Monday, July 30, 2012

The Glad Game

Psalm 145
Ephesians 3.14-21

Psalm 145 is one long outpouring of praise to God, with an emphasis on God’s compassion and concern for all creation. There’s only one jarring note, in verse 20, where the psalmist asserts that God will destroy the wicked.

Everywhere else in the psalm the tone is distinctly Pollyannaish, a word that came into the English language 100 years ago from the popular children’s novel Pollyanna, about an orphan who has a relentlessly and almost naively optimistic outlook on life. She’s learned to be an optimist by playing something she calls ‘The Glad Game’, taught to her by her father before he died. Every time something happens you try to find a reason to be glad about it, even if at first you were disappointed. A modern example of playing the Glad Game would be to say, ‘Although I have been made redundant and have been unemployed for some time, I remain optimistic about the future.’

Of course, if you dig down into the book you find that the term Pollyannaish is an undeserved caricature of Pollyanna’s real outlook. She knows that bad things do happen to people and optimism is just her mechanism for coping with them, a mechanism which eventually breaks down when she falls from a tree and is badly injured. Then it’s only the encouragement of other people which lifts her out of her depression and helps her find the inner strength she needs to learn to walk again.

Perhaps the same process is going on in the psalm. On the surface it seems relentlessly upbeat and cheerful, as if the psalmist were always expecting the best possible outcome in the best of all possible worlds. Is he, or she, absurdly optimistic and good-hearted, with a false confidence based on an irrational trust in God’s power to protect us and on an assumption that the psalmist stands on higher moral ground than other people who are struggling to make sense of life? Or is the psalmist in fact challenging us to look for answers to life’s very real problems by considering the nature and purposes of God? In other words, is he or she perfectly well aware of the troubles that life brings but anxious nonetheless to find a way of coping with them that is founded on trust in God?

One way of thinking about the psalm is to see it as an attempt to describe God to someone who can’t imagine what God is like, or who isn’t even sure that a good God really exists. If we examine the psalm from this perspective then it’s a bit like someone attempting to describe an elephant or a bird of paradise to a blind person. You would have to wring every possible ounce of meaning from every word, every adjective, that you used to describe these strange creatures, otherwise the blind person would simply have no concept of what they were actually like.

So in this section of the psalm we’re told that the first thing to remember, however bad life might get, is that God is gracious and compassionate. He suffers alongside us and his love is steadfast. Nothing can shake it or undermine it. No matter how much appearances might seem to contradict this idea, we really od have to cling on to the belief that God is good to all and has compassion for everything in creation. The only proper response, like Pollyanna’s. is to go on praising God and blessing him for his goodness.

The role of believers, then, is simply to keep on telling all the incredulous people around us about the glory and power of God until they believe it too, in spite of themselves. And that’s precisely what Pollyanna does. She goes on telling other people to be glad until, eventually, they’re inspired to come and lift her spirits when she runs out of gladness and descends into despair and gloom.

It’s not absolutely clear what the psalmist means when w eget to verses 11 and 12. He or she could be talking simply about the calling that God entrusts to us as believers. We are definitely called to speak about God’s power and glory. Are we also being called - as the translators of the Revised Version of the Bible thought - to make known to other people God’s mighty deeds and the splendour of his kingdom? Unlike the fleeting empire of Solomon, or the thousand year reich proclaimed by Adolf Hitler, or for that matter the British Empire on which the sun never set, God’s power to overcome evil will endure and have dominion for ever. It is everlasting.

Or is God a partner with us in this work of proclamation. Are we only being challenged to tell people that God himself has the power to make known his mighty deeds and the glories of his kingdom? Is this what the psalmist means when he or she says that ‘all your works shall give praise to you’? Does the whole created order testify to the goodness, compassion and mercy of God? The translators of the New Revised Standard Version and the Revised English Bible leave the question hanging by choosing an ambiguous interpretation of the psalmist’s words.

