An unexpected sermon

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.

Every year,

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

are shared

with those less fortunate than ourselves.

Hymns and readings

are chosen in advance

in anticipation

of a happy party.

But

we can be caught unawares.

This year we meet in undesired

and unexpected

circumstances.

We meet

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?

This,

of course,

then begs the question of what scripture is,

and how we relate to it.

That’s not something

I think

we have the time

or the inclination

to deal with

here and now.

So

let me simply say

that I do not think it is a good idea

to always pick and choose

the Bible passages

we read

and hear

according to the mood,

and/or

situation,

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,

we can,

by listening to them in our context,

hopefully gain some insight

we might not get

should we just pick the voices we hear.

And recognising

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.”

“Why?”

Professor Duffy asked.

“Why does the Bible

contain this seemingly pessimistic writing?

Why,

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,

therefore,

be complete

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

and feelings,

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,

too,

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.

Instead,

however,

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

on

this

morning?

In

this

place?

In

this

misfortune?

Let me suggest three things.

Firstly:

Thanksgiving.

The people are told

in Deuteronomy

that once they are in the land

and the harvest gathered in,

they are to give up a portion of it

to God.

Why?

Not for the harvest

But

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.”

No,

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,

however few;

for the life lived,

however short.

Secondly,

we are called,

too,

to remember

the hope we have in Christ.

Revelation

is no easy book

to get to grips with.

However we approach it,

though,

we recognise

that here is a vision of the future.

It is an apocalyptic vision

certainly.

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,

not back.

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

and weep?

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 can

because

in Christ

we have the utter certainty that death is defeated,

the dragon has been thrown down,

the kingdom has come,

The creation will be renewed.

Revelation,

in all its strange imagery

and complex metaphors,

assures us of a victory

that has happened,

is happening,

will happen.

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.

Thirdly,

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,

is this:

“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,

not ours.

One way

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,

and question,

and weep.

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,

loves 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:

Firstly,

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.

Secondly,

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.

Thirdly,

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,

in turn,

reach out to one other

in love.

+To the glory of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God, yesterday, tomorrow, and today. Amen.

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About MendipNomad

I'm a nomad both physically and denominationally, but I'll always call the Mendips home. Currently a Methodist Presbyter (Minister) in Cornwall. I love sport, film, tv, socialising, politics (both US and British), and, yes, being part of the church.
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One Response to An unexpected sermon

  1. Really really good. Thank you for that.

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