This morning I led worship at the last of my chapels. It was their harvest festival, and I had been looking forward to celebrating finally having led worship at all the chapels I have charge of with a big harvest celebration. Then, earlier in the week, the village was struck by the tragedy of death. Charlie Alford died on Wednesday, aged 16, having been found collapsed at the FE College here in Saltash where he was a student. The order of service was set, the local brass band had been practicing the tunes, the gifts of food for a local charity had been bought. I could not sideline what was planned, nor we could we ignore the whole community’s shock and upset over Charlie’s death. In the end I hope we managed to do both some justice. What follows is the sermon I preached:
Deuteronomy 26.1-11; Revelation 14.14-18; Matthew 6.25-33
+ May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Things do not always happen as we expect them to.
as services are planned,
it is expected
that Harvest Festival will be a grand occasion
with a bumper crop to celebrate
and a great desire to share our joy with others
as the resplendent gifts of food
with those less fortunate than ourselves.
Hymns and readings
are chosen in advance
of a happy party.
we can be caught unawares.
This year we meet in undesired
not only in a year
when the weather has played havoc
with the crops
but at a time when we,
and those around us,
are faced with a tragedy
that leaves us
with many questions
and many emotions.
One of those questions,
for me at least,
is whether there is any way
that the scripture passages read this morning,
the passages suggested for Harvest
in the Methodist Worship Book more than a decade ago,
and chosen by me for today
a few weeks ago,
can say something
into our current situation.
Do these passages,
I have to ask,
speak of the Good News of God in Christ
in this place
and at this time
in the midst
of this tragedy?
then begs the question of what scripture is,
and how we relate to it.
That’s not something
we have the time
or the inclination
to deal with
here and now.
let me simply say
that I do not think it is a good idea
to always pick and choose
the Bible passages
according to the mood,
we find ourselves in.
It does us good to engage
with various scripture passages,
no matter our circumstances,
in order that
through such engagement,
through hearing voices that are not our own
from contexts not our own,
by listening to them in our context,
hopefully gain some insight
we might not get
should we just pick the voices we hear.
that in the Bible
we hear numerous voices
with different points of view
is important to always bear in mind.
I was reminded
earlier this week
of a sermon I heard Professor Eamon Duffy give
when I was in Cambridge.
The main reading had been from Ecclesiastes,
with its constant refrain,
“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”
Professor Duffy asked.
“Why does the Bible
contain this seemingly pessimistic writing?
in a book,
or rather a library of books,
formed in order to show the Good News
of God’s love for the world
seen in Christ,
do we have this cry that all is simply vanity,
and therefore seemingly meaningless?”
His answer was that Scripture
not only gives a full picture of God
but also a full picture of humanity.
The Bible would not,
without the writer of Ecclesiastes’ wail
that all our toil under the sun,
our planting and our harvesting,
is but a chasing after the wind.
The Bible would not speak of all it is to be human
if it did not voice such thoughts
thoughts and feelings
it is natural to feel
here and now
in the light of a small harvest
and in the loss
of one so young
and with so much life still to live.
In such light,
with such loss,
it is understandable
that today we might want to
reach for that very same pessimism of Ecclesiastes,
or the laments of the Psalmist:
“Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint!”
Or maybe we would rather seek,
in this moment,
the comfort that God,
weeps at the tragedy of death
as Christ weeps at the tomb of Lazarus,
whilst recognising that in our tragedy
if a miracle is to come
it will not be of the kind Christ performed that day.
the voices we find speaking to us today,
chosen without knowledge
of the unexpected context they would be spoken into,
are not the ones we might otherwise have picked.
Nonetheless we are called to listen and engage with them.
What is it then,
that they might be saying to us?
If this were a usual harvest sermon
I would talk:
of celebration in Deuteronomy;
of justice in Revelation;
of God’s love and our necessary response to it,
as suggested in Matthew.
But in this context:
what can we hear in the words
Let me suggest three things.
The people are told
that once they are in the land
and the harvest gathered in,
they are to give up a portion of it
Not for the harvest
for the liberation from slavery,
for the deliverance into a land of milk and honey.
Deuteronomy does not say,
“When the harvest is great,
Give thanks to God.”
it says that no matter what the harvest,
give thanks to God.
When the harvest is not all we had hoped for,
it is difficult to give thanks.
When we lose someone
at the age of 16
and our thoughts turn
to all that was still yet to come
it can seem impossible
to give thanks.
I didn’t know Charlie,
but I know what it is like
to feel the loss of someone still in their teenage years.
Mel was a friend of mine,
killed in a car crash while we were at 6th Form college.
She’d faced some challenges in her life,
but she was beginning to turn things around.
Then she was gone.
All is vanity indeed!