Perhaps, like all good poetry, the psalm is capable of holding more than one meaning. And again, which interpretation you prefer depends on how sympathetic you are to Pollyanna’s Gladness Game. Are you the kind of person who can find something to celebrate about wasps, and stinging jelly fish, and earthquakes and volcanoes? If so, then all creation can join in the song of praise about God’s goodness, compassion and kindness? If, on the other hand, you find it hard to be relentlessly optimistic in the face to pain and tragedy, if you find nature red in tooth and claw hard to interpret as proof of God’s loving purpose, then you might think God is calling us to work hard to explain how - despite these contradictory signs - we should still go on celebrating his goodness.

The last part of the section we have read tonight, moves on to promise that even when the going gets really tough we should still hold on to faith in God’s compassion. Like Pollyanna, the psalmist doesn’t deny that bad things happen; instead, he asserts that we should go on trusting God to help us even when bad things happen.  There is still reason to be glad even when we are stumbling, when we are bowed down with worries or pain or stress. This is precisely the moment when we need to raise our eyes in hope to God, expecting his support, his out-stretched hand, his favour. For, says the psalmist, it is in God’s nature to uphold those who are falling, to raise up those who are bowed down, to show favour to those who are in genuine need, to act justly and with kindness.

This psalm is in today’s lectionary because of verse 15, ‘you give them their food when it is due’. It links with the Gospel reading, which is The Feeding of the 5,000, but raises precisely the same questions. How can we go on trusting that God will provide in a world where starvation and malnutrition, disaster and conflict are never out of the headlines? Is it absurdly optimistic to go on believing that God will satisfy the needs of every living thing?

It could easily seem so, but what the psalmist is asserting is that - however contrary appearances may seem - God is unchanging and ever-faithful. His nature is to be compassionate and he keeps faith with us. He is just in all his ways, kind in all his doings and near to all who call on him. Sometimes, says the psalmist, we just have to keep on saying this, even when we could easily give way to doubt and despair. We have to keep on hoping, because it’s true.

Maybe, in the end, there is something Pollyannaish - in the worst sense of that word - in the psalmist’s relentless and unexplained optimism. He or she continues to believe in God’s loving kindness without any concincing reason - just because of a gut feeling that it’s true. But the psalmist’s instinct is ultimately vindicated, for Christians, by the incarnation and especially by the cross. Here is the evidence for God’s enduring love and power which the psalmist could not provide. I pray, says the writer of Ephesians chapter 3, that you may have the power to comprehend, with all believers, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, of Christ’s love, and to know it though it is beyond knowledge.

The ultimate reason to be glad is that even when things going horribly wrong God is near to us in Jesus. His kindness, compassion, justice and love are constantly affirmed by his willingness to share our life and death. Even when creation falters, the cross speaks of the glory of his kingdom and tells of his enduring power over evil and suffering. So let us continue to make known God’s might deeds and be glad.

Far more than all we can ask or imagine

2 Kings 4.42-44
Elisha has a crowd of hungry people with him. It’s a time of great scarcity and feeding them is a challenge. And then one of those things happens which, with the eyes of faith, we can see as God’s providence at work. A man brings to the prophet a first fruits offering from his harvest. He does this in obedience to Jewish Law - but Jewish Law as we know it now was still evolving at the time. Later, believers would be instructed to offer the first fruits of their harvest to the priests and levites, but this man chooses to bring his offering to Elisha because of his profound respect for this holy man.

Seen as an offering of first fruits it’s actually quite a generous gift, twenty loaves of bread plus some ears of grain. But Elisha chooses to share it with his whole entourage. Twenty loaves among one hundred people means just a few slices or hunks of bread each - enough to take away the pangs of hunger for a few hours, but no more than that. If God is satisfying their need through this man’s gift it’s on a subsistence basis. As Jesus says much later in The Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us each day our daily bread.’

