Celebrating God’s creation #Harvest Deuteronomy 8:7-18 and Luke 12:16-30

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Bramshill Mission Chapel

The hidden gem of the Parish of Eversley and Bramshill is that there is a mission chapel in the woods at Bramshill, where the locals still gather to worship once a month. It seats 24 – in old cinema seating derived from a source I’ve not yet managed to discern! It also, as of this month, boasts a new (to Bramshill) organ – a gift from a local Roman Catholic parish – with which a ‘full-house’ sang the harvest hymns this evening.

Celebrating God’s creation as the bedrock of our life and faith.

Why is it that as Christian’s we make such a huge effort in our harvest celebrations?

It’s not like it’s a festival that celebrates a part of Jesus’ life, like Christmas, or Easter, or even his continued ministry among us through the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Harvest formed no direct part in Jesus’ story, despite the number of agricultural parables and images he used.

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The inside of Bramshill Mission Chapel, decorated with garden produce and flowers for Harvest

Why is that some come to adorn our local holy places with produce and share in worship at harvest more than other seasons, and without the stimulus of the significant secular commercialism that adorns at last some of those other festivals?

As we gather the fruit and vegetables, the flowers and the autumn leaves to beautify even this simple place of Christian worship, we are reaching back to our most basic understanding of God, and the bedrock of what he has gifted us with: life.

Tucked away in the woods by a garden pond, corrugated iron roof resounding to the scrape of branches and the ricochet of this years abundant crop of acorns and chestnuts, one might be forgiven for thinking this chapel is dead. Certainly many locals, including until recently myself, live in ignorance of it’s presence, or at least it’s location. And yet this place is a symbol of the riches of life, renewed and re-used for God’s glory, whether that be in the comfort of cinema seating or the swell of the freshly inherited organ. Here is life to be celebrated rather than hidden away.

The abundance of colour and produce here, against the backdrop of simplicity in this place, reminds me of two other ‘hidden’ places.

  • One, which I visited earlier this year, is the Chapel in the roof space at Talbot House, at Poperinge in Flanders, a pilgrimage I may reflect more on at Remembrance. In WW1 and still today, it is decorated with the rich harvest of that fertile but scarred land… hops.
  • The other I have only read about, for it was only briefly a place of Christian worship planted into a mosque, within the confines of Changi prison after the fall of Singapore in 1942.

Rev’d Eric Cordingly* created St. George’s Chapel within Changi, and in the autumn of 1942 invited the inmates of that most notorious of prisons to celebrate harvest. One might wonder, given the starvation rations and forced labour of their circumstances, why and how, both practically and spiritually, they could possibly celebrate the abundance of God’s life? But celebrate it they did. Eric writes:

“It was useless to attempt to decorate until the cool of Saturday evening, and then there was no dearth of helpers… sweet potatoes, purplish-green egg plant, those odd-looking “ladies fingers”, tapioca root in its twisted and distorted shapes,… bundles of green leaf vegetable [were] in evidence. Numbers of palm branches had been cut and were then fastened against the pillars of the Church. Tremendous bundles of brilliant hued flowers were left shyly at the entrance of the Church by the giver. The gift of flowers had meant a journey with a fatigue party outside the wire [as] the amount of flowers growing within the limits of the camp was very small…

As the sun set the Church seemed to fill with that typical smell that fills our Churches at home at Harvest, [and] someone had made a huge cross entirely of [the] pure white blooms [of frangipania]; over a thousand of them went to make up this symbol of Christianity.”

As I received… the gifts I felt deeply conscious of the sacrifice entailed… The services need not be described in detail, the enthusiasm was typical of that shown in decorating… Among those present was the… commanding officer of the Dysentery Wing at the Hospital… to [whom] we were sending the gifts which decorated the church… The harvest hymns were sung for we realised that as we were thanking God for the fruits of the earth over which we had toiled, our prayers too were thanksgivings for the Harvest at home.”

Here amidst the death that pervaded Changi, was a community celebration not just of life, but of love and sacrifice in the presence of conflict, injustice, suffering and constant, un-necessary bereavement due to starvation. The “veneer of civilisation or reticence” which Eric writes of having been stripped from them all, reveals that at the bedrock of human existence is a thankfulness for the harvests by which our life, both it’s physical life and it’s spiritual core, are maintained by God. From one day to the next, they did not know if they were to live or die, what clothes or food they would have, but they wished to celebrate life, and God’s provision within it, without visible anxiety for that future over which they had no control.

