St Paul’s Woldingham
Sunday 6th Septmeber
Over the last few weeks something remarkable has happened in the media in Britain. There has been a change from talking about “migrants” to talking about “refugees”. That, alongside pictures of a drowned boy washed up onto a beach, have led to a sort of tipping point… suddenly the newspapers which only weeks ago ran nasty headlines about swarms of migrants, have changed their focus. Now they decry the human tragedy of the refugee crisis. There has been a tidal wave of pressure on politicians to change policy on asylum seekers and allow more people to find some kind of sanctuary here. Additionally, large amounts of money have been raised in a very short time in order to try to help; and people are getting involved with relief efforts in other ways, coordinating and packing donations here or travelling to Calais, to Turkey, to Syria, to try to help people.
This response is commendable, but it does seem unfortunate that it has only happened after many deaths of people less photogenic than Aylan Kurdi. Where was our compassion a month ago, or six months? And the very public display of a picture of a dead child seems in some way relevant to this evening’s Gospel reading. During this part of the sermon on the mount Jesus tells the gathered crowd again and again not to practice piety in public in order to be seen and praised by others, but quietly, without drawing undue attnetion to oneself, trusting that God will see all. That fasting, praying, and giving alms are good and righteous things to do is not at issue here: rather, it is the motivation that Jesus is talking about, in rather exaggerated language. Jesus doesn’t want his followers – that’s us! – to get into some kind of tedious godliness contest, vying for literal holier-than-thou status. We aren’t to fast or afflict ourselves in ways that exaggerate how miserable we are. We aren’t to brag about giving to charity or think that being able to give a lot makes us somehow better than people who can only afford to give a little. And we aren’t to pray in a way that is designed to draw attention to ourselves and the performance of our prayer rather than to God.
Rather, our prayers are to be simple. God already knows what we need: we acknowledge God’s holiness, we ask for the coming of God’s kingdom, the doing of God’s will on earth. We ask forgiveness of our sins and our debts; for safety from temptation or trial; and we ask for our daily bread.
Our daily bread. Hold that thought: I’ll be coming back to it later!
In the reading from Exodus this evening, we heard of the parting of the Red Sea, allowing the people of Israel to escape slavery in Egypt. Their plight was rather better than that of the refugees we have heard so much about recently: they left quickly, but with some supplies. They had a leader, Moses, even if he did seem rather optimistic at times and went on about God a lot. And they crossed the Red Sea without getting their feet wet! In tonight’s passage it is the Egyptians, not the refugees, who end up dead on the shore: and perhaps that can be taken as a strong message for those who mistreat or enslave migrants! Because that is what the Hebrew people were when they went to Egypt in the first place: they were economic migrants, escaping a famine in their own land. That was all right for a while but eventually it went very sour indeed and here they were, generations later, on the move again.
They weren’t all sure it was a great idea: no sooner do they see the Egyptian army coming after them, than they get frightened. I’d be frightened too. In their fear, slavery in Egypt doesn’t seem like such a bad deal and so they complain to Moses, who tells them God will sort it out! I’m not sure I would have believed it even with the cloud of smoke. But this pattern is repeated throughout the years spent wandering in the desert. It happens in Chapter 15: there’s some rejoicing about having escaped, and then they realise they need to be able to drink water and the well is bitter, and they complain. God sorts it out. Then in chapter sixteen they get hungry: and God’s response this time is to provide bread from heaven every day. Daily braid. If they try to collect more than they can eat it just goes rotten. One day’s worth is enough.
Our Gospel reading tonight ended with verse 18, but verse 19 begins “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth.”
God our Father knows that we need our daily bread. Knowing that our needs will be met, we can turn our attention and resources to people who do not have enough: who need our help. Whatever you think about pictures of dead children, perhaps you, with others, have been moved this week by the plight of Syrian refugees, and made some contribution to relief efforts. Perhaps you give your alms and your solidarity in other ways. Whether you are helping migrants to find a better life, building a church or a school in a community that lacks one, volunteering at a shelter or a helpline for people in severe distress, or caring for people who are sick or lonely – do not do these things in order to be seen doing them by others. Don’t do them because of some sort of pride in being the person who is good and upright enough to help. You don’t need status in this world for God to know all your efforts.
“Your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” we are told three times. But doing good things because we believe each good deed will get a special reward once we’re in heaven seems a bit off to me, to be honest: like a chart with a row of stars for making the bed or taking the trash out, and if we’ve done all the chores we were supposed to at the end of the week we can have a slice of cake. Praying, fasting and other disciplines, and giving to charity aren’t things we do in order to get something else. So what’s all this about a reward?
Throughout Matthew there are references to reward and also to judgement, and to a reconciliation with God and several descriptions of God’s kingdom – which we pray for in the Lord’s prayer. As Christians we already believe in this reconciliation: we profess the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection every time we say the Creed.
And so we help people. We don’t help because we want an earthly reward of attention or status or ego. We don’t help because we believe in some kind of scorekeeping God: it’s true that God knows all we do, but that’s not the point. Rather, we help one another out of love: love for God, and for all creation as coming from God, and for one another as beloved children of God. This is where the judgement will be, and this is the reward. We glimpse the kingdom of God we earnestly pray for when human beings participate in loving one another, just as God loves us.