SECOND SUNDAY BEFORE ADVENT HIGH MASS Sunday 17 November 2013 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for SECOND SUNDAY BEFORE ADVENT HIGH MASS Sunday 17 November 2013

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

When some were speaking about the temple, how it’s adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to god, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

It is perhaps just as well that we chose to launch the appeal for the next phase of our restoration programme on our Festival Sunday a couple of weeks ago – rather than today with Jesus speaking of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem!

As you may have seen from the service sheet, in the last fortnight we have received no less than £17,000 towards our target of £150,000.

‘If anyone will not work, let him not eat.’

This sounds like the slogan of some particularly draconian “Welfare to Work” programme or a headline in the Daily Mail, or the sign above the entrance to some Nazi or Soviet labour camp; like the “Arbeit macht frei” above the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

There are those who seize on texts such as this to justify draconian cuts in welfare programmes; and to attack any notion of state help for the poor. 

All governments and societies have to wrestle with the balance between welfare and work and there are no easy decisions to be made, but this passage is not addressing such issues and if it is taken as doing so, then it needs to be balanced against the far larger number of texts which remind Israel and the Church of the need to care for the poor and the demands of not just charity but of justice.

The Archbishop of Canterbury gave an address last week to the Church Urban Fund’s conference on “Addressing Poverty.”  In it he spoke of how Christians must address these issues because justice for our neighbours is essential to our faith.  He spoke of the profoundly Christian basis of the Welfare State as it had been designed by Beveridge, Tawney and Archbishop William Temple who shared both friendship and faith.

What is the problem Paul is addressing in today’s passage? He clearly regards the matter as important as he addresses a command using his apostolic authority, derived from Jesus Christ.  It seems to have been a persistent problem, for in the first epistle he encourages them to “admonish the idlers.” 

The Greek word translated “idle” means something more than just “lazy” or “workshy.”  It describes people who conduct themselves in a way that is, “disorderly,” “out of order,” because they do not follow the rule of the community.

In this case, the rule does have to do with work, and the end result of their disorderly conduct is that they do not work.

The standard to which they refuse to conform is, “the teaching you received from us.”  This teaching is the apostolic tradition handed down to the church there by the apostle and his fellow-missionaries.  

That tradition had been handed down not only by spoken and written word, but by apostolic example. This example taught them how to conduct themselves. Teaching by example was well-known in the ancient world. The missionaries who had brought the gospel to the Thessalonians had worked with their own hands, giving new believers something to see. They had not been dependent on anyone: supporting themselves by a combination of their own labour and support they had received from the church in Philippi.

This stood for something in that society. It meant that they maintained their independence, their ability to be all things to all people, because they were not dependent on a rich patron. Such patterns of patronage and dependency were common in the ancient world – and many philosophers looked for such patronage to support them in their teaching. 

But there was a downside to this – patronage could easily extend to control. The message would be slanted in favour of the patron. His or her voice could be given undue weight in the business of the church.

Those who were not busy with work could become busybodies: stirring up trouble in the life if the community, taking sides, as people were to do in Corinth and which has been a temptation in the life of the church ever since. 

The apostle commands the church to “keep away” from any believer who does not obey this tradition. This does not mean that the community should consider them as an enemy, outside the fold. They “should warn him as a brother” (v15).  They continue to be members of the family of faith; although subject to correction and discipline. 

Social separation was the principal means which the early church could employ to correct those members who did not conform to Christian moral teaching.  Paul clearly sees the whole church, and here we are talking about a relatively small but tightly knit group of people, living in a precarious position on the margins of society. They would be extremely dependent on each other in a way which is quite difficult for us to imagine in our very individualistic culture. In a collectivist culture, the community had a responsibility to see both that those who were dependent on it we cared for, and that those who abused this care we corrected. The separation of the disorderly from the community could be personally disastrous for them: it would separate them from the support network which stood between them and disaster.

Here, as in other places, Paul has an eye to the impact which the collective behaviour of the church impacts on the work of mission in the wider community. In a culture where notions of shame and honour were extremely powerful, where public reputation was central, the way the church was perceived in a community, which would be suspicious of a new fringe religious body which seemed at odds with the official cult of the empire, the example it set was vital. And it was so both to protect the Church from criticism and to commend the gospel. 

