Relentless Incrementalism

Sunday 29th September 2013
Year C, The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service of the Word
Amos 6:1; 6:4-7
1 Timothy 6:6-10
Luke 16:19-31

When I was being trained to preach sermons I was told that the best start was a joke or a startling remark as a hook to catch the attention of the congregation. Apart from the fact that I'm not the best teller of jokes, I have always thought this advice to be rather patronising: yes, if there is a startling observation on a Sunday theme I will start with it but, by and large, I know you know what these readings are about; and all you want to know from me is what my angle will be on discussing the obvious.

But before we get to the angle, let's just remind ourselves of the obvious. The rulers in the Kingdom of Samaria were living in unimaginable luxury compared with their semi nomadic subjects who would only eat meat and drink wine at major festivals; and there they were, lying on their ivory beds or reclining on their couches enjoying everything that their world could offer. This was such luxury in the face of divine generosity that they were to be punished severely in the overthrow of their kingdom.

And that massive differential between those who live in luxury and the plebeian rest is underlined in Luke's story of the rich man, whom we often call Dives (which is the Latin for rich man) and Lazarus. And, again, on an individual level, Dives is punished for his luxurious life and his lack of generosity.

But, says our reading from Paul to Timothy, we should not be generous out of fear - even though we know how hard it is for the rich man (the love of money is the root of all evil: Radix Malorum est cupiditas) - but we should, on the contrary, be cheerful givers and, behind that thought, we should recognise that everything we have is a gift: we brought nothing into the world, says Paul, echoing the Book of Job, and we can take nothing out. But, thanks to contemporary financial instruments we can leave plenty behind to bolster the wealth and position of our inheritors.

Which leads us on to ask what we think living in luxury really is. Let's consider, for a start, those Samaritans lying on their ivory beds or reclining on their couches, eating lamb and drinking wine. Well, I don't know about you, but I think I would prefer a modern, comfortable bed and a chair at a nicely laid dining table. As for the food, I think I would soon grow tired of scrawny, fatty lamb and one kind of gut-rot wine of the sort produced at that time; give me a choice of meat, fish, cheese, vegetables, carbohydrates, desserts and, of course, a vast choice of wine, any day. As for Dives, I don't suppose he did all that much better. The Romans had brought a vast improvement in viticulture and livestock rearing, and trade routes throughout the Empire carried the best that it could offer but, still, even at its height, the Roman Empire offered little in comparison with what a person on an average income can enjoy today, just shopping in our High Street. And that's not all: think of the contrasting attitudes and capacities to travel; think of the narrow horizons of rich people only two centuries ago set out so vividly in the novels of Jane Austen; think of the world before the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine, the dish washer, the lawn mower and, of course, the gas or electric cooker, the world of a few rich people supported by a myriad of servants in the upstairs/downstairs world. Today we are all, even the poorest of us, living upstairs.

And what we have come to expect, as a community, though not necessarily individually, - and what loyalty card data presses us towards - is relentless incrementalism: the new car a bit better than the old; a new recipe book; only £1 a bottle rise in wine purchases; a destination just a little more exotic for our holiday. With minor setbacks we have lived this life of incremental improvements in our prosperity for half a millennium and we don't expect it to end.

But our good fortune comes at a price, a price that we only rarely see when there are stories about sweat shops in Bangladesh or droughts in West Africa. The poor world is straining every muscle, leaching its soil, suffering its droughts, even killing itself, just for us. And even in this country, many would argue that paying people an increased minimum wage will make businesses 'uneconomic'. We might think that we have a proper grievance, as we look at our static or declining pension pots but it is nothing to the grievances of the zero hours office cleaner or the employee in a sweat shop right on our doorstep.

So how should we assess our response? The standard answer for many people is to say that if we give 1 tenth of what we have, we've done the job. Well, that's all right if the community as a whole gives 10% but of course it doesn't work like that! The current Government has hit massive opposition, primarily from rich people, because it has stood firm over its commitment to give 0.7% of UK income to its foreign aid budget; at the moment we have reached 0.56%, amounting to some £9 billion, a doubling since 1997. Advocates of this cut hypocritically say that charity should begin at home but these are precisely the same people who don't think that domestic welfare payments have been cut enough, so don't believe them. They also say that the answer is to cut taxes and leave more money for individual and corporate philanthropy. Currently the voluntary sector contributes approximately 12bn to UK gross value added (GVA), equivalent to 0.8% of the whole of the UK's GVA.

So, in summary, Government overseas aid is just over half of one per cent and the whole charitable sector for UK and overseas is less than 1% of our economy.

You can see from those figures that we could go a long way if everybody contributed 10% of their income to charities but within that figure there will, of course, be differentials. Some people wouldn't notice losing 20% of their wealth, others would be hurt by donating 50p to a street collection.

But the comparison between our luxury and world poverty holds in general terms and as individuals we have to work out our own response but I don't think that very much will change until we come to accept, as a matter of justice and also as a matter of slowing down fatal climate change, that we have to cultivate in ourselves and in society a culture not of relentless incrementalism in our position but of dedicated down-sizing: a slightly less posh car than the current model; a reduction in meat and overseas produce consumption; a more modest bottle of wine; and a slightly less exotic holiday destination. Our culture of incrementalism is so ingrained after 500 years that it will take great effort to reverse, but reverse it we must.

And here's my angle: one of the good causes which most urgently requires our attention is the financing of our church community. We are currently running an annual, ordinary deficit, quite separate from the splendid funding of our re-development, of £20k per year and if we don't do something about this urgently we will become a Deanery basket case and put the service of a full-time incumbent in danger. Again, to put this in context, if we look at all of the Dioceses in the Church of England, Chichester's giving per Electoral Roll member is in the bottom five and has been for more than a decade. I know there are some pockets of poverty in the Diocese but if I tell you that the top givers are all major industrial cities in the North of England that will put the matter into further perspective.

Because the Parish is adopting a new structure for Gift Aid, we plan to talk to every individual about their giving level but the process will be redundant if we do not all consider seriously what our commitment is and should be.

I am sorry to be so relentless; and I daresay you will all be relieved when we finally reach the end of the year of Saint Luke at the end of November because preaching sermons on justice and generosity is de rigeur in response to Luke; but let me end with three points:

It's a lot to ask; but continuing as we are will not leave things as they are; unless we take immediate and sustained action on all fronts - giving to the world, giving to the poor in our community and giving to our church community - things can only get worse.