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’.

Harvest prayers #VisitorChaplain #WinchesterCathedral

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Harvest at the Nave Altar of Winchester Cathedral, October 2017

One of the particularly lovely bits of my monthly cycle of ministry is acting as a Visitor’s Chaplain at Winchester Cathedral. My normal pattern of activity during a shift is to perambulate the Cathedral, chatting to fellow volunteers (often guides) and staff like virgers, any visitors who want or need time to talk, and sometimes members of Cathedral Chapter or Diocesan staff. 

I make a habit of sitting quietly for a few moments and writing fresh prayers that are pertinent to the moment: the activities in the Cathedral that day, the liturgical season, and world events. These I then use when I lead the ‘Prayers on the hour’ that punctuate the Cathedral day and remind visitors of the purpose and significance of the building.

And lastly, I tend to keep my mobile phone camera to hand, to catch the light through windows, the Cathedral decorations or community displays, or anything else that strikes me as significant or important ‘in the moment.

This week, the harvest display was still up after last weeks celebrations, so my photographs and prayers reflect that:

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Harvest Flower – Winchester Cathedral 2017

Dear God,
As we take time in this holy place to acknowledge your presence, we remember that you do not rest simply in buildings dedicated to your worship, but through your Holy Spirit walk beside us as the crucified Christ, in the joys and traumas of our daily lives.
As we celebrate the gifts of your creation in this Harvest season, we ask you to encourage the political leaders of this world to work for peace, that we might beat the swords, guns and armaments of our nations into the ploughshares, water wells and irrigation systems that will enable us to feed the world family.
We pray that together, in this way, we might bring hope in the name of Jesus.
Amen.

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Fine needlework on the lecturn of Winchester Cathedral – Harvest 2017

Lord God,
Around us we see the work of human hands wrought from your creation in stone, and wood, and glass, in stitch-work and flowers. So often this place resounds to the human voice in prayer and song.
Thank you for the skills of all those who celebrate your Word and Power and make for us this place of peace and restoration. Continue to gift those who care for this building with the wisdom and love that enables it to glorify your name,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Prayers for Harvest

Harvest decorations, St. Mary's Old Basing 2014
Harvest decorations, St. Mary’s Old Basing 2014

I’ve just prepared some prayers that I hope might be used at our Harvest Festival this Sunday by young representatives of the local Uniformed Organisations that attend. 

In the spirit of gratitude and with thanks that they were initially inspired by a quote I found here by William Wilberforce (which I’ve edited marginally to make the English scan better for contemporary ears) I share them for others who might have (even) less time than I. The first two are in language that I hope is simpler, and therefore easier for younger children to read. Feel free to adapt and edit to suit your context.

INTRODUCTION:                     

The famous Christian politician William Wilberforce once said:

“Great things have small beginnings. Every downpour is just a raindrop; every fire is just a spark; every harvest is just a seed; every journey is just a step; because without that step there will be no journey; without that raindrop there can be no shower; without that seed there can be no harvest.”

Thank you God that you made this big and amazing thing we call the world. Help us to enjoy the rain, the sun, the moon, the rivers and sea, and all the animals and plants that are here with us.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

Thank you God that you have made some plants and animals good to eat, if we look after them. Help us Lord, to take care of all your creation, and not to use so much of things that they run out.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

Thank you God that you created in everything the potential for growth, especially the seeds that grow into plants that feed or give homes to us or other creatures. Lord Jesus, help us also to grow into people who love you, and who can encourage others to love you too.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

Thank you God that in the small things of life, we can see your love. Please give courage and patience to all those who care for people and places of the world that are damaged, lonely, lost, ignored, hungry and hurt. Help us to help them and to learn how we can care for others too.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

Thank you God that with life you also created death, and from the cross on which Jesus died came new beginnings and renewed hope. Lord Jesus be very close to those for whom the loss of someone or something special has created a big empty space, and fill their hearts with the seeds of your love.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.