That harvest celebration in Changi in 1942, to my eyes at least, was an example of living out our Gospel reading today. Jesus’ parable is warning against hiding away that which we have been given, and which our own sacrifices have produced or gathered in. Death will come all too quickly, especially to the human soul, if the abundance of life is not celebrated and shared when opportunity presents itself.

Jesus’ reflection on the birds and the flowers isn’t some kind of romantic mysticism, but an encouragement to recognise that which we have been given; what it is that can be used to focus on a very necessary recognition of what God has given us both symbolically and practically, in the life of the natural world with which we are surrounded. Surely in the economy of God’s Kingdom, the beauty and productivity of the land is a foretaste of the treasures of heaven with which we will be surrounded when it is more fully revealed? Jesus is reminding us that if we are to be rich towards God in the now and not yet of this kingdom, then we must celebrate and share that which we have been given, and the sacrifices of toil with which we have shared in the labours of his beauty; life, today, in all it’s fulness.

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The harvest loaf, Bramshill Mission Chapel 2017

This chapel, these harvest gifts that you’ve so faithfully brought in, our hymns and prayers, and the meal which we shall shortly share, are a witness to the goodness and riches of life that God has given us. Our celebration of these good things should also not be hidden away, but brought out into the open in our lives, so that the riches with which God has blessed us are shared with the world at large, witness to our faith in our creator God. That means not simply finding productive and helpful places in which all this beauty can be shared, but considering how the beauty and riches of our lives can be more creatively used to feed the physical and spiritual needs of others, and point to God’s coming Kingdom.

*Rev’d Eric Cordingly became Bishop of Thetford and his secret notes from his life and ministry at Changi and on the Burma Railroad were published posthumously by his family as ‘Down to Bedrock’.

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Valuing those that come last – Matthew 20:1-17 and Philippians 1:21-end

With the licensing of our new Priest-in-charge things were a bit busy last week and I didn’t quite get to post the sermon. It was a challenge to the parish, that we responded to this week in our Baptism service. (I think I need some more interesting illustrations too… text only I’m afraid.)

What is it that we value most in life?

Is it our health, our wealth, or our family? Perhaps it’s our sight, our hearing, our home or the countryside? The freedom to travel? Our ability to continue a much loved hobby?

What about Jesus? What value do we place on our relationship with him?…

What value has he placed on his relationship with us?…

In today’s Gospel reading, our collective alter ego as disciple, Peter, has got in a grumpy mood. Peter has listened to Jesus encouraging a rich young man to give up everything he owns to follow him, only to watch the same man walk dejectedly away. In doing so, Peter has realised that he and his fellow disciples have done just what was asked of the rich young man, given up everything to follow Jesus. So, he asks Jesus what value has been placed on their obedience, their service, their sacrifice? Effectively he’s asking, what’s in it for them?

The first part of the answer is that in eternity, the disciples will get to sit incredibly close to God’s presence, places of significance. The second part of the answer is that so will everyone else – including those who in human terms are the last to hear, receive and respond to God’s call on their lives. The Gospel this morning is that second part of the answer: the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

When the third group of labourers are brought in from the market place in the last hour of the day, there is no mention of money. For some reason no-one had wanted them. But the importance and urgency of this landlord’s work is such that they are needed, and valued, for what they can offer. Self-esteem is so important to those who feel their skills are un-appreciated, and the anticipated bonus of a small proportion of the day-rate of pay which may just have paid for a meal, would have been an added encouragement to their hour’s hard labour on an empty stomach. To unexpectedly receive the full day-rate for that single hour’s labour, gives them the additional dignity of early payment, and a wage equal to that of those who had sweated through larger parts of the day.

Jesus was teaching the disciples not to be concerned about what human society said about them giving up their material security to place at the centre of their lives someone who operated at odd’s with their traditional faith leaders. Through God’s grace they would receive an appropriate reward, but it would require them to be equally generous in their view of those others who would start to follow Jesus much later in time than they. The value they must place on their relationship with Jesus must be such that it really doesn’t matter who joins their fellowship, or when. What matters is that those others are valued identically by God, because of the economy of his amazing grace. The divine economy of love and grace which doesn’t relate well to our human economies!

Paul is talking about this divine economy in the passage this morning from Philippians. For Paul it is the fruitfulness of his labour, and the fact that it is for Christ, that keeps him from preferring an early journey through death to God’s eternal presence, to his present state, harassed and imprisoned by the Roman authorities. Being valued by Christ so much that he continues to have a role in working for the extension of the Kingdom of Heaven, is in part what keeps Paul alive. Paul, the persecutor of the earliest Christians, now apostle to the Gentiles, was after all he who met Jesus much later than the other disciples; well after the Resurrection of Christ on the road to Damascus! In the economy of God’s grace Paul has already received the remuneration, not for his labour, but unasked for, a revelation of love and forgiveness.

