If you want to build a house the first thing to do is to dig the foundations. Without good, solid and secure foundations the rest of the structure will not be stable and there will be a danger of subsidence or worse. Sometimes that requires a raft to be created to spread the load across particularly soft ground. Whatever the conditions, foundations matter. Over the next few weeks, in the run up to Lent, we are going to use these sermons to explore four key foundations for the life, stability and witness of this cathedral. These are our core values and ones we think are particularly important for the whole of this community and how we approach everything we aim to be and do. These core values are Generosity, Integrity, Inclusivity and Joy. I begin today with ‘generosity’. Each of the others will follow over the next three weeks.
For me the foundation of everything is gift. We only exist because of God’s gracious and generous outpouring of his very self in the creative process. The most remarkable thing about life, the universe and everything is that there is something, anything, rather than nothing. We have no right to exist, no right to expect anything to continue beyond death, and the more we explore the complexity and wonder of God’s incredible creation, the more amazing and astounding it is. And it comes from the love and heart of God, given freely and for the love of it. This is the foundation on which we are built. This is the secure ground of who we are and who we hope to be. Everything, absolutely everything is rooted and grounded in God’s gracious giving of himself and breathing life into what he has made.
I have a friend, a Franciscan sister, who asks quite simply and penetratingly where the gift is in any given challenge. There is always a gift even in the darkest moments, though sometimes it is harder to find than at other times. And it is in struggling in the dark recesses of a challenge that we are able to find where that gift lies. Even St Paul found that the thorn in his flesh, a medical ailment that bugged him, had the advantage of being the very sign and indication of his humanity and createdness, preventing him from being too puffed up (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). We are not just smart biological machines, but have passion, experience pain and long for purpose and a point. So what looks on the surface like being a curse can thereby be seen as a blessing and moment of God’s gracious gifting revealed. Seeing life as gift is no mere soft cushion; it has bite and is robust when the storms come.
Our Epistle reading reminded us that the heart of the Christian good news of Jesus Christ is God’s generous giving of himself (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). God is the source of our life and while we have no right to expect it, gives us new life and new hope in him too. The hope of heaven is not to be expected and taken for granted. There is no reason to assume our lives will continue. And so Easter is for us the most astounding news of generous love that we can hear and share. It disrupts what would otherwise be the case. The natural, logical sequence would be death and decay; the movement of the elements back to the core components so that they can be recycled. Christian hope is therefore astounding for its gifting of a part 2, after the break. God is generous and so we are to be too if we are to live fully in the light and hope he gives to us in Jesus Christ.
If we let this gifting, this generous love, loose in our lives then so much follows. The back page of the leaflet ‘Our Vision and Values’, which is being given out today, invites us to apply being generous to our judgements, our actions and the use of our gifts. This is a generous spirit which overflows with God’s grace so that there is no aspect of our being that remains untouched by it. So, briefly, a few reflections on each of these.
There is a great need for generosity of judgement at the moment. It is easy to assume the worst of others, especially if we have a disagreement with them. Instead, there is a concept of interpretative charity, where we give credit and assume the most positive and generous drive to be behind what another says or does. Sometimes this might seem naïve and politics is an area which seems to test this particularly, where dirty tricks are not unknown and there seem to be so many base motives at work. Being generous in judgements, though, raises the game. It presents a higher ethic which can be transformative in its gracious and loving welcome even of those who may have ill intent because it says that is not the norm on which we operate. This is because it is filled with love, which is itself the result of God’s gifting into the world. I know this is not always easy or even the first thought, especially if I am feeling tired and/or paranoid. But I have known the healing and transforming power of grace and generous judgements, which have seen beyond the pain that masquerades as hate or anger, and have reached inside me to embrace the soul that is longing for its healing touch. In it I have grown and been blessed.
The second area is about generous actions. This is where our loving will respond where there is need, step in to provide a space where the cold can find warmth, the hungry be fed, the lonely find welcome and the homeless shelter. It leads quickly into inclusivity, which will be the subject of another sermon to come. Generous actions are by definition hospitable and outward looking because they give, seeking no reward.
Thirdly, the generous use of the gifts and resources God has given us. This is more than money, but it is money too. It changes how we see possessions, our use of time and resources. When what we have is seen as coming from gift then it ceases to be ours, something we possess, and more something we have stewardship of. The martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, in a sermon in 1977 reflected on the biblical notion of property. This he said was ‘something that was lent to the user. Never absolutely given. Always to be used, rented from God.’ The more we have the greater the obligations on us, for everything we have is subject to God’s justice, to the values of Christ’s Kingdom which always turns our values on their heads. Listen the Magnifcat at Evensong and the rich don’t come off well because it is the poor who are exalted. Possessions are themselves gifted, and so not so much ours to hold but to use, to see as a resource for blessing and to make a difference in the world and to the lives of everyone.
We are generous because we know that we owe our very existence to the gift of God. We owe our salvation to his gift too. Everything is utterly dependent on God’s grace. This makes us a people with a tremendous treasure to share. And it makes us thankful, gives us a reason and focus for being thankful. God is good. The word Eucharist, the name of this service, means ‘thanksgiving’. We give thanks to God for food to sustain our living, food to sustain our hope, food to sustain our serving. It is the thankful who are generous and who in turn bless the world: generous in judgements, in actions and in the use of gifts.
So today we begin our reflections on our core values by checking the foundations. Those foundations are built on the heart of everything, God’s gracious, loving gifting without which there would be nothing and we would be nothing. To live in harmony with this, to be filled with this, brings a generous spirit because it is filled with the love that makes us, shapes us and gives hope to our being. And as we saw in the gospel reading, this is never fruitless, but brings blessings more numerous than we can imagine (Luke 5:1-11). Everything is gift and that gifting is our life and peace.
First sermon in a series on ‘Our Core Values’ at Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 10th February 2019