Christian Aid Week

Preached on 13 May 2007
Christian Aid Week Service
by Michael Sadgrove

I am here, as you are, because I believe that Christian Aid Week is a necessary reminder of the way our planet really is, a beautiful but broken world.  I am here because it is wrong if my wealth and privileged way of life does not lead me to help the voiceless, dispossessed and poor.  I am here because, in the words of a Christian Aid slogan of some years ago, I believe in life before death - for everybody, whoever they are, wherever they are.  And if I say I believe all these things, it is not open to me not to play my part in turning belief into reality.  Christian Aid Week draws attention to this task in a way that is inescapable and necessary.  We who worship together tonight because we are Christians are heart and soul behind that task because we are Christians, and because of our common humanity.  It is as simple as that.

And we should be uncomfortable tonight.  This service is not an event to be at ease in.  The extent of the privileges we enjoy when so many have nothing ought to worry away at our consciences not simply this week but all the time.  To know that our wealth in the affluent north is directly linked to the poverty of so much of the developing world ought similarly to make us feel distinctively uneasy about many of our cherished attitudes and lifestyle choices.  We ought to be disturbed by the way protection, indebtedness and a great deal of trading practice day in, day out, erode the already precarious position of the poorest societies in our world.  If almighty God himself is affronted when justice is flouted and compassion withheld, we his people can hardly sleep easy in our beds. 

Yet I am aware of a different kind of discomfort during Christian Aid Week.  Here I am careful only to speak for myself.  Part of me worries away at my own ‘take' on world poverty as Christian Aid Week comes round again.  It prompts questions like these.  Am I feeling sorry enough for the plight of the poor?  Am I feeling guilty enough about how privileged I am in comparison with most of the rest of the world?  Am I well-informed enough about the social justice and development issues?  Will I make a generous enough contribution this year to satisfy a sense of duty done?  And by coming to this service, have I made my commitment public enough?  I am trying to be honest here, and to tell you that it can be problematic to enter into Christian Aid Week in a way that is truly authentic.  For I take it that watching ourselves and massaging our own consciences is the very opposite of what is required in our attitudes to poverty and need.  Jesus teaches us that the quality of our giving is as important as its measure.  It is how we care that matters as much as that we care.  It was the widow's mite, given without any thought of reward, any consciousness of her own virtue, that Jesus treasured.  What she gave was not only her money even if it was ‘all that she had'.  What she gave was herself.

This selfless way of giving is what Jesus himself lived out.  Our gospel reading stands at the outset of St. John's passion narrative.  Scholars call it ‘The Book of Glory' because of how Jesus speaks of his own death, not as failure or disaster but as his hour of splendour.  Just after our passage, Jesus offers a sublime prayer of self-offering: ‘Now is my soul troubled.  And what should I say - Father, save me from this hour?  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.'  This is what tonight's reading is leading up to. ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.' The way of Jesus is to lay down his life for others, as he puts it later on. 

But it is not enough simply to admire this way and be thankful for.  We are called to imitate it.  As the Master is, so must his disciples be.  ‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also'.  This is the cruciform life, shaped by the cross.  We commit to it through baptism.  We are here to live, not for ourselves but for others.  We must not love our own lives too much.  This is hard for us to hear, and hard for me to say.   Yet Christian Aid Week, like Holy Week, perhaps helps us to face this unpalatable truth and begin to do something creative with it.  That something should be, I believe, to revisit our attitudes to living and dying and resolve that we shall at least try once again to live by a larger, more generous, vision of God and by a larger, more generous, vision of the human family of which we are part.  Such a vision invites us to let go of the anxieties about how well we are performing as ‘good' people, those preoccupations with ourselves that turn out to be no more than a kind of self-righteousness.   This calls for a courageous act of metanoia, that change of mind and heart that according to the gospel is the gateway to new and possibilities of being alive and being human. 

But perhaps, the spirituality of Christian Aid Week is a little different from Holy Week for two reasons.  The first is that it makes no apology for asking for a real, practical and costly demonstration of our Christian commitment.   If we don't give in support of our brother or sister, we do not love our brother or sister; and if we do not love the brother of sister whom we have seen, how can we love the God whom we have not seen? - that is the unanswerable and devastating logic of St. John's first letter.  That is the demand of this week.  But the other side of demand, in the way Christians understand it, is gift.  Christian Aid Week always falls in Eastertide.  So our metanoia, our repentance, our imitating Christ in his passion is deeply coloured by the memory, no the conviction and the experience, that he is risen and alive.  What we do when we try to die to ourselves we do because of the resurrection and in his risen power.  This is what makes Christian Aid Week Christian.  This is what makes generosity possible.  

It is moving to remind ourselves that our reading today was the text on which Archbishop Oscar Romero had just preached when he was assassinated at the altar of his cathedral in San Salvador in 1984.  We have heard a little about El Salvador earlier tonight, and this year Christian Aid invites us to identify especially with the people of that nation.  During the last three years of his life, Romero preached again and again that the way we treat the poor reflects the way we treat God; that a life motivated by material ambition is empty and impoverished and that violence can be defeated by Christian love.  Listen to him: ‘The experiences of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for this old earth...Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ, will live like the grains of wheat that dies.... If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies. One must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us.'  At the offertory at mass that day, Romero had prayed: ‘may this Body immolated and this Blood sacrificed for humankind nourish us also, that we may give our body and our blood over to suffering and pain, like Christ - not for self, but to give harvests of peace and justice to our people.'  Those were his last words.  I cannot add to them.  It is all I have to say.  And I say it to myself most of all.