Sunday, 17 July 2016

'Money-making religion'

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 17 June 2016
Acts 16.11-40 

Liz and I went away for a few days recently 
to stay in a caravan in Worcestershire, 
and we found ourselves in a local pub for our evening meal. 

As I was at the bar, ordering our food, 
I got talking to a man whose self-appointed job for the evening 
seemed to consist of propping up the bar, 
having a definitive opinion on the available selection of local real ales, 
and making conversation. 

He fairly soon worked out that I “wasn’t from round these parts”, as he put it,
and eventually asked me straight out what I did for a living. 

Normally, I try not to answer such questions, 
but I found myself wondering where my new friend would go with it, 
so I told him. 

“Oh!” he said, “The church! 
The thing about the church… and I’m not trying to start a fight… 
but, the thing about the church is all that money. 
I mean, taking money from gullible people 
and then buying palaces and all that, 
and always wanting more when already own more land than British Rail. 
It’s all about money, isn’t it. What do you think?” 

Well, I wished him well, 
and said I really ought to be getting our drinks back to the table 
before the food arrived, 
and thanked him for his advice on the beer.

But, is he right? 
Is church really all about the money? 
I’d like to say no, 
but then here I am preaching another sermon on money, 
as part of our sermon series on money and mission, 
so maybe he has a point…? 

Well – bear with me for a few minutes longer
and we’ll see where our engagement with this morning’s story 
from the book of Acts, about Lydia, Paul, Silas, and the slave girl, takes us.

Broadly speaking, I think there are two errors that the church can make 
when addressing the topic of money. 

The first is to assume that money is itself an evil. 
We mis-quote Paul and give the impression 
that money is the root of all evil. 
When actually, of course, what Paul says in his letter to Timothy 
is that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6.10). 
It is idolizing money, prioritising it above all else, 
that opens the door to works of darkness. 

Money itself can be a cause of great good. 
But all too often the church has sought, 
not to help people live well with money, 
but to convince them that money is an evil best avoided. 

Of course, it’s only one small step from there to theologies of asceticism 
which suggest that the only way to be rid of this evil 
is to give it away, preferably to the church. 

The other error, which comes at the other end of the scale 
but ends in much the same place, 
is to assume that money is a deserved gift from God, 
given as a reward for faithfulness. 

And it’s only one small step from here 
to the theologies of blessing and wealth and prosperity, 
where the more faithfully one gives to the church, 
the more God gives back. 

Both of these are, I think, false views of money, 
but they are prevalent and I’ve certainly met both 
in various forms over the years. 

Well, I want to suggest that our passage for this morning 
goes a long way towards identifying and debunking both these positions, 
and it does so through the engagements Paul and Silas have 
with two very different women. 

Firstly there’s Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth. 

Lydia is clearly a successful merchant, plying her trade in Philippi, 
the capital town of the region and also a Roman colony. 
Lydia is also what was known as a ‘God-fearer’, 
a Gentile who worshipped the Jewish God, 
and she becomes the first convert to Christianity in Europe. 

The significance of this is often overlooked, so I’ll say it again: 
the first European Christian convert of Paul 
was a financially successful woman. 

In a world of patriarchy, where women were themselves often treated 
more as property than persons, 
and in a new religion which we often think of 
as the religion of the poor and the disadvantaged, 
this is all highly significant. 

Paul and Silas extend to Lydia the inclusive message of Jesus 
in whom, as Paul says elsewhere (Gal. 3.28) 
the barriers of gender, social class, and ethnicity are broken down. 

She and her family are baptised in the name of Jesus, 
and although this isn’t a sermon on baptism 
I would just observe that baptism has, from the very beginning, 
been the way of marking a person’s belonging to 
and commitment to Christ, 
and as we are planning a baptism here for October, 
if anyone would like to talk with me about this, 
or with Ruth or Dawn, please do so.

Lydia then opens her home to Paul and Silas, 
extending financial support and hospitality to them 
in support of their mission to the city of Philippi, 
and like other women in the book of Acts, 
such as Mary (12.12) and Priscilla (18.13), 
becomes a patron of the two missionaries. 

Here, in Lydia, we have a positive example and role model 
of how a person with money might live faithfully
within the community of Christ’s people. 

The values of hospitality and generosity that she demonstrates 
still speak to those of us 
who are similarly able to live out such values today.

But the heart-warming and encouraging story of Lydia 
sandwiches a much darker episode in Paul and Silas’s mission to Philippi, 
and it’s a story of demon possession, torture, 
false imprisonment, and international politics. 

And it all begins with another woman. 

At first glance the slave girl is the polar opposite of Lydia. 
She is property, and is constrained to use her religious gift 
to make money for her owners. 

But there are similarities too: 
both the slave girl and Lydia are women trying to survive 
in the midst of a system that constantly seeks 
to constrain and control them, 
and both are caught up in financial systems 
that extend far beyond their own control or influence. 

