Bible Readings: Isaiah 6.1-8; Luke 15.11-24
It was two years ago last June that I stepped down from being Archdeacon of the East Riding, and became Archdeacon for Generous Giving and Stewardship. It was Archbishop Sentamu’s idea, and it’s just for three years. So I now travel around the whole of the Diocese of York advising PCCs about how to strengthen their income from Planned Giving. I am looking forward to meeting with the members of your PCC on Thursday January 19.
The vision for our Diocese is that we will be a family of Generous Churches Making and Nurturing Disciples. So, as the word “generous” is in our Vision Statement and in my job title, I thought I would focus on the word “generous” this morning.
On the theme of generosity, there was once a church where the church members were not at all generous. One day two spiders who lived in the church happened to meet as they were walking down the main aisle. One spider says to the other, “I hear you’re moving house?” “I certainly am,” replied the other spider. “I’ve been living in the pulpit all my life, but this new vicar preaches so long and loud that I’ve not had a moment’s peace for weeks”. The other spider says, “Then you must come and live with us. We live in the collection box and we have not been disturbed for years!” I’m sure that would not be true of you here at St Laurence’s.
On the theme of being generous, let me begin by saying “Thank You” to you here at St Laurence’s. I imagine you are aware that every Church in the Diocese of York, makes a monthly financial contribution to what is called The Common Fund. It is from the Common Fund that all the clergy are paid and other Support Services from the Diocese are funded. I would like to say “thank you” to you for the way that you have made your contributions faithfully, month by month, and year by year. Having been Archdeacon of the East Riding, I am aware that your record of generous and faithful goes back many years.
I recall the occasion when you received a legacy and, I think it was two years running that you decided to pay the total amount of (what was then the Parish Share) in January. I remember when I thanked Alastair for this he, in his self-deprecating way, pointed out that with very low interest rates there was no point in putting it in the bank. However, not every PCC would have decided to this and I think what you did indicated a real spirit of generosity.
What’s more, I am aware that you have increased your 2017 Freewill Offer to the Common Fund by a substantial amount. So thank you again for your faithfulness and generosity, and the Archbishop, who is my Line Manager has also asked me to pass on his thanks when I visit Churches.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we should be generous people. But why should disciples of Jesus Christ give generously?
There are a number of answers to that question, but I think the first, and the most important reason why those of us who call ourselves Christians should give generously is this: We give in response to the generosity of God: the generosity that has shown to each one of us.
In the Gospel Reading we heard the well-known parable of Jesus which illustrates the amazing generosity of God. In the parable, the Father threw a party for his wayward son, even though his son didn’t deserve it. That is meant to be a picture of how God lavishes his generosity on us! I’ll refer to the parable again a little later. But first let me reflect on God’s generosity to us, by drawing your attention to a prayer.
As a small boy, I recall that my Grandfather once told me how he had come across a prayer in the 1662 Prayer Book. The Prayer is called “A General Thanksgiving”. It’s not a prayer that we use very much today, and yet it is a brilliant prayer. This is how it begins…..
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we thine unworthy servants
do give thee most humble and hearty thanks
for all thy goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all men.
My Grandfather told me of the time when, having read the prayer, it stopped him in his tracks. This was because, he suddenly thought to himself: “Albert, when have you given humble and hearty thanks to God for his goodness and loving kindness to you?”. He then went on to tell me about how, from then on, he had endeavoured to be a more thankful person.
This Prayer of Thanksgiving was written by a man called Edward Reynolds who was the Bishop of Norwich between 1661 and 1676. So, in his prayer, what examples of God’s goodness and loving-kindness does Edward Reynolds encourage us to thank God for? He lists them.
He begins with, “We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life”. If you were to write down a list of “all the blessings of this life” that God has poured upon you, what would you include?
* that we live in the UK – a developed country, a safe country to live in?
* Life would be very different for us if we had been born in such a place as Iraq, Yemen, or Syria.
* that we have homes to live in, clothes to wear, an abundance of food to eat?
* that we have medical services available free at the point of need?
* that on a world scale, we are so rich!
There are a number of websites where you can enter the level of your income and it tells you how rich you are on a world scale. They vary a bit, but the general overall picture is the same. One website reveals the following……
* If we have a net annual income of £15,000 per year, we are in the top 4% of the richest people in the world.
* If our net income is £20,000, we’re in the top 2%.
* £25,000, the top 1%
* £30,000, the top 0.6%
While those figures will not be precisely accurate, I think we get the general message, and in response, we say to God, “Yes, we bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life”.
But then, secondly, we Christians are on the receiving end of a wealth and riches that money cannot buy, and which relate to another life that God has promised us. So Edward Reynolds prayer continues…..
