Sunday 16 October 2011

Harvest justice and righteousness

A harvest festival address given at Dorrha on Sunday 16th October 2011

We all love the harvest season and Harvest Festivals, don’t we?
Just look around us at this beautifully decorated church, filled with harvest bounty - how can we fail to feel thankful? The decorators have every right to be proud of their skilful arrangements. 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. We all enjoy the colours and the smells of the fruit and the vegetables and the flowers, we all enjoy the familiar harvest hymns, and we all enjoy seeing so many cheerful people, filled with a sense of accomplishment, now that the year’s work has been crowned with success.

Let’s also take a moment to reflect on the sheer breadth and variety of our harvest:

  • We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, forage for cattle - and I saw a pile of good black turf in the porch. Farmers were worried by the lack of sun earlier, but in the end it’s been a good harvest - so my farming neighbour tells me, and he’s not usually so positive. Yields are generally up a bit, and prices are good, though broken weather damaged some of the hay, he tells me.

  • But there is so much more than staples for us to enjoy. There’s milk and butter and cheese, fruit and nuts and honey, blackberries and mushrooms, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips, pumpkins and marrows, cabbage and lettuce, peas and beans. My beans have done particularly well this year, despite a slow start – after filling the freezer there’s more than enough to share with friends. My wife Marty has had terrific strawberries and flowers too. And generous beekeeping friends have given us lovely honey, as I wait impatiently to harvest my own next year from my new beehive.

  • There are the animals too – we have this year’s foals and calves and lambs, chicks, ducklings, and goslings to delight us. And we must not forget the fruit of our own bodies, our children and grandchildren born this year – I rejoice in a new grandson, Cormac, born in September.
Psalm 65:12-13 expresses it in beautiful poetry, ‘The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy’.

Thanks be to God for giving us so much joy!

In the OT reading from Deuteronomy (8:7-18), Moses speaks to the Israelites as they wait to cross into the Promised Land.
‘The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land’, he says, ‘a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley’. Well, God has placed us in just such a land, hasn’t he? We live in ‘a land where (we) may eat bread without scarcity, where (we) lack nothing’. It is surely right for us, like the Israelites, to ‘eat our fill and bless the Lord (our) God for the good land that he has given (us)’.

But Moses also gives the children of Israel a warning. As they enjoy all these good things, he tells them, ‘Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances and his statutes, which I am commanding you today’. For, he says, it is God who makes it possible to have all this wealth of good things. And, he adds, if you fail to keep his commandments – that is if you fail to live as God intends you to live – terrible things will happen to you. In the very next verse he says, ‘If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish’.

In his long speech to the Israelites, of which today’s reading is a tiny part - and it is long, taking up almost all of Deuteronomy - Moses restates the Ten Commandments, and expands on them at length, as a rule of life for the Israelites. Moses believes God is just and righteous; God has made a covenant with the Israelites; this requires them to behave with justice and righteousness to other Israelites, because that is what God does.

“Justice and Righteousness” - these two words are like mirror images, because to do what is just is to do what is right and, vice versa, to do what is right is to do what is just – these two words run right through the OT like a vein of precious metal through rock.

In his life and teaching Jesus extends Moses’ idea of God’s covenant of justice and righteousness to apply to all people, Israelites and gentiles alike. And it is Moses’ rule of life that Jesus summarises for us when he says: ‘You shall love the Lord your God’; and ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. Love of God and love of neighbour go together like two sides of the same coin.

In our 2nd reading, St Paul encourages the Corinthians to be generous (2Corinthians 9:6-15).
Paul is organising a collection for the poverty-stricken church in Jerusalem among the gentile churches he has planted. He has just told the Corinthians about how generous the Macedonian Christians have been - and he clearly had already told the Macedonians how generous the Corinthians would be - now he urges the Corinthians to be generous too.

He tells them what every farmer and gardener knows – you reap what you sow: ‘The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows generously will also reap bountifully’.

He tells them they must not think they are under any compulsion to give more than they feel they can, because, he says, ‘God loves a cheerful giver’.

