In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Before coming to St Bride’s I was the Vicar of Edgbaston for nine years. I had a parishioner there of whom I was immensely fond, and whom I got to know very well. (Indeed, I went back there to take his funeral service a couple of years ago.) He was a sweet and kind man, but he was also a deeply troubled soul. He would readily acknowledge that his personal life was a mess; he had a long-term problem with alcohol misuse; and alongside that, he had the grave misfortune to suffer from a serious medical condition which had left him largely disabled.
He was not much of a church attender, but he was a big church supporter. By which I mean that, although we seldom saw him at services (other than Christmas, and Easter, and Remembrance Sunday), he was phenomenally generous if ever the church needed money for a particular project. And when I say generous, what I mean is that on more than one occasion, completely out of the blue, quietly and unannounced, I found an envelope on my doormat with a cheque for £20,000 in it.
And one day he gave me his rationale for this. ‘I am not really very good at life’, he said. ‘I have made a real hash of it. In fact, there is only one thing that I am good at, which is making money. So I might as well use that one gift that I have as well as I can, and then put the proceeds where they can do some good.’
Strangely enough, when I heard him say that, I was suddenly reminded of a quotation that I had heard, when I was still a teenager, from Mother Teresa of Calcutta; something that she had said to, of all people, the singer Cliff Richard, when he first met her. Seeing the way in which Mother Teresa had dedicated her life to the service of God, through her care for those who were dying on the streets of Calcutta, he had felt ashamed that he was a man who merely churned out pop songs for a living, and he had said this to her. But in response she had replied quite simply: ‘God gave you a voice. Sing for God. Do it for God.’
Most of us will already be aware of what our individual gifts are – the things that we know we are good at. But we may not always be very good at recognising that these are gifts that we can put to the service of God, particularly if they are gifts that we would not normally associate with discipleship, because they don’t feel very ‘holy’ (if I can put it that way). Making money might sounds to be the direct opposite of anything remotely godly: but doesn’t it all rather depend on how we are doing it, and what we are doing with it?
Indeed, there are few things sadder to behold than seeing someone who has a phenomenal gift but who fails to see its intrinsic merit, and so continues instead to strive for success in areas in which they are really not equipped to excel. I was once spiritual director to a woman who was an astonishingly talented ecclesiastical embroiderer; she was absolutely outstanding: creative, imaginative, a consummate professional in her craft.
But she was permanently dissatisfied and miserable with her lot, because what she herself wanted was to be ordained – despite the fact that she had neither the skills nor the personality to get beyond the first hurdle of the selection process. The tragedy was that nobody could get her to recognise that employing the astounding gifts that were already hers might in fact be her true vocation.
And it is not merely exceptional or unusual gifts that count here either. One of the things that I love about the ancient Celtic tradition of spirituality, is that it was deeply rooted in the basic, most essential, and most unglamorous tasks of daily life. There were prayers for every activity you did during the course of the day: a prayer for milking your goat, or building a fire, or harvesting your crops. (Remember that next time you are milking your goat!) But the point of these prayers was that they enabled each person to see the world, and their role within it, in a way that truly was revelatory. Because seen in this way, everything has the potential to become sacramental; to become an offering to God. It is all to do with the spirit in which one undertakes these tasks. Writing in 1936, the Anglican writer on spirituality Evelyn Underhill cites alongside one another, as direct equivalents, the monk or nun who rises to say Night Prayer in the hours of darkness so that the worship of God may never cease - and the old woman ‘content to boil her potatoes in the same sacred intention.’
John Keble’s hymn ‘New every morning’ sums this up perfectly:
If on our daily course our mind
be set to hallow all we find,
new treasures still, of countless praise,
God will provide for sacrifice.
The trivial round, the common task,
will furnish all we need to ask,
room to deny ourselves, a road
to bring us daily nearer God.
That one insight is true of all the tasks of life, however mundane, however remote they might seem from the things of God. It is true of our business dealings – and it is true of the way we dig the garden. It is all about the mind-set with which we approach the things that we do.
And this same conviction is embedded within the Act of Affirmation with which we began this service:
I pledge myself to serve God
to the best of my ability in my daily life
so that His purposes may be furthered and mankind may benefit.
This is the spirit through which can we turn a task into an offering. And how very appropriate that we heard the famous words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians as our second lesson this morning – it is not what you do that matters – it is what you have in your heart when you do them – because, as he reminds us: ‘If I have not love I am nothing.’
And the strange thing is that, approaching tasks in this way really can transform not only the quality of our work, but our relationship with the world. Let me give you an example from my own life nearly forty years ago. Looking back now it seems a very trivial matter, but at the time it felt like the end of the world was nigh.
As a university undergraduate I was a classic high-achiever: neurotic, obsessive, and workaholic. And towards the end of my third year, with finals looming large, my stress levels rocketed. I could very easily have crashed as a result, and at one point nearly did. But strangely enough, at a critical moment, that phrase that I had heard from Mother Teresa came into my mind: ‘Do it for God’. And suddenly I found myself approaching what had felt like a terrifying abyss of judgment in a totally different way. ‘Do it for God’.
Now I am absolutely certain that the Almighty did not benefit in any direct way from having me scribbling away through ten three-hour exams – of course he didn’t. But it didn’t half change me – because I stopped regarding academic achievement as a personal possession, and saw it instead as the receiving and offering back of a gift; something to be shared, in a spirit of generosity and love. And strangely enough this change of heart also improved the quality of my work. Because I was no longer an exam factory, obsessed with finding the right answers; I was instead freed to think and write creatively. And the results that I eventually achieved reflected that.
With faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to help me,
I pledge myself to serve God to the best of my ability in my daily life
so that his purposes may be furthered and mankind may benefit.
Fellow Marketors: there can be few callings nobler than that one!