Paying it forward

By October 28, 2018Theology

Sermon preached at St John’s at the West End, Sunday 28 October 2018

I think Markus asked me to preach today because nobody likes preaching on Job. Nobody likes trying to mount a defence for a God who seems to think it’s cricket to put such a righteous man to the test. So rather than wallowing in theodicy, I shall (respectfully) ignore God and concentrate on Job, and how he might help us address today’s theme, which is money.

We’re told that Job was the greatest of all the people of the east. He had 7 sons and 3 daughters. He had 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, and very many servants. Try fitting that lot into the nave. He was a Time Magazine Forbes Rich List Man of the Year figure, and a paragon to boot. These days he’d probably be a Harvard Business Review case study, and George Clooney would’ve won an Oscar for playing him in a mega bio-pic. He was, as they say, a big cheese.

We read Job, or hear it read, and are outraged. How is it fair that he loses everything he has? Well, Job knows. “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away” he says, rather sadly. Because Job knows that he’s not a self-made man. It’s one of our modern tropes, the self-made man. The immigrant who checks in at Ellis Island with nothing, who pulls himself up by his bootstraps, and becomes a millionaire. It’s the American dream, and all over the world we lionise entrepreneurs who started with nothing and became great through sheer hard work. And I imagine many of you sitting here can feel justifiably proud of where you live, what you’re wearing, the possessions and treasures that you own, because you earned them. You worked hard. You gave things up to get on. And we imagine Job was like that too, so we feel his pain as theft: the taking away of things that were rightfully his.

But what is rightfully “ours”? Markus, not being from these parts, will know way more about German theology than me. But as I understand it, there’s an intriguing notion hailing from that body of work about something that gets translated as ‘the Orders of Creation.’

The concept seeks to address the very practical problem we face, that by the time we’re in a position to notice our formation, and to develop opinions about it, most of it’s already happened. This means that there’s never an untainted vantage point, where influences such as family and society have not already made their mark. Bonhoeffer called them the Mandates, Barth the Provinces; but most sources agree that the Orders are: marriage and the family; the economic order; the political order; and the community of culture.

These shape us long before we become aware of their influence. In the literature, the Orders are used to illustrate the chicken-and-egg nature of the extent to which society influences individuals or individuals influence society. Of course both are perpetually the case. For our purposes, this concept reminds us that Job was as indebted as the next man; only rich because of what had already been invested in him. We’re all the product not just of God’s great goodness to us, but of years of investment by our ancestors in the institutions of our lives. To be born is to be indebted to your parents; their relationships and labour; the society of which they were a part; and all the myriad influences that have conspired to deliver you into the world, not with nothing, but with an inheritance for good or ill. Others have mortgaged their own futures to give you one. Indeed, lives have been sacrificed for the very freedoms we currently enjoy.

Of course this isn’t about making us feel either guilty or entitled: it’s about reminding us to be grateful. Grateful to the extraordinary cloud of witnesses, throughout time and across the world, who’ve made our lives possible. It’s not about paying it back, though, it’s about paying it forward: contributing positively to the building up of life’s institutions, to leave them strong for the next generation: family, community, politics, culture, and the economy.

So how might we play our part in contributing our legacy, now that it’s our turn? Let’s take the economy as an example, because that’s my area of expertise. What would it be like if our economy were run by angels? Would we have trade injustice, sharp practice, shoddy goods? My suspicion is that, no matter how hard we try to blame all our ills on ‘the system’, probably we get the market we deserve. Because the market around us is no more than the sum total of all the messages about supply and demand that we’ve collectively put into it over the years, and the messages we continue to put into it today. I wonder what signals you’re sending the market. Are you creating around you the kind of market that you want for the next generation, one that the angels would be proud of? If not, how might one go about changing it?

Let’s imagine there’s a new process at the Pearly Gates. McKinsey have been in re-engineering everything, and St Peter’s decided that in future to get into Heaven you need to show him your Bank Statement, as a report card of your economic activity on earth. Would every transaction bless you? Are your favourite brands good citizens, who treat their workers well and pay their fair share of tax? It’s rather terrifying interrogating your bank statement in this way, because there’s probably quite a lot on there that you don’t really think about.

And where do you shop? You may have heard of a study by the New Economics Foundation, about what your pound is worth to the local economy. If you spend it in a chain-store, only 36p stays in the local community, because the money travels to headquarters, in London or offshore. If you spend that pound in a local shop or market stall, it becomes worth £1.76 to the local economy, because the money is then re-spent locally. They illustrate this with the idea of ‘blue hands.’ If everyone in your neighbourhood had blue paint on their hands, how blue could you make that one-pound coin before it came to rest in a bank vault somewhere?

In Cape Cod, they’ve a great way to support their local economy. They ask people to identify 3 local enterprises that they really like having around, and pledge to spend $50 a month in them. For us, maybe that flower stall on Castle Street is a great reminder to include flowers in your supermarket shop, but if you don’t support them, it’ll disappear. So too the Treasure Trove, and the corner shops, the shoe menders, and the antique jewellers, and even the pubs you walk past on Rose Street. They all need customers to stay in business. Sadly, our wonderful churches need your financial support too. Rich and slightly batty dowager countesses with spare tiaras are harder to come by these days, neither have we found a way to make prayers and incense trigger contactless payment.

If money is really about voting to support what you think’s important, how you use your resources of time and energy is also how you breathe life into the other Orders of Creation: your marriages, families and relationships; politics, democracy and social action; the church, community and culture. Elsewhere in the Gospels we’re encouraged to be salt and light, and these, the institutions of life, are as good a place as any to start sowing the seeds of the Kingdom. And in this church you have an enviable reputation for already leading that effort. What more could you do both individually and as a congregation to build up our common life?

In the end, Job gets it all back, in spades. The psalm today reinforces that message of hope: “those who sowed with tears, will reap with songs of joy.” None of us wants to be put to the test like Job, but his story is a reminder of how precarious life is. We don’t know what the future holds, neither how our fortunes will unfold, nor the number of our days. But we all know what we’ve got now. So let’s use everything we’ve got to get behind God’s projects in life, and invest ourselves in everything we cherish, so that it’ll all still be there long after we’ve gone.

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