And yet, surprisingly, there is some left over. What’s going on here? There’s no suggestion that it was a miracle - although Elisha has already worked a miracle to turn some poisonous stew, accidentally made by desperate people gathering the wrong sort of herbs, into a wholesome meal that’s good to eat.

What we do know here is that the people are conscious of sharing in a holy gift. They’re eating the first fruits of the harvest which have been offered by this man to God. They’re taking part in the meal because Elisha - the holy man - has seen fit to invite them to share in it. So perhaps they’re inspired to make sure the food goes round everyone, with some left over. The generosity and faith of the giver, and Elisha’s confidence that they will rise to the occasion, causes them to set greed on one side and make do with just enough.

We live in a society which faces an epidemic of obesity and where all of us eat more than enough every day. Is there a lesson here? Someone has said that we don’t show enough reverence for our food - for the care that goes into tending crops and rearing animals, and for the sacrifice of their lives so that we might have food. Instead of eating a lot of everything, whether we need it or not, or - worse still - buying a lot and then throwing some of it away when it passes its sell-by-date - we should be inspired to eat as varied a diet as we can, with plenty of different fruits, vegetables and salads and just a little meat. The meat bit is, of course, optional for vegetarians, but the respect for what we eat, and the willingness to think of others and not to buy or eat too much, is not optional. It’s part of what it means to see God as the provider of our daily bread. Give us, O Lord, enough for each day and no more.

John 6.1-14
Jesus is like Elisha. He attracts people to him because of the signs and wonders which he performs, particularly the way he can heal the sick. Like Elisha he’s also able to feed the crowd with a gift of barley loaves, this time accompanied by fish rather than ears of grain. But Jesus is greater than Elisha. Whereas the twenty loaves of barley brought by the man from Baal-shalishah fed one hundred people with an unspecified amount left over, the five barley loaves supplied by the boy feeds five thousand people and there are twelve baskets full left over.

Again, the boy’s gift - presumably of his own picnic lunch - is an act of great generosity. The man was generous because he gave more than was absolutely necessary - the first fruits and then some. The boy is generous because he gives all that he has. If he had kept his picnic secret and eaten it surreptitiously he - at least - would have been fed, even if everyone else around him was hungry. Now he risks being just as hungry as the improvident people who either left home without any food, or else ate it all on the journey.

There is an argument for saying that, just as the holy nature of the offering by the man from Baal-shalishah prompted everyone to be unselfish and to share the food he had provided, so this boy’s act of unselfish generosity shames everyone else into getting out and sharing their secret stash of food. On this interpretation it becomes like a midnight feast in one of Billy Bunter’s dorms. ‘Cripes everyone, let’s share all the wonderful tuck that we’ve been sent from home!’

However, whereas the narrative of the Elisha story positively encourages that interpretation, John positively discourages it. There’s no hint in the Elisha story that his sharing was a miracle, even though Elisha had worked plenty of miracles before, but here we clearly are in the realm of the miraculous. If people are sharing what they have brought with them they must have massively over-catered for themselves, because they can afford to be careless with it - they don’t just drop a few crumbs, they drop fragments of bread and fish that are large enough to be collected up by the disciples into twelve baskets - and that’s an awful lot of leftovers.

But like the first fruits offering in Elisha’s story, John makes clear that - once Jesus has given thanks over it - this picnic of bread and fish becomes special food. It cannot be wasted or left to rot. There’s a holy imperative to gather it up and presumably distribute it later to other people in need.

Both stories evoke memories of the Passover, when the people of Israel escaped from Egypt and were fed with manna in the Wilderness. ‘They shall eat and have some left,’ the words of the Lord quoted by Elisha, don’t actually come from our version of the Manna story but they probably do come from a lost version known to Elisha and to the writer of the Books of Kings and they certainly do evoke the manna story because that’s what happened The Israelites ate the manna and had some left, and tried to keep it until evening, only to find that it didn’t store very well and went maggoty -except on the Sabbath when it stayed fresh.

