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Sunday 26 January 2020 – 10am Eucharist
1 Cor. 1. 10-18 Matt. 4. 12-23
In the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We all know that the moment Christmas really begins is when the John Lewis Christmas advert first appears on television. This year we were greeted by an excitable little dragon, who after causing disruption by setting things on fire is given the perfect gift of a Christmas pudding to set alight. My favourite advert, however, was in 2011, which featured a little boy desperately waiting for Christmas Day to arrive. After impatiently counting down the days and hours, he wakes up on Christmas Day – he gets out of bed, rushes past his stocking, into his parents’ bedroom and gives them their present. The slogan reads, ‘for gifts you can’t wait to give’.
Today marks the beginning of our annual period of reflection on Generous Giving in the Minster, where we are all invited to consider the resources and gifts God has given to us, and how we might respond to that through giving to our church. It is a subject that the Church of England has always found challenging, but one which enables us to sustain and grow the ministries in which we all share.
Perhaps we should begin by asking ourselves why giving is such a challenging subject. It’s a challenge because it forces us out of our comfort zone, and into a place where we must place ourselves and our resources at God’s disposal, before our own desires. It is particularly difficult if we’re part of a cathedral community, I think, where it’s so easy to look around at the many projects which sustain our day to day life and ask, ‘how could my giving ever make a difference?’ It also challenges our priorities, by asking, ‘do I give what I have to spare’, or, in the words of the post-communion prayer we say each week, do we ‘offer [ourselves] to be a living sacrifice’?
Giving is something that Jesus talked about on a par with prayer and love; it is rooted in our state of heart, and our calling as disciples. As we begin this period of reflection on Generous Giving as a community, I’d like to suggest three things to help frame our thinking:
The first is that we are invited to give as a response to God’s generosity to us. God is, by nature, a God who gives – in fact, it is possible to read the whole Bible as a narrative of giving. In Genesis we see God gifting creation to humanity, and despite our continued failings God keeps on giving from the mundane to the miraculous, the pinnacle being the well-known words in John’s Gospel:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
– John 3.16
Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church Oxford, summarises this notion beautifully. He says this:
“The generosity of God is proportionate to his radiant glory – which is unattainable, overwhelming abundance”.
As Christians, we are enriched by the gifts God has given to us, and are invited to respond. This brings us back to the John Lewis Christmas advert. ‘For gifts you can’t wait to give’ – the message here is that it is a joy to give to those who we love, motivated by love and grounded in grace and humility. What might it look like if we shaped our thinking in this way when giving to the church?
For gifts we can’t wait to give.
Secondly, we can reflect on where that giving goes, and for what purpose. The end point of all our giving is that it enables ministry and mission in our church, and that in turn enables the church to grow, and to be Christ in the world.
Here in York Minster, that manifests itself in such a variety of ways – through our worship, the care of our building which speaks beyond itself, our music which underpins our personal and collective prayer, our outreach services such as Minster Mice and Threshold – all of which offer an opportunity for people to encounter God’s love. Of course, all this is God’s mission, and the best part of it is that he invites us to join in.
In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about the churches in Macedonia who gave financially to support sister churches. To describe this, Paul uses the word ‘grace’, gifts of grace from one church to another, ‘for the privilege of sharing in the ministry to the saints’. (2 Cor 8.4). This, I think, eloquently frames the lens through which we are invited to think of our giving – as gifts of, or expressions of, grace – which enable us to participate in God’s work.
For gifts we can’t wait to give.
Thirdly, through giving, we grow as disciples. In the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew, ‘Follow me’. Being a disciple means to follow Jesus: to go where he goes, to look on the world with his eyes, to love the world with his heart, and to give our lives, with his, for the sake of others. Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John all left their boats immediately, and followed him. Followed him as disciples, who learn by watching what their master is doing. Jesus lived a life of generosity. As we follow as his disciples, then we catch the vision of that generosity and become more like him.
To be a disciple is to follow, with courage and obedience, and live our lives with grace and generosity, which in turn reveals the generosity of God. And that includes the state of our heart when it comes to giving to our church: generous giving is a spiritual issue as well as a practical one. As baptised Christians, our identity lies not in ourselves but in God through Christ – as Paul says in our first reading, ‘I belong to Christ’. And so every bit of ourselves belongs to and is offered in the service of God – our work, our leisure, our gifts, our time, and our money. God chose to enter the material world and be born into it, so for us material things and spiritual things cannot be separated.
Giving is about our state of heart, our strength of faith, and our humility – putting God’s mission and the people around us ahead of ourselves and our own desires. Our commitment to being disciples is the tiniest part of a relationship in which God is committed to us – capturing all our offerings and making of them something beautiful and glorious.
I’d like to conclude by offering some familiar but profound words of Christina Rossetti, who eloquently frames our reflections in this season of Epiphany:
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
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