Sermon: Investment and Liberation
Preached on 21st September 2008
by The Reverend Canon Dr Stephen Cherry
Jesus said to the rich young man, ‘if you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.' Matthew 19.21
If like me, your understanding of banking, commerce and economics is limited this has been a bewildering week. But I understand that if you are expert in banking, commerce and economics the week has been just as bewildering. Strange things have been going on in the world of international finance. Recent financial events have rocked the system and caused people to wonder about the big picture and worry about their own financial security. We had a foretaste of this with the Northern Rock crisis and there is something profoundly unsettling when people begin to be actively concerned that their savings are safe, their investments secure, whether their home will be repossessed and if their job is vulnerable.
The reality is that most of those who are thus worried will be all right and continue to enjoy a lifestyle and comfort that their grandparents could hardly imagine. Some, however, will lose jobs, some will lose their homes; some will find that either their own investments or those of their pension fund do not open the door to the kind of retirement for which they are hoping. Let there be no doubt, the secular side of our hopes has taken a battering this week.
Such battering can touch us quite deeply; for we invest significantly in the hope that, financially, our life will be gently progressive and that the worries that we experienced in the past will not predominate in the future. That modern myth may not have been quite deconstructed before our eyes this week, but we know something about our souls, something about ourselves when we realise that the spectre of its deconstruction feels like very bad news to us.
So maybe the events of this week, troubling and unwelcome as they have been, can draw us more profoundly into the company of the rich young man who came before Jesus to ask a little help in getting his spirituality and life style right. Jesus affirmed the journey he had made thus far but invited him to take another step: to divest himself of all his possessions.
It caused the man to grieve. The word ‘grieve' is worth pausing on here. We usually talk about grief in the context of bereavement, losing a person. But the man was grieving the loss not of a person but the prospect of the loss of his possessions.
Possessions are often more significant than we think or let on. Sometimes people distinguish between crimes committed against people and those committed against property. But in reality it is not always so simple. Certainly there is a difference between being a victim of GBH and having your laptop pinched on the train, but when people's homes are burgled the difference is not so clear. Words like ‘violation' can apply to the feeling that someone or a group of people have been in the intimate places of your home helping themselves to the choice of possessions and making a mess of the rest. And the parable of the lost coin and lost sheep only work as parables because it matters so much to people that they find things that are lost not because of their great value but simply because they are lost.
Our things, our stuff, our possessions, matter to us. They get entwined into our self-understanding; they are markers that help us remember who we are and feel secure in and about ourselves. But, as Jesus saw, they can also get in the way of our discipleship and faith. That is why he told the rich man not only to give away his money but first to sell all his things.
In Britain today this question of possessions finds its most powerful focus in the area of home-ownership. It has become very important to people's identity and security that they own a house. We are collectively worried about first-time buyers while at the same time rather pleased, if we are home owners ourselves, to have seen the value of our property rapidly rising. There is a tension here but the constant is that it is a good thing to own your own home.
The spirituality of possessions also kicks in when we move house. People sometimes distinguish between hoarders and others but part of the implication of the passage under consideration this morning is that we are all hoarders, but to varying degrees. And on the whole, the longer we live the more we have hoarded and the more we hoard. This means that leaving the building that has been the family home for decades can be a massively profound wrench, an elderly identity crisis. Couples who must downsize or move into sheltered accommodation inevitably have a crisis of possessions. And at the next stage, when the prospect of moving into a residential care home appears the crisis only gets worse. There are plusses to such a move, of course: nice central heating, the lifts, and the access to care. But on the down side is the institutional food, and as I have heard many people complain, the company, ‘why have they put me with all those old people'! But the thought of not having ‘my things' cuts deepest.