In John’s story the reference to the Passover is even more explicit. He tells us that the miracle happened at Passover time. But this is a greater miracle than the manna from heaven, because there really is a lot left over and furthermore it could be kept until another day.

Because of the explicit link with the Passover, another argument holds - that this is a Eucharist or Passover meal and that after giving thanks Jesus breaks the bread and fish into pieces so small that everyone has a very tiny piece to eat. But again, that cannot be the explanation. You couldn’t fill even twelve small baskets with the crumbs from five barley loaves and two fish! And in what sense would that be a miracle - a sign from God?

Impressive as it would be to have a eucharistic sharing that involved so many people, and there certainly are echoes of the Eucharist here, would you really say to yourself afterwards, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world’? In other words, a prophet greater even than Elisha! No. You would say to yourself, ‘If this is a sign it’s only a sacramental sign of an inward and invisible gift of God’s grace.’

Holy communion, the Eucharist, is not - at least in the Methodist understanding - a miracle, a transformation of the bread and wine into something else. It’s a sign, a reminder, that as we share the bread and wine God comes to be with us in Jesus. It’s a promise of something extraordinary in the ordinary. The feeding of the five thousand is, then, in a different category from holy communion because it’s totally out of the ordinary.

Perhaps Ephesians chapter 3 verse 20 offers us an insight into what this sign is telling us. ‘By the power at work within us’ says the writer, God ‘is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.’

The feeding of the 5,000 was certainly far beyond what Jesus’ first disciples could have asked or imagined. Philip said, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of these people to get even a little!’ And yet Jesus was able to feed the crowd because of God’s power flowing through him. Not only that, but he was also able to accomplish it abundantly; there was a superfluity of God’s power at work here, leading to twelve baskets of leftovers.

So what’s the message for us - is it that on the journey with Jesus we have to expect the impossible, to learn not to worry too much about having the resources to finish the task when we set out, to be prepared to have our imaginations stretched and our horizons broadened? Do we sometimes fail because we are too cautious, too reluctant, too calculating?

Yet sometimes Jesus says, ‘Don’t set out to build a tower unless you have the resources to finish it, don’t go out against an army unless you have overwhelming odds on your side.’ How does that advice square with the story of the feeding of the 5,000? Feeding a lot of people, especially feeding those in genuine need - in the middle of a famine, for instance - is a huge logistical task and it actually takes a lot of foresight and planning.

So maybe the message is that - as often as possible - we should be like the boy. I’m always amazed when people go out and buy their lunch every day when they could save a fortune by packing up a sandwich. We should all take rations with us for the journey with Jesus, and be prepared to top them up when we can. But there will be times, as he says, when it is essential instead to travel light, to take no pack on our back, no sandwich box and thermos flask. There will be times when, to grasp the opportunities that are presented to us, we must be prepared to take risks and believe that God can ‘accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.’

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Olympic Torch and The Olympic Spirit

1 Corinthians 9.24-27
Genesis 18.1-8

Did anyone see the torch? It went past the very place where my wife Helen works, so she saw the torch. It was being carried by the son of Jane Tomlinson, the woman who raised nearly two millions pounds for charity by undertaking a series of sporting challenges. But I only saw it on television. The nearest I got to it in person was sitting next to a young woman, at a meeting on Friday, who carried it when it came to Sheffield. 

Perhaps the most memorable moment on the torch’s visit to Yorkshire was when disabled soldier Ben Parkinson, who was wounded in Afghanistan, carried the torch in Doncaster. It took him 26 minutes to carry it 300 metres, and afterwards he said he was so proud to have done it.

The torch coming to Yorkshire seemed to get people really excited. The young woman who said she carried the torch in Sheffield took it to work with her next day and everyone wanted to be photographed with it. Wherever it went it really seemed to bring out the Olympic Spirit.

