Sunday 30 September 2007

Harvest Festival

1. Introduction

  • I love the harvest season. Though I’m not a farmer, I can feel their excitement, waiting for the right moment, and the mad rush when that moment comes; the combines working late into the night, the tractors drawing full trailers racing home to the barn. Beware the tractors though: I once had a car written off by one on harvest duty, which didn’t stop as fast as I did, when I met it on a narrow road!
  • My own harvest is as a gardener, and it gives me great joy to pick my own produce: I was busy with other things this year and rather neglected the garden, so the vegetables weren’t great, but the plums, pears and apples are good, thank God, and so are my wife Marty’s flowers.
  • I love Harvest Festivals as well, as I’m sure you do too: the colours and smells of the fruit and vegetables and flowers, the familiar harvest hymns, the cheerful people, especially the farmers whose years’ work has been crowned with success. A very few mock the Feast of St Pumpkin, and say it is a pagan not a Christian festival, but it is surely right for Christians to give thanks for all the good things God has given us.
  • After all, as our 1st reading from Deuteronomy (Deu 26:1-11) shows, there are good biblical grounds for doing so. ‘You shall set the first of the fruit of the ground down before the Lord your God … Then you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you.’ And John tells us that Jesus himself went privately to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of booths, which is the Jewish Harvest Festival. What’s good enough for Jesus is good enough for me!
  • Deuteronomy talks about a harvest of the fruits of the earth. But in our 2nd reading from John’s Gospel (John 6:23-35), Jesus asks us to look beyond an earthly harvest, ‘food that perishes’, to a different, heavenly harvest, ‘food that endures for eternal life’.
  • So what I want to do in this address is to tease out the relationship between the earthly harvest and the heavenly harvest.

2. Let us look first at the earthly harvest:

It’s so beautifully displayed in this Church, isn’t it? The decorators have every right to be proud of their skilful arrangements, and those who have grown the produce have every right to be proud that the best of it should be displayed here in God’s house.

Just reflect for a moment on the breadth and variety of our harvest:

  • We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, hay for cattle. Our farmers were getting very worried with the wet summer this year, but in the end it has been a good harvest I’m told. The dry weather in August and September came just in time after the wet summer. I see from the Farmers Journal that cereal yields were good, if a bit down, and prices are very high. The hay and straw is saved, so the animals will be all right too.
  • But there is so much more for us to enjoy: there’s milk and honey, butter and cheese, fruit and nuts, blackberries and mushrooms, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips, pumpkins and marrows, peas and beans, cabbage and lettuce, and gardens full of flowers!
  • Many of us work with animals, and there are also this year’s foals, and calves and lambs and chicks. But we should also think of the fruit of our own bodies - that is our children and grandchildren born this year - thank God for them too!
  • What a wealth there is in our harvest to give thanks for!

Above all perhaps we should thank God for our health and strength, and also for our intellects, our cleverness, for we couldn’t produce this wealth with out them.

  • As every farmer and gardener knows, this bountiful harvest does not just appear from heaven as if by magic, it also takes intelligent planning and hard graft.
  • In creating us, in his image we are told, God has created beings which are in a sense co-creators with him of the natural world. We use our God-given cleverness to bend the natural world to better meet our own needs, by domesticating and improving the breeds of different plants and animals, and by developing useful technologies. It is that work of co-creation which takes hard graft and intelligent planning.
  • But we must never forget that we are not masters of the universe: God is. God’s laws don’t change: Nature is as God made it; and what we sow, we shall reap.
  • I think we ought to pray more that we may use our cleverness wisely, to build up this wonderful world, not destroy it. Otherwise, our fields may become scrub, our gardens revert to wilderness, our houses ivy-clad ruins and our towns deserted. It has happened before, it may well happen again: for civilisations grow, flourish and decay. But if it does, God will still be there.

For all our cleverness, this earthly harvest is perishable and uncertain. Without God’s continuing fatherly goodness our material needs would not be met.

3. So what about the heavenly harvest?

In the passage from John’s Gospel that we’ve just heard, Jesus tells the crowd: ‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ He then makes the great claim: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whosoever believes in me shall never be thirsty’. What is Jesus talking about?

  • The teaching is difficult; at least I find it so, but then so did many of Jesus’s disciples, according to John. I find it helpful myself to interpret Jesus’s words in the context of a heavenly harvest, by analogy with the earthly harvest. Perhaps you will too.
  • Just as God has made us clever, to be his co-workers in the material world, so he has made us in his image to be moral beings, to be souls. God has given us the capacity to distinguish right from wrong, truth from lies, love from hate; and to prefer good to evil, as he does. We call that capacity conscience. I don’t doubt that both our cleverness and our conscience have evolved, since that seems to be how God makes his creatures.
  • God surely intends us to use our consciences to make the right choices, to do good not evil. Our right choices are the seed from which grows a heavenly harvest of good. As the old saw says, the good we do lives after us. The good we do is eternal; it nourishes our souls for eternal life. But we are not masters of our own souls, any more than we are masters of the universe: our souls are as God made them, with free will, vulnerable to temptation.
  • So it’s hard to be good. We have to work at it, just as we do for the earthly harvest. It is hard work resisting temptation, putting what is right above our own desires. All too often we fail. And when we fail, the evil we do poisons our soul, and the evil too is eternal.

What a mess it is! How can we possibly be as good as God wants us to be? As good as God has made us want to be?

This is where Jesus’s teaching speaks to me:

  • Jesus promises us all the help we need to reap the heavenly harvest: if we have faith in him, if we come to him, if we believe in him. He will nourish our souls. He will help us to resist temptation and to do good. And when we fail, he will suck out the evil that poisons the soul – in other words, he will redeem us. It is in this sense that he is the bread of life, that endures for eternal life.
  • And furthermore, God guarantees this, by setting his seal on the Son of Man. It is as if the bread of life comes stamped by God with an eat-by date of eternity!

