Sermon on the Dishonest Manager

Here’s what I made of yesterday’s dreadful gospel reading…

 

 

Why am I preaching on this terrible gospel reading?

Why do bad things happen to good Provosts?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

I ranted and I raved. I roared and roamed about the Cathedral office like a prowling lion seeking whom I might devour whom resist steadfast in the faith.

“Why” I cried. “Why am I on the preaching rota scheduled to preach on the parable of the dishonest manager?”

What’s the point of having a Vice Provost if you end up preaching on the most difficult of gospel readings yourself?

How come, I shrieked – how come I’m preaching on this? Who was it put me down to preach this week.

Members of the cathedral staff in the office looked at me in a bemused way and reminded me that against their better judgement it is me, the same very provost who was complaining who compiles the preaching rota. It was me who had scheduled myself to preach on this wretched story.

Wretched?

Difficult?

Impossible?

Why so?

Well, how on earth do you preach the good news when the gospel reading is all about seeing the good side of a dishonest manager?

Really, what on earth was Jesus on about?

And so I grumbled and moaned and sulked.

My joy is gone. Grief is upon me. My heart is sick, I opined channelling the very spirit of the prophet Jeremiah at his gloomiest.

Why do bad things happen to good provosts?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Who hasn’t asked that question at one time or another?

When you are merely cynical you ask why bad things happen to good people.

When you graduate to being both cynical and bitter you ask why good things happen to bad people too.

Those questions come up in Scripture. There are answers to those questions too – different contradictory answers which indicate that asking questions like that is part of the human condition. We’ve recently been reading the book of Job at morning prayer and it is page after page of people trying to find answers to those questions.

I have no idea how you cope with a story in which a dishonest manager is the central figure.

Is the dishonest manager being likened to God?

Are we really being encouraged to behave like dishonest managers and with what are we being expected to be dishonest.

This is one of those bible stories which make me wonder whether they even heard Jesus correctly when they were trying to remember all that he said.

The sudden blast of wisdom that we get at the end “That you cannot serve two masters, you can’t serve God and money” is brilliant, instantly memorable and both true and profound. Yet it goes no way at all to answering the question of whether Jesus is promoting dishonesty or what we should make of it if he is.

It seems to me though, on reflection that there’s a nougat of glory stashed away in this parable that might make us forget for a moment at least about that question.

Isn’t it amazing that a dishonest manager might remind us of God?

And isn’t that truth something that we might need reminding of.

We are so ready to divide the world into the good and the bad (most of us presuming that we fall into the good category automatically).

The thing is, problem with the very question “why do bad things happen to good people” is not the answer but the very question itself.

In telling a story about a dishonest manager that someway is a way of passing on something about God and goodness, Jesus is reminding us that everyone bears the image and likeness of God.

If we are going to ask pertinent questions, we might well ask why it is that bad people can sometimes be good.

Why might a murderer be kind to an animal? Why might someone who is known in one context to be kind be cruel in another?

The trouble is, we are complex creatures.

For a long time I used to think that no-one was intrinsically evil.

I have to admit that this was challenged when I became an ordinand and found that original sin was the only way I could really understand the cruelty of some of those who were trying to shape me and form me as a priest.

But do I believe that people are utterly, intrinsically wicked and by nature separate from God?

Plenty of bits of the Christian faith teach that this is so. Indeed I grew up having to sign up to the believe that and I quote: “all men have become sinners, totally depraved, and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God.”

I don’t think that now.

I don’t think that because I believe people are more complex than that. And I don’t believe it because I think God’s love is more simple than that.

I don’t think that now because I don’t believe in a God who is in the business of wrath. And I believe that human beings are generally more complex than simply being bad and depraved and then suddenly saved into being good.

God’s love is either for everyone or God isn’t a God worth dealing with.

And part of my justification for that is the existence of this story of the dishonest manager.

All kinds of people are heaven bound – dishonest managers amongst them.

All kinds of people reflect the essence and nature of God. And not the people who would come at the top of our lists.

For in this kingdom we are heading for things are not quite what you expect anyway.

From time to time I ask people for suggestions for the badge stall at the back of the church. One of the surprising good sellers is a badge that simply says, “make no assumptions”.

And we must make no assumptions about the bad and the good.

For all are made in the image and likeness of God and all are loved anyway.

All are loved anyway.

Must make that into a badge.

9 Pointers towards how LGBT Inclusion will be won in the Church of England

I believe with all my heart that one day all the churches of the Anglican Communion (and let’s not stop there – all of God’s churches anywhere) will be fully inclusive of LGBT people. I’m working for that and have been for quite some time. And I believe it will happen because I believe in the loving, transforming power of God.

I find though that the loving, transforming power of God most often seems to work through the loving transforming actions of God’s beloved here on earth. The things we do can make God’s kingdom come all more quickly, which when you think about it, should not really surprise us.

It seems to me that the current strategy for working towards LGBT inclusion that seems to be being adopted south of the border is for the most prominent campaigners to fight one another publicly and then wait hoping and praying that a bunch of straight bishops (who have some form when it comes to prolonging conflict themselves) will somehow wave a magic mitre and usher in endless days of gay love and delight.

The reality of course is that, though it is going to come about, it isn’t going to come about that way.

Now, it seems to me that if those who desire LGBT inclusion in the Church of England were to be listening to the Holy Spirit of common sense then they might find the following 9 points of focus might provide them with some short-cuts to where they want to go. Things down south are very different to how things work in my own dear church but sometimes being outside a province and looking in can give one a useful sense of perspective. This is how I see things just over the border from here.

