ever offset. Church is the physical form by which we communicate our gratitude to God. Why can’t we just close our eyes every day and number our blessings and thank God for them? We can of course do that, and should. But being thankful doesn’t just mean saying thank you. It means shaping our whole lives to be ones of gratitude and generosity, ensuring not just we but all God’s children hear, embrace and enjoy the wonder of God’s love, practising over and over again our response to the way God is present to us in Christ, and cherishing the stories and example Jesus gave us so we may be built up as Christ’s body to be as he was and do as he did. The name for all these things is church.
Beyond our own lives and the existence of the universe themselves, the chief gifts of God are traditionally described as forgiveness and eternal life. Forgiveness turns our past from a prison of pain into a storehouse of wisdom; eternal life turns our future from a panic of oblivion into a hope of glory. No bargain could entitle us to these things. No payment could ever remotely come near them. They are literally priceless. How do we respond to them? Again not by nodding from time to time in God’s direction and saying, ‘Much obliged.’ Instead by ordering our lives, and that includes our money, in such a way that our gratitude to God is the first thing we express in the morning and the last thing at night, that our gratitude to God is the context of every decision and the guiding principle of every life-choice, and that offering back to God a significant gesture of thanks and praise is the first item on our monthly household budget not the one we get round to if there’s anything left. We don’t give to the church to pay the bills – we give because church is the principal way in which we express our gratitude to God for all the things beyond price God has given us.
I’ve offered two contexts that describe church. I’ve described how I believe St Martin’s is seeking to model a vibrant and vigorous response to what I judge to be the greatest challenges of our time. I’ve also outlined how I understand giving money to church to be the first item on our household budget and not the last, because it’s a direct, sacrificial, and appropriately demanding way of expressing our limitless gratitude for God’s infinite gifts. In combining the general and the particular I’ve tried to imagine how we can become a church where Wilf would be proud to worship in 30 years’ time. For the next month we as a congregation will be reflecting on how we each may respond to this invitation.
My challenge to you is this. You may put cash in the plate when you’re here: would you consider making a regular covenant through the bank so you’re still giving when you can’t be here? You may join online, sometimes or always: would you consider giving as sacrificially as if you were in the building? You may be giving a certain sum per month: would you consider increasing that amount in line with inflation, or even by 20, 50 or maybe at a real stretch 100 per cent? You may be giving regularly: would you consider a one-off additional donation to aid this month’s campaign? You may be giving at the outer limit of your generosity: would you consider making St Martin’s a significant beneficiary of your will?
That’s the challenge of this month of reflection and action together. If we’re not giving, consider giving. If we’re giving a little, maybe we could give more. If we’re giving a lot, maybe we could consider a way to give after we’ve gone. Remember George Herbert’s words, ‘Thou that hast giv’n so much to me, Give one thing more, a gratefull heart.’ We give, not from duty, but from joy. We give, not from entitlement, but from gratitude. We give, not just because there are bills to pay, but because God has made us the first item on the divine budget, so we make God the first item on our human one. We give, because perhaps we all, in great ways or small, can give one thing more. God gave us life, existence and creation – and then in giving us Jesus, God gave us one thing more. In return we give many things, but perhaps, right now, one thing more. I wonder what that one thing more may be for you this month.