St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's Chaplaincy, Manchester, on 30th August 1992
Heb 11. 1,2,8–19; Luke 12. 32–48
As most of you know, about six years ago I paid an illegal visit to the black township of Soweto just outside Johannesburg. I still remember very vividly arriving at Johannesburg Airport on the Sunday morning and being immediately whisked into a Soweto church where the packed congregation was already well into what we would regard as an inordinately long service. This service, it transpired, preceded by a few days a service at which the young people of the church were to be confirmed, and during the service these young people were, as it were, put through their paces. In other words in front of this large congregation, including a peculiar white man who must have seemed to have appeared from nowhere, they were asked questions by the minister about the meaning of the Christian faith and in particular about the meaning of the ten commandments. (I wonder sometimes how our young people, or even we ourselves, would fare under similar circumstances.)
This, I must remind you, was in 1986 before Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and before the dismantling of apartheid had started. Reflecting on what I saw and experienced, here was a community whose trust in God assured them that the time would come when they would have a say in the running of their own affairs and of the affairs of South Africa. And above all here within this community was a Christian congregation which when the time came would be prepared to play their part and exert a Christian influence on the developing situation. Their contribution as Christians was to know where they stood and to know what their faith stood for. Living out their trust in God was for them to be prepared.
As Christians we have to be prepared for situations as and when they arise and to be prepared to witness within them to the things that belong to God and to his Christ. As Jesus tells us in the parable we are to be dressed and ready and with our lamps burning and indeed to have everything else that can enlighten the situation at the ready because we never know when God will make demands on us.
Living out our trust in God involves preparation. But of course it involves much else besides.
Quite a few years ago, when I still worked in industry, a group of us were asked to set up a training workshop in a particular factory, one of many in a very large industrial organization. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to have gone to one of my colleagues and to have asked them how to initiate a training workshop scheme and what were the principles on which workshop training should be based. But we had our own ideas because for us the people to be trained were as important as the jobs for which they were being trained. Training for a job had to be paralleled by education for life. Skills were not transferable but were unique to every individual and had to be individually developed. We decided to go our own way.
In doing this of course we were taking risks. First however much time and effort we put into it, our scheme might not work. Secondly our superiors might at any time descend on us and tell us not to waste the company's time and money in developing a new training scheme when there were already plenty around from which to choose, we decided these were risks worth taking.
Living out our trust in God very often involves risk-taking, indeed nearly always involves risk-taking. As our passage in Hebrews makes clear trust in God, faith in God, does not arise out of our being clear as to the outcome of our actions. On the contrary to trust in God is to have a conviction about things unseen, things not foreseen and unpredictable. Abraham, we are told, went out not knowing where he was to go and in fact never in his lifetime experienced the inheritance which he firmly believed was the promise to him and his descendents.
Living out our trust in God involves risk-taking as well as preparation.
But when do we prepare? And when do we take the risks? In a very real sense the answer must always be ‘now’. My friends in Soweto did not know when there would be a breakthrough in the political situation and when demands would be made on them; they just got on with the preparation. My colleagues in industry with ideas milling round in their heads as to how training should be done could not wait for negotiations as to whether or not they should proceed; they took the risks and carried on.
Nevertheless having said this, every so often God throws up situations which provide opportunities for Christian action and Christian intervention. Christians are always opportunists.
Going back a long time now to the days when I was a university chaplain, or at least a Student Christian Movement secretary, which was much the same thing, we had such an opportunity. This was the mid-nineteen-forties when Britain was coming out of a war economy and changing to a peace-time economy. A new social order was in process of formation in which the public institutions and industries of the country were seen as organizations designed to serve the whole community; hence the nationalization of key industries. And men and women in their employment were also to be seen as servants of the community. Moreover the universities and other higher education colleges were expanding, taking on more school-leavers and recruiting ex-service men and women. It was a period of tremendous change and we in the Student Christian Movement were determined to be in on the change. We saw it as our task to help men and women to go out into this changing situation able to make a Christian contribution in the formation of the new social order. We set about preparing a strategy by which we could cope with this situation and we took the risk of devising various new projects which we hoped would be effective.
Living out our trust in God we saw as seizing the opportunity to bring a Christian influence to bear on a changing and developing cultural climate. It involved preparation and it involved risk-taking.
Today the situation is very different. What I like to call the service culture is being steadily replaced by the enterprise culture in which the dominant theme is self-centred innovation and creativity aimed at wealth creation. The bottom line on the financial statement is now a matter of supreme importance. It is a culture which flourishes best, we are told if social and legal constraints are at a minimum. Moreover it is a culture which has spread from industry to the public institutions and to education including higher education. Moreover it is a culture which I and many of my contemporaries find it difficult to come to terms with.
Yet we have to remember that innovation and creativity are gifts with which God has endowed men and women and which ought to be encouraged. We also need to remember that God himself is in this enterprise business, forever producing new patterns of existence and new forms of wealth, using the word ‘wealth’ in its broadest sense, wealth-creation nourished and sustained by God is at the core of creation itself.
If living out our trust in God is now to make a contribution to wealth creation, we can go along with that as long as we remember that both wealth creation and the enterprise culture in practice raise a whole host of ethical questions which we cannot possibly go into this morning. We just do not have to accept the enterprise culture as it is popularly expressed in its entirety. In any case we live in a world where original sin is ever present and the corruption of power is just as likely to take place within the enterprise culture as within any other.
But this morning we are not concerned with the details of the enterprise culture or of wealth creation. What we are concerned about is that we live in a time of change, in a time of change for the whole fabric of society. It is change which as Christians we should welcome with open arms as providing an opportunity for us to live out our trust in God by making a Christian contribution to the ongoing debate and in bringing a Christian influence to bear on the decisions taken.
Coming back to higher education, here in this place we find ourselves in the midst of the forging of new education patterns, of new systems of education organization and administration in our two universities and in the other colleges. The possibility of bringing our Christian values to bear on the emerging decisions is ours to grasp. Of course as we become involved there will be much agonizing with those who find change difficult and over the inevitable irreconcilable disagreements. But surely equally there will be much cause for rejoicing and excitement over new and unforeseen innovation and development.
And of course we rejoice over the rich resources with which God has blessed us in this place. We have a first-class theology faculty; we have a chaplaincy and a chaplaincy team; we have a St Peter’s community which stretches far beyond those who worship here on a Sunday morning; we have an Ecumenical Society backed up by a national Student Christian Movement; and the list goes on.
In short God has put his trust in us. Living out our duty to God must be in preparing a strategy to make an effective Christian impact on the changes going on around us, and in having the guts to take the risks involved. To do anything less is to reject God’s trust in us.