Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 18th September, United Benefice of Holland Park, Trinity 17

Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 18th September, United Benefice of Holland Park, Trinity 17

Clare and I have been watching the rerun of ‘Yes Minister’, surely some of the greatest television comedy ever produced. The one we watch last week was entitled The Moral Dimension. It was brilliant.   In summary, while on an official visit to a Middle East sheikdom to finalize a major contract for a UK firm, the Minister manages to get himself into trouble on several fronts. Learning that the country is dry, he arranges for liquor to be available on the sly. The Minister, not looking forward to "five hours of orange juice", suggests that a communications room be set up near the reception, which will contain illicit alcohol. At the reception they have a code to get top ups.

James Hacker: Bernard. Wanted in the communications room. A Mr John Walker.

Bernard: Johnnie Walker?

James Hacker: Yes, from the Scotch Office... Sorry. Scottish Office.

Later in the evening, Bernard: Yes, the Soviet embassy’s on the line, Sir Humphrey: a Mr Smirnoff.

When they are presented with an expensive 17th century antique bowl, Mrs. Hacker gets Bernard to get the object valued at less than £50 allowing her to keep the gift. When the Minister learns that bribes were likely paid to obtain the contract, he insists that there be a full public inquiry. A little reminder from Sir Humphrey sets things straight.

The episode raises some fascinating moral dimensions about trade, the acceptance or not of gifts in trade relations,and the negotiating of different cultural contexts. ‘Yes Minister’ reflects on a moral dimension in a wonderfully humorous way. But today when we see injustice – asylum seekers neglected; the strong and powerful becoming richer on the pension provision of ordinary hard working people; those who manage companies who refuse to pay the minimum wage (until shamed into doing so) – there is something deep within us that feels moral outrage.

A couple of years ago, Archbishop Justin made the headlines because he was challenging Wonga – saying that he wanted to competing them out of business, using the nationwide parish system as a place to help people with the need for short term loans. What was great about it was that he wasn’t simply being a prophetic voice about outrageous interest rates used by companies such as Wonga (4000% APR) - he was suggesting setting up ethical alternatives. The result is the Mustard Seed Appeal which is running in 30 diocese helping those struggling with debt and poor financial education.

The prophet Amos is forthright about justice in business dealings. Magna Carta introduced national standards for weights and measures and we now take these for granted. But in Amos's daythere was no benchmark or redress against fraudulent measures. Only God heard the cry of the poor, and Amos declared that God never forgot abuses that brought them to ruin. Amos challenged those who abuse the poor.

It seems that human nature doesn’t change, and Amos remind us that, although more sophisticated in manifestation, today’s banking scandals and the like are but part of a dishonourable history. Others have followed in Amos’s footsteps, challenging injustices, bigotry, hatred, racism. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, William Willerforce, Oscar Romero. These are people who have put the moral dimension to the fore, at great cost to themselves, some losing their lives in the process.

Then we come across the Gospel reading today, which is one of the most perplexing texts in the New Testament. The steward is indeed corrupt, yet he seems to be both condemned and commended by his rich master and by Luke.
If we are reflecting on a moral imperative, what is this parable trying to teach us? Is the message that the children of light should learn from the economy of their corrupt neighbours? Are we to use money to buy friends the way we buy objects for consumption? Do the ends justify the means?
The manager finds himself on the verge of being fire – in this case squandering his Master’s property. He knows it’s coming so before the HR department gives him his P45, and he is locked out of his office and escorted from the building, he hurriedly makes amends with his Masters’ clients, so that when he moves on and looks for another job they will be inclined to help him. It’s the first-century equivalent of freshening up his LinkedIn account and sending emails with copies of his CV to his networks of colleagues and friends.
Although he is fired and then unilaterally writes down the debts of his boss’ clients, he surprisingly praised his shrewdness. The moral of the story seems rather ambiguous. Perhaps the main point comes down to what it is that masters us. Hearts at rest in God should be less likely to seek security by exploiting others, which is the encouragement we hear from Sunday’s collect, inspired by words from St Augustine's confession: "Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee."
Returning to the moral dimension, how does evil take root? What does it mean for us personally? In Hollywood films, the baddies are very easy to spot. But real life isn’t so black and white. Racist political parties don’t begin with secret police and internment. The Nazi party didn’t begin by announcing the final solution. They start by announcing engagingly, ‘We know you’re concerned that it’s getting too much’. Abusers of children rarely pounce with weapons; they use charm instead.
The great creation metaphor of the serpent-tempter teaches this is how it works. Adam and Eve weren’t tempted by war, rape or hatred. In the creation story, they were tempted by a piece of fruit, by a life that seemed more exciting than the way God had planned. Similarly, King David wasn’t tempted by murdering Uriah. Rather, it started by a seemingly harmless and slightly naughty watching of Uriah’s wife, Bathshebar, bathing.
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwart’s Academy and adolescent Harry’s mentor. He foresees ‘dark days ahead’ when a choice will have to be made ‘between what is right and what is easy’.
The choice between what’s right and what’s easy is one we have to make every day of our lives. Those actions can eventually lead to the ruin of the environment, the poverty of those in the developing world, the fracturing of our closest relationships. It can lead to some of the most awful and destructive things. But at the moment of decision, we can persuade ourselves that our choices are as inconsequential as biting a piece of fruit.
May God give us eyes to see through temptation and our often deceitful hearts; may God give us the strength to live justly; may God give us hearts at rest in him, full of compassion and love, part of the healing of the world rather than its destruction.

Peter Graystone, Reflections for Daily Prayer

Holland Park Benefice