Like St Paul, when I was a child, I reasoned like a child. One day when I was about nine, I saw what seemed like the perfect birthday present for my mother. I knew that she had one bet a year, on the Grand National, and here was a set of six glasses (shot glasses we would call them now) each with the portrait of a Grand National winning horse. Ideal! I was to see what a foolish choice this was, a gift that hinted at a fondness for booze as well as betting - neither was remotely true in my mum’s case - and just not very feminine. But she was ever so nice about it.
By my mid-teens I was doing better - so I thought. For her birthday one year I bought perfume. Again Mum received it graciously. Then, early one Saturday evening, some months later, I was going to the birthday party of a girl from the excellent Methodist youth club where we both went. I hadn’t been able to find a present and the shops were about to shut. What could I do? ‘Look on top of the wardrobe,’ said Mum. There, in a suitcase, she kept things she didn’t want but which might just do for someone else. And there was the perfume I'd given her months before. I was hurt.
Looking back, I don't blame my Mum at all - teenage boys are not great judges of fragrance for middle-aged women - but still, I was upset: if someone gives you a present, you should hang on to it, not give it away again. So I reasoned then, as a (slightly older) child. But when I became an adult I put an end to childish ways (or some of them).
The opening pages of Luke’s gospel are a time of gifts. Today Mary and Joseph bring Jesus their baby to the Temple in Jerusalem. They are following the law which Moses gave their ancestors: your eldest son should be dedicated to the Lord. In other words, they offer Jesus as a gift to God. But this comes straight after the Christmas stories, in which Luke has gone to some lengths to tell us that Jesus is God's gift to Mary and Joseph, and to the whole world.
That is what the story of Jesus' virgin-birth is saying: this new life is no predictable fruit of human activity, it’s pure grace, a divine initiative; Jesus is God’s gift to the earth. Remember the words of the angel to the shepherds, 'To you is born in the city of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord'. So Mary and Joseph are - almost nonsensically, it seems - giving to God what God has just given to them.
This nonsense is part of what Paul calls the foolishness of God (1 Corinthians 1:25), a foolishness that is wiser than human wisdom. Worldly wisdom thinks in terms of ownership. It speaks the language of possession, so that what is mine cannot by definition be yours. God, foolishly, speaks the language of gift, of things to be given and not hung on to but given again, to be received, enjoyed and shared. Jesus is the foolish gift of God to a world too scared to be generous. The old man Simeon prophesies that he will become: ‘a sign that will be opposed.’ How true that is, for when Jesus becomes an adult he develops a ministry that is so bound up with finding what’s lost and mending what’s broken that he has no time for possession. And people don’t like that, especially those who have a few possessions of their own.
They don’t like it, and neither do we. Jesus is a sign that we oppose too, or at least I sometimes do. I’ve noticed in myself, having just moved into the Cathedral Close, the original gated community, after years of addresses on the open street, deep instincts that say that everything - even empty space - belongs to somebody and therefore not to anybody else. Some of us do this with God. We say, ‘The hours in my day, the money in my pocket, the talent I have, it's mine; unless I decide to give some of it to you, God, then it will be yours.’ A zero sum game: if one gains the other must be worse off? No: it all belongs to God, but God is generous and shares it with us, so we offer it back to God, share it with God and with one another.
I am not an anarchist, I don’t believe that property is theft, but I do believe that, on its own, the ownership mentality leads to a shrinking of life. Try to hang on to everything, and life becomes a perpetual battle. Everything and everyone becomes a potential threat to me and my things, and the world outside becomes a darker, more menacing place.
Jesus offers us escape from that darkness. One of our Cathedral’s three cardinal values is generosity. So, despite financial pressures on cathedrals (see today’s BBC report), we don’t charge for entry. ‘Consider this place,’ we say to visitors, ‘as a gift. Give us some money if you can. But if not, please feel equally welcome.’ This is an attempt to respond to the generosity of God to us, to put into practice what we learn here, in this very service of Holy Communion. It says in your booklet that in the next hymn ‘the gifts of the people are gathered’ and we then offer them to God. We offer bread and wine, the fruits which God's earth has given us, then receive them back again in the Giving of Communion, now enriched by Christ’s own life, and then we are sent out to give that life away to to others. We offer money too, perhaps the fruits of our labours, certainly money we could have spent elsewhere that we choose to give (or give back) to God. And the promise is the same: God won’t hoard it, God will give it back to us and our world, in a richer way.
These instincts do not come at once and may soon be needed as much as ever. Are we headed for another financial crash? It depends which pundit you listen to, but there are worrying signs, like the rumour of a major developer beginning to sell land - just like they did in 2007. And what happens in times like that?
A film that is worth two hours of your time this week is The Big Short. It’s about some people who saw that last crash coming. At the end of the film Mark Baum, a perpetually angry financier played by Steve Carell, makes a prophecy his own:
"I have a feeling in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.
That is indeed what happens if there are not enough people in society who are not naïve, not soft touches, but who have the instinct of generosity and who know when there needs to be a time of gifts.
Jesus - ‘a sign that will be opposed,’ says Simeon, ‘so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.’ How true that is. We are here because, despite our inner thoughts, we cannot quite reject that sign, because we see in it (perhaps only faintly) a light for the nations, a wisdom which our wise world does not comprehend, though it needs to. And perhaps God’s foolishness is beginning to look a little wiser, because we are learning that, in your life and in mine, in the life of a nation, and especially in troubling times, only the generous are truly secure."
A time of gifts - title of a book by Gerald Durrell
Jesus - no time for posession - see Francis Spafford Unapologetic, Faber, 2012, page 127