To own things is, in global and historical context, to be rich. When was in India over Christmas I travelled around by bus. I had a bag full of stuff. But most busses had more or less no space for bags full of stuff because most people who travelled had no bag with them. And these were not short urban trips but 3, 4 and 5 hour journeys. And then again the people travelling on busses were far from being the poor people in that context. The poor were those who either spent their lives in back-breaking, barely subsistence, agricultural work or hanging around in cities hoping to get by but sleeping out in bus shelters, and not in ones and twos but in tens and hundreds.
One of the problems we have in relating to Jesus demand to the rich young man that he undertake the heroic stance of voluntary poverty is that we do not classify ourselves as the rich. Richard Harries, whose book ‘Is there a Gospel for the Rich' is based on some talks in Australia of the same title, writes that when people heard about the series of lectures they said, ‘Oh good, I know someone wealthy. I'll see if I can get them to come along'. They had already missed the point.
But that's the trouble with wealth and riches. We never think that we are rich as long as we focus our attention on those who are wealthier than we are, as we so often do. Indeed for capitalism to work this is what we must do. We must all aspire to be a bit wealthier. . But there is ultimately no future in this. As we heard in our first reading, ‘the lover of money will never be satisfied with money, nor the lover of wealth with gain. This too is vanity'. Ecclesiastes 5.10
Vanity indeed. One of the questions that we have been asking this week is ‘but who is to blame for all this chaos in the financial system'. Robert Reich of the University of California at Berkeley says ‘greedy bankers'. He goes on to say this.
Some greed is necessary to keep capitalism going. But too much greed will bring it down.
Yet the greed that's taken over our banking system is undermining the trust of investors, who are necessary if there's going to be any money in the banking system to invest.
Greedy bankers like them have been running a giant con-game. They figure if they can persuade investors to buy something that's actually worth nothing, it might appear to be worth something, which lets them persuade others to buy even more, because - after all - by this time lots of investors are buying it.
And then when the bubble bursts and investors lose their shirts, the bankers keep their fat commissions and a percentage of the upside gains.
But what they've left out of the calculation is the trust needed next time a banker claims something's a good deal.
You see, trust is a precious commodity. And it's eroding fast - which is why the credit crunch continues....
In the late 1920s Franklin D Roosevelt told Americans they had nothing to fear but fear itself. But the fact was, the financial system had let them down - and they wouldn't trust it again for decades.
Greedy bankers beware.
Indeed. But greedy bankers are only part of the problem. Bankers are bound to be greedy, not because they are bankers but because they are human beings. Jesus sought to free people from the power of sin and he showed the rich young man one way of coping with greed. You may not like that particular method. But if you don't you will have to find another. Our greed does not just evaporate.
Today we are commemorating Matthew the apostle and evangelist. In Matthew's gospel we read that the man identified in the other gospels as Lev the tax collector was in fact Matthew the apostle. We learn that he left his comfortable, money making job for the more arduous but ultimately far more rewarding path of being a disciple of Jesus. The suddenness of that decision, echoing that of the fishermen who left their boats, makes it hard for us to relate to or connect with. We don't know whether or not he would have grieved for the familiar routines of work and the financial benefits that came with it, but is rare for people to look in the rear view mirror of life without some pang of nostalgia. But a key aspect of the call and response of Matthew is relevant to the great themes of this week and the liberating demands of all Christian calling and discipleship. Following Jesus involves working with our attitude to possessions and to money. The advice to the rich young man is not advice that everyone could or should take literally. But the advice challenges us to think about how much of our soul, and it is probably too much, we invest in our things, and how greatly we rely for our sense of who we are, our wellbeing and our security, on our wealth - modest and negligible as we naturally think it is.
But the message of the gospel is constant and encouraging. The things of mammon can entangle and constrain us in many ways. Yet it is always possible, by the grace of God, to cut loose and enter into the freedom that Jesus inhabited, his disciples sometimes shared and which is the lived experience of the kingdom and rule of God: a kingdom beyond the domain of possessions and riches but where all know their true poverty and their real, not wealth, but worth.