But he reminds them that God has given them quite enough so that they can afford to be generous. ‘God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance’, he says, ‘so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work’.

And he tells them that by being generous, not just to the needy in Jerusalem but to all others, they will both glorify God and benefit themselves spiritually. ‘You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God … because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you’.

We must, I think, listen very carefully both to Moses’ warning and to Paul’s urging.
Moses warns against breaking God’s covenant of justice and righteousness. Consider the situation that faces us today. The global crash continues to blight the lives of so many of us, and looks set to do so for years to come. And the gathering environmental catastrophe threatens to unpick the very web of life on this planet on which we all depend, as we are slowly, perhaps too slowly, coming to realise. Could it be that both crises result from a failure to keep God’s covenant? I rather think they do. Both crises are driven by human greed - by people who always want more and more, because they reckon they are worth it – such people worship Mammon in place of God, I think.

Paul urges generosity as a positive value. God who is just and righteous will generously supply more than enough to allow us all to flourish. But it is in our own interests to respond justly and righteously, by taking no more than we need and generously sharing the surplus with those with little.

I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that anyone here is greedy or ungenerous - though none of us is perfect. But it is plain for all to see that greed and lack of generosity are deeply embedded within the globalised world we live in. To change this won’t be easy, but it is necessary. Both as a society and as individuals, we need to cultivate justice and righteousness; we need to know when we have enough, we need to recognise when our neighbour has too little, and we need to listen when God calls us to share what he has so graciously given us. If we can’t do that, the future for the human race is dire.

So as we enjoy this harvest bounty, let us rededicate ourselves to justice and righteousness.
Let us love God and thank him for his good gifts. Let us also love our neighbours and share his gifts with those in need of them. And let us pray that all without exception may have enough.

In this way we can join together to pronounce this blessing on all our communities:

Blessed are we when we sing God’s praises
and walk together faithfully on God’s earth.
Blessed are we when we proclaim God’s justice
and share together the fruits of creation.
Blessed are we when we are guided by God’s wisdom
and live together in harmony with God’s world.

Sunday 9 October 2011

The golden calf

The story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1-14) is a strange and ancient story.
The setting is Mount Sinai more than 3000 years ago, at the start of the 40 years that the children of Israel wander as nomads in the desert, after their escape from Egypt and before they arrive in Canaan, the land promised to their ancestor Abraham.

The characters are the Israelite people, Aaron the priest, Moses the prophet who is Aaron’s younger brother – and Yahweh, translated as the Lord. Yahweh, the Israelites were convinced, was the one true God, with whom they had a special relationship.

The story is part of the foundation myth of the Israelites, through which they understood their special relationship with God and its implications for how they should live. But does it have any relevance for us today?

Let me reflect on the characters in the story, before addressing that question.

But before that I must go back a bit to set the story in context.
Three months after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt they reached Mount Sinai. There Yahweh spoke to Moses and gave him what we know as the Ten Commandments, and a lot of other detailed instructions about how to behave, which Moses relayed to the people. The Israelites confirmed their covenant with Yahweh, saying ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient’.

Moses then climbed the mountain a second time, where Yahweh speaks to him again; this time giving precise instructions for building the portable tabernacle in which Yahweh will dwell with his people, and how Aaron and his offspring are to lead the people in worshipping him. We are told that ‘Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights’.

That's when we come to the story of the Golden Calf in today’s reading.

Turning to the characters, we begin with the Israelites.
Can you empathise with them? I can.

They must have felt very insecure – as refugees surely do today - they had left behind all that was familiar in Egypt, however onerous their slavery had been. And now Moses had left them - perhaps he would never come back? perhaps the messages he brought from Yahweh were an illusion? No doubt they felt a need for the reassurance of something familiar and concrete to focus their hopes for the future on. It is very human to seek something to live for, something to give meaning to life – it is sometimes said that there is a God-shaped hole in every person which must be filled one way or another.

So ‘the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us”’. Aaron went along with them. He took their gold jewellery – their rainy day savings, I suppose – and he made it into a golden calf, just like the familiar idols they had known in Egypt. The people shouted, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’. And they worshipped the golden calf with sacrifices - and they ran wild in an orgy of feasting.

