A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 2nd July 2023
Our gospel today is about rewards. We tend to think of rewards as something that is a prize or a financial benefit for achieving a task that may well have involved much effort, and often money as well, often in the business or show business worlds. We may well think that reward and religious faith seem far apart. This thinking about reward is not the meaning of the Greek word Jesus uses here. Jesus’ understanding of reward is about God fulfilling his promised covenant with his people and the revelation of his limitless mercy to the world.
Our reading indicates that even small amounts of hospitality, generosity, or compassion on our part, are sufficient for God to keep his faithful promise with us. We believe that God never breaks his promises, or breaks the covenant he has made with us through Jesus. So this passage can be seen to affirm that even our meagre attempts to help others see the faintest glimpses of God in the darkness of the world, are a sign of the breaking in of his kingdom of love and peace.
Taking part in the breaking in of God’s kingdom is our fundamental task and joy. We do this as a family formed and shaped by God in this place. We come here for many reasons, among them: worship of God through what we see, hear or think; seeking strength to face up to all kinds of difficulty; listening to scripture and reflecting on its meaning; placing our muddled lives in God’s hands and discerning God’s will; having time apart from daily life with all its chores; seeking to go deeper into the mystery of God; forming and enjoying caring friendships, both as individuals and as groups; celebrating important times in our lives; practical activity to improve the wellbeing of our community and environment; welcoming and encouraging strangers; caring for our earthly home and particularly for this holy place of prayer, now around 800 years old. And there is much more that could be said about how we take part in bringing about God’s kingdom of love and peace.
For all of this we depend on the sacraments, the outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. In particular, we gather twice a week, as now, to celebrate the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving. This is a time when we come with all the mess of our lives to thank God for all the blessings of our lives.
Like any family, we have to take notice of the practicalities of seeking to live in this way. We depend upon the great goodwill and activity of many people on a voluntary basis. We have inherited a very effective administrative structure. Now, during our interregnum, we are shaping a vision for the years to come at St Mary’s. And we are taking steps towards appointing a new vicar in the coming months.
But we need to recognize that the church and hall are costly to maintain and to repair. We all know that the costs of energy in particular have risen steeply in recent years.
We can easily forget that nearly half of our income is sent to the Diocese of Oxford: a majority of it returns to us, as it were, partly in providing a stipend and a home for our vicar. Much of the rest is spent on training new clergy, as well as paying the pensions of clergy who have retired, as well as housing for some retired clergy. The amount we pay to the Diocese has increased substantially in recent years.
At our recent Annual Parochial Meeting we were told that we anticipate having a deficit this year of around £20,000, having had a long period when we have usually made ends meet. In addition to the increased costs already mentioned, we need to note that we have lost a number of generous givers in recent times, either through death, or because they have moved away. But we are glad to be welcoming newcomers in recent months, and even today. Nevertheless, on present projections we shall have a substantial deficit this year. Although our reserves are sufficient to cover this, we should not, and indeed cannot, continue such a practice.
Scripture reminds us that everything comes from God. And so we are called to give our God-given time and gifts, including money, as a response to God’s generosity, for the breaking in of his kingdom of love and peace here.
You will all realise that part of my message to you this morning is that there is a pressing need to raise our income just in order to maintain our present ministry, let alone to develop the new initiatives, which have been discussed in the two recent meetings about our vision for the future. The amount we each are able or choose to give is of course based on many entirely private factors, and it may well either rise or fall as our circumstances change.
On the very sensitive question of how much to give, we may note that the Church of England has suggested that people may be invited to consider giving 5% of their net household monthly income. Thus, giving would be directly proportional to our personal financial situation. Such a level of giving would give us the financial security which we as a parish lack at present.
I invite you to think carefully and prayerfully about the financial needs of our community of God, in the light of what I have said. This is a call to return some of God’s gifts for building up of God’s kingdom. May we have the grace to respond with generosity. Amen.