Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Panama Papers and a Call to Change

This sermon was preached on the morning of 10th April 2016, in the wake of the breaking of the story of the Panama Papers. In preparing for the sermon, I realised that it would feel somewhat divorced from reality if it did not deal in some way with the news that has dominated the media and conversations all around the world this week.

The readings were Zephaniah 3:14-end, Psalm 30, Acts 9:1-20 and John 21:1-19.

What a week it’s been for the world’s elite. Of course, by ‘elite’, I, like most of the English speaking world, mean the super-rich. It’s funny that we don’t really use the word to refer to the most faithful people in the world, or the most hopeful, or most charitable and loving.  No – this week has not been especially remarkable for them; but, for the wealthiest people in the world, it’s been somewhat of a worrying one.

I refer, of course, to the leaking of the Panama Papers to the media. These papers showed how many world leaders and movers and shakers used offshore companies to hide their money and avoid paying tax in their own countries. These papers have caused uproar around the world, as the people of nations suffering the ill-effects of austerity have grown angry with their rulers. Already, the prime minister of Iceland has resigned, and the government there is doing what it can to avoid snap elections being called; the Argentinian president, too, is affected, and has faced a federal prosecutor in the wake of his involvement in the scandal. Our own prime minister has faced daily headlines in the media questioning the extent of his family’s use of offshore companies. There are many people around the world, who felt so secure in their wealth who are now feeling more uncomfortable and concerned about their future.

It was with a raised eyebrow, then, that I read the words from our Psalm this morning when I was preparing this sermon:

In my prosperity I said, 
“I shall never be moved.
You, Lord, of your goodness
have made my hill so strong.”
Then you hid your face from me
and I was utterly dismayed.

I wonder how many people who benefitted from schemes such as these are sitting in Anglican churches around the world, having listened to those words this morning and are feeling mounting dismay at the prospect of what else might come out in the press. I doubt there are many, if any, here in our congregation of St Michael’s. Flixton is not quite the typical village where you might find the rich one-percenters living.

There doesn’t seem to be much point in me preaching this sermon then? None of the recipients who need to hear this sermon are here? Instead of preaching about money, then; instead of preaching about just how difficult it is for the rich to enter Heaven (of threading a camel through a needle), about how Christ instructed the rich young ruler to give away all his wealth, or about the parable of the foolish rich man, storing his wealth in the first century equivalent of trust funds rather than storing up treasure in Heaven, perhaps I should preach about righteous anger?

Many of us are certainly angry about the workarounds to normal taxation that the super-rich have been able to get away with. Perhaps for some of us, there’s also a sense of schadenfreude (literally 'joy in the shame of others') that some of these people will finally be getting their come-uppance. 

There’s a definite us and them mentality. We’d never behave like that, trying to get out of paying the right amount of tax. At any rate, we’re likely not going to be in that position any time soon, so we can keep the question at a safe hypothetical distance.

No. We are secure here, in our comfort of being unable to use tax-loopholes, to judge those who do. Safe to lump all politicians and celebrities and wealthy business people into the same basket, knowing that they are all the same, all in it for themselves, and always will be; a leopard, after all, does not change his spots. 

And that brings us onto the second part of this sermon. We have talked of riches, and now we move onto change. Can the people who make use of these offshore companies really change their ways and commit to paying their fair-share of tax? Can our government really close the loopholes that allowed all this to happen in the first place?

Can people really change? 

Our two New Testament readings today ask that very question. The first to occur, from our Gospel reading, looks at the disciples, and especially Simon Peter, and their behaviour after the death of Christ. It takes place after the events we heard about last week, when Christ appeared twice, post-resurrection, to the fearful disciples in the room, and encouraged them, and left them with the Holy Spirit. And now we meet the disciples again in our reading today, and it is clear that the disciples have not understood the meaning of the resurrection. For, instead of going out, and shouting the good news from the rooftops, they have gone back to what they know, what is comfortable for them. They’ve gone back to their life before they even met Christ – they’ve returned to fishing. It’s as though nothing has changed for them.

In our reading today, we heard how Christ meets them again though, on the beach, and cooks them breakfast after a long, hard, unrewarding night. That must have been a very welcome breakfast. He takes Simon Peter aside, and re-commissions him for his task of leading the new church. The rest, as we know, is history. Can people change? Simon Peter did, as did those disciples.

Our other New Testament reading focuses around the other major player in the Church’s creation story. Saul, the major persecutor of the early Christians, the equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition, if you like, for the early Church. We hear how he is travelling to Damascus, to seek out Christians there and bring them back by force to Jerusalem to be tried and executed. Along the road, he has an encounter with the risen Christ, and undergoes a complete turnabout. Instead of persecuting the Christians, he ends up staying with them, and praying with them, learning from them, and eventually, leading them. Can people change? Saul certainly did.

An encounter with the risen Christ changes people. It changed Simon, who became the apostle Peter and Saul, who became the apostle Paul. It has changed me, and if you asked around the congregation this morning, you would find many different stories of how it has changed others in this room.

Later on today, twelve members of our church family will stand before Bishop Mark and acknowledge that they too have been changed by Christ, as they confirm their faith in Him and their membership of the worldwide Anglican Communion – I hope you’ll be able to join us, and them, in this important occasion.

People can change. Christ changes people. His life and teaching, his death on that cross, and his glorious resurrection changed everything – as our Psalm stated this morning, Christ has “changed our mourning into dancing”; He has brought us up from the dead and restored us to life.

And Christ still changes us. It is not a one-time thing. We heard about Saul’s conversion, when he first met the risen Christ. But we also heard about Peter, who already knew Christ, who lived alongside him for three years. Even after all this, Christ still asked Peter to change, to step up to the task of leading the Church, and Christ helped him to do so.

And so, we come back to the first half of the sermon again; to the Panama Papers, and to whether our politicians and the government can change the situation. But more, we must ask ourselves, how is Christ asking us to change in this situation? 

I want to offer some suggestions. I mentioned 'righteous anger' before. If we are not angry about this exploitation of tax loopholes, then perhaps we should be. Every penny avoided in tax is another penny that must be paid by others less able to do so. We believe that God cares about fairness, and cares strongly about the needs of the poor. This situation is one that God has an interest in. And whilst nothing illegal may have been done by any of the participants, I cannot believe that Christ is indifferent to people attempting to contribute as little as they can and thus ensuring others, less able to do so, must contribute more.

And if we are angry about the situation, then I’d like to leave you with the question of whether Christ is asking us as a church, and you individually, what are we going to do about it? How does God want to use us – to use you – to make the world a fairer place? Whether it is signing petitions, or writing to our MP? Or, perhaps Christ would like us to see the log in our own eye, and do what we can with our own money, or time before we judge others. Is Christ asking you to change something to help bring God’s kingdom to the world? To give more to charity? To volunteer more? To pray more for a fairer and more just system? God calls us all to change, and to keep changing, to become more like him, and in doing so, to change the world around us. May we continue to change, to help bring good news to the poor and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.


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