Daunted by Lilies

Sunday 15th May 2011
Year A, The Forth Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Acts 2:42-47

"And they had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." It's quite enough to put the fear of ... well, we can't say fear of god,  ... into the hearts of the comfortable bourgeoisie because, of course this state of affairs, staggering to us, did not take place under the auspices of Karl Marx nor Chairman Mao but in the post Resurrection revolution of love, in the power of the Holy Spirit where the old disciples and the new believers lived every day in fellowship and prayer, being taught and breaking bread.

And yet, the reality of living under the new dispensation does not obscure their economic sacrifice but brings it into full flower as the visible, external manifestation of what was happening inside them; this is the nearest the church has ever come to being a field of lilies.

As we enter Christian Aid Week, what is happening inside us? Are we so full of the power of the Spirit, living our life in the daily, conscious apprehension of God's love, in prayer, study, fellowship and the breaking of bread; or are we careful for tomorrow? Well, of course, most of us have responsibilities for our families which we take seriously and we are, by inclination careful for tomorrow; indeed, we could quite properly argue that what defines civilisation is our self-control and self-discipline, our planning, our ability to learn from history, our conscious setting aside of present gratification to attain future prosperity.

That is one view; but it's not mine. For me the essence of civilisation, Christian or otherwise, isn't liberty nor equality, although both of these are important; for me, the cardinal virtue is fraternity or, to use an ungendered term, solidarity. What makes us who we are is the degree to which we promote our personhood - our sense of what we are in society - above our individuality. When Mrs. Margaret Thatcher famously said that there was no such thing as society she was not only trashing the Christian tradition in which she had been brought up, she was also talking anthropological nonsense. There may be the occasional hermit, a latter-day Elijah, gathering berries and drinking from a sparkling stream but the life chances of almost everybody on this planet depends upon other people; and the life chances of our children and grandchildren, whom we say we so passionately love, depend on our behaviour right now.

Sad to say, for all our learning and ambitions to exercise self restraint, we have lived our lives in the terrible comfort of two enormous self delusions: that we can have more and better everything for less and less effort; and that we can do what we like with the planet to assist this first aim without any down-stream consequences.

The result of the first piece of self delusion was higher public spending not matched by higher taxes which led to higher borrowing. This is not to say that I agree with the speed, the depth nor the targeting of cuts but simply to say that we should recognise that, past a certain level of efficiency savings, we cannot continue indefinitely to enjoy more for less.

As for the second piece of self delusion about the future of our planet, the only question I now ask is how bad does it have to get in the United States, in this week when the Mississippi sluices have had to be opened, before the people think that there is something more important to their future than cheap gasoline. How many people will have to die in tornados, hurricanes and blizzards before they get it; and how many oil spills, nuclear leaks, superb landscapes wrecked by open cash mining and shale extraction will there have to be? Have we already adjusted to the disappearance of the Northern ice cap? And how much of our world will have to be inundated before any sense of solidarity kicks in?

But when we have enjoyed our little frisson of superiority over the gas guzzlers and say to ourselves that the occasional weekend break in Europe will really make no difference, we need to look very carefully at ourselves and our world.

Whatever our misgivings about how governments in developing countries conduct themselves - and, of course, their legitimate misgivings about us - we have to recognise that solidarity is a necessary precondition for the survival of the human race, under God. we might think that when we give our hard earned money to developing countries that most of it will be wasted; but how hard earned is our money compared with that of the African peasant; and how much of our money do we waste?

But there is a further consideration. It may be shocking to say this, but what people do with what we give them freely of the resources we are here to steward, is really none of our business. The poor may smoke and drink their benefits away; and plutocrats in developing countries might salt our gifts away in Swiss banks but the solidarity of Christianity is about unconditional love. The contractual, prudential transactions of the civil authorities are nothing less than we would expect; but we, as individual and corporate Christians are under a higher law than prudence; and we are, too, supposed to operate in an environment of unconditional love and to eschew judgment of the conduct of others. And that means not allocating God's gifts, of which we are stewards, on the basis of whether we approve or disapprove of the behaviour of those who are entitled not only to equal concern and respect in the civil domain but are also, as God's creatures, created in his image, properly worthy and indeed, entitled, to our love, regardless of what we think of their behaviour.

Let me, finally, go one stage further. It may well be - and it's a point well worth considering - that the way we give is directly affected by how closely we follow the behaviour of the children of the Resurrection in those early days. If we find ourselves niggardly or bridling this week when considering how much to give to Christian aid, the better solution of our sorry state is not guilt but is, rather, to take positive steps to become nearer to and more like Christ through study and prayer, fellowship and the breaking of the bread.

We will probably never become lilies of the field; but at least we should ask ourselves why not; and take positive steps to be less daunted by their beauty.