4. So to sum up:

  • Let us thank God for this bountiful earthly harvest. God makes it possible, and we work hard for it, so we should celebrate it and enjoy it.
  • But let us work just as hard for the heavenly harvest of goodness, to nourish our souls.
  • And let us thank God for Jesus, who gives us the help we need to reap this heavenly harvest. If we believe in him, if we come to him, we will never be hungry or thirsty for good things.

Sunday 9 September 2007

Being a Disciple - Year C, Trinity 14

1. Introduction

  • Do you know what the difference is between supporting a cause and being committed to it? Well the next time you sit down to a nice cooked breakfast you might think of this: the hen that laid the egg you’re about to eat was certainly supporting your high-cholesterol breakfast, but the pig from which the rashers came was truly committed to it!
  • Today’s Gospel reading from Luke is of course about commitment – about commitment as a disciple of Jesus. To be a disciple is to be a pupil, one who learns from a teacher. That’s precisely what the Greek word used by Luke and translated as disciple, means. Jesus is telling the crowds travelling with him what it means to be his disciple.
  • But at first hearing, what he says, as recorded by Luke (Luke 14:25-33), is really quite shocking, isn’t it? Surely Jesus can’t have insisted that to be his disciple you must hate your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters? It sounds as if he wants his disciples to be cold-hearted fanatics!
  • What I want to do in this address is to tease out for myself what Jesus really did mean in this passage, and what it might mean to us today. And I hope my thoughts may also be useful to you.

2. Would the crowds travelling with Jesus have been just as shocked by his teaching as we are?

  • At one level, I think they might have been even more shocked. For a Jew to hate mother or father would be more than shocking – it would be a blasphemy against God himself, a violation of the 5th Commandment given to Moses. If you remember, this reads: ‘Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee’.
  • And again, although the idea of carrying the cross is a very familiar metaphor to us, two Christian millennia later, it would have been quite repulsive to a Jew at that time. Stoning was the Jewish punishment – crucifixion was a barbaric practice recently introduced by the hated Roman occupiers. To say that disciples must carry the cross would have been like saying today that they must travel in the cattle-trucks to the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz.
  • But at another level, I think they would not have found Jesus’s words as strange as we do, at all. There’s a long tradition in the Middle-East, in Semitic languages, of using over-the-top rhetoric to make a point, which continues to this day – think of Saddam Hussein’s rhetoric about ‘the mother of all battles’ for instance. Here as in many other places in the Gospels, I think that those who heard Jesus’s words would have understood very clearly that they weren’t to be taken completely literally, but that they were used to make his point as vividly as possible.

3. So what is the point that Jesus was making? Actually, I think there are two.

First, Jesus was warning his followers that to be his disciple, to follow his road to the Kingdom of God, may cost them everything that they hold dear. Everything; absolutely everything.

  • Matthew puts different words into his mouth, in what seems to be another report of the same teaching, when he has Jesus say: ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he that doeth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me’. The point is not to hate your family – that is just a rhetorical device – the point is that to be a true disciple of Jesus you must love him, you must love God, more than family, more than anything!
  • And he was also warning his followers that before they commit themselves to being his disciple, they must ask themselves if they can see it through. Just as they would with any other project. They will be taken for fools if they make a commitment that they can’t live up to. Just as if they were building a tower – the reference is probably to a watchtower which people built in their fields so they could protect their crops. Or just as a wise king would – or a wise president for that matter - before leading his people to war. You cannot make a true commitment without having calculated whether or not you can live up to it.

But secondly, I think Jesus was also seeking to inspire his followers to make that commitment to become true disciples.

  • Think for a moment about Churchill’s great speech to the British parliament and people when he became Prime Minister early in WW2: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’. That speech was calculated to rally the British nation behind a determination to fight on for victory. He went on: ‘You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terror — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival’. Churchill used shocking language in his rhetoric, to draw on the human quality of altruism, in order to rally his people behind him. And he succeeded in this aim. Altruism is characteristic of our humanity. No doubt it evolved with our species – that is how we have been made, it seems - but I prefer to see it as given to us by God, when he made us in his image.
  • Was Jesus drawing on that same quality of altruism when he chose to use his shocking language? I think so. And Jesus offered his disciples a vision even finer than Churchill’s victory, a vision of the kingdom of God, which they could help bring to pass.
  • I can’t believe that Jesus expected every single person in the crowds that day to feel able to make that great commitment. Perhaps there’s a role for camp-followers, for fellow-travellers, for supporters, as well as for committed disciples in the service of God. And Jesus must surely have known that even some who did commit themselves would not be able to carry it through – even that great disciple Peter denied his teacher three times! But if enough of them had not signed up to go the distance as his disciples, Jesus’s great saving project would have failed. It didn’t fail; the disciples did experience Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost; and we are here as Christ’s church 2000 years later, to give witness to the success of his project.

4. We Christians are the crowds travelling with Jesus today. What should we take from the words he spoke 2000 years ago?

Well, just the same things, I believe, that Jesus wanted those who listened to him then to take: warning and inspiration.

  • Jesus warns us that we must not set out to follow him lightly – he teaches us that his disciples must be prepared to give up everything they hold dear, if that is what is asked of them. And he warns us to consider carefully whether we can pay that price before we commit ourselves to being his disciples.
  • But if we listen to him, Jesus also inspires us to make that great commitment, as the first disciples did, and as so many others have done over the centuries.

St Ignatius Loyola understood this, I think, when he wrote his beautiful prayer, which I shall finish with:

Teach me, Good Lord, to serve Thee as Thou deservest:
To give, and not to count the cost;
to fight, and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do Thy will.
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.