  1. This can only be won in the Church of England in the General Synod of the Church of England. Notwithstanding anything else I say below, it can be won no-where else. That means building up a formidable synodical operation that works vote by vote for inclusive policies. The key here is that getting permission to marry gay couples in church unlocks all the other things you want too. Yes, it is worth making every debate about pensions, the forces chaplaincies, schools etc all debates where LGBT issues are paramount – these are all things where LGBT rights need to be talked about. However, equal marriage is the goal.  And deliciously in a synodical system it is possible (difficult admittedly, but possible) to get things on the agenda. Oh, and don’t forget that the best way to provide jollity to a diocesan synod is to get enough people elected onto it and propose a motion or two about the national policy of the C of E when it comes to LGBT people. Don’t forget that  it was in Diocesan Synods that the dreaded covenant was defeated in England. Synods are your friends.
  2. Although things can only finally be sorted out in the General Synod, it is important to remember that there are other places in which pressure can come. One of the most important of these is the one debating chamber where the bishops of the Church of England are present but don’t possess either a majority or a veto – yes, the House of Lords. We know already that Archbishop Justin doesn’t like it when members of the House of Peers tell him he is being a rotter to the poofs. I’ve never heard of anyone campaigning around these issues in England who is cultivating members of the House of Lords but if they did it would pay dividends. The Church of England is essentially part of the establishment and it is the establishment which will need to be involved in sorting out all the anti-gay policies of the C of E, just as it has done with other institutions.
  3. Pressure can also be brought in the House of Commons, of course. However, here it needs to be targeted towards government policies. We need MPs, good, solid, shire-based Anglican MPs standing up and asking Theresa May whether she really intends to give more money to an anti-gay institution such as the Church of England to run even more schools. Oh, I know it is ugly to be accused of using schoolchildren as bargaining chips but it is even more ugly to be a bullied gay kid and putting pressure on the peculiar English school system over this issue pays dividends both to that kid who needs our support and the wider cause too.
  4. Every single political party needs to be asked repeatedly whether it will remove the Quadruple Lock on the C of E. Every single one without exception. So who is going to do that and when and how will that be decided? (Oh, I know, that’s a tricky question I slipped in there. I know, I know).
  5. Now, the joyful thing about the Church of England is that it claims to be a church for the whole English nation (whatever that is). This means that the whole English nation (whatever that is) can be enjoined to have a say. It would be good to hear a bit more of the old campaigning noises coming from Stonewall to put pressure on government, particularly about the schools issues and the quadruple lock. Postcard campaigns to MPs, being noisy in the media, using the undoubted skills of Ruth Hunt in the public arena – all these things will help. The important thing is that the way in which change will happen is when LGBT campaigners work to make Stonewall and other equality institutions work harder to call the establishment to account in the faith zone and not the other way round. Trust me on this one Stonewall – this isn’t about you trying to get LGBT faith campaigners to do the work here. Change is going to happen precisely the other way around and it is worth doing because the streets of England will not be friendly streets for LGBT people until the homophobia of the churches has been beaten. It needs to be a public, mass campaign using all the tricks of the previous Equal Marriage debates. Don’t be squeamish about telling religious people what to do – even the bible recognises that sometimes those outside the community of faith speak holy words of wisdom most clearly.
  6. One of the things that I think would be most effective most quickly would be for those who campaign on these issues in England to realise that their enemy is not those with whom they disagree. Their enemies consist entirely of those who agree with them but who stay silent. There’s really no need to fight people who disagree with you. It is mostly pointless and promotes the heresy that there are two equal sides to this conflict, which we all know there are not. However, there’s every reason to fight tooth and nail to get all those who might believe in the depths of their hearts in the haughty homophobes of the hierarchy being brought low and the lowly lesbian ordinands being raised up, to sing out their own magnificat of LGBT justice for all to hear. (Here’s an insider tip – start with Great Expectations for the Deans – bishops are not the only people in the hierarchy of the C of E).
  7. Oh, if only there were an actual international Anglican LGBT Network that was an official network of the Anglican Communion. So, why don’t we start working for one? There is much one can learn from other Provinces once you start buzzing about he world. A formal LGBT Network is the only real answer to that last Primates’ Communique that condemned homophobia, isn’t it? Sorry, I meant, “Isn’t it, Archbishop?”
  8. One of the things that I hope for is that Changing Attitude Scotland soon goes out of business and ceases to be. I’ve a feeling that I might struggle to find such sentiments in organisations in  England. Would campaigning organisations be prepared to sacrifice their own identity and existence if it brought about victory for the cause? I’ve a hunch that the current plethora of competing campaigns isn’t doing justice to Justice. Just a thought.
  9. If people don’t want to engage in campaigning in this way, they do in England have another unique option, which is to pray in the privacy of their hearts (or in public if they dare) for the Lord to bless Prince George with a love, when he grows up, of a fine young gentleman. A royal wedding might sort things out remarkably easily though we might have to wait 25 years for that to happen. Who knows whether that might be sooner than things might work out by other means?

I’ve a lot more that I’d like to say which may be best said more privately. However, the current attempt by the Church of England’s bishops to Sort Things Out by appointing a group of bishops which has neither any gay people nor any supporters of gay people on it does beg the question as to whether things are going well in that corner of the vineyard which thinks (quite incorrectly as it happens) that it is the origin of the Anglican Communion.

Change is coming, remember.

God’s goodness is never to be doubted.

And God is good, all the time.

Even now.

And even in England.