Oh what faithlessness! The people are breaking the first two of the Ten Commandments they so recently vowed to keep: ‘I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me’; and ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol’. They are putting something made by human hands, an idol, in place of Yahweh, the God who made all things, to whom they are bound in a covenant.

So what about Aaron?
With Moses away Aaron is the Israelites’ leader. He is a levite, a descendent of Levi, an hereditary priest of Yahweh. Yet he makes the golden calf, an idol, when the people, or some of them, came to demand he do so - because, he later tells Moses, he was frightened of these people.

But I don’t think he joined in the people's idolatry. In fact he seems to have tried to divert the people from it. He declared that ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord’ – that is to Yahweh, not to the idol. Perhaps he believed that he could present the golden calf as a symbol to represent Yahweh, to help the Israelites worship the one true God. But if so, he was terribly wrong – they worshipped the golden calf as an idol - and then they ran amok.

Aaron was surely a weak leader, and he displayed bad judgement.

Then there’s Moses.
Moses is a prophet, someone who converses with Yahweh and articulates Yahweh's wishes to the people.

On the mountain Moses receives the insight to see that the Israelites needed something concrete on which to focus their worship. And he also receives a vision, written on tablets of stone by Yahweh, of what would provide just such a focus without replacing Yahweh by an idol.

Moses also receives the insight that the Israelite people are wilful, inclined to ignore Yahweh’s wishes when it suits them; ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are’. He feared that Yahweh in his wrath would wreak a great vengeance on the Israelites. So he pleads with Yahweh to spare them, reminding Yahweh of his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. ‘And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people’, we are told.

But unlike Yahweh, Moses is entirely unforgiving. After the passage we heard, we are told of his fury when he came down from the mountain and saw what was going on. He broke the tablets of stone on the ground. He took the golden calf, ‘burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it’ – rather like rubbing a puppy’s nose in its own dirt, I suppose. And then he incited the sons of Levi to slaughter 3,000 of the Israelites who had worshipped the idol and were still running amok. There is blood on Moses’ hands, and not for the first time.

And where is Yahweh in all this?
Yahweh worked through Moses to teach the children of Israel, 1st that it is wrong to worship an idol in place of the one true God, and 2nd that the one true God is faithful and will keep his promises.

Moses understood that Yahweh is not like one of the jealous, vengeful gods of popular belief in the ancient Middle East. Yahweh is faithful to his people - Yahweh can be relied on to keep his promises. Yahweh does not go in for collective punishment. But Moses also believed that Yahweh would in the fullness of time individually punish those who disobeyed him; he heard Yahweh say, ‘Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin’.

Our Christian understanding of the one true God has moved on from the Israelites’ ideas about Yahweh. In particular we have Jesus Christ’s example of loving self-sacrifice, and we have his message that God will forgive our sins if we only repent. Our God is not just faithful, but also merciful. I believe that Moses probably misheard what Yahweh had to say about punishment. God does not punish his people – we bring punishment on ourselves when we fail to repent

So is anything in this strange story relevant for us today? I think so.
First, surely, we must all recognise that we are not so very different from the Israelites – like them, like all human beings, we are all too likely to be ‘stiff-necked’, to put something we create in place of God. Pleasure, possessions, money - country, class, tribe - party, markets, economic systems – how easy it is to make any of these into a golden calf. When we do, we lose touch with the kingdom of God in which all people can flourish - and bad things happen. Isn’t that what the global crash is about? Isn't that what the gathering ecological disaster is about? That is why God forbids idolatry, I think. We must always be on guard against golden calves, focus our worship and attention on God our loving Father, and work to make his kingdom a reality.

Second, I think Christian leaders should reflect on Aaron. Aaron made an idol for the people to worship - perhaps out of fear, perhaps because he thought people needed a concrete image to help them worship the one true God. He was weak, he was wrong. Is it possible that some Christian leaders today allow the dogmas and rituals of their churches to obscure the God that Jesus shows us? They should take care they do not – and that includes me when I lead MP and talk to you from this pulpit!