But what is the Olympic Spirit? The modern Olympics were invented in the Nineteenth Century. Various people tried to invoke the ancient Olympic Spirit and get it going again, but the man who started the international Olympics that we know today was called Pierre de Coubertin. Does anyone know how he described the Olympic Spirit? He said, ‘The important thing is not to win, but to take part.’

It’s a very good principle, yet it’s not the official Olympic Spirit, because the Olympic movement has its own vision statement, which says: "The Spirit of the Olympics is to build a peaceful and better world, and to inspire and motivate the young people of the world to be the best they can be, and to promote tolerance and understanding in these increasingly troubled time in which we live, to make our world a more peaceful place."

There was a 90 something year-old man on the television news on Friday who took part in the Olympics the last time they were in England, in 1948. He said he had tried to live by the Olympic Spirit his whole life long.

Paul said in our Bible reading that taking part is not enough. He felt we should all play to win and be the best that we can be. But he would have approved of the Olympic Spirit - building a peaceful and better world, and promoting tolerance and understanding to make our world a more peaceful place.

There is another bit to the Olympic Spirit which I didn’t read out before. I think it’s the reason why our Old Testament story was chosen to be read in services about the Olympics. The bit I missed out before says: “The Olympic Spirit aims to instill and develop the values and ideals of Olympism in those who visit.”

I don’t like the ugly word Olympism. But the point of this part of the Olympic vision is that it talks about those who visit - in other words people visiting from around the world to take part in or to watch the Games. The Olympic Spirit isn’t just about taking part or even playing to win. It’s about coming together from around the world. And its about people in Britain giving a welcome to all our visitors.

The reading is about strangers being made welcome. The Bible says that when we welcome strangers we meet God.

The Case For Equality

2 Corinthians 8.7-15
Mark 5.21-43

On Saturday morning I heard the BBC’s Rome correspondent talking about how the Eurozone crisis had affected the Dolce Vita - the good life which Italians used to think they enjoyed. Life has got a lot harder for people, he said, but then he conceded that - compared to most of the world’s population - Italians are still rich.

Perhaps that’s something we need to remind ourselves about from time to time. St Paul certainly thought so. ‘You are so rich in everything,’ he told the Christians at Corinth.

Actually, the Christians at Corinth weren’t tremendously cash rich and there weren’t very many of them. We know they could all fit inside Gaius’s house, for instance, so either it was a very big house or - more likely - there were no more than fifty of them. Some would have been able to recline on couches in his dining and living space, others would have had to sit outside in the open courtyard around which the large town houses of the well-to-do were constructed. In summer this would have been nice and cool, and perhaps everyone might have crowded into the courtyard. In winter, the people sitting in the courtyard would have needed braziers to keep them warm. Perhaps that is where they sat, grumbling, while the better off members of the church ate a proper meal in the dining room before sharing holy communion with those outside. We know this was happening because St Paul roundly condemns the practice.

So some members of the church were quite well off. Gaius for one, Erastus who was an important local official - the treasurer of the town council, probably Crispus, a leading member of the Jewish community, and Chloe - who lived in nearby Cenchrae and was a leader of the church and also someone who helped to pay Paul’s stipend, although he earned most of his money as a tentmaker and only worked part-time for the church. These people were indeed rich.

But the rest of the congregation probably lived in one or two room apartments, and some were only slaves, living in the homes of their masters and mistresses. So in what sense were these people rich?

St Paul says they were rich in faith, speech, knowledge, diligence and love. In other words they were like the modern Italian bookseller who told the BBC correspondent last week that in the current period of austerity Italians had stopped buying books. ‘They never read much at the best of times,’ he said gloomily, ‘But I don’t mind because I don’t need to make much money. I can live like a monk and I’m happy so long as I have a good book to read.’ Which is fortunate, said the correspondent cheerfully, because he’s surrounded by quite a lot of unsold books.

