Sermon given at Evensong on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity 2022

Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

The Right Reverend Anthony Ball Canon in Residence

Sunday, 21st August 2022 at 3.00 PM

Friday was World Humanitarian Day, so it is fitting that our New Testament reading has St Paul reminding the church in Corinth of their commitment to respond with a charitable collection for the relief of the need in Jerusalem.  It comes at a time when our domestic news is full of the very real pressures of what is dubbed a “cost of living crisis”.  If the effects of inflation have not already affected you they soon will, and even if you are in that small minority who are sufficiently insulated as for it to not require much of a personal sacrifice, we have a widespread humanitarian disaster in the making with a combination of weather and war in Ukraine prompting food shortages imminent in many parts of the world. 

We know from the Acts of the Apostles that in Antioch Paul had earlier done something similar to what was described in the second reading – gathering relief aid for the poor.   There is something deeply ingrained in his theology about this response, about practical ways in which the gospel is good news for the least, the lost and the last.   Although you certainly don’t need to have a faith to be humanitarian, “offering aid and taking action to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain or protect human dignity” features in most religions.   

World Humanitarian Day is an initiative of the United Nations and is dedicated to humanitarian workers and those who have lost their lives working for humanitarian causes.  It is a global celebration of people helping people.  Here in the Abbey we marked it at Evensong on Thursday and, after the service, at a short memorial event and a reception.   A wreath and individual white roses were laid at the Innocent Victims Memorial to commemorate humanitarian aid workers.  The wreath was laid by family of Kate Mitchell, a British aid worker murdered in Kenya.   We heard that in 2021, 140 aid workers were killed, 203 wounded and 117 kidnapped.  Of the aid workers who died, 98% were national staff and more than half were staff of national NGOs.  This was brought home to us by the tribute given by, the Afghanistan Country Director of the HALO Trust, to 10 of his colleagues killed and 16 wounded in an attack on the compound of a mine-clearance team. 

As someone who has led an international development charity and works alongside many humanitarian organisations this was all very real.  But what St Paul is describing is not that front-line work but the equally essential collaboration that makes it possible – fundraising.  For that he needed to make people feel connected to the plight of others. 

He is clear that  it is simply not an option to say “that suffering or need is quite far away and there’s nothing I can do about it”.    Professor David Downs[i], who researched ancient voluntary associations in the Greco-Roman world, observes that what lay behind St Paul’s difficulties in persuading the Corinthians might well be the strangeness of the concept that they were obliged to financially support people so geographically distant and ethnically different from them.  St Paul makes sure that the (gentile) church in Corinth knew about the dire straits of the (Jewish) community in Jerusalem and to asks them to respond. 

The Bible gives clear guidance on the response expected of us.  That response may look very similar to that of those who don’t share a faith rooted in these scriptures, but there are likely to be different drivers.  It is worth understanding the Christian motivation so as to avoid ending up with a purely secular understanding of humanitarianism – one that sees humanitarianism itself as a liberal form of religion emphasizing service to humanity above all other concerns with the greater happiness of humankind as its ultimate goal.  Rather we seek to contribute to permeating the world with the leaven of the gospel in, ultimately, giving glory to God.

St Paul – and this is Professor Down’s basic thesis – presents the church’s participation in the collection with the metaphor of a cultic offering, that is, as an act of worship to God.  In so doing, Paul challenges contemporary economic ideologies of patronage that confer honour and status upon the giver.  Instead, his approach originates out of God’s grace or, as Isaiah puts it in the first reading:  “the Lord waits to be gracious to you; [therefore] he will rise up to show mercy to you.  For the Lord is a God of justice” (Is30.18) 

 As Christians we can make common cause with humanitarians of all faiths and none but we do need to keep in view our understanding of humanity and God’s purpose for humankind and, indeed, creation as a whole.  That, in turn, is closely connected with our understanding of the nature of God.  Doctrines of the Trinity, and the Church, are relational.

According to the United Nations, this year 274 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection.  This is up from 235 million people a year ago, which was already the highest figure in decades.  Each of those people, like us, is made in God’s image.  Each created as a free human being to glorify and be in relationship with a loving God. 

The demand to love God with all one's heart and mind and to love one's neighbour as oneself is made clear in Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25.  All the nations will be gathered and separated according to their giving to the “least of these” in food, water, clothes, medical care and hospitality. 

In a sense, hospitality is one of the prime humanitarian responses.  In an encyclical written following the Second Vatican Council, Popularum Progessio, Pope Paul VI wrote “We cannot insist too much on the duty of giving foreigners a hospitable reception. It is a duty imposed by human solidarity and by Christian charity.”[ii]

Solidarity and charity go hand in hand as part of our Christian response – requiring a speaking out about injustices as well as a sharing of resources, practical action to promote economic justice.  While no one is too poor to give, the Bible suggests that those who have much are especially obliged to share. 

This applies as much to nations and communities as it does to us individually.  Indeed, the theme of this year’s World Humanitarian Day is “It takes a village” – evoking the African wisdom that “it takes a village to raise a child” and applying it to the global village and the support needed by a person in humanitarian crisis.   Failure to share from our plenty or to welcome the refugee or migrant worker constitutes a moral failure, not simply an economic choice.   

Popularum Progressio identified three moral duties of rich nations: 1) mutual solidarity in the form of the aid; 2) social justice in the form of rectifying unfair trade relations; and 3) charity— seeking to build a more humane community for all.  Echoes there of the Old Testament commandments. Sharing must be accompanied by creating a fairer playing field and restoring just and peaceful relationships among peoples. 

Put another way, one test of our faith is our ability to love.  Faith is a personal response, love is a social one that shows our faith is alive.  Indeed, it is precisely our faith in the Lord of grace and the sanctifying Holy Spirit that holds the promise that we can love unselfishly.  In our humanitarian response we are affirming the truths we understand about God and about humankind.

At the start I acknowledged the economic pressures we currently face through rising prices and the like.   As we tighten our belts let us not tighten them so hard that we choke off all charity – and risk strangling our faith.   When the COVID pandemic hit the Abbey and we were plunged into the red we had to radically reduce the amount we gave away as charitable donations.  But, as the rubric on your order of service testifies, we have continued throughout to give away a portion of our income and, we thank God, that is rising again. 

St Paul has the last word:  “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2Cor9.7).

[i] In Downs, David J. The Offering of the Gentiles. William B Eerdmans (2016)

[ii] Paul VI Populorum Progressio (1967) p. 67