Sermon preached at the Festival Eucharist for St Nicholas-tide at St Nicholas’ Cathedral, Newcastle 7th December 2013.
I was delighted and honoured to be asked by the Dean to preach today. We agreed early on that I should talk about generosity: a good theme for St Nicholas’ Day and St Nicholas’ Cathedral and without doubt a very good thing at any time.
An excellent theme, in fact. Indeed I have been giving myself a hard time trying to think of what anyone could possibly say against generosity. The best – or is it worst – that I could come up with is the idea that someone is generous to a fault.
Now that’s a strange figure of speech and I wonder whether people really mean it when they say it. ‘She is generous to a fault – she gave her lunch to a homeless man’. Is that a fault? I’m not sure it is.
The best I can make of the phrase is that it contains the hint that our generosity should be wise – or at least not pushy. You could say that Father Ted’s housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle, was generous to a fault – insisting on that cup of tea or slice of cake. But pushing thing onto people because you want them to have them (after all you have made them) is not the same as generosity.
St Nicholas has become an icon of generosity – and is beloved of, and understood by, children. The desire to give is deep within us and fundamental to human nature. Children love to give – and so do older people. The desire to be a giver is one of the best things about human nature and it is expressed in many ways by people who have not become too self-absorbed. So relatively simple people are often generous with hospitality, their time and their respect and gratitude. This is something travelers often notice when they visit poorer parts of the developing world and it is something that we are in danger of losing in the relentless rush of individualism, careerism, materialism and general me-ism that is sweeping over our society today.
St Nicholas is legend and an icon and Santa Claus is great because he can tell us something fundamental about God – for God is pure generosity. God is the endless source of love which continues to give itself regardless of whether or not we deserve it. God is supremely uninterested in whether we deserve to be loved. God just loves generously. Michael Ramsey famously said that God is Christlike and in him is no unChristlikeness at all’. He might just as well have said. ‘God is generous and in him there is no ungenerosity at all’. God is generous to a fault you could say – except that God has no faults.
As for human beings, we tend to be very interested in our own worthiness, but we are obsessed by our unworthiness. We feel that if only we were better people then our relationship with God would be better. It’s a popular delusion but it’s wrong. Our relationship with God is in a good place when we realize that our primary spiritual task is to accept and receive the love of God; to enjoy and respond to God’s generosity.
To the extent to which we know ourselves to be bad or unworthy people, so our gratitude increases. This is very clear from the story in Luke’s gospel about the woman anointing Jesus’ feet at the home of Simon the Pharisee – who doesn’t understand what’s going on at all. She has been forgiven much – and so she loves much – and expresses it with generosity.
This is also the story of Francis – both the young man of Assisi in the thirteenth century and the pope in Rome today. Three years before he was elected pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio gave an interview to two Argentinian journalists. ‘I don’t want to mislead anyone’ he said, ‘the truth is that I’m a sinner who God in his mercy has chosen to love in a privileged manner.’ Recognizing that he was given huge responsibilities as a young man he adds, ‘I had to learn from my mistakes along the way because, to tell you the truth, I made hundreds of errors. Errors and sins. It would be wrong for me to say that these days I ask for forgiveness for sins and offences I might have committed. Today I ask forgiveness for the sins and offences that I did indeed commit.’
Bergoglio discovered through mistake-making that mistake-making is indeed part and parcel of what we do in life. That doesn’t make it okay. But God puts it right again by the generous expression of mercy – and the word for that is ‘forgiveness’.
Let me spell it out. For-give-ness. The word ‘give’ is at its heart. Take the ‘give’ out for ‘forgiveness’ and there is nothing left. That is one lesson every Christian person should be very clear about. You never earn your forgiveness; it’s always a gift expressing not your worthiness but God’s generosity.
Equally you never forgive other people because they deserve it. It is always your gift to the undeserving. If anyone tells you that they have earned your forgiveness beware – they are trying to manipulate you. Your forgiveness is yours to give. If it’s not given it’s not forgiveness.
