Reflection and Prayers ~ Rev Dr Phil Wall
‘Bills, bills, bills’
I wonder what your coming week currently looks like. Mine includes baptism & Birthday visits, meetings with synod and ecumenical colleagues, a film night with friends and a promise to be fulfilled. Yes, you can witness the fact that I have promised Lynda that I will do my expenses form before I go away next Sunday evening, as it’s been a little while since my last one. (Let’s just say that we’ve celebrated Pentecost, Easter…even St. David’s Day since then!).
The truth is, I’m poor at admin and laissez-faire with my own finances…so the expenses form normally languishes at the bottom of the to do list, along with ‘tidy study’ and ‘defrost freezer’. Finances and spreadsheets just don’t pique my interest so that when we follow up the question ‘what are we passionate about?’ – the fifth of the seven searching questions for the church today – with one about finances, I’m not exactly overwhelmed with enthusiasm. Add to the fact that talking about money at Church can feel embarrassing or even crass, alongside the Bible’s complex and sometime controversial teaching on finances, and we have a perfect storm for some painful preaching. So, batten down the hatches and get out your sermon sou’wester, for its into that storm we go as we ask ‘what will pay the bills?’.
Let’s begin at the end of that question and consider, for a second, what bills we have to pay. What, in other words, are our outgoings? Okay, well, both churches, of course, have buildings that require upkeep and there are the day-to-day bills which accompany the more significant work – heating and lighting, cleaning and safety checks, insurance and licensing.
Then there is the money that we give to our respective denominations which covers everything from training and resources to legal guidance and that small matter of ministers’ stipends. To give you some idea of the overall ballpark figure per member, £447 is needed per member, per year – nearly £40 per month – to cover the running costs of the United Reformed Church and the figure that all other denominations ask from us each year is similar.
Finally, something would be very wrong if all our money was spent on buildings and denominational affiliation so let’s not forget the financial implications of our church activities, mission costs, and other significant expenditure – worship resources, pulpit supply, printing costs, the all-important post-service tea and biscuits, banners and publicity, IT and audio equipment, gifts, subscriptions and miscellaneous manse expanses (on which note, I have tried to persuade Lynda & Ann that the ten grand or so I’ve saved you over the years by not driving could be spent on a manse hot tub and backyard bar…but I’ve still got a way to go!).
So, they’re the bills we currently have to pay and, like most of our personal bills, they’re all on the increase! It turns out that running a church, or two churches, with four buildings in one pastorate, can be quite an expensive business. Though we really shouldn’t be thinking of it as a business for God’s take on money is far from business-like…but more on that in a mo!
Now we’ve outlined the bills that we’ve got to pay, we can ask what will pay them. Well, there’s us of course. If you’ve ever wondered what those coins, cheques, direct debits you generously give to the church are spent on, now you know! It’s a tough topic, of course, and a very personal reckoning when it comes to how much we individually give to the church. Different Christians and churches have different approaches to financial giving but, once again as a guide, basing their suggestion on the Biblical principal of tithing, the United Reformed Church encourages members to give 5% of their after-tax income to the Church, and a further 5% to other charitable causes. Perhaps that comes as a surprise to you. Perhaps that strikes you as quite low. Or perhaps you’re very grateful that the practice of publicly publishing all members’ financial giving went out of fashion decades ago! I do wonder, though, what our giving says about our priorities. I think Joe Biden had a point when he said “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”
But what else pays our bills? Well, another key source of income is the money generated by the groups who use our buildings, whether weekly or as one offs. Elections, for example, might well make ripples across our communities but they also make us money!
Additionally, at St. David’s Uniting Church we have seen tens of thousands of pounds come in every year from other premises hirers, whilst at Castle Square there has been a steady stream of help from our midweek group activities.