Lydia may be wealthy, generous, and hospitable, 
but as a merchant in a Roman colony 
she would also have been compromised by the mechanisms of trade. 

Similarly the slave girl is required to behave in certain ways 
by the profit-motives of her owners, 
and has very little agency for resistance. 

Which is why what happens when she meets Paul and Silas is so unusual. 
She starts following them around 
shouting to anyone who would listen 
that they are slaves of the most high God, 
and that they are proclaiming a way of salvation. 

Well, they say that any publicity is good publicity, 
but Paul saw through the mockery of her words, 
superficially truthful though they may have been, 
to the spirit of control that lay behind them, 
and he ordered the spirit to leave her. 

The girl herself disappears from the narrative at this point; 
with her usefulness to her owners gone, 
we are left wondering about her fate. 

But what happens next to Paul and Silas 
is a racially motivated violent beating, 
public humiliation, and imprisonment. 

The owners of the slave girl whip up the crowd into an anti-Semitic fury 
by using the age-old technique of scapegoating the ethnic minority 
for the sins of the whole society. 

Here in Acts it’s Paul and Silas the Jews 
who got the blame for the city’s financial and social woes; 
but in other times and in other places 
the same technique of racial stereotyping and scapegoating 
has led to deep and violent divisions within societies 
as fear and anger earth themselves 
on the disadvantaged minority. 

From Louisiana to Minnesota to Dallas, 
to parts of our own country and even our own city, 
violence against the minority remains an ever-present risk, 
particularly when money, wealth and poverty are in the mix; 
and where you have an oppressed, scapegoated, 
impoverished, and disenfranchised minority, 
the spiralling of violence can seem inevitable.

I’ve been listening recently to the latest Paul Simon album 
and in his song ‘Wristband’ he captures something of this tension.

He starts by telling the story of one time he stepped outside the stage door 
of a concert he was giving to have a cigarette, 
and let the door shut behind him and couldn’t get back in. 
So he had to go round to the front door, 
but the bouncer didn’t recognise him and wouldn’t let him in 
because he didn’t have the right wristband on. 

Paul Simon says, 
‘I can’t explain it, I don't know why my heart beats like a fist
When I meet some dude with an attitude 
saying "hey, you can't do that, or this"’ 

But it’s the final verse that’s relevant to our story this morning. 

Paul Simon sings, 
‘The riots started slowly with the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland towns that never get a wristband
Kids that can't afford the cool brand whose anger is a short-hand
For you'll never get a wristband 
and if you don't have a wristband 
then you can't get through the door’

So Paul and Silas, the Jews, are subject to a racially motivated attack 
triggered by Paul’s action in releasing the slave girl 
from the spirit that controlled her 
and bound her to the systems that oppressed her. 

There can be a very real cost to pay 
if stands are taken against the principalities and powers 
that dominate so much of human society and interaction, 
and always, somewhere in the middle of it all, 
is economics.

Because money is power, and power is control. 
This is the dark side of money, 
where it enslaves rich and poor alike, 
mediates oppression, and instigates violence.

And Paul and Silas place themselves in opposition 
to those systems of economic control 
when Paul casts the demon out of the slave girl. 

The remarkable thing about the story, however, 
is that it doesn’t end with the violence, 
rather it ends with liberation, 
and not just for Paul and Silas, 
but for all those imprisoned that night (16.26), 
as an earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison 
and all the doors are opened 
and everyone’s chains fell off. 

It even ends well for the jailer, 
whose attempted suicide ends in the salvation of him and his household. 

And as the darkness of the night gives way to the new dawn, 
the magistrates learn that Paul and Silas are not just Jews but Roman citizens, 
and they are released back to Lydia, 
and the story has come full circle.

So what does this complex and violent story have to say to us, 
particularly as we consider our own use of money and power 
as we seek to engage the mission of Christ in our own city? 

Well, firstly I think it calls us to works of hospitality and generosity. 
Like Lydia, we need to learn to hold lightly to our own wealth, 
such as we have, 
and to give generously and sacrificially 
in support of the ministry of the gospel, 
both here in London and around the world. 

If we believe, as a church, that it is our calling before God 
to have a building to act as a place of worship, hospitality, and welcome, 
then we have a responsibility to pay for it. 
If we believe that it is right for us to have ministers 
who serve the people of God through this place, 
then it is also right that we pay for them…

Many of us here know that at Bloomsbury 
we are having some difficult conversations about our financial position, 
especially relating to an ongoing budget deficit 
between total income and total expenditure. 

The reasons for this deficit are fairly straightforward: 
we are spending more, and yet income is declining. 

However, a breakdown might make things a bit clearer.

In this first slide, we can see our income through gift-aid giving 
over the last five years. 
Broadly it’s been an upward trend, 
with a high blip in 2013 caused by a one-off donation.

