Generous to a Fault

7 12 2013

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.





Third Sunday after Trinity 16.6.13 Luke 7.36-8.3

9 06 2013

Reverse Hospitality

The events at the home of the Simon the Pharisee show what happens when Jesus encounters human vulnerability and fragility. When they are owned they are healed. When they are not, they are exposed. In both cases God’s transforming love is shown.

Luke 7.36-8.3

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

8Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Reflection

To help give shape to the reflection here are three types of question: head questions, heart questions and hand questions. They are about our intellectual response, our emotional response and our practical or behavioural response. I hope that you will want to work at all three levels.

Head Questions

  1. What does it mean (v39) that ‘she was a sinner’?
  2. What sort of forgiveness is given here?
  3. What do the first three verses of chapter 8 add to this reading?

Heart Questions

  1. What is your emotional response to the anointing?
  2. What is the tone of the relationship between Jesus and Simon the Pharisee?
  3. How did the woman feel in the three phases of the story?

Hand Questions

  1. Great things can happen when there is hospitality: how can you be more hospitable?
  2. How can you sow greater generosity of spirit?
  3. Is there any way you can help release someone from the burden of their sins?

Finally

These questions are intended to challenge you to engage more closely with the passage and to hear and feel what it has to say to you.  That’s more than a five-minute task. And so is the follow-up, working out what you might want to say to others as a result of engaging with the passage with head, heart and hands.  Take your time.





4th Sunday of Lent 10.3.13 Luke 15 1-3, 11b-end

2 03 2013

A Tale of Three Blokes

When you put that title on it, the story in today’s gospel is an odd choice for Mothering Sunday. Yet it is familiar, and tells us much about  family life, then and now.  And it speaks to us of God, generosity, hospitality and love. What more could you want?

Luke 15 1-3, 11b-end

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’

Reflection

To help give shape to the reflection here are three types of question: head questions, heart questions and hand questions. They are about our intellectual response, our emotional response and our practical or behavioural response. I hope that you will want to work at all three levels.

Head Questions

  1. How significant is the grumbling in verse 2? What is the tone of voice in verse 29?
  2. How many points of scandal can you identify in the story?
  3. Is this a forgiveness story?

Heart Questions

  1. What do find in the younger son that you can identify with?
  2. Can you put into words what it felt like for the father to run towards his son?
  3. What brings out the elder son in you?

Hand Questions

  1. How might you reduce your own level of grumbling?
  2. Is there anyone to whom you need to return?
  3. Can you find a good excuse for a great party?

Finally

These questions are intended to challenge you to engage more closely with the passage and to hear and feel what it has to say to you.  That’s more than a five-minute task. And so is the follow-up, working out what you might want to say to others as a result of engaging with the passage with head, heart and hands.  Take your time.