God values each of us so highly that we are all offered the same wage; God’s love and grace paid for in full by Christ through his death and resurrection. His is really the labour, not ours. If in faith and repentance, we in turn value that so highly as to make it of first importance in our lives, then we will respond to that loving relationship with God by reflecting in our lives the values that Jesus set in his Gospel; we will put the last first, and the first last.

As with many things with our faith, it is the putting it into practice that comes hardest, and the point where we are most likely to identify with those who have slaved through the heat of the day, and forget that we ourselves are among those who have come late to work the vineyard. Like me, you may have grown up in the Christian faith, or you may be someone for who has loved Jesus for decades because of your own Damascus road experience. If so, it can be easy to forget that those who are yet to understand themselves in receipt of the grace we’ve encountered, are now God’s priority, and therefore should be ours as well.

It might not feel like it, but we are still serving our one hour’s hard labour in vineyard at the end of the day. We can’t therefore act like those who feel cheated of an extra wage, and demand more. God’s love and grace can’t be more than what he gave on the cross. Instead, we must look at where God’s priorities now lay, and welcome in those being valued by him at this moment. And just as those who come to faith in the last weeks and hours of their life are loved and cherished by God as much as us, so too are those who are younger, those just born, their families and friends, those whom we are asked by God to welcome into the field of fellowship with him.

I’m going to give this as a specific example, because this situation is going to happen next Sunday when we have a baptism service. Those children and their families who come for baptism, may be like those who had stood hungry and unvalued in the market-place of this morning’s parable. Our role, our labour for this hour, is to value them as much as Jesus does, because otherwise they won’t be able to hear his voice calling them to join the workforce, to understand their own value to him, and understand that he has already died and risen for them.

As with all our children and young people whom Jesus told us not to hinder when they turn to him, we need to put these families first. For example, let us make sure that as many of us as possible are here to give them a really warm welcome. Let us give them the best seats in the house, and not hide them behind a pillar as I understand may have happened sometimes before. We can encourage them to give the service their full attention by doing likewise, remembering the significance of being the community of faith that lives and gathers around them. Likewise, let us make sure that we give them our attention first after the service, and not prioritise the new vicar – he could be around for years to come; they may not be if we don’t show them what God’s lived-out grace looks like.

As we go forward to receive the bread and wine at Holy Communion this morning, we can do so remembering what it is like to be the ones brought forward to receive an unexpected payment. In the body and blood of Christ, we receive afresh the un-dreamt-of riches of his Kingdom, and once again know ourselves to be forgiven, loved and valued by God, just as we are. God is utterly and endlessly generous, it is what defines him, and we give thanks for that in our worship of him. So we shouldn’t be too surprised if he is equally generous to the people that come along behind us, and that he expects us to be likewise.

 

What is the culture of this church? Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18:21-35

20170917_121811I wonder what sort of yogurt you like?

Do you prefer the thin, natural yogurt, that’s dribbly and perhaps a little sharp and acidic in it’s taste?

Or perhaps, the thick, very set Greek or Turkish style yogurt, which almost has a crust to it, that you have to cut through to get to the spoonfuls of jelly-like goodness below?

Or you may be a thick spooning yogurty sort of person, whether that be of the milky kind, or the coconut based, lactose free variety that I discovered recently?

Or is your yogurt of preference, not just thick, but also creamy and full of fruity goodness, giving the tastebuds a treat, as well as possibly the waist-line?!

Now, if you’re not a yogurt eater, or perhaps even you may be a yogurt hater, I beg your indulgence this morning, and ask you to stick with me on this analogy! Think of it as a little bit of culture on a Sunday morning ;-/

Because that’s what I’m asking us to consider: what is the culture of St. Mary’s as a church? Are we a bit thin, sharp and acidic… or growing towards a thick, fruity goodness that will add to the church’s waistline, in the quality of our faith and discipleship as well as in our numbers?

In our Epistle from this morning, we are reaching to the core of the second half of Paul’s message to the Christian community in Rome. He is emphasising that the love that believers must show towards each other should be a response to the love they have received from God, about which he has talked at length in the first half of Romans. For example, “Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8-10). The exhortations of Romans 14:1-12 however, suggest that in this community, love is thin because faults are thick.

