The Fat and The Lean

Sunday 18th July 2010
The Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Genesis 41:1-16; 41:25-37

There could hardly be a more appropriate text for our times than the passage from the Book of Genesis about the seven fat years followed by the seven lean years; indeed, it has become such a cliché that it has entered leader columns and the seminar room. And how could we quarrel? We clearly lived in a period of unequalled prosperity from the end of the economic down-turn in the mid 1990s until that fateful morning in September 2008 when we woke up to the dreadful news of the collapse of Lehmann Brothers, such a terrible shock that in its economic forecast for August 2008 the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee saw no possibility of an economic down-turn. Which might go to show that the dreams of Pharaoh and the interpretations of Joseph were more reliable than the prognostications of economists!

But most of those who repeat the Genesis story completely miss the point. Joseph and Pharaoh, warned of the prospect of lean years, saved all they could in the fat years to prepare for what was coming. What about us?

Now I don't want to get into a party political wrangle about prudence and the end of boom and bust; but anybody could see by the early years of this decade that we could not go on ramping up asset prices, pocketing the windfalls and just hoping it would go on forever. It never does. And last time I was here I reminded us that the people who carried out the financial engineering and those who benefited from it were not aliens from another planet; we were the people who did the engineering, or our relatives and friends; and we were the people whose house prices went up and who profited from de-mutualising banks and the unrealistic rise of share prices that boosted our pension pots. We will have to leave it to our own consciences to assess what combination of imprudence and greed accounted for what we did; but I do not think we can wash our hands and blame it on a small clique of wicked people in the City.

And meanwhile, while the country - and most of us - enjoyed a lifestyle which even our parents could not have imagined only 20 years ago, the gap between the rich and the poor widened.

What struck me about the hand wringing after the collapse in The City was the extent to which the focus was not on unemployed cleaners or secretaries but on bankers, most of whom slipped nicely into other jobs as the bail-out proceeded, and many of whom even slipped into new regulatory jobs as poachers turned game-keepers. And it was not long afterwards that financiers in that very same City, who had brought the catastrophe upon us, then started to preach to us on the merits of cuts in public expenditure because, they said, without them the City would lose faith in the ability of the Government to manage its financial affairs, a case, if you like, of Nero putting himself in charge of the Roman fire brigade!

Now again, I don't want to get into a party political wrangle about the Emergency Budget and about how 'progressive' it was; but I think that four points should be made, and made clearly, from a Christian perspective:

But this will not be easy. Last week I heard two people talking about the terrible plight of unemployed graduates with their debt burden, facing problems getting jobs. I wondered whether to say something about the 16-year-old school leavers with basic skills and no prospect of getting jobs, let alone the credit to pay for anything as wonderful as a university place; but, to my shame, for the sake of superficial harmony, I bit my tongue.

And it is this which corrodes the prosecution of Christ's mission to build true harmony on earth. Jesus talked frequently about the divisions which preaching the Gospel would cause; but we will have none of it. If we hear an outrageous piece of social callousness at our dinner table, how often do we say nothing for the sake of peace? How can we expect the Kingdom of Heaven to be built here on earth if we put social niceties above the Gospel? Or is it that we are not all that committed to building God's Kingdom on earth as long as we enjoy it in heaven? Well, tough; because Jesus says you can't have the second without the first.

But such bravery should not really be necessary if we read the Gospels and think about our Christian duty. We have become too comfortable in our years of plenty and now we are tempted to be defensive when the lean years come. We vaguely recognise that there is a cost of discipleship but it seems not to apply to us. And one reason why it is so hard for us to empathise is that society is ever more geographically stratified between the well off and the poor. We can lead most of our lives now in our homes and our cars, in our restaurants and our places of work, without knowing any poor people other than those who serve us; but by definition that means that we only meet the working poor. And perhaps the strangest thing about our 21st Century form of Christianity is that we twin with sweet little Continental towns and villages but not the run-down estate a few miles away.

Some will argue that they are generous, that they give to good causes and scrupulously pay all their taxes without any attempt at tax avoidance, which is nicely distinguished from tax evasion, but Jesus had far more to say about social justice than advocating a more equitable redistribution of income and wealth. He talked about personal commitment. He didn't leave the disciples a kitty to share out once he had died, he left them with the memory that he had washed their feet.

All this may seem a little extreme for a summer evening, blessed as we are with noble prayers and fine music; but the point of worship, in directing our inner selves to God, is to give us the strength to be brave. It's all too easy for services like this to become religious concerts.

Every Sunday at Evensong we say the Magnificat, the most radical prayer in the whole of the Prayer Book. Let me remind us, in the context of this sermon, what it says:

He hath showed strength in his arm
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts;
He hath put down the mighty from their seat
and hath exalted the humble and meek;
He hath filled the hungry with good things
And the rich he hath sent empty away."
Couple that with the words of Saint Theresa of Avilla:
"Christ has no body now, but yours;
No hands, no feet on earth but yours

I wish my sermon was redundant and that these prayers were enough; but suburban comfort and religious aesthetics make for a heady mixture which exalts us and then sends us peacefully to sleep.

There is a serious sense in which illusion lies at the very heart of what we think of as most sacred.

We may want to say that the story of Joseph is just a story; but as Christians we must not evade our duty set out plainly in the Magnificat.


Can: Lord of All
Res: Forgive us

  1. Lord of All, who made the wonderful earth for our delight, forgive us for tarnishing it with selfishness, blighting it with pollution and corroding it with greed.
  2. Lord of all, who sent your Beloved Son, Jesus Christ to be our human brother, forgive us for failing to treat all of your children as our sisters and brothers, for using power in aggressive and pastoral situations and for forgetting that we only do good  by your grace.
  3. Lord of all, who sends the Holy Spirit among us in your Church, forgive us for corporate complacency, political selfishness and social cowardice.
  4. Lord of All, who has charged us with a special mission to the poor, forgive us our financial niggardliness, our addiction to comfort and our alienation from the afflicted.
  5. Lord of All, who elected Mary as the mother of your Son, forgive us for mouthing the Magnificat, for keeping the mighty in their seats and sending the poor empty away.