Yet I still give thanks today for Mel,
for the deep and meaningful conversations at parties and the pub,
the relieved boredom in the midst of tedious psychology classes,
the joy of sharing the stage with her in A-Level Theatre Studies productions.
In the midst of
grief, shock, anger, confusion
at the scarcity of a harvest,
at the shortness of a life,
at what might have been,
God calls us to give thanks
for what is and has been:
for the crops harvested,
for the life lived,
we are called,
the hope we have in Christ.
is no easy book
to get to grips with.
However we approach it,
that here is a vision of the future.
It is an apocalyptic vision
It is sometimes referred to as prophecy
– we should remember that not all biblical prophecy is given in a literal way.
However we approach it
we can say that Revelation looks forward,
At times like this it is difficult to look forward.
How can one even begin to raise one’s head
and look to the horizon
when all one wants to do is bow one’s head
How can we hope for the future
when all around us seems cause for despair?
How can we continue to live
when all about us is death and decay?
we have the utter certainty that death is defeated,
the dragon has been thrown down,
the kingdom has come,
The creation will be renewed.
in all its strange imagery
and complex metaphors,
assures us of a victory
that has happened,
Our harvest may not be all it could have been
but still we have hope that when the final harvest is brought in
it shall be glorious.
Our lives may all lead to death,
a death that too often comes too soon,
yet we have certain hope that death is not the end,
that there is a loving and merciful God
into whose tender care we can commit
the loved ones
who have so sadly departed from us.
while we give thanks for what has been
and look in hope to the future,
we are called to live in the now.
The final verse of Matthew’s sixth chapter,
the single verse missed off
at the end of the lectionary reading as given,
“So do not worry about tomorrow,
for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.
Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Isn’t it just?!
With such troubles,
what does it mean to live in the now,
to not worry about our material welfare
and to strive for the Kingdom
and God’s righteousness?
How does a farmer
whose yields are far below par
not worry about his future?
How does a community
that loses one of its youth in such tragic circumstances
not worry about its future
and the future of its children?
I’m not sure it is possible.
We’re all human after all.
All we can do is strive,
we cannot achieve the Kingdom fully,
For it is God’s kingdom,
I would suggest
that we can try and live in the now,
is to remember we are not alone.
In the midst of this tragedy
we have gathered for a Harvest Festival,
a reminder that,
in spite of a harvest in which,
as an example,
Cotehele orchard’s yield has been reduced
from last year’s noticeable tonnage
to this year’s less than one tonne,
we do have a harvest to celebrate,
and an abundance of food
that can be shared
with those less fortunate than ourselves,
through the work of such places
as the Shekinah Mission
and the local food banks.
Such a sharing is a sign of the Kingdom,
a striving for God’s righteousness
even in the midst of troubles.
Another way to consider the reality
of living in the now
is to acknowledge the reality
of our being human.
As I said earlier,
the Bible speaks to the fullness of humanity.
It speaks of pain,
and it speaks of pleasure.
It speaks of sorrow,
and it speaks of joy.
It speaks of vanity,
and it speaks of worth.
It speaks of death,
and it speaks of life.
So as we live in the moment,
it’s ok if we feel
like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes,
or the Psalmists in their hymns of lament,
or Jesus at Lazarus’s tomb.
It’s ok to rant,
Don’t deny that’s how you feel.
Just don’t hold onto it either.
Don’t make it your future
as well as your present.
Don’t let it consume you.
Don’t let the tragedy of one death
lead you not to live your life as God intended.
For God is with us,
and seeks to lead us onwards.
In the face of the tragedy
we are currently in the midst of,
in the face of a reduced harvest
and its resultant economic impact,
on our community
and on the world,
our readings this morning,
readings not deliberately chosen
for this particular context
but which nonetheless speak to us,
from their context into ours,
remind us of at least three things:
that while we have much to grieve over,
we also have much to give thanks to God for,
including a harvest gathered in
and a life which,
while too short,
has brought joy to others
that will never be forgotten.
that in God we can have certainty in a future
that is not shaped by tragic defeat
that is not given over to darkness,
that is not ended by death
but rather is shaped by joyous victory,
bathed in glorious light
and continued in eternal life.
that in giving thanks for what is past
and in trusting to the future
we are called to live in the here and now,
to embrace all that it is to be human
in this moment.
To cry and laugh,
to shout and to be silent,
to rage and to be comforted,
and in all this to not be consumed
by our own feelings but to reach out
and touch others
in their pain
and their need.
Things do not always happen as we expect them to,
but in whatever happens,
God loved us in all that came before this moment,
God will love us at the very end,
God loves us now,
and reaches out to us in our tragedy,
that we might,
reach out to one other
+To the glory of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God, yesterday, tomorrow, and today. Amen.