Now all this seems a good way from our situation.  We are not dependent on each other for our living or daily bread. Life for most of us is a good deal less precarious than it was for Christians in Paul’s time.  But that does not mean that this has nothing to say to us. 

The church as a collective, a community, has a duty of care towards those who belong to it. While this may not be one which needs to be expressed in financial support very often, it does often require of us time and energy and commitment, compassion and sympathy; a bearing of one another’s burdens, looking out for each other, for those who in some way or other need emotional and spiritual support.

And in this area of our common life, the warning against busybodies still applies. We are not about gossip and tittle-tattle.

One of the tasks I am sometimes asked to carry out is to teach curates about hearing confessions.  I say to them all that they must be conscientious about discretion and confidentiality. And this must apply not just to what they hear in the confessional – but in many other pastoral encounters to which the seal of the confessional needs to be applied

In ordination services, the candidates are questioned by the Bishop about their commitment to ordering their life and conduct so as to be an example to others.  That includes knowing when to keep your mouth shut. I say to junior clergy – and to some not so junior ones – that this is one of the great gifts they can offer to their people.

But if they become known as gossips, as indiscreet, unable to keep a confidence then is there any wonder that people will not trust them with the secrets of their troubled hearts. Now what is true of the clergy also applies to the laity. If we seek help from our fellow-Christians, we need to know that we can trust them.  And if they come to us for help, they need to know that we are trustworthy.

It is clear from the history of the Church, that for all its failings, one of the decisive factors in the growth of the early Church was the quality of its common life; its mutual care, a care which, unusually in the ancient world, and since, has extended to those beyond its boundaries.

Paul taught that it was right for the ministers of the church to be able to rely on the financial support of the congregation, those among whom they ministered. He based this on both the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus. He and his companions had not exercised this right for a particular reason, but he clearly saw that there would be a need for this support.

So Christian congregations and individuals have a duty to support their clergy and the work of the church generally. This is a responsibility which belongs to all of us – not just to other people. If we take that responsibility seriously, we will not reach for the story of the widow’s mite as soon as the Stewardship Campaign begins.  There are in fact many such widows and equivalents, people on low incomes, who give with disproportionate generosity to the work of the church.

When people from well-off evangelical churches lecture me about tithing, I point out that a tithe of a city banker’s income is unlikely to make too much difference to their standard of living; but a tithe of the state pension does.

However, that should not allow us to evade the issue of our own giving.

But all of us in a church like this one have a responsibility to support the work of the church as generously as we can manage. We can measure our generosity by comparing what we give to the church to what we spend on ourselves – not on the essentials of life perhaps but on leisure activities and little luxuries: cinema, concerts, theatres, football matches or whatever. We might paraphrase Paul and say:   “those who will not give, let them not worship.”

We do not have the sanctions of social exclusion available to Paul and his contemporaries. Other people will not know whether we our giving is generous or niggardly.  We will know ourselves, in our consciences. And God knows.  All we can do is encourage by word and example into the ways of generosity and mutual responsibility. 

And this applies not just to us as individuals within the Church but also to communities, congregations within the Church.  This was true in Paul’s time.  The Church which he had founded in Philippi, supported him and his companions as they continued to spread the gospel in Greece. They responded to his collection for the mother church in Jerusalem n its poverty.

The Diocese of London operates a system called Common Fund. It is a big part of our Parish budget. Most of it goes to pay our clergy stipends. But the system depends on the better-off parishes giving more than the costs of their clergy because the poorer ones cannot.  So in our Deanery, that means churches like ours giving more in order that the work of the church can be maintained in a parish like St. Paul’s, Rossmore Road in the very different world north of the Marylebone Road. In the diocese as a whole, it means the Church in the West End supporting the Church’s continuing presence in the East End. In the Church of England, it increasingly means the South supporting the North.  And if this does not happen, then our Church will cease to be the Church of the nation and retreat into being a collection of religious societies for those who like that kind of thing. Whatever else that might be, it is not the catholic church.