On Sunday I heard a belter of a sermon. I pay a lot of attention to sermons, not out of piety or because I’m an incredibly holy person, but because I recently started preaching myself, so I’m always after tips.
This was one of those sermons that has you sitting up in your seat, nodding along, smiling and briefly wondering whether this is the kind of church where you could just stand up with your arms in the air and shout Hallelujah. But not being on the set of the Blues Brothers, I decided to play it safe and internalise my deep joy and quietly told the Vicar at the end that I’d rather enjoyed his sermon and could I have a copy.
There are two reasons I thought it was a cracking sermon. The first is that it was a shining example of exactly how to talk about generous giving openly, tactfully, creatively and warmly. The preacher has had the (mis)fortune of hearing me deliver at least 6 presentations to various leadership groups and chapters over the last few weeks, and in each of them I’ve asked if clergy could begin preaching about generous giving often. Really often.
There are a hundred and one ways to preach about generous giving, and to highlight this core part of our faith, the nature of God and our response to Him. I have been asking clergy to consciously and intentionally preach about it. I’m not suggesting money has to be the subject of every sermon, week in, week out. I think that would do a big disservice to the many other important messages and themes of our very rich Bible. Instead I’m asking if clergy could look at texts and ask ‘Does this story show God’s generosity to us, his children? Does this parable tell us anything about our generosity? Is this about Jesus’ sacrifice for us? Are we being asked to act generously?’
It’s impossible for me to tell whether the Venerable Nick Barker, Archdeacon of Auckland, has always preached like this, raising our awareness of generous giving, or whether I’m just noticing it due to my new post. I can’t tell if his sermon was an intentional reaction to my request of all our clergy, or simply his interpretation of the passage. Whatever the reason, it showed how deftly a preacher can handle Luke 7:11-17 (the raising of the widow’s son) and convey to us the gifts of Christ, how expertly a preacher can preach this message of generosity to us without having us squirming in our seats.
The second reason I was sitting up in my pew was the message itself. Archdeacon Nick was talking about Grace which he described as ‘the free and unmerited favour of God.’ He went on, ‘In the story we see a profound act of unrequested or undeserved grace, the gift of new life to this boy and salvation to his mother.’ We were led into the story and what it was about the situation that led Jesus to feel so gut-wrenchingly moved that he acted without being asked.
‘He had the power to step in and change the situation. The woman made no request. Jesus did not act in response to her faith. He just saw the situation and raised the boy to new life. His act was sheer gift.’
Then came the best bit. We learned about God’s gift to us, and what we have to do to deserve it.
‘God’s gift is Jesus. For us salvation is a gift and can be nothing else. Sometimes when someone is asked if they think they will go to heaven when they die they may say “I hope I’m good enough”. The answer is no! There is that within us which wants to be good enough to be acceptable to God. We want to meet God on equal terms. We don’t want to accept his love as a gift… But the reality is that we can come no other way. We can never be good enough. We are not saved by being good enough for God. We are saved by the sheer gift of God.’
This message of how much God loves us and the gift of His salvation made the hairs on my arms stand up. I can never hear this message enough ‘You’ll never be perfect, you’ll never be sin free, but God loves you anyway.’ I thought about what I give, as the next part of the service was the offertory. I thought about whether the money I give is really a true reflection of how much I love God and how grateful I am to Him and His church that I’m now part of. Jesus gave without being asked. He gave graciously. I wonder if I could do that.