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Plenty

by Barbara Ridpath

Posted: 8 Oct 2015

This homily was given at the Harvest Festival service held for the Worshipful Company of International Bankers at St Mary-le-Bow Church on 6th October 2015.

Be kind to me. While I have a long history of public speaking, I have never before delivered a homily. I have, however, listened to many, and considering my own experience as a listener, thought about what it might be useful for me to say, and for you to hear. To me, these are most valuable when they help me reconsider my own actions in a new light, and best when that light is supplied by a passage from scripture that I may have overlooked, or which gains meaning with a new interpretation of it.

A wise man who I respect very much in the City once told me that whenever he wants to learn about a new topic or solve a problem that's been bothering him, he agrees to do a speech on the subject, as it forces him to focus on it. I have chosen that concept to apply to this homily.

For both these reasons, this evening I will try and clear some of my own confusion between our human compulsion to labour and accumulate, and the Biblical injunction to trust in God to provide. It seemed as apt a subject as any in this season of thanks for the bounty of the harvest, here in the City among the Worshipful Company of International Bankers.

This is a subject close to my heart. I have worked in finance my entire career, mostly in the City but also on Wall Street and in Paris. And I have worked hard, missing my own daughter's confirmation for a business trip to Kuala Lumpur. I have told myself that it was my responsibility to provide for my family, and I have. I have told myself I needed to make certain we had a cushion for the unexpected, and we do.

But the Old Testament text for this evening, Genesis 8:22 tells us not to worry. 'As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.' This is the promise that God will take care of us so long as the earth remains, and that He will provide for us; ensure that we have enough. This sense of plenty, and of not worrying about accumulating for the future, this emphasis on relying on God to provide, is frequently repeated in the New Testament. The Gospel reading on the lilies of the field is among the most evident but there are many others. And yet, worry we do, and work to accumulate we do. Indeed, even in this evening's passage from Luke, the farmer plans to 'eat, drink, and be merry' before God suggests he might think differently.

Why don't we listen to God's promise and trust in it? I could equally well question why the Bible often seems to give you an argument and its opposite in separate passages?, but that would be a longer and more difficult topic than I am brave enough to broach this evening.

There are two key reasons for not listening to God's promise. First, I fear most of the time we trust ourselves more than we trust in the Lord. Or perhaps we feel more in control by relying on ourselves rather than relying on God. And second, I would argue that Protestantism from Luther onward has a lot to answer for. Max Weber in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism shows how, starting with Luther, Protestants have been encouraged to use their talents in service of God. They have been taught that work is the living manifestation of their faith. Indeed in James 2:14, we hear that Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

While we may be conflicted between the promise that God will provide and the need to use our talents in God's service, these two need not be incompatible. These two seemingly inconsistent positions are brought to synthesis when we are asked to consider how we use the bounty that God gives in tonight's Gospel reading from Luke. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, quite explicitly took this theme in a 1744 sermon, where he preached: 'gain all you can: save all you can: give all you can.'

It is not work or service that shows a lack of faith or trust in God. The crux of the matter lies in how we use our wealth and the fruits of our labour. God has indeed provided the very fruits of our labour. For it is He who provided us with the means: the health, the energy, the intelligence and the strength to work and to succeed.

It is not the earning in question. God may provide the sun and the rain, but the plowing, the nurturing and the harvesting; well I am unaware of anyone who's found a way to do that without significant human effort expended.

What many of the stories in the New Testament condemn is the hoarding of wealth, or the love of riches for their own sake. Jesus condemns neither hard work nor prosperity. Working hard, and producing and accumulating much is no sin, if the product of our work is used for good ends, and does not result in an overweening attachment to the riches that work provides. What the passage from Luke argues against is hoarding for oneself.

Bishop Richard Harries who wrote in a book entitled Is there a Gospel for the Rich?, which I would commend to you, makes the point that 'the necessity of increasing the resources of society [is] in order to improve the quality of life for all; which does not disparage growth but asks for growth in the right areas; which supports the market economy, while at the same time works against its exploitative tendencies.'

Whether it is at the individual level of the size of our barn, or the larger level of the growth in our economy, we must remember that all that we have is God's gift and we are only stewards of that gift while we are here on earth. Canon Angus Ritchie sees the fruits of our labours as as 'a gift to be shared and not merely a possession to be appropriated.'

So in this season of the harvest and the accompanying harvest festival, we are called to thank the Lord for all his bounteous gifts, not only the food on our tables, but also the fruits of our labours, physical and intellectual. This evening, I ask us to consider for what reason God gave us such incredible gifts, and how best we might put them to good use as his stewards.

There are two quite distinct concepts here. The first is that our responsibility is to use our gifts, and our labours to improve the welfare of all, not only ourselves, through what we do and what we give. So the fruits of what the best and the brightest in this City can provide needs to be for the benefit of the whole of society, not just the producers. The second is that it is not wealth or prosperity in themselves where evil lies, but what we do with what we have that matters. There are multitudes of ways to serve and there are equal multitudes of needs. How you put your time, your talents and the fruits of your labour to use in the service of others and of God's kingdom; that is what matters.

Let me finish with what was intended as a grace, originally by Lord Runcie, but quoted in Bishop Harries' book, which is the best prayer and charge for a harvest festival I can imagine,

Lord,

Deepen our gratitude,

Enlarge our sympathies

And order our affections in generous and unselfish lives. Amen.

About this author

Barbara Ridpath is the Director of St Paul's Institute.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.