What the bookseller was admitting, of course, is that there is more to life than money, and some of the best things in life are free, or almost free. His sentiment was echoed by an elderly woman who said that - although her pension buys less and less each month - at least she gets to live in Rome, and Rome is still a beautiful city.

Most of the Corinthian Christians might not have been cash rich, but at least they had plenty of the things that really count - faith, knowledge, diligence, speech - does St Paul mean inspired speech, or speaking in tongues? - and, of course, they have love. However, when St Paul tells people how fortunate they are, there’s usually a catch.. He wants something from them - and yes, the old song is true, ‘All the parson ever wants is money!’

St Paul is making a collection for the hard-up Christians in Palestine, who are being persecuted and who are also enduring famine. By comparison even the fairly modest wealth of the Christians in Corinth seems like riches. The Corinthian Christians have been kind to St Paul, (actually that’s a slight exaggeration, as his letters reveal), now it’s time for them to be equally lavish to their fellow Christians in the Holy Land. Not that St Paul dares to order them to empty their pockets, but he wants to encourage them to follow the example of their Lord and Master Jesus Christ who ‘was rich and yet, for [their] sakes, became poor, so that through his poverty [they] might become rich.’

You may think St Paul had a bit of a nerve, because this isn’t the first time he had sent round the begging bowl for the Christians in Palestine. This was his second collection. They are in Year 2 of what was obviously an on-going fundraising campaign. ‘You made a good beginning last year,’ he tells them, now I’m asking you to keep up the good work. ‘Be as eager to complete the scheme as you were to adopt it, and give according to your means.’

People had obviously been complaining that times were hard for them too, and St Paul seemed to be attempting to take what little they have left by writing what are, in effect, a series of eloquently worded Gift Day letters. But St Paul seeks to reassure them. God doesn’t ask for what we don’t have. There is no question of helping others at the cost of genuine hardship for ourselves. We are only asked to give eagerly, and in proportion to what we can afford.

The trouble with this argument, of course, is that what we can afford to give is a very subjective judgement. The other people going into the Temple felt they could only afford to give a little, but Jesus observed one poor widow putting into the collection everything she had.

So here St Paul introduces an interesting idea which he appears to have shared with biographer his St Luke. We should think about giving as a matter of making things more equal between us and other people. At the moment the Palestinian Christians are desperately hard up, whereas the Corinthian Christians apparently have a surplus. And, at the moment, the surplus income of the Christians in Corinth is meeting the need of their poorer Palestinian brothers and sisters, but one day the situation may be reversed and they may be the ones who need help. It’s a concept which goes back, St Paul says, to the time of the Exodus from Egypt when God sent manna from heaven. ‘Those who gathered more’ found that they did not have too much, ‘and those who gathered less’ found that they did not have too little.

It’s not quite clear why this was, except that hoarding the manna - if you had more than you could eat - did you no good because, by the morning, it had gone bad and was no longer edible. And there was always enough to go round, so it worked out that everyone was pretty much equal. No one had too much manna, at the expense of others, and no one went without. In the same way, St Paul seems to be suggesting, we should aim to have just enough to meet our needs, and we should be willing to give away the rest.

Of course, all of this advice comes before saving for our retirement was first thought of. Until modern times people didn’t save money for their retirement, they had children whose duty it then was to look after them if they survived into old age and could no longer work.

As we’ve  already noted, the notion of equality comes up too in the writings of St Luke, who insists that the early church in Jerusalem followed exactly the same principles and pooled at least their surplus wealth, if not all their belongings, to create a hardship fund to help those in need.

It’s also an idea that lies behind St Mark’s interlinked stories of Jairus’s daughter and the woman who suffered from haemorrhages, because surely it’s no coincidence that their stories are woven together instead of being told separately. At one level, of course, interrupting Jesus’ pressing journey to see Jairus’s daughter heightens the tension and makes the narrative more interesting. Will he or won’t he get there in time? Will Jairus’s daughter be beyond help by the time he reaches her bedside? But at another level the story is about equality.