And then there’s funding and grants from other bodies. Over the years, both churches have received building grants from outside bodies alongside some denominational funding. Just last week, for example, St. David’s Uniting Church received a thousand-pound grant from the URC for a mission initiative that we’ll hear more about at this year’s Annual Church Meeting. And whilst we should celebrate that, it’s here that I have to add a note of caution for, due to the wider economic consequences of the pandemic, funding and grants will be harder to come by. On top of this, our income from premises users looks set to decrease dramatically as some community groups are disbanding and other hirers are moving to more appropriate accommodation, whilst our giving is also on the decrease, not least because our membership also is.
So, once again, we might ask the question – what will pay our bills? Perhaps now is a good time to turn to some of Jesus’ teaching about money as we listen to the parable of the shrewd manager…
Reading – Luke 16:1-15 – NIV
So what on Earth was that all about? Genuinely, do you have a clue?! Jesus essentially tells us a story about a manager who is about to lose his job so he fiddles the books and then gets praised for doing so by the boss he’s cheating before Jesus caps off the weirdness by telling us to use worldly wealth to gain friends! This is Jesus saying this…y’know Jesus – ‘sell everything you have and give it to the poor’ (Mark 10:21); Jesus ‘it’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle’ (Matthew 19:24); Jesus ‘woe to you who are rich’ (Luke 6:24), who now appears to be encouraging financial corruption! If anyone ever tells you that Biblical teaching is clear-cut, perhaps ask them to explain this parable to you! It’s often acknowledged as being the most confusing of all Jesus’ sideways stories and has led some commentators to even ask ‘Is there anything redemptive or redeemable about this parable?’.
Well, before I suggest that there might be, let’s pause for a second and sing a hymn that expresses some demanding thoughts of its own…Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee…
Hymn: Take My Life
Okay, so where were we? Bills that need paying and a parable that needs explaining! Well, ‘explaining’ might be over-egging it but here are four ways that we might want to take the parable and accompanying teaching today…
Firstly, what if we did take the parable on face value – what if Jesus was encouraging us to be shrewd in our finances, as the manager was? Look at it this way, what if the accused manager had down nothing wrong in the first place. What if he had been honest and hard-working and faithful and got falsely accused of bad practice? What if he was a good man trapped in a corrupt system of inequality, with a family at home who relied on his income to eat, to exist and so, when faced with financial ruin, he used his intelligence to prepare for his future, making no financial gains for himself, just the ability to survive? What if that’s the message for us today? That we shouldn’t see our current financial difficulties as the result of bad practice but merely the consequence of our current context. That we’ve been honest and hard-working and faithful but that maybe we now need to be more shrewd in our preparation for our family’s future, thinking outside the box for how we might pay the bills in the coming years? Is it time for us to be more worldly wise…perhaps reassessing our income and outgoings? Are the days of paid, full-time ministers over or should we look to make money to cover our costs, running a business like some churches do, perhaps even getting involved in a Pontypridd rejuvenation scheme – more details here –
King Dicky of Ponty https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=De7YZGzZ8Vs
Or perhaps God is telling us something very different. Perhaps we need to rather focus on the fact that the rich man believes the manager has mishandled his resources and can be his manager no more. It would be quick and easy to say that this element of the story relates to the Pharisees who were first listening to Jesus’ teaching and at whom he takes a pop after the parable – to those religious folk who had lost their vision of a radical God and had instead become comfortable and complacent, focusing their energy on the upkeep of a building – The Temple – and not on the transformation of the world and the blessing of all nations. But could that same accusation be levelled against us today? Are we mishandling the resources God has given us? Are we more focused on buildings than on blessing? Is God telling us that we must change our ways if we are to be managers any longer?
And, if that’s the case, could the core message of the parable be about God’s upside-down economy of grace? In other words, are we to be sacred squanderers of money?! The parable might suggest as much, for the manager who is praised by his boss – and seemingly by Jesus – gives wealth away. Could this be a reflection of the generosity of the God whose giving knows no ending? Of the God who gave space for creation to be; who gave away power and comfort to come to us in our need; who taught followers to give away money, control, egotistical expectations; who gave a message of forgiveness even as he gave his life on a cross? The God who gives us the Spirit to sustain and surprise us, who gives out blessings with wild abandonment, who gives hope to the despairing and love to all? What if Jesus is saying that our giving should mirror this? That like the manager in the parable, we should be giving away our finances, our power, our wants and our blessing, expecting nothing in return?
