Thursday, 5 May 2022

'Money-making religion'

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
8 May 2022
Icon of Lydia of Thyatira, the first European convert to Christianity

Acts 16:11-40
I had a conversation last week with someone,
         and after a few pleasantries, this person asked me what I did for a living.

And so I found myself faced with that dreadful dilemma,
          faced by clergy and medical doctors alike,
          of what to say next.
If I admit to being a Baptist Minister,
          I can take a good guess at what conversation will ensue,
          as I either find myself fielding the other person’s
                   prejudices and presuppositions about religion,
          or getting drawn into an unofficial pastoral encounter
                   as they offload their deepest spiritual burdens.
A few years ago, Liz and I were on holiday,
          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 with all comers.
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.
Well, what to say…?
          To deflect or disclose?
On this occasion I found myself wondering
          where my new friend would go with it,
          so I told him.
“Oh!” he said, “The church”
He continued…
          “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 they 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.
As we explored a few weeks ago in my sermon on power,
          Money, like power, 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.
And 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 there
          to the theologies of blessing, and wealth, and prosperity,
                   where the more faithfully one gives to the church,
                   the more God gives one 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.
She was clearly a successful merchant, plying her trade in Philippi,
          the capital town of the region and also a Roman colony.
The locally produced purple dye was made from sea snails,
          and the cloth it created was greatly prized by elite buyers,
so as a dealer in purple cloth,
          she would have had regular encounters with the rich and the powerful.
Lydia was also what was known as a ‘God-fearer’,
          a Gentile who worshipped the Jewish God,
          and she became 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 a religion
          for the poor and the disadvantaged,
this is 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 so if you are at that stage in your journey,
                   and would like to explore baptism here at Bloomsbury,
                   please speak with either Dawn or myself about this.
But back to Lydia who, having become a follower of Jesus,
          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),
she becomes a patron of these two missionaries.
I think that 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 this slave girl meets Paul and Silas, is so unusual:
She starts following them around
          shouting to anyone who will 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 wider society.
Here in Acts it’s Paul and Silas the Jews
          who got the blame for the city’s financial and social woes;
but of course in other times, and in other places,
          this 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 Damilola Taylor in London, to George Floyd in Minneapolis,
          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 always enjoyed the songs of Paul Simon,
          and in his song ‘Wristband’ he captures something of this tension.
He tells the story of stepping outside the stage door of one of his concerts
          and letting the door shut behind him so that he couldn’t get back in.
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).
An earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison
          and all the doors are opened
          and everyone’s chains fall off.
It even ends well for the jailer,
          whose attempted suicide
          ends in the experience of new life for 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 so 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,
          as we might 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 it,
          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, for example, that as a church it is our calling before God
          to have a building as a place of worship, hospitality, and welcome,
          then we also 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 and into the wider world,
          then it is also right that we pay for them too.
This afternoon, after lunch, those of us who are church members
          will be gathering for one of our quarterly church meetings,
where we prayerfully discern together
          the mind of Christ for our congregation,
something which includes decisions
          on how we will collectively use the money entrusted to us.
These are not always easy discussions, you understand,
          because our decisions about finance
          reveal much about who we are as God’s people.
Central to all this is the money given to God through this church,
          by those who are part of the community here.
I have long held that giving is not a practical issue,
          it is rather a spiritual issue.
And many of us here are already giving sacrificially and faithfully to the church,
          and many of us have responded particularly generously and faithfully
          to the financial challenges faced by the church over the last couple of years.
If that’s you – then on behalf of the whole church can I say, Thank you!
          God sees your faithfulness and generosity.
However, the challenge remains for each of us
          to regularly review our giving,
not as a support of this church as an institution,
          but as a tangible expression of our faithful discipleship,
          exercised through generosity to others.
And my question this morning is simply this:
          are you in the right place with your giving?
I don’t preach the Old Testament practice of tithing
          as an absolute that is binding on Christians,
firstly because we don’t live in a context
          where our faith communities are supported by state taxation,
and secondly because, for some people, giving 10% is frankly not enough,
          whilst for others it is clearly too much.
But it is often a good place to start,
          and Liz’s and my practice over the years
          has been to give 10% of our disposable income to our church,
as an expression of our commitment to God,
          and our commitment to the congregation where we are in membership.
Other charitable giving elsewhere is then additional to this.
Sometimes, if I’m honest, I don’t always agree
          with what my church then decides to do with that money,
          but that’s not the point.
I don’t give to my church to support a cause,
          rather I give to God through my community of faith
          and I do so as a spiritual discipline, in gratitude to God.
And this is the crux of it:
          I’ve said it before and will say it again,
          Giving is a spiritual discipline.
We don’t give because ‘the church needs it’,
          rather we give, if we can,
                   because it intentionally introduces our relationship with God
                   into our relationship with money.
The church is not just another charity that needs our support,
          nor is it a club with a discretionary membership fee.
Rather, it is the accountable community through which we give to God
                    in response to the God’s gracious gifts to us.
And of course I must also recognise here that not all our giving is financial;
          we give resources of time and effort too;
and not everyone is in a position
          where their contribution include the gift of money.
But for many of us, money is where the rubber hits the road.
          And so my challenge this morning, is for each of us,
          according to our means, to review our giving.
Is it time for you to increase your giving?
          Or, is it time to decrease it?
Is it time to set up a standing order and fill out a gift aid form,
          to ensure that our giving to God is a monthly priority?
Another principle of giving is that we should give as we receive.
The old practice of passing round the weekly collection plate
          emerged in a context where people were paid weekly and in cash.
These days most of us receive our income monthly by bank transfer.
          And so a monthly standing order becomes the most appropriate way
          of ensuring our giving to God is a priority in our lives.
This is why we no longer pass a collection plate round
          each week here at Bloomsbury,
but instead we dedicate weekly our giving to God,
          in whatever way it has been given.
Well, 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 can we learn the lesson of Lydia,
          of what it means to be good with money.
And can we learn the lesson of Paul and Silas,
          becoming 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.

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