Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Vision and Generosity: a dedication festival sermon

Sermon for St Giles Durham Dedication Festival, 9th June 2013

The first reading today (1 Chronicles 29.6-19) celebrates the vision and generosity of the Israelites who first built the Temple. It seems particularly appropriate today, as we celebrate the generosity and vision of those long ago ancestors of ours who established and dedicated this church, to the glory of God and as a place of mission to and hospitality for pilgrims approaching Durham.
That passage from Chronicles emphasises the long term: 901 years doesn't seem out of  place! And the writer grounds the intergenerational vision and generosity that is described in a clear sense of perspective.

First, there is a very realistic sense of perspective about time, God's time, and our mortality. We are just 'aliens and transients before you', David says. It reminds me of that lovely passage from Bede about our life on this earth being like a bird flying through the length of the king's banqueting hall. And there are echoes of the passage that we often read at funerals:

Our days are like the grass;
We flourish like a flower of the field:
When the wind goes over it , it is gone,
And its place will know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the Lord endures
For ever and ever.

Those who are giving so generously to build God's temple can do so first because they see clearly that they are transient, but they are building something much bigger than themselves. It wont last for ever - the Temple isn't God - but it will long outlast them.

Secondly, this sense of perspective is rounded out, made three dimensional. A true sense of perspective about us and God isn't just about time, stretching off into the distance with us at one point on the line. It is also about the whole of life now.

You might imagine a graph, with the bottom x axis stretching off across the page from those first Israelites, through 0 AD and the events of Jesus' life, past the foundation of this church, past us and long into the future. But there is also the upwards y axis: all of life going on at each of those times. And David's speech grounds their generosity in a clear sense of realism and perspective about this axis too. Its not just that God will be around for a lot longer than us: its that a proper sense of perspective recognises that everything there is, is already God's. As David says here, and as we often repeat at the offertory in our own services, 'all things come from you, and of your own have we given you'.

The ability to be generous in doing what seems right comes from a clarity of perspective. An understanding and way of seeing the world in its right proportions, that knows we don't have our money, or our gifts, or our time except, ultimately, because of God's generosity to us. Our earning potential, our intellectual gifts or physical strength or craftsmans skill, our health that means we can use those gifts, even the common sense that enables us to live within our means: these are not within our control, except in the most trivial ways. We can choose how and whether we use those gifts, but we cant give them to ourselves. Truly, all that we have comes from God. As David says, giving generously to God is a way of acknowledging both our gratitude, and our understanding that that is how things really are.

Thirdly, there is a lovely sense of perspective about future generations in this reading. The Israelites are giving not for something they will see, but something that they are trusting will be for their children and grandchildren. David isn't even planning to build the temple himself: that is a task he will be entrusting to his son Solomon.

Questions of the responsibility we have for future generations, and intergenerational justice, are very current at the moment. From pensions to house prices, benefits to the environment, many of the most difficult issues facing us and our politicians are about how much current generations are responsible for the future. Or how much those who have done well out of periods of economic growth in the  past, with generous pensions and houses that have rocketed in value, should subsidise those who are not so fortunate.

We thank God today for vision and generosity of those long ago who dedicated this church for the benefit of unimaginable future generations, and for those who have rebuilt, extended, reordered and maintained it over the centuries.

But as we celebrate today the generosity and vision of our ancestors in founding and maintaining this church - both as a building and as a worshipping and learning and growing community - the question for us is what we are going to build for future generations. How much responsibility do we have to ensure that there is still a Christian presence in Durham in 10, 20, 50, 100 years time?

This is a very practical question for churches in Durham now, as it is a year after Bishop Justin established the new parish share system. You'll remember that now, instead of the diocese telling us how much it needs from each church to keep the work of each parish going, each church tells the diocese what it is going to give. And this month, we need to decide what our offers are for next year. Are we going to grudgingly give as little as  we think we can get away with? Or as much as we think the diocese needs? Or as much as we can spare? Or can we bring ourselves to be as generous and visionary as David and the Israelites, giving all of our abundance - everything we have that is excess, luxury - to God?

The measure of generosity that Chronicles puts before us is eyeopening. The question there is not 'how much do we need to give?', but 'has anyone got anything unnecessary left?' Do any of you have any jewellery left? Any gold rings or sapphire earrings? Who has enough money in the bank to be going on holiday abroad this year, or be planning a cruise in the next year or two? Do you really value the church being here? How much?

We are here this morning saying we are quite grateful for it - but how much do we really value it? Are we just quite pleased to have it, maybe prepared as necessary to keep this one going for ourselves and our community? Or do we believe with all our hearts that this is something wonderful and lifechanging, that should be available both for future generations, and for those less fortunate than ourselves across the diocese in this generation?

When the people of Israel were fundraising to build a new temple, it would, no doubt, have been seriously embarrassing for someone to go out in public wearing diamond earrings after that. Why had they kept them back for themselves? That, of course, is part of the difficulty for us now: our peer pressure doesn't just come from members if the church, but from friends and colleagues and neighbours operating on what should be a very different scale of values. How different would things be if we were embarrassed to wear valuable jewellery? Ashamed to be seen driving a car newer than four or five years old. Furtive and embarrassed about booking a cruise, because we knew, and so did everyone else, that that money could b working for God?

Durham diocese would not be keeping six clergy posts vacant to save money this year. We wouldn't be debating whether or not we can afford to rise to the challenge of adopting more church schools and sponsoring church academies. We wouldn't have people in our parish who never got a clergy visit, or schools that only got a Christian assembly once a month, once a term, or never. There wouldn't be villages in the rural areas who have closed their churches, and are sharing one vicar between five, six or more parishes. Justin wouldn't have said that if things go on as they are, the diocese of Durham will be bankrupt in ten years time.

In our two New Testament readings this morning, the physical temple is redefined as the body of Christ.

The whole of our church - buildings and people and institution - is built on the foundation of Jesus's resurrection. His body, destroyed on the cross, was rebuilt in three days at the resurrection. And as in our church year  we have passed through Easter season, and the remembrance of Christ's ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, we are now in the months when we reflect on what it means for us to now be the constituent parts of that rebuilt temple, the body of Christ.

So I invite you to ask yourself very seriously: what exactly are we celebrating this morning? What exactly were our ancestors doing when they established and dedicated this church 901 years ago? And what is our response, as individuals, and as a church, as we decide how much we value the church? let us pray for the grace to be as faithful and as generous and as clear sighted in our perspective, as those we remember today.

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