On Thursday evening this week, Nelson Mandela died. As I watched the news coverage unfold it occurred to me that I have never before heard the words ‘forgiveness’ and ‘reconciliation’ so many times in one news broadcast. The airwaves and the internet have been full of the same vocabulary ever since, as people have sought to find ways to express their appreciation of Nelson Mandela’s life and leadership.
I spent a couple of months in South Africa in 2002. As time went by so I realized that many things that I had learnt about the country from books proved not to be true. But one thing that was truer than the truth I had picked up, was the respect and affection in which Mandela – Madiba – was held. The subject came up in all sorts of situations and was clearly heartfelt. Somehow Mandela had come to represent all that leadership should be, and that warranted real and deep respect.
Some of this was expressed at the expense of his successor Thabo Mbekli. The Rector of Sharpeville, with whom I stayed one weekend, put it like this, ‘If you put Mbeki in the stadium in one township and Mandela in a stadium in the next township – you would soon know the truth about Mandela and Mbeki. No one would go to hear Mbeki, they would be crowding to hear and see Madiba.’
Everyone is trying to put their finger on what it was about Mandela. What was it about him that gave him such stature? In part it came from his determination and skill, his tenacity over the years and his intellect and his industry. But the more important thing about Mandela was his attitude and demeanor, his forgiving heart his desire for reconciliation. This is what people noticed about him as he walked free from prison and as he took up leadership. ‘Let bygones be bygones’, he said. Let the past be the past and let the future unfold with justice, mercy, truth and peace.
This was his great gift, a gift that he had within him and a gift which he shared with every step his walked and every word he spoke. A few years before that a man in Northern Ireland, Gordon Wilson made a similar witness when he said after his daughter was killed in the Remembrance Day bombing at the warm memorial in Enniskillen, ‘I bear no grudge, I hold no ill-will’. These were difficult words for him to live up to as time went by, but those who heard them on the Radio – and who heard them again in the Queen’s Christmas Day broadcast a few weeks later – recognized that they were hearing the voice of dignity.
This is what generosity looks like when put under the most excruciating pressure. It’s not forgiveness exactly, but it is great generosity of spirit.
Let me return to Nelson Mandela because I want to leave you with the suggestion that he gave the world not one great gift but two. The second was the gift of a forgiving spirit. This is the gift that settles conflict which has moved to the point where it can be justly resolved. But before that gift could be given there was another one, an altogether more difficult, controversial and uncomfortable one: the gift of defiance.
Mandela’s first gift was to say that apartheid was wrong, so wrong, so inhuman, so degrading that he would resist it with his life and, if necessary, by sacrificing his life. This was Mandela’s gift of saying ‘no’.
It is important for us to realize as we celebrate generosity that this is just as vital a gift as saying ‘yes’ and seeking reconciliation. As the teacher wrote, in Ecclesiastes, ‘There is a time for everything’.
The thing about Mandela is that not only did he have great generosity of spirit; he also knew what gift needed to be given when. If he had come out of prison shouting for justice that would have been wrong because when he said ‘justice’ people would have heard ‘revenge’. If he had accepted easy, acquiescent peace when there was no justice and no hope of justice, that would have been equally wrong. Mandela’s generosity was guided by wisdom and supported by courage.
And so must ours be. As Pope Paul VI one said, ‘if you want peace you must work for justice’. And we might add, ‘if you want justice you must work for peace’. This is the double heartbeat of the ministry of reconciliation: justice, peace, justice, peace, justice, peace.
Both gifts matter:
We must learn how to let our ‘yes’ and our forgiving attitude be a gift to others.
And we must also learn how to let our ‘no, this is wrong and it must stop’ be a gift to others.
And to be able to give either of these gifts with proper Christian confidence and humility we must learn, with Pope Francis, that God does not seek to admire our perfection but to forgive our mistakes errors and sins. That is God’s generosity. God’s complete forgiveness.
Generosity is at the heart of the Christian vision of God, and at the heart of the Christian vision of life lived well – of human flourishing.
Let us aspire to be generous to a fault. Being prepared to give what is needed when it is needed.
It’s the only fault that doesn’t need to be forgiven.