A Sermon preached by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL, Dean of Salisbury
I Timothy 2 v 1-7; Luke 16 v 1-13
In his book ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky recites a story about a wicked old peasant women who had such a twisted and self-centred life that when she dies no-one can remember her having done a single good deed. Everything she ever did she did for herself alone. She manipulated situations so that she got what she wanted but never gave to anyone else, not even a kind look did she give away. After she died, so Dostoyevsky tells the story, the devil seizes her and plunges her into the lake of fire. Her guardian angel, wondering how he could rescue her from this fate tells God that once the woman had pulled up a vegetable from her garden and given it to a hungry beggar. So God instructs the angel to take that vegetable, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold and be pulled out.
‘If you can pull her out of the lake’ God says, ‘let her come to Paradise, but if the vegetable breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’
The angel duly ran to where the woman was and held out the vegetable to her. He gently begins pulling her out and she was almost free, ready to enter into Paradise, when other sinners in the lake – seeing how she was being drawn out - clung on to her so that they too might be pulled out with her.
But you’ll remember that she was an unkind woman and so she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you.’ She said, ‘it’s my vegetable not yours’ she shouted at them. As she said that, the vegetable broke into pieces, and the woman fell back into the lake, and the angel wept.
This week the Chapter and senior staff of the Cathedral are considering what lies in store for us over the next five years. It so happens that tomorrow Wiltshire Council launch their own consultation on our Master Plan, our future large projects, and I hope that before the 28th October you’ll take part in that consultation.
You and I both know that there are a lot of uncertainties hidden in the next five years but there’s one aspect of our future which I’m absolutely sure will remain true for us. Here in the Cathedral community we’ve committed ourselves to living by three characteristics: generosity, integrity and compassion. For the past few years we’ve been saying: we want to be generous, we wish to practise integrity, we desire to be compassionate.
There are elements of our gospel reading, the parable of the dishonest manager, which are really difficult. But at its heart it’s a story about calculated generosity. When the dishonest manager discovers that he’s about to be sacked, he wins friends for himself by giving them a welcome gift, the reduction of their debts. He used what power he still had to gain advantage for himself. It’s exactly what the world does: we give in order to receive. You may say that he gave away something that wasn’t his to offer but Jesus isn’t here giving us a moral seminar. He’s admiring shrewdness: and the story recognises the power of giving, even transactional giving. The manager, dishonest though he be, was giving away in order to get back his own security.
Here is the bottom line. God is a giving God, and we are saved by his generosity. He does not punish us but he suffered for us. If there is one vegetable of the instinct of goodness in our life he will build on that and draw us out of our hell of greed and indifference towards Paradise.
At the same time the world is becoming a less generous place. Those who have a lot of the world’s goods are reluctant to share. Our exchanges with one another are too often graceless. Power not fairness is the way our communities operate. We assert ourselves and our own interests. This really matters because a society without generosity, without kindness and mercy, will pay a great price.
· If our economic system knows no generosity then the exchange of goods and services will simply grow into the exploitation of the poor by the rich, those who have too little by those who have more than enough. That way of life eventually becomes unsustainable and will lead to instability and worse.
· If our political system knows no generosity then instead of growing mature and strong it decays. People lose any sense that the system works well for the likes of them, and powerful interest groups begin to dominate.
· If our educational system lacks generosity then individuals and local communities fail to flourish. The success of our schools depend on every child being of equal value and of that being honoured by teachers and parents alike.
There are many examples of how generosity is important for the smooth operating of our social institutions. Generosity’s also the way, on a day to day basis, that we bridge the divide between the mundane and the sacred. It’s in giving freely, behaving graciously, that we flood the mundane world with the grace of what is divine.
And so it is that here in the Cathedral – through you - we’ll aspire to practise generosity in the many aspects of our life.
· We want to pray for the ability to give of ourselves unsparingly; that our hospitality may be marked by warmth and an ungrudging welcome.
· We wish to learn how to make people feel treasured. The value and equality of every individual is one of Christianity’s most radical influences but if we’re going to call ourselves a civilised society we have to go on embedding it each day in our way of life.
· We promise ourselves that we’ll practise merciful responses and exercise empathy. That means not just doing what is right but also doing what is kind, and of entering into the experience of others.
· And our whole approach to generosity is built on true riches. Yes we have bills to pay and responsibilities which need us to be shrewd. But that’s not incompatible with asserting that the riches we value are not material. Wealth in this place is only ever a means to offering that which will last for us.
To go back to Dostoyevsky’s tale: it isn’t about us being able to ensure a place in Paradise through our good deeds. But it does suggest that we can make our own dark fate by a lack of kindness and grace. Which is why, for at least the next five years you’ll hear us talking a lot about being generous, and with God’s help, hopefully walking in that way.