Or, finally, perhaps, the message of the parable is hidden in semantics! I won’t bore you with the incidentals, but in the translation we heard, we were told that the manager is giving away his master’s riches in the hope that he will be later invited into the ‘homes’ of those whose debt he’s reduced; whereas Jesus tells us to use worldly wealth to gain friends so that when it is gone we will be welcomed into ‘eternal dwellings’. Whilst, I’m not exactly sure what that all means, what I do know is that the original Greek translated here as ‘eternal dwellings’ is perhaps closer to the word ‘tents’. Perhaps this means very little…or perhaps Jesus was making a point about us being a wandering people of God. Perhaps we might be seeking a home for ourselves – a solid, static, safe place for us to live – whilst Jesus is instead offering us a welcome to God’s tabernacle – the ever-moving tent of the pilgrim, the wanderer, the refugee – where mobility requires the dispossession of goods and a desire to follow God wherever that may lead.
What do you think? What is God saying to you, to us, through that passage? What will pay our (increasing) bills? Is God asking us to be more shrewd, more reckless, or is it time to re-evaluate both the bills we have to pay and the ways in which we pay them? How might our stewardship of God’s resources best reflect God’s generosity, best share God’s good news, and best prepare us for our future path with God? With the Spirit’s guidance, Jesus’ teaching, and God’s grace, let us discern the way forward together. Amen.
 Debevoise, H. M. (2010). Pastoral Perspective. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C (Vol. 4, p. 94). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
Prayers of intercession
Living, giving God,
You are the God of full pockets and the God of pockets zipped shut;
the God of empty pockets and pockets with holes,
the God of inside-out pockets, and pockets stuffed with treasures.
You are the God of our pockets.
You came to show us that life is not to be pocketed
but to be given freely, joyfully, sacrificially.
And so, today, we pray for the Church – that we may bear fresh fruits of joy, peace and solidarity, using the resources you give us not for our own comfort but for the sake of your kingdom of justice and joy. We give you thanks, too, for the treasurers and finances teams in our communities who look after our finances. For their time, patience, wisdom and blessing, we give you thanks.
Living, giving God,
You are the God of full hearts and the God of hearts that are empty;
the God of hard hearts and closed hearts;
the God of the heartsick and those who have lost heart.
You are the God of our hearts.
And so, today, we pray that you would soften the hearts of world leaders. May they understand their role to serve the peoples of the world, may any political posturing be replaced by practical action to make a difference, and jockeying for position be replaced by genuine efforts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and care for those who are weak.
We pray, too, for our nation. In days when food banks are required in our land
to feed families who struggle to provide the basics for life,
we ask that you will re-arrange our priorities and help us to live more like Jesus.
Living, giving God,
You who know our inmost being, connect our hearts with our pockets.
Be the pacemaker which fills our lives with the steady rhythm of generosity,
our pockets opening and closing in love.
Even after a lifetime, they’ll still be filled with grace, pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing.
And so we pray for all who are burdened by the lack of money or by an overabundance of it. For those who are going to bed hungry, and those who are obsessed with wealth. For those who are imprisoned in unfair systems, and for those who propagate them.
In a moment of quiet, we bring to you the other people and places, questions and concerns that are on our hearts today, knowing that you hear our prayers and know our needs…
Living, giving God,
let your grace flow through us this week. All this we pray in the name of our brother and saviour, Jesus the Christ, who taught us to pray saying, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory. Forever and ever. Amen.
May the God who shakes heaven and earth;
whose Spirit blows through the valleys and the hills;
whom death could not contain and
who lives to disturb and bring us life;
bless us with the power to endure,
to hope and to love. Amen.
Other Hymns in the service
Now thank we all our God
God, whose giving knows no ending