This next slide sows our giving through gift aid, 
and also in grey our income from the letting of our building. 

As you can see this, has declined slightly over the last five years, 
dipping in 2013 and then recovering a bit.

This slide adds the cost of the ministers of the church, in yellow. 

Interestingly, this pretty closely tracks our congregational giving. 

The low year in 2012 and the higher cost in 2013 can be accounted for 
by various staff changes during that period, 
but the overall trend is remarkably consistent, 
showing a broadly even level of expenditure on ministry. 

This next slide adds into the mix the blue line of other salaries 
– here we’re talking about the administrative staff, 
including the church manager 
and the various part time reception and others 
that we employ for various reasons. 

As you can see, this has risen fairly consistently since 2013.

And this final slide brings it all together 
and adds in green the cost of running the building, 
including repairs and upgrades. 

This too has been rising in recent years.

So, this helps us bust some myths.

Firstly, we are not spending a lot more on ministry in 2016 
compared to five years ago, 
and the vision that the church discerned some years before that 
for three ministers who complement each other 
to offer a wide range of gifts to the church and the city remains valid. 

So Dawn offers community ministry 
relating the church to the grassroots of social change. 

Ruth and I share some responsibilities equally, particularly on Sundays; 
but during the week we bring very different gifts to the church, 
with Ruth offering professional counselling and spiritual direction, 
and wider ecumenical involvement, 
while I engage with the systems and powers of change within the city, 
and am often the face of this church 
in our relationships with political, economic, 
and educational networks. 

If you want to know more about what we do on behalf of the church 
when we’re not standing in the pulpit, do come and ask us!

Secondly, we have had to spend more on the upkeep of the building, 
because things break, wear out, and need replacing, 
and costs of doing this continue to rise.

Thirdly, we have spent more on other salaries 
because we need to ensure that the building is safe 
when we are open at evenings and weekends, 
and we no longer have just one person on duty at one time. 

Also, since becoming a living wage employer, 
we make sure that all our staff, from cleaners to receptionists, 
are paid a fair wage.

Fourthly, letting commercially for profit 
has become an increasingly competitive and challenging market, 
and our church manager has done well in keeping this as high as it is. 

We try to balance commercial and charitable lets, 
and hopefully the newly renovated basement will help us with this next year. 
But there is going to be an ongoing need 
to continually update the building to keep it lettable.

And finally, and this is where we all come into it – giving. 

I need to say that in many ways we’re doing well on this. 

Many of us are giving sacrificially and faithfully to the church, 
and I now that there have been some substantial increases 
in giving in recent months. 

If that’s you – on behalf of the whole church – thank you!

However, the challenge remains for each of us 
to regularly review our giving, 
not as a support of the church as an institution, 
but as an expression of our faithful discipleship and generosity to others. 

You may be interested in one final chart, 
which anonymously displays our gift aid giving pattern as a church.

Here you can see that we have 158 gift aid donors in total
who gave money to Bloomsbury in the financial year of 2015-16.

A hundred of these gave between £1 and £200 during the year,
and accounted for 4% of our giving income.
Seventeen donors gave between £200-£500,
and accounted for a further 5% of our giving income.
Nineteen donors gave between £500 - £1000 during the year,
and accounted for 15% of our giving income.
A further ten donors gave between £1000 and £2000,
accounting for 16% of our giving income,
But the remaining 60% of our giving
comes from twelve donors,
six of whom gave between £2000 and £4000 per year,
and six of whom gave over £4000.

I would just note from this that we are disproportionately reliant 
on a fairly small number of people.

You will know where you fit into this chart, 
and my question is simply this: are you in the right place? 

A couple of further things to reflect on, as we respond; 
if everybody gave 10% of their income, 
our deficit problem would vanish, 
and we’d have more people giving over £4000 per year. 

Similarly, if everyone doubled their current level of giving, 
our problem would vanish. 

But even if everyone simply increased their current level of giving by 10%, 
whilst it wouldn’t solve all our problems, 
it would mean that congregational giving 
would cover the cost of our ministers 
without the need for them to be subsidised from the lettings income. 

And if we were to end up this time next year 
with more money that we currently need, 
then who knows what we could do in the name of Christ 
to continue our mission to transform our city?

So, is my friend from the pub right? 
Is the church all about money?

I’d still say no, it isn’t. 

It’s about mission, and discipleship, and love, 
and hospitality, and generosity, and service, 
and so much more. 

But how we handle our money together 
affects what we can and cannot do together. 

And so my challenge is for us to learn the lesson of Lydia, 
of what it means to be good with money. 

And for us to learn the lesson of Paul and Silas 
and become fearless in our challenging 
of systems of financial oppression and exploitation, 
as we model something different in our own community. 

As I keep saying, this isn’t really about money, 
it’s about discipleship; 

and this is the call on us all, 
and it is our challenge to respond to.

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