Shockingly rich

(Sermon, Evensong 15 Jan 06 – Isaiah 60 & Hebrews 6-7)

We are shockingly rich.

I do not mean that as a criticism of any one individual here, but as something which applies to us all, as a community, here in West Mersea, in England, in the West as a whole.

Let me tell you a story which will bring out what I mean. A former tutor of mine used to work in Southern India, where he lived for seven years, before returning to England. On his return, on arrival in their new home, his wife went to purchase some basics – bread and milk. Yet she couldn’t complete the purchase. When she looked at the prices for a pint of milk she couldn’t help translating it into what it would have meant for her friends back in India – that this purchase of a simple pint of milk could have fed a family of four for many days. She was so staggered by the difference in wealth that she had to return home empty-handed, to give herself time to get over the shock.

We are shockingly rich.

So should we despise our wealth? I don’t believe that it is as simple as that. The Scriptures are really very clear that wealth in itself is a good thing. The vision of the promised land is one of a place flowing with milk and honey; our reading from Isaiah is clear about the materiality of the good things promised from God: “Instead of bronze I will bring you gold” God has a very positive view of material wealth – indeed of materiality as a whole – that’s what the Incarnation means. What he most emphatically does not have a positive view of is great wealth next door to great poverty. Think of the story of Dives and Lazarus, for example.

The Scriptures are crystal clear that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves, and that this means we are not to let anyone fall by the wayside, abandoned and deserted by the community. For the poverty which most shocks God is not the absence of possessions – hardly that – but social exclusion. The inability of one member of a community to share in the common life of that community. Scripture is clear that this is what offends God deeply, and Scripture is also clear about what follows when a society embraces that pattern of life: there is judgement, and calamity, and the walls of Jerusalem are broken down and the people of Israel are taken off to Babylon.

When I consider our shocking wealth, and the degree of poverty and exclusion experienced by so many in our world, I tremble at the thought of our coming judgement.

Scripture is also clear about what gives rise to social exclusion – idolatry. It is when the community ceases to worship the living God, and erects another idol in His place, that is when the right relationships between the members of the community break down. So what is the idol that has been worshipped in our community? I believe that the idol is wealth, or, more specifically, economic growth. What politician could succeed by saying ‘we shouldn’t concern ourselves with economic growth so much’? There are politicians who say such things – yet they are not listened to, for our hearts are fearful, fearful of a return to hardship and starvation and unemployment and breadlines and soup kitchens. So we do not trust in the living God, we trust in growth. Yet growth is an idol. Think of what it means to say that a part of our life (the economic part) must grow and keep on growing forever. That is not indicative of health, it is, in fact, the definition of cancer – a group of cells that just keep on growing irrespective of the needs of the whole. Our economy has turned into a cancer in our common life.

God says ‘you will drink the milk of nations and be nursed at royal breasts’.

We say ‘gizza job’.

Those of you who came to my talk about oil the other day will be aware that I believe we are headed for a time of extreme economic hardship. I do not believe that we need be frightened of this. We need to be weaned away from our shocking riches and come back to the promises of the living God, who promises us life, life in all its fullness. The riches that God promises to us are the riches of a human community, made in His image, and sharing his likeness. That is what is promised to us, and that is what we can trust in. Not in our possessions, our accumulations of wealth, but the promises of the one who made us and redeemed us. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure”.

So let us resolve to work together through whatever comes – trusting in the one who is faithful to his promises, and who will lead us to the promised land of Christ’s kingdom.