Jairus, like Crispus in Corinth, was an important member of the local Jewish community. Doing something to help him will raise Jesus’ standing and help his mission. Someone like Jairus could be a powerful friend and backer. The woman, in contrast, is at the bottom of the social pile. An outcast because of her haemorrhages, she has also spent all of her money on quack remedies. She has nothing left to offer. Jesus would be well advised to ignore her touch or push her aside. But he doesn’t. He makes a point of stopping to confirm that she has been healed and to commend her faith. She matters to him just as much as Jairus and his daughter.

And there is another level at which equality is operating in this story. Jairus’s daughter is acutely unwell. Jairus and his family believe that she could die at any moment. It’s a blue light and sirens job and the crowd impeding Jesus’ progress is at best a nuisance and at worst a dangerous liability. The woman with the haemorrhages, who is an anonymous member of that crowd, has only a chronic illness, something which may be very nasty and debilitating, and whose social and religious consequences are undeniably devastating, but whose case could easily wait until tomorrow, or next week, or the week after. Jesus could easily make an appointment to see her at his next surgery. But God’s grace doesn’t work like that - it is offered in equal measures to everyone.

Two or three things which have affected our church in recent weeks come to mind as I read these stories. The first is that Gift Day was tremendously successful this year. Times are hard but the giving has gone up. Contrast this with the last recession in the mid-1990s, when we had more church members but giving to Gift Day stagnated. All we can say, like St Paul to the Corinthians, is thank you for your willingness to give.

The second is that the General Church Meeting and the Church Council have both considered a request for funding from the Portobello Community Forum and the new Christians Against Poverty debt counselling project in Wakefield and the church council decided, after careful consideration, that we should be challenged - like the church at Corinth - to try to come to the aid of those less fortunate than ourselves by raising £1,000 a year for each of those projects for the next three years.

Like St Paul’s fundraising campaign it will be a challenge because it’s not a one-off effort but a sustained programme that will mean holding events or special collections every year, not just once. But, in St Paul’s words, it’s a chance for us all to give eagerly according to our means to help those facing greater hardship even than ourselves.

And finally there is the question of the circuit assessment which seems, in the case of a number of churches in the circuit, to have been calculated in a way which over-estimates how much money they have in the bank. This is because the decision to take a church’s bank balance into account was made very late in the day, by the Circuit Assembly, after all of the churches had already submitted their accounts. As a result church treasurers were unable to point out that some of their savings might have been accumulated to pay off existing debts or to cover the cost of a special project to which the church was already committed.

Now we could go about trying to unpick these arrangements, to see if the assessment needs to be recalculated. But I think St Paul suggests another approach. If, out of our small surplus - that is to say, the reserves we certainly do have in the bank for a rainy day - we can afford to pay what has been asked of us to help relieve the hardship of others, perhaps we should do so even if it turns out that, like other churches, the amount we actually owe is not quite that much.

But, of course, in the end these passages are meant to challenge us not just as a church but as individuals. We are being asked to remember how generous God has been to us through Jesus and to be equally generous to others in return. We are being asked to remember how, in God’s eyes, all of us are equally deserving of his constant and immediate care. If we take that idea seriously it means that all of us are equally deserving of one another’s love, kindness and understanding.

Archbishop Rowan Williams hit the headlines a week ago when he appeared to criticisie the prime minister in a new books he’s written. Referring to one of the prime minister’s favourite ideas he said, "Big society rhetoric is all too often heard by many … as aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable."

Well, of course, that may be true. But the Big Society also has a positive aspect. If we help the people on the Portobello Estate, and the counsellors who are trying to assist people with big debts to find a way of repaying what they owe, and if we look out for and take care of one another, that’s an example of the Big Society in action today. It turns then from empty waffle and camouflage for cuts into reality - making the world a better place as we show generosity and compassion to one another.