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Sermon preached on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity (9 August 2015) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at the tensions of being a Christian in the wealthy West and says: "we may struggle with the instruction to give away all that we have and go follow Jesus but we could surely manage giving away a tenth or at least setting it as a tentative goal towards which to work."
Song of Solomon 8: 5-7 2 Peter 3: 8-13
I remember many years ago visiting a Franciscan nun in her stately home in Suffolk. She was the sister of a wealthy baronet and lived with him in his splendid country house but had, more latterly, taken vows and become a nun – choosing nevertheless to continue to live in the family home.
It was an extraordinary experience as she described to me the spiritual trial of living in holy poverty: this she told me as she handed me a cup of Darjeeling tea in a priceless Meissen porcelain cup with figures from Gainsborough paintings looking down at me from the Adam drawing room walls.
It was of course just another example of the tension of living as a Christian in the fabulously wealthy western world where we hear readings from scripture like those we have read this morning knowing that material wealth is nothing compared to spiritual wealth and conscious that we can take nothing from this world just as we brought nothing into it.
Some of the holiest and humblest saints of the past came from rich aristocratic backgrounds and eschewed the blessings of their lifestyles for the blessings of a life lived solely in the service of Christ.
My aristocratic nun aside, that is of course the life chosen by those who enter the religious life as monks and nuns and the rest of us – even clergy like myself – live secular lives where we are not expected to live in poverty although we might nevertheless be encouraged to use what resources we have for the benefit of other people.
I remember when I first moved into one of the palatial homes which history has bequeathed to clergy who work in the cathedrals, I ventured that I felt somewhat guilty to have such a vast dwelling all to myself and my senior colleague said that, on the contrary, it simply obliged me to be as hospitable as I could be – using the house as a setting for gatherings of friends and colleagues and visitors to share and enjoy my good fortune and be inspired and comforted by friendship and fellowship.
And certainly, living as I now do in a house in central London with several spare bedrooms, I suddenly have a lot more friends! I wonder why...
The great Benedictine monastic tradition got it right when it emphasised the importance of hospitality and of welcoming friend and stranger as if they were Christ.
And then there is the biblical tradition of tithing – of giving away a tenth of your wealth – to the poor and needy. This may have been a tenth of the fruit of your crops and the offspring of your livestock: a tradition on which the mediaeval church relied not least in this country and often abused when it ruthlessly enforced tithing sometimes to the severe detriment of local people who resented their fat ecclesiastical landlord while they struggled to survive.
But there are some impressive people in the Church today who do their best to set aside a certain percentage of their income to charity – even if they can’t always manage 10% - and I wonder whether at the very least this is something more and more us should try to do if we’re to get anywhere with resolving the ambiguity of our relatively wealthy lifestyles compared with those of our fellow Christians in other parts of the world and indeed of some of our fellow citizens, whether Christian or not, in our own localities.
It troubles me greatly that the money which Government sets aside in this country for overseas aid is only 0.7% of gross domestic income and, when one considers that much of the bloody conflict of our world and many of the worst abuses of humankind could be ameliorated if we shared the resources that we have more equitably, it staggers me that we can’t get that figure closer to 10% - particularly when one considers that we end up spending far more on military intervention in those parts of the world where a lack of equity has caused appalling strife and suffering.
It may be that tithing is the key to getting onto the front foot instead of always being on the back foot when it comes to following in the footsteps of Christ. And, remember, tithing is only 10% not the 100% which the monastic life dictates.
As Christians, we may struggle with the instruction to give away all that we have and go follow Jesus but we could surely manage giving away a tenth or at least setting it as a tentative goal towards which to work and lobby Government to do the same.
A touch naive perhaps but then the Gospel does encourage us to turn the world upside down.
Let us pray:
O heavenly Father, who by thy blessed Son hast taught us to ask of thee our daily bread; have compassion on the millions of our fellow men and women who live in poverty and hunger; relieve their distress; make plain the way of help; and grant thy grace unto us all, that we may bear one another’s burdens according to thy will; 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.