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God or Mammon?

A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 19 February 2017 by Canon, Ian Woodward, Vicar of the Close.

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God or Mammon?

Posted By : Ian Woodward Sunday 19th February 2017

A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 19 February 2017 by Canon, Ian Woodward, Vicar of the Close. Readings: Matthew 6:25-end


In the introduction to Archbishop Justin Welby’s 2017 Lent book ‘Dethroning Mammon’ Jean Vanier the founder of the L’Arche Community opines that ‘The greatest divide today is between rich and poor, and this division is so wide that those on either side cannot even imagine its breadth.’


Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are consumers that all too easily it seems to me, mirror the Saturday and Sunday newspaper supplements whose staple diets abound with travel, clothes and fashion, cooking and holidays etc. In other words our decisions influenced by these topics reflect our aspirations and we - wittingly or unwittingly engage in levels of consumption, ‘that have resounding effects upon everyone on this planet and the earth itself’. Abp. Welby says that ‘Dethroning Mammon’ is not a grim commitment to austerity and grey asceticism, but (it) leads to joy, to mastery and celebration’.  


The Archbishop says he was motivated to write about the extraordinary contrast between Mammon and Christ. So before considering that perhaps we could agree a definition of ‘Mammon’ which, it seems, is mainly used by those against the preoccupation of economic reality – is perhaps best described  as ‘when wealth is regarded as a god or as an evil influence’, and also to describe ‘the worldly rich.’


The Oxford Dictionary in explaining this, specifically refers to today’s Gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 6. The often heard response to wealth creation is not so much about wealth itself but more about what one does with it. If it is simply hedonism – the pursuit and preoccupation of personal happiness – it is indeed that, that Jesus is warning us of. On the other hand our economies have been influenced by the deprivations of the post World War I and the ravages of the 1920s and 30’s and then World War II and have been based of the theories of John Maynard Keynes and the Bretton Woods agreement that helped countries – including our own – recover from the devastation of six years of fighting and destruction. Bretton Woods was founded on a concept of economic compromise seeking stability, justice and virtue.


Justin Welby reminds us that Keynes’s economic model was based on the assumption that economics was embedded in ethics. One wonders and would like to think that they were in some way symbiotic and is this the case today? This may have been the case up to the 1970’s but when the discovery of new oil and gas reserves and with OPEC sanctions and disagreements, the old economic models didn’t really work anymore and ethics as an element in economics and subsequently fair trade and justice somehow flew out of the window. Welby argues that it is time for another John Maynard Keynes, and that it is only within such a (Kensyan) global system will it be possible to ‘Dethrone Mammon’, and to give all, for that ‘pearl of great price’.


What is Jesus telling us in Matthew’s story? In a sense Jesus clarifies faith by clarifying what it is not. The theologian Matthew Myer Boulton describes it this way: ‘it is not ‘worry about your life’... for when it comes to our own well-being there is an apparent competitor for our trust, another means of material provision that Jesus sums up in the Greek word mamonas – mammon. What Jesus has in mind is not so much great sums of money but rather a money centred approach to life’s basic needs. What might be called a strictly material, commoditised, marketplace-driven outlook and practical path and that an astonishing proportion of our lives and work come down to precisely this sort of striving after ‘things’ – commodities so much so that as Boulton puts it; a naïve observer might be forgiven for concluding that many of us -‘rich’ as well as ‘poor’ are caught up in a sort of ‘indentured servitude’. Today’s phenomenon that Prime Minister Theresa May has described as ‘Just Managing’ – highlights issues such as the living wage and employment and housing challenges. What does Jesus have to say about them? He is telling us that we cannot have it both ways. We can’t at the same time trust in our own economic striving as the bedrock foundation of our basic well-being and trust ultimately in God as that bedrock salvation.


So which do we choose? As Jesus puts it ‘No one can serve two masters. However as Christians we must not cease all economic activity – we have a duty to the economically weak and, dare I say it, to be both practical and particular is in the case of South Sudan whose government has proved to be economically irresponsible and at times incompetent. They need help. The actor George Clooney making a serious point has described South Sudan as a ‘Kleptocracy. We have tried in the past to prevent the Church there going down the same path. The point is our responsibilities are not simply personal but corporate and international too. The Bretton Woods talks in July 1944 realised as we should and I trust still do that stable economies enable both individuals and indeed whole populations and countries to grow and prosper. Prosperity facilitates health care and education and negates the need for tribes to fight and kill and rape as they are doing in South Sudan – as we speak.


Some of you may have seen Bishop Peter of Malek Diocese last week – he spent a few days with us here in the Close and he returned home last Sunday. But home is a refugee camp called Kakuma in Kenya, where 155,000 people mainly Somalis and South Sudanese are sheltering. His family is there but having spent one night with them, he got another overnight bus to the border and then another bus to Juba en-route to his Diocese on the banks of the Nile about 100 miles further north. On this third bus journey, one of his congregation recognised him and naturally sat next to him. Next, a rebel got on the bus and asked his parishioner for the ‘password’ to allow him to travel north. Nobody on the bus knew the password and this faithful member of Bishop Peter’s congregation was shot dead, there and the. The miscreant ran off into the bush. There was seemingly no rhyme or reason for this murderous behaviour except that the poor man was of a different tribe.


I mention all this because economic failure breeds jealousy and harbours grudges and resentments and some of them generations old. We even see it here when in the pre-referendum Brexit debate the ‘foreigner’, the apparent stranger, is seen as a threat – ‘taking our jobs’ or ‘our more rightful place in the queue for health care’ etc.


In other words our economic responsibilities as Christians and as the Church are there too: to help educate and train and support, and in Sudan and South Sudan we try to do this through the Church. Currently it has never been more challenging – but we won’t give up.


But let’s go back to today’s story from Matthew: at the end he says ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today’.


So is Jesus encouraging unpreparedness and short termism? Is he only looking from a personal rather than a community or national standpoint; only from the view of an inferior Jewish citizen of a Roman occupied country with no extra-territorial responsibilities? I think Jesus’ point is that if we, in our individual faith as Christians can get our own priorities right, as Christians, we can also get our wider responsibilities right too.


All too easily, we're drawn into the inescapable need to acquire material things that often speak of selfishness and vanity and hedonism.


Sometimes we discover words and sayings that really hit home and make us think and act differently and often in the most surprising of places. Some of you may be aware of this one: The other day I was walking through Churchill Gardens here in Salisbury on my way back to the Close from B&Q and I noticed a very telling piece of graffito on a shelter – it wasn’t new and I wondered how many other people might have noticed it over the months and years. It said this – ‘We make a life by what we get – we make a living by what we give’.  Amen