Sunday 5th August 2007
Year C, The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23
Colossians 3:1-5; 3:9-11
Luke 12:13-21

It is on days like this when the meaning of the readings is so obvious and when, unusually, all three develop different aspects of the same theme, that I hear my inner voice sighing: "But we know what it all means; there really is nothing you can tell them." In this case: we all know the words of ecclesiasts that "All is vanity"; we all know, reflecting on Luke, that when we die we cannot take earthly goods with us; and we all know that we should, in the words of Paul, set our minds on higher things.

I think that is our problem. We all know. We are a society bound up with knowing. Whereas our ancestors knew the names of birds and wild grasses, the detailed vocabulary of the blacksmith and the carpenter, in the same way that Eskimos know fifty different words for snow, our contemporary kind of knowing is radically separated from experience. We know about our world from newspapers, television and the internet; we know about scientific theories from books and documentaries; we know about theories of all kinds from magazines and talking heads and even, putting these two ideas together, from hairdressers. Never have we known more and settled less because part of our knowing is the cynicism that we are helpless. Our knowing is about: systemic failure, venal politicians, lazy public officials, greedy capitalists, lying journalists; and, of course, there are mega knowings and un-doings like global warming, terrorism, crime and bureaucracy. And, at an even more complex level, we know about knowing, about knowing the right people, the right boutique, the right restaurant; and we know about knowing the latest book, the latest idea or the latest style.

But the story that Jesus tells in Luke is not a critique of the Roman equivalent of the Common Agricultural Policy, it is about one man and his barn. Equally, the teacher in Ecclesiastes is not advancing a metaphysical theory, he is pointing at me and pointing at you. There are statistics about living and dying but we each do them both individually. Living and getting ready to die at any moment is a personal responsibility.

The problem for us is that we know deep down that we will never live up to the standard that Jesus sets. As I said last week, when he says that we should give everything we have to the poor, Jesus means it; but this is so unimaginably radical that we give up.

I want to suggest that there are three steps that we can take to meet Jesus half way and then, having got there, we can decide what to do next.

First, what if we made a rule that we should retain material goods to the extent that they enable us to live better moral and spiritual lives? After all, we are encouraged to enjoy the fruits of God's creation; the problem arises when they provide obstacles rather than channels to God. We might argue that our music collection helps us to look inwards to ourselves and outwards to out sisters and brothers; we might say that painting gives us a different perspective on what it is to be a neighbour; and many people have coherently argued that one of the great benefits of being rich is that we can give work to those who are not. Conversely, to play music that interferes with the peace of others, to download pornography or to use wealth simply to finance a life of self indulgence would seem to be misusing the gifts of creation.

Secondly, we should learn more about the way we relate to big areas of public life. In this case we need to know much more about wealth creation. It would do us good to know, for example, why the prices of some things that we buy are so low. Is our consumption providing people with jobs or perpetuating oppression? What can we do to make things better? Is it right for us with all our savings products and pension funds to let investors and companies just get on with it? Might we not be better off moderating our addiction to a daily newspaper or television programme in order to dig deeper into something? Is fair trade coffee not only the first but also the last word?

Thirdly, we need to take this personally. If what I am saying is making us feel uncomfortable, it ought to. I was listening last week to a speech by Martin Neary, the head of Barnardos and he pointed out that last year slippers and sprouts fell out of the basket of goods that make up the retail price index; and what do you think came in? IPods, yes; but Champagne! Martin calculates that we need to spend an extra four billion a year to eliminate child poverty, 1/3 of what we spend on champagne. If we cut down our champagne consumption by 1/3 and put that money by for children in poverty, the problem would be solved. And one more piece of terrible information. Last month the Liberal Democrats were the last major political party to abandon the promise to raise taxes to deal with poverty and are now promising to reduce tax. If you want more public money to tackle inequality, you haven't got a party to vote for.

So the message of today's readings, far from being bland, ought to be extremely painful; and what we do about it is a matter between us and God. When we talk to each other about what we do we are apt to be a little on the rosy side; but God doesn't wear rose tinted glasses. God knows the challenges we have been set and the resources we have been given from the bounty of creation.

Finally, just a word about the sting in the tail. One of the least pleasant strands of Christian tradition is the one that urges us to be good for we know not the day nor the hour; to be good, in other words, because we will come to a sticky end if we are not and we don't know when that sticky end might be. This is a kind of self regarding generosity which makes us the focus of our own giving and reduces other people to convenient objects. We should give because of our responsibility for poorer or weaker brothers and sisters in Christ. If we take care of each other, the Lord will take care of us; then death, whenever it comes, will not be a threat, it will be a promise.