The passage addresses a conflict in the body of Christ about ceremonial practices that are peripheral to the gospel. Some — whom Paul calls the “weak” — believe that, according to Jewish tradition, certain foods are to be avoided and certain days are holy. Others — normally called the “strong” by way of contrast — believe that all foods and all days are equally fitting for believers to enjoy.

Paul is not addressing the issue of righteousness by works of the law or suggesting that the weak are somehow seeking a “works-righteousness.” Rather, he sees the choice about practice as of a matter of conscience and an expression of faith (Romans 14:5-6). Paul largely directs his words to the “strong” because the issue with which he is concerned is the absence of love and unity in the body of Christ. While the practices regarding food and days are peripheral to the gospel, the way believers in the community treat one another is central to it. In other words, what people were eating and drinking and why, was totally immaterial; what was, and is, important is the love that people have for God, and whether they show it in the way that they treat each other. That isn’t lived out if people in a community are constantly judging one another… something Paul thinks is so important that he mentions it 5 times, across 4 verses, in this one short passage.

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus’ theme of unlimited forgiveness isn’t so dissimilar: The unforgiving servant is effectively a chief finance officer, with control over the movement of vast wealth. The astronomical “debt” or “loan” he owes may represent the income he is responsible for producing from those lower on the pyramid of patronage. In the old Mediterranean economy, the goal was to pass a steady, acceptable flow of wealth further up the pyramid, while retaining as much as one could get away with for oneself, to be used to grease one’s own way further up the pyramid. When the king forgives this persons enormous “loan,” his obligation to the king is not so much wiped clear, but actually intensified.

The mercy, generosity, and forgiveness that God offers out of love for us his people, could and should be endless, but in reality it only stretches as far as we are willing to show that same mercy, generosity and forgiveness to others, as this power-filled finance manager discovers when he tries to pull rank on those who have in effect, greased his way to the top. His failure to carry on the forgiveness the king granted him not only halts the spread of the financial amnesty or jubilee he was given in its tracks, it also mocks and dishonours the king himself. Through his actions, this unforgiving servant binds himself not to the king’s mercy, but to the old system of wealth extraction and violence. He thus binds the king in turn to deal with him once again within the confines of this system. God’s forgiveness is shown to have necessary limits, and they are the ones we set through our own words and actions.

So where do these scriptures this morning leave us with regard to our own personal response to the grace and forgiveness that God has shown us, and in terms of our corporate life as Christians, and therefore our culture as a church?

In Romans 5:2 Paul writes that, “through [Jesus] we have obtained access to [God’s] grace, in which we stand.” We therefore need to remember that it is on the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection, that God welcomes all believers as those who were weak and sinful (Romans 5:6-10). From this perspective, if we re-read Romans 14:1-12, none of us are strong. The point is that as believers, we are the weak-made-strong who stand in God’s grace now, and who will be made to stand confidently at the final judgement because of God’s gift of redemption in Christ. Since this is the case, who are we to sit in judgement over one another? Who are we that we dare not to forgive others, as we ourselves have been forgiven? We must aim not to be thick with faults, and therefore thin in love, but thin in faults and fault-finding, and therefore thick with love, for God and for each other.

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We don’t want to be have a weak, watery, acidic church! (Photo snuck by Graham, without my knowledge.. he took the one above, as requested!!)

As a church, and as individuals, it is not our place to judge, either privately or publicly, the choices that others make about what suits and feeds them, or their family, in a spiritual sense. Neither is it healthy to hold on to un-forgiveness, particularly within the Christian community, incredibly tough though that can sometimes be; it’s not healthy for us as individuals, and it is certainly not healthy for us as a church, because it stops God fulfilling the grace and forgiveness that is his character. Some of us may be in a pastoral position to gently and privately ask questions and challenge decisions or actions, but if as a community we openly pick holes in each other, tending to hold grumps and grudges, we create a culture of weak, watery-ness that makes us acidic to people’s taste, probably unattractive to outsiders, and generally thin on love. Not a helpful, rich or healthy culture.

Our desire as a community should be that we are a culture that is thick and creamy, attractively full of fruit, because we exhibit the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) as well as forgiveness and a non-judgemental generosity. If we consciously seek to make ourselves, well-filled in these fruit, we’ll naturally become stronger as a Christian community, richer in flavour to those who we pray will come and taste the love of God among us, and so add to this church’s waistline of faith and discipleship.

 

I’m finding the commentaries on Working Preacher really inspirational at present (for which thanks to them), and will freely admit that a couple of significant chunks of this sermon are from here, and here. The metaphor and the focus of my sermon was however all my own work!