Trinity: "Value for Money"

The Revd Brutus Green

“You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Value For Money.  Are you Value For Money?

It is the question of the moment. It was before the present financial turbulence but even more so now. There’s nothing to focus the mind on what is Value For Money like a Comprehensive Spending Review. And of course Value For Money is an essential facet of most people’s everyday living. When you buy a train ticket you look at the computer screen or the assistant with a look of blank horror that pleads ‘value for money.’ When you see the price of a coffee in Paris and start carrying a thermos round with you, you’re taking a stand on value for money. When you walk round some of the finest galleries and museums in the world in London you are smiling from ear to ear with Value For Money.

Value For Money. The Spirit of the age - the Zeitgeist - the nagging doubt hiding behind every principled decision, asking for quantifiable results, economic pay off and maximum personal benefit. The Spirit of cheap pragmatism. The Spirit that reduces every human endeavour to a financial transaction. Value for money. Is it worth it? Are you, wearer of L’Oréal make up, really worth it?

Value For Money is probably at the forefront of the mind of a lot of 18 year olds at the moment. Having bought themselves into 3 years of education at the discount rate of only ten thousand pounds they are probably counting themselves very lucky they were born in 1993 and not 1994. They should take note that the government department responsible for university funding has moved since 1995 from the Department for Education and Science to today falling under the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.  A degree, quite literally, is an investment.

So the ‘student experience’, an education, has a value, works of art, however sublime, all have a value - some of them curiously high; if you have life insurance even a life has a value - and I don’t suppose Dignitas comes cheap so death too it seems also has a value. We have systematized the world in terms of cost. Everything, everyone has its price. And most of us, most of the time, are kind of happy with this. You know where you are with money. You can save up, prioritize, make rational thought-through decisions. measure the benefit against the cost - ask yourself that most important question: Is it value for money? Is it worth it? is the juice worth the squeeze?

Today’s Gospel is the total refusal of this attitude. ‘You are setting your mind not on divine things but human things’. Peter is only being reasonable in not wanting his friend to be tortured and killed. Jesus responds so strongly exactly because what is reasonable is going out the window. As far as Jesus personally is concerned it’s not worth it, it’s not good value, the juice is not worth the squeeze. This is the cost of Jesus revealing God’s character, God’s infinite unconditional love. Peter is the voice of reason. Jesus is the voice of love. But it’s also the cost of discipleship: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ A command Peter later takes literally. Now this isn’t a call to run up a deficit - that in the economic game of life Christians should be losers. We are not called to get poor value for the money, to take huge losses for very little gain. No. This is a judgement on that way of looking at life. It is a judgement on pragmatism and a judgement on Value For Money.

Christian ethics assert that love has no limit. You cannot weigh up things that have infinite worth. If you look back to the first reading ‘Let love be genuine’ Paul is really saying “give, give, give, give”. Don’t count the cost. Don’t think you can counteract your bad actions with good ones. Don’t respond in kind but always, always act from love. Mercy must always season justice. Discipleship, Christian living, is costly and there is no reckoning with Value For Money. People often lament that Britain is not the Christian nation it once was. The remarkable thing with readings like this though is that anyone wants to be a Christian!

So we must also ask how much of the way we look at life has lost the character of gift and taken on the competition of exchange. If education is an investment, if it is training, what’s the point in taking courses like theology, literature and philosophy? A culture that is driven purely by the desire to accumulate wealth would not be much of a culture. There is a place for The Da Vinci Code and Brigit Jones’ Diaries but we should also aspire to more.

It is only natural in human relationships, particularly with those closest to us to keep tallies of presents, compliments, washing up, cups of tea - anything - and feel disgruntled at how you do more. But think what an amazing relationship it would be where the relationship was reversed and you strove to outdo one another in generosity and affection. It is a far happier place to live within an economy of gift than an economy of exchange.

And who could put a price on the British countryside?  A couple of weeks ago I went up to the Lake District which was a picturesque reminder of the grandeur of nature so often eclipsed by the city’s babel of glass and concrete towers. Being the home of the English Romantic poets it was also a reminder of the dignity of the human spirit away from the madding, and looting, crowd. The cheerful villages around Lake Windermere actually endured surprisingly few rioters - nothing more than a couple of disgruntled trout and the odd ill-tempered badger.

The Romantic poets are usually thought of as slightly anti-social types wandering lonely as clouds enjoying God and nature in splendid isolation. And the lakes give good grounds for this with wide expanses of dramatic sparsely populated countryside, enclosed by inhospitable mountains and with little need for human contact aside from daily afternoon cream teas.  You might get Value For Money from a cream tea (though it’s unlikely in the Lakes) but what does Value For Money even mean when it comes to the beauty of the world?  The Romantics were reacting against the market utilitarianism and social devastation that followed industrialization and so we find in their writing a clear sense of the infinite value of nature, love and people. Here too then the judgements of reasonableness and of exchange and usefulness are trumped by the apprehension of the infinite worth of creation from the lakes and mountains to the human soul. You are not Value For Money. You are God’s gift to the world. So this morning let’s finish with an end of summer treat. Here are the words of a London Romantic, William Blake:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour...
Every night & every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn & every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro’ the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
God appears, & God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.

Set your minds, not on human things, but divine things.