Venerable Ian Bishop
Archdeacon of Macclesfield
I’d like to make four observations about the story of Adam and Eve that we’ve heard this morning.
Firstly just how much we take God’s abundance for granted.
If the writer of Genesis was telling us anything about the creation that God had put together, it is that it was pretty good! Abundant, peaceful and beautiful. God had made a place for men and women that was all they needed.
Of course we can’t help it… When we have much we take it for granted. Our hearts should be full of thankfulness for what we have, but more often than not we find ourselves looking at what we don’t have. You’ll know we live in a materialistic culture that tempts you and entices you, that invites you to take what you can’t afford and buy what you just don’t need. Like the serpent in the garden whispering away -“Hey this looks good – go one try it — you know you want to!”
But Jesus said “You cannot serve both God and money”. If we get drawn in we forget to be thankful for what we’ve got and we find ourselves driven to acquire what we haven’t got. And that means we take our eyes off God because we’re too focused on the baubles of earth. The apple that we’re not supposed to take.
Which partly makes my second point. You see we’re never content with what we have. My favourite verse in the whole of the Bible is in 1 Timothy 6:6 when Paul writes to a young man saying “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”
What is truly the right way to live for people of faith is to find contentment through holiness. Jesus said “where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” Never was that better illustrated than in the garden, as Eve took the one apple she had been asked not to take; she took the treasure and gave her heart away. Contentment was lost, the innocence of the garden was replaced with knowledge of fear of what they had become. One thing I have learned through years of following Christ is that I am most content when I am on track with him. When I entrust my treasure, my family, my money, my time and gifts to him and live his way — then I am most content.
Which leads on to my third point. Which is that when it comes to making decisions, we are lousy judges of what is right and wrong and we get it wrong too often. It was a bad decision in the garden, the first of a billion bad decisions people have made in life. It might have been the first — it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
To be sure we make lots of great decisions. Church folk I think probably on balance make a lot better decisions than people who don’t go to Church. God called Adam and Eve to look after the creation, and I think the people of faith generally get that. We are a generous people, in any year the people of faith in this country give way more to charity than Children in Need will ever raise, we look after some of the most amazing buildings in this country at no cost to the nation, we employ thousands of people who care for the poor and the weak, who go out and look for the lost and the lonely, who bring hope to the sad and joy to the depressed. And then there is the army of volunteers like you, who roll up their sleeves and make our communities work, who contribute time and energy that builds a better world and remakes the creation.
The people of God are astonishing. But we still make bad decisions about what to do with our money and our time and our energy. As you read the stories of the early Church you see that it was characterised by an astonishing generosity. I think Churches get it — just not enough — their treasure is a bit in the bank with Jesus but mostly not, and that means their heart is missing from Jesus’s safe keeping as well.
The Bible sets a very high standard. Deuteronomy 14 sets a figure of 10% for the people of God in their giving. 10% of what you earn should be given back to God. And before you moan about that, remember Jesus also told the rich young man to give away everything and then follow him, and he commended the widow who gave a mite — all she had. At least I’m only suggesting 10% for starters! Think what that would mean for you?
I see the giving figures across the Diocese and I’m astonished how little people do give. So many people give less than £5 a week. But what is £5 worth today? It certainly doesn’t make up 10% even for someone on a basic pension. And then every now and again you see someone giving much much more than that — and it usually isn’t the one with the most money — instead it’s someone you wouldn’t expect, but who gets it.
The theologian Helmut Thielicke once wrote (in a time when we still used cheques), “Our cheque books have more to do with Heaven and Hell than our hymn books.” And he was correct.
I remember when I was taking a funeral of a very wealthy man once, I was chatting to the undertaker in the car on the way to the cemetery, and the undertaker asked me — “how much did he leave?” To which I was able to answer, “Everything!”
But most don’t get it, and my fourth and final point from the reading this morning is this. We are always trying to make excuses. In the garden, the man blamed the woman, the woman blamed the serpent and the fact was that they all got it wrong and should have just owned up.
I know that if I sat you all down this morning and asked you to give more I would probably get a Church full of excuses, so I won’t ask. Instead I reckon that most of you should be giving at least twice what you’re giving regularly and that still probably won’t be 10% – but it would be a start.
Many of you won’t be giving by standing order — which you should be, otherwise someone has to trudge to the bank every week.. Save your treasurers aching feet and sign a standing order.
Some of you won’t have signed a Gift Aid form — which is a nonsense because that way the Government adds 25% to what you give (if you pay tax!)
It has never been easier to give. You may — like I do – have the ability to have your giving deducted from your pay before it lands in your account. I like giving that way because it reminds me that the money was never mine anyway — it’s God’s.
As more and more churches face uncertain financial futures, and I know St Oswald’s is one, I’m reminded of the Vicar who stood up before his congregation and declared “You will be glad to know we have found the money to solve the financial crisis at the Church.” There were hopeful smiles all round the congregation, until the Vicar said with a beaming smile, “It’s there in your pockets!”
Let me draw my four points together.
Never forget the context in which we live; God has created a world of abundance – we need to live with hearts full of thankfulness.
Sadly we’re rarely content — but make contentment your aim
We do often make lousy decisions and many excuses, but the best way is to be generous.
Remember when the wealthy tax collector Zachaeus threw a party and gave away half of all he had to the poor. That was when Jesus said “salvation has come to this house today.” Budgets are moral documents, the way we use what God has abundantly given tells us where our hearts truly are. So let me leave you with a question — where today is your heart?
Genesis chapter 3 vv 8-15
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’
The Lord God said to the serpent,
‘Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.’