Sermon (i) preached on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (28 September 2014) by the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon (i) preached on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (28 September 2014) by the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at charitable giving and thinks about a bigger and better society.

Isaiah 48: 12-21 Luke 11: 37-54

Amidst all of the woes which Jesus heaps upon the Pharisees and the lawyers, it might be easy to miss one of the central pieces of teaching in this morning’s second lesson from St Luke’s Gospel: that alms-giving makes you clean before God.

The whole business of charitable giving is a major element of public service in the modern world as the state shrinks and as voluntary activity is relied upon more and more to bridge the gap.

As a result – and particularly at a time of economic decline – the charitable sector is ever more competitive as each faction seeks to elicit from each of us the spare pound or two that we might have at our disposal.

And it’s just the same here at St Paul’s. A significant amount of what we do here relies upon voluntary donations and fund-raising. And we try to think of ever more imaginative ways of encouraging people to give generously – although we no longer use John Tetzel’s technique of selling quick entry to heaven: ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.’

Far be it from me to speak up on behalf of the state and to promote David Cameron’s Big Society (about which he has gone remarkable quiet recently, I notice) but there is an important debate to be had about the pros and cons of state provision and charitable agency and about the balance between the two and about where the line is drawn.

But here is Jesus saying to fellow religious leaders that almsgiving makes one clean before God.

Indeed, this is an essential part of the Christian ethical life for St Luke. Interestingly enough, there is very little reference in the New Testament to almsgiving in terms of a portion of one’s income: indeed, apart from Luke, only Matthew makes a single reference to it in his Gospel. And yet Old Testament law is very clear about the importance of tithing – of giving 10% of your income (including produce) away – although this was actually intended to support the work of the priests and it was only an additional tithe every three years which was intended for the poor. Nothing changes you might think!

But, although I don’t want to be a spokesperson for the Big Society (many would say the Big Society has existed for decades, largely thanks to the Christian Church), I do nevertheless want to emphasise one important element of the Big Society which is that it’s not all about giving money. The offering of one’s time and talent is a central part of the concept and there is an important aspect of it in this passage from St Luke.

Jesus says that crossing boundaries in order to care for those in need is also what makes one clean before God – much more so, indeed, than established ritual practices. It’s a bitter irony then that the established ritual practices were often the barrier to crossing boundaries and caring for those in need: witness the Parable of the Good Samaritan – a parable which only appears in Luke – where two religious leaders refuse help to the man who fell among thieves because to do so would make them ritually unclean and so a Samaritan, a much despised figure in that region, crosses cultural boundaries in order to save a man’s life.

It seems to me that a crucial route to a Big Society – or should we rather say simply a Better Society – is to ensure that our charitable giving and our voluntary service somehow aims to cross boundaries in achieving its aims and objectives. It’s relatively easy to look after one’s own and thereby perhaps to stay inside one’s tribes. It is more difficult but ultimately more beneficial to the common good to cross boundaries and assist people in need whose background and life experience is markedly different from our own because the donor will benefit as much as, if not more than, the object of his or her charity – through the breaking down of barriers and enlightenment.

This passage from Luke is not just about almsgiving: it is about peace and reconciliation and the world has never needed that more than now.

Let us pray:
A prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr.

O God, who has bound us together in this bundle of life, give us grace to understand how our lives depend on the industry, the honesty and integrity of our fellow men and women; that we may be mindful of their needs, grateful for their faithfulness, and faithful in our responsibilities to them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore. Amen.