We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ:
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
This section of the prayer lists four significant spiritual blessings…..
If we are in Christ, we have tasted God’s inestimable, which means “immeasurable”, love. As Paul writes, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
We have experienced being bought back by God from our slavery to sin at the cost of Christ’s death – all for us. Rather than being excluded from God’s presence because of our sin, we are able to approach the throne of God because Jesus died to save us from our sin.
One definition of the word “grace” is, “Something for nothing, for those who don’t deserve anything.” As Christians we have been on the receiving end of God’s generosity – God’s Grace.
To top it all, we have, what the prayer calls: the hope of glory – the promise of life beyond the grave. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
I don’t think we fully appreciate these spiritual blessings, these riches of God’s grace! I believe we gain a better appreciation of them in those moments when we catch a fuller glimpse of God’s glory.
We think of Isaiah, who, as we heard in our Old Testament reading, had a vision of God in all his glory. His response was to cry out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…..yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
When Isaiah had a vision of the purity and the holiness of God, he was suddenly aware of how much he was in need of God’s cleansing and forgiveness, his mercy and his grace. At that point in his vision, a seraph touched his lips with a live coal and said, “Your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
I believe that it’s when God reveals himself to us in a special way and we glimpse God’s glory in a way we haven’t done before, that we suddenly see how far we fall short of his glory, and so realise the amazing generosity of God in sending Jesus to die for us, so that we can be blessed with every spiritual blessing and be given a taste of the riches of heaven. So how do we respond to this amazing generosity of God?
A first way, is to thank God for his goodness to us, and we can use this ancient prayer to do this as we say to God, “”We give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us”.
A second way that we can respond to God’s generosity is by being generous people ourselves.
So what does it mean to be generous?
Last year I focused on this question at an assembly I was taking at a secondary school in York. I offered the students a couple of working definitions of what the word “generous” might mean. The first is, “To be generous is to give in a way that is above and beyond what I would normally have expected myself to give?”
Or looking at it from the point of view of the receiver, “To be generous is to give in a way that is above and beyond what the person on the receiving end of my gift would have expected to receive from me?”
If I were to develop this question further in a Christian context I would point out how the words “generous” and “generosity” do not occur very often in the Bible. The reason for this is because the authors of the Scriptures use another word instead. That is the word Grace. The word “grace” includes “generosity” and a whole lot more besides.
As I said earlier, one definition of grace is, “Something for nothing, for those who don’t deserve anything.” If you had been the father of the Prodigal Son, how would you have responded when your son turned up on the doorstep. Would you have been rather cool towards him? I suspect that few of us would have responded by killing the fatted calf and throwing a party! But that’s a picture of the generosity that God extends to us!
So, if we are going to respond to the generosity of God by being generous people ourselves we need to pray that the generous Spirit of God will motivate and inspire us to be generous, as he is generous. Of course there are a myriad of ways in which we can be generous.
* By having a generous attitude.
* By giving people the benefit of the doubt.
* By always being ready to forgive.
* By giving gifts, and it’s especially meaningful if we are able to give gifts that we have made with our own hands.
* Also, a significant way of being generous is through the giving of our money.
As Christians, I believe it is important that we see the giving of our money is part of our worship. In the last chapter of 1 Chronicles, we are told of how King David made preparations for the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. He invited God’s people to bring their gifts to pay for it. There was an incredibly generous response.
Although they all brought their gifts to the King – King David, the writer of 1 Chronicles doesn’t say that the people “offered all this to King David”. The author writes, “Then the people rejoiced because…..they had offered freely…..to the Lord.” They regarded their giving of money as worship! I believe that we should see the offering of our money as part of our worship too.
In the order of service for Holy Communion, at the point at which the offering is presented, there are a number of different prayers that can be said. One of them is this prayer of King David…..
Yours Lord, is the greatness,
the power, the glory, the splendour, and the majesty;
for everything in heaven and on earth is yours.
All things come from you,
and of your own do we give you.
So when we place our gifts into the offertory plate or give by Standing Order, we are caught up in worship as we give back to God what is really his.
So we rejoice that we have a generous God, and we pray that he will inspire us by his Spirit to be generous people.
Finally, when I took up my post of Archdeacon for Generous Giving and Stewardship nearly 21/2 years ago, the very job title, “Archdeacon for Generous Giving” challenged me! Having the word “generous” in my job title caused me to ask myself the question, “Am I a generous person?” I thought, if there were to be a eulogy at my funeral, would someone make the remark, “Well I’ll say one thing, he was generous chap”? I’m not sure they would, but I have been working on it and I am continuing to do so.
So may I end by asking you the question, “Are you a generous person? Will they say of you at your funeral: She was a generous woman. He was a generous man?”.