Ash Wednesday 2017 – Bolton (Joint) 1 March 2017

Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday 2017

“Through fasting, prayer and acts of service, you bring us back to your generous heart.”

So runs our Eucharistic prayer during Lent and that is something of a theme for us this Lent: generosity – God’s generosity first and foremost, but also ours. And we begin, not in the desert, but on a mountain – in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, to be precise. And that is rather appropriate, because when we think about generosity, we often, perversely, have rather negative feelings about it – more of the desert, than the mountain.

Church is a place that demands significant generosity from us as a way of life. Again and again, Christians top the polls of people in our society who give to charity and engage in voluntary work. People in church give lavish amounts of time in service of their communities and neighbours and extraordinary amounts of money each year, not only to Church but to countless other good causes. And, much as we love church, it can be easy to resent that giving, especially when we feel that others don’t pull their weight or that the giving is relentless. And then the vicar climbs into the pulpit every so often and asks for more money and wonders why people throw rotten fruit at him.

Of course, it doesn’t help us to feel good about our giving if it doesn’t seem to be appreciated, so let me start by saying that you lot are extraordinary in the way that you give and give and give and I consider it a privilege to be part of a Christian community like this. And when we consider generosity this Lent I don’t want us just to treat it as another penance where already tired people are flogged into giving more. I want us to recover some joy in our giving, because “God loves a cheerful giver”, so the scriptures tell us.

And I think there are two sides to achieving cheerfulness in giving. The first is to rethink our own motives for giving and the second is to shift our attention away from our giving towards God’s giving.

When it comes to our motives Jesus’s teaching is pretty challenging. “Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

We all know people who give to the church in order to receive thanks and praise. Often the people who give the least seem to make the most fuss about being thanked and ironically they complain to you – who are usually giving far more – that they are not being appreciated. Or you will have come across the people who give to the church only what they don’t want any more – broken old toys, scraps of cloth or odd bits of furniture – and expect us to emblazon it with a brass plaque and keep it forever in perpetual memory of their kindness. Such people are probably in the minority but they stand out and live long in the memory, so that when I read this teaching of Jesus I find them coming quickly to mind.

But, of course, Jesus’ teaching is intended to be applied first to ourselves, not to others – which is why he intersperses this teaching with the repeated phrase “you hypocrites!” This teaching is not given to us to judge others, but to hold up a plumb line against our own lives. Why do we give? To be thanked? To feel better about ourselves? Of course, I would never admit to myself that I give in order to be thanked, but I don’t have to go very far down the road of not being thanked before I start getting cross about it, so I suppose the truth is that that is part of my motive. But the trouble with that is that when you give to God your giving never looks quite as generous as it felt at first – we can never remotely match the generosity of the God who gives us everything, even his own life. All we can say is “all things come from you, God, and of your own do we give you.”

So why do we give? Well, I think the Godly motive Jesus encourages us to cultivate is that of storing up treasure in heaven. Why? Because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Often we find resentment building up over our giving because we have developed a sense of attachment to the things of this world and a sense of entitlement to the world things we have acquired. Whether it’s material possessions or time to ourselves, we feel that these are the things that make us truly happy and secure. And so long as we feel like that, we’re never going to be truly happy about giving. Giving itself is not going to make us happy. It’s fine to be generous with them up to a point, but only so long as we still have plenty ourselves. Once it starts costing us, we don’t feel quite the same way about it, because in truth our heart is set on these things.

But that is not healthy for us. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” Jesus warns, “where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

Ultimately, the things of this world do not provide us with the security and happiness we think they will. And that is where our discipline of fasting really matters – breaking our addiction to the things of this world, because the wealth of this world is dishonest. Like Jesus’ own temptations in the desert, it makes all sorts of promises to us about the happiness and security it can offer, but once we get addicted to the things of this world, we becomes slaves to things that are fading and dying. Nothing in this world is intended to last and if they are our treasures, we are destined only to find anxiety and insecurity in them as time and money slip away from us. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Only the things of heaven last and truly satisfy us. Above all, St Paul tells us, faith hope and love. And these need investment. Spending our time and money on these things really make a difference – a difference that has eternal significance. At the end of the day do we want to go from this world rich in material possessions, most which our embarrassed relatives will have to throw out, or rich in good deeds, in friends and in kindness? I can’t believe there’s anyone here who wouldn’t chose the latter, but if that’s so, we need to invest in those things, using the time and resources God gives us to cultivate them. That will create a momentary anxiety as we let go of our addiction to material things or time spent on ourselves, but it will give us far greater joy once we become addicted to the things of heaven. But it requires an active realignment of our priorities, for “”where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” So change your treasure and your heart will follow.

But the second strand to making us cheerful givers is to shift our attention away from our giving towards God’s giving. It is an odd thing that in Church, despite the fact that we are an organisation made up of some of the most generous people in society, we feel poor and under-resourced. There is a sense that everything has to be done on the cheap and we can never afford to do what we really want to do. And that is because we are focussed on our own resources, rather than God’s. We have, in our minds, the idea that the Church is a purely human enterprise. Some of our working ideas about God don’t really help us either – “God helps those who help themselves” is all very well up to a point, but it gives the impression that it’s largely up to us. It is not a saying that comes from the Bible and in fact the Bible suggests rather the opposite – that we are dependent on a God of lavish generosity, that the Church lives its life out of the inner life of God, the God who created everything and is just as creative and generous today as he was on the first day of creation. The God for whom all things are possible is at our disposal, longing for us to turn to him and to do his will so that his generosity can be lavished on us and, through us, upon the world. St Paul understood that very well because, in taking Jesus at his word, in living by it, he saw how God’s kingdom become a lavish and generous reality in his life and the world around him, apparently poor in the things of this world, yet benefitting from untold treasures in the things of God: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

You see, our lack of resources is just an illusion. We are not in the desert, we are on the mountain top. We think we’re struggling – our congregations are falling, the same people end up doing everything, we’re all getting older, we can’t afford the vicar any more, young people aren’t joining us – and all the time we have in our midst the God for whom nothing is impossible, the God whose resources known no bounds, the God of infinite power and creativity and generosity.

So this Lent, I don’t want you think about what more you could do. I want you think what more God could do if we let him. I don’t want you to think how much more you could give, I want you to notice how much God gives us. I don’t want us to spend more time feeding others, I want us to spend more time being fed by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. I don’t want us to impoverish ourselves with reluctant giving, I want us to store up treasure in heaven, for “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I want us to release the joy as, through fasting, prayer and acts of service, we rediscover God’s generous heart. Amen.

Preached: Bolton (Joint) 1 March 2017