Sparrows and the Big Society

Preached at St Peter's Chaplaincy, Manchester, on 2nd March 2011
Matt 6:25–33

I wonder how we think God will provide the coats, the food, and the drink that we are supposed to not worry about. Perhaps God will send them sailing down from heaven. Maybe God will open a charity shop just for Christians.

God sustains us hour by hour not through some supernatural food drip but through very ordinary means — friends, strangers, family, church, flatmates. In telling his disciples not to worry about their clothes or what they will eat Jesus is aware that he is sending the disciples out to visit believers’ and others’ homes, where they are to trust they’ll receive hospitality. This was in fact something they could reasonably expect in their culture, and despite many differences in our own culture, it’s something we can expect in our own. I’m lucky, but I do have neighbours who would loan me a coat, or a cat box, or a spanner. (My neighbours generally call back around a few weeks later.)

Trusting God means trusting human beings, trusting in the world. Jesus isn’t telling us to wait for a special delivery from on high. And through the activity of trust human society flourishes and grows. The church can be, must be, a place where we trust one another and trust in the kindness of strangers, even as we are kind to strangers ourselves. We hear a lot about the Big Society at the moment, and this is part of it, what’s called social capital. You also don’t need a chaplain to point out that this trust is in very short supply right now, when the heads of partly state-owned banks like RBS defend their multi-million pound bonuses on grounds that they have no say in what their boards decide to give them.

The church has a role in this culture of distrust. We are, as Rowan Williams said last night in a talk at the University of Manchester, a kind of rolling, ongoing political seminar in what is good. The early church, as he put it quite well, didn’t “opt out” of politics; it “lived out” a fully political vision of what it means to be human being in society. The church lived out a vision in which humans flourish through trust in one another. We learn these political, civic values in the life we share. To trust God is to trust that someone, somewhere, will give you a coat if you need it. It strikes that me that universities should especially be a place where that trust is considered and lived out, for the good of society; there is an awful lot of painful self-reflection going on at businesses schools around the world who have shaped and educated the decision-makers in banks today.

We trust others because we can trust in God, who provides, who listens, who is present every moment — a God who has trusted us before we ever deserved it. God still trusts us, even when we have failed. And God asks to trust others — even and especially through disappointment and failure — for God’s own sake, and for our own.

Nathan Eddy