'Lying on beds of Ivory'
Amos: 6: 1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6: 6-19
Luke 16: 19-end
Did the readings this morning make you feel at all uncomfortable?
Imagine now that our congregation has been changed. Your neighbours in the pews have been spirited away.
Instead, seated on one side of you is Johannes from Durban. He lives with extended family on the banks of a river. Just before Easter a years’ worth of rain fell in two days; his home was washed away, and his sister drowned in a wall of mud.
On the other side of you sits Jessica and her three children. They live in rural Zimbabwe where last year the rains failed. The scorching sun burnt her crops just as they were about to bloom. Now the family shares a single bowl of porridge between them each day.
And in front, Maria from the Dominican Republic. Hurricane Fiona flattened her house, but much worse, her 18 year old son was killed by a fallen electricity pole.
Now, in the company of these people hear these words:
From the prophet Amos: Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria!
From Timothy: As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches.
From Luke: Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things.
Uncomfortable? I am.
My friends, in the company of the world, we are rich. Even with the current cost of living crisis we are rich. As individuals, as society, as a Church, on a global and an historical scale we are rich. One way of counting those riches in by their monetary value. Another is by the resources we access through that money. We are not just rich in cash, we are rich in stuff. Did you know that according to research by Tearfund, what the average person in the UK consumes in six days has the same impact on the environment as a year for someone in Malawi. In less than a week we use a whole year’s resources.
And that inequality is not just about direct unfairness and injustice of quality of life now, as it was for the rich man and Lazarus. That inequality is about the unseen, creeping impacts of consumption. Changes in global climate that see floods and droughts and storms increase in frequency and strength. And of course, it is not we here in the UK that suffer the impacts of global climate change most severely; we can buy our way out with air conditioning and flood defences and spending a little more on food. It is those who can least afford it; Johannes, Jessica, Maria, on whom the burden of climate change falls most heavily.
(And it is not even injustice within our own generation; research shows that many couples are thinking twice about having children because we have so plundered the world for our own use that it is becoming unliveable in for future generations. Our children, the generation of Greta Thunberg, are rightfully both worried and angry about the world we are bequeathing.)
You know all this, we know all this. So why I am I going to all this trouble to make you uncomfortable?
Firstly, because we have to face reality, as individuals, as society, as Church. It’s easy to ignore when the impacts are far away, the victims faceless and nameless. Did you notice what Jesus did in the parable: he names Lazarus, he makes him real. Rather than somebody to be walked by, Lazarus is brought centre stage. If we are to change in the way that the rich man of the story failed to change, we need to stop and name and notice; real people, beloved by God, whose suffering we are walking past.
Secondly, I am making us uncomfortable because God calls us to repentance. Repentance is not saying sorry. It is, through the strength of God, changing ourselves; in the end, that is the only thing we can change. Repentance means hearing the words of Amos in our own time, and facing the costly realities which underlie our relative affluence. Repentance is making real, sacrificial changes that reduce our consumption and plundering of the world.
Thirdly, I am making us uncomfortable because we need to respond as a faith community. All our readings call on the family of faith to respond. Here at St Andrew’s we are planning to achieve net zero Carbon by 2023. That is a huge, audacious target that will need resourcing. We are blessed in that among our number are people with the skills, giftings and passions to achieve it. But it will also take money. And there we hit a problem. A problem we need to have the courage to be utterly honest and transparent about.
At the moment, St Andrew’s lies on a bed of ivory. We have unrestricted reserves – in other words savings – of over half a million pounds. Half a million pounds. Take that in. But at the moment we cannot spend those savings, because we rely on the interest from them to pay our bills. We our lying on a bed of ivory, laid down by those who went before us. And we cannot minister to the poor man at our gate because we rely on interest from the savings to pay our way now.
Those savings could pay for us, as a Church, to reach net zero carbon tomorrow. They could fund a warm room for those in energy poverty; heck, they could pay the bills of 100s of people in Bedford who will be cold this winter. Or they could rehouse Johannes or feed Jessica or help bind up the broken heart of Maria. But we as Church are in a catch 22.
That makes me deeply, profoundly uncomfortable. I can’t ask you to give to Church with a clear conscience because we as Church are rich, rich by anybody’s standards. But we cannot give away our riches because as a Church Family we don’t give enough to Church to pay our way.
So, in discomfort, I ask: if you don’t yet give regularly to St Andrew’s, please consider doing so. A regular gift, however small, would help us to plan our mission, to release funds to do God’s work. There are 250 people on our electoral roll, and more than that who are part of the Church family. If we all gave regularly each month, no more than we could afford, as a whole Church the positive impact we could have, on the environment, the parish and the world God made and loves, could be huge.