Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 22nd September 2013
22 September 2013 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist
“…the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their generation than are the children of light.”
Jesus sums up the dishonest manager who acts seemingly shrewdly with a saying which is rich in irony. He may make friends by dishonest wealth who will welcome him with open arms, but that wealth will vanish in the face of true riches, and the ultimate freedom, which the chimera of riches appears to bring, will not be entrusted to him.
Unless we appreciate Jesus’ use of irony, and his veteran skill as a rabbi who really knows how to preach, this will read as a strange story. Punctuation in Greek texts, and still further precise translation of Aramaic sayings (which is what these appear to be) via various interpretive turns is not a simple science. Sometime in the year 1683, Archbishop John Tillotson, then Archbishop of Canterbury, preached on this text just yards away from here, at Whitehall, perhaps in the presence of the King. “Now the children of this world are commonly more fixed and resolved upon their end than the children of light. It is rare to see the whole life and actions of a good man, so constantly and uniformly conspiring to the furtherance of his great end, so directly tending to the salvation of his soul and the increase of his glory and happiness in another world, as the actions of a worldly man, and the whole course of his life, do to the advancing of his worldly interests.”
Today’s Gospel is a call to live with integrity; to discover a mode of living, in Christ, which is holistic. Our lives at the beginning of the twenty-first century are often peculiarly atomised. I say peculiarly because we live with the constant beguiling fantasy that we actually know more about the world and each other than ever before. But despite the web, and instant messenger, etc, we know less and less, because we listen too little and we allow ourselves to rest secure in the constant busyness of shallow knowledge and short cuts. We think we’re connected, that as a result of being so aware of ourselves and others, we have at last made it and are in control. But are our lives, to use a musical metaphor, through-composed, rather than a series of piecemeal features? Have we resisted the temptation to live atomised lives, answering one question at a time, rather than taking the time to consider our lives in the round? Because, as Christ teaches, those who are faithful in very little are also faithful in very much.
Back in 1970, the cultural commentator Harmon Grisewood wrote that observing twentieth century culture was like trying get hold of snowflakes in a blizzard. His point was that the loss of central focus, and shared organising dynamics – especially religion – has led to disintegration and alienation from one another. He wrote, “It is in the nature of our culture, as it has now developed, to fragment the human activities which compose it… so that very different and contradictory centres of attention command correspondingly disassociated energies… We are strained by opposites while we long for unity.” If this diagnosis is even half-true, it means that somehow our identities, and perhaps even far worse, our characters are at risk of being pulled apart – dismembered, rather than fully integrated. It’s this kind of danger which Jesus hints at in that oft-quoted verse at the end of today’s Gospel, “You cannot serve God and money.” The point is properly contextualised for us in the previous verse, where Jesus explains that a slave cannot serve two masters, or rather in the Greek, two lords. In the ancient world to be a slave of someone was to sublimate your identity into theirs; the word doulos which implies literal possession meant that the owner governed everything about the slave, which is why it is so extraordinary when Paul describes himself as a “slave” of Christ Jesus at the beginning of his letter to the Romans. Paul is not a slave, he is a Roman Citizen – a status he rather uses elsewhere – but the rhetorical use of the word makes the point. Paul’s ownership is now Christ; Christ is the source from which he derives his energy, his identity.
So, the call to wholeness and integrity is nothing less than a call to Christian discipleship, where being faithful in small things, little things, will help us to be faithful in larger situations. As individuals and communities, there is a great need to re-establish some real equilibrium to stop things spiralling out of control – we need faith with reason, rights with responsibilities, courage with care. But it’s not just about big ideas: the comedian Danny Wallace has published a book called “Random Acts of Kindness: 365 ways to make the world a nicer place.” It includes such wisdom as “Pay for a stranger’s meal” and “Give a pot plant to a bus-driver. It will brighten up their dashboard.” Much of this approach to life is driven by a rather dialled-down, domesticated western view of the Indian religious concept of Karma – what goes around, comes around. But Jesus teaches us that the one who is faithful in small things, will be faithful also in much. Being faithful in small things as well as in great matters is about showing ourselves to be rooted in Christ, grounded in love. We live in a world where we increasingly have multiple identities. But the call of Christ is to be through-composed Christian human beings who find their complete identity as men or women, the professional, the friend, the lover, the boss, the football fan, the banker, the animal lover, the academic, the food-lover (the list could go on and on), rooted and grounded in Christ. Whatever your list of multiple identities looks like, root it in Christ, because you cannot serve two Lords. That is the root to disorientation, dislocation, to confusion. Many people today secretly fear that being a Christian will diminish their life, and their enjoyment of it. But the discovery at the heart of discipleship is that Jesus comes to take nothing away but the sins of the world. Discipleship is not as it were a choice between serving wealth (the fun way) and serving Christ (the dull way). It’s a call to a life which can be reckless as well as sensible, funny as well as serious, passionate as well as careful, when it is rooted and grounded in the love which is shown through the Cross and Resurrection. Christ is not a master who demands the next little faithful act for fear of punishment, rather – in the upside-down Kingdom of God – he waits himself to serve those who follow him with joy, hope and peace. That is the life we touch in this Eucharist. That is the gift he offers us, in every part of our lives and in every facet of our being, if only we would-be little children of light can summon up the smallest act of the will to receive it.