Sustainable harvest vs single-use manna?

Video {downloadable] and Text: to complement or provide vigorous preaching on Harvest Lectionary.

A sermon on some lectionary harvest themes: taking scripture seriously, if not literally.

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Deut 26.1-1When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

John 6.25-35. 

25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26 Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ 28 Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ 29 Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 30 So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”’ 32 Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which[g] comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34 They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

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May the words that are spoken, and everything which we share here and now, convey your living Word of comfort and of challenge,  Our Rock and Redeemer, Christ the fruitful Vine, Wild Wind beyond control, all for the Good of the Earth…

Amen, Amen.

Yes, I did say Amen twice. That was a distinctive habit of Jesus, stylistically hidden by most of our English translations. Amen Amen.Let it be so, Let it be so…  Amen at the end of a prayer is not so much a punctuating conclusion, but ‘Get on with it!’ 

Though at the beginning of a speech, as it occurs twice  in our Gospel reading, perhaps, it’s something more. 

A call to open up our minds and hearts to possibilities which we might otherwise dismiss as unrealistic, untraditional, unacceptable. 

Or indeed, to hear voices  which we might have dismissed as primitive, backward, earthy. Like  the witness of the indigenous peoples of the from the Pacific to the Arctic, on a relationship with fellow creatures which does not reduce them to commodities. Things which challenge the foundational expectations of our  imperial, single-use, throwaway culture of addiction to fossil fuels, and of values built around the soul-less values of money above all else. As if we were the only life God made.

Amen, amen..

Such a challenge confronts us in the scientifically attested fact, that almost everything in the natural world cited  in Scripture as being reliably permanent – the seasons, the climate, the migration of birds and animals  – all these things are already out of balance and becoming more so.  

And it’s serious.  And it’s dangerous. And the things we put our trust  in, which determine how we act and spend money, use our premises, insulate our homes, travel and pray, are part of this.

‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you trust in him whom God has sent.’ 

From that trust, rather than trust in money, in the superior  value of our nation or our species, will flow your contribution to the healing of the Earth.  Your harvest!  From that trust will flow your own resilience to what lies ahead, in the things which cannot be halted, but may be transformed.

From that trust, and from awareness of the fragility of life, will flow prayer expressed as it is now in so many local churches, in the lessening of waste, the banishing of plastic….

From that trust derives your place and purpose.  

Today we are looking at what that might mean.  But also what it means in that passage from Deuteronomy about possessing land as an inheritance. “As” is a big wee word. Wildlife is given the world as a habitat. The fish are given the seas, the birds the air.  God’s gifting is gracious, though seldom exclusive.

In Jeremiah 8:7: Even the stork in the sky knows her seasons; and the turtledove and the swift and the thrush observe the time of their migration; but my people do not know what the  LORD requires.

Built into that saying is the unity of the laws of God and of nature. How often have we quoted such poetry and not made the connection?

An inheritance is something which is received, enjoyed, and passed on. It’s what the people from the Amazon who spoke last year at the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow described as wealth. Wealth as something to share, and to be jointly responsible for, rather than to keep to themselves. 

It is sacred obedience and justice that the stranger and the dispossessed are not just tolerated but welcomed. So too, livestock and wildlife both, share in the richness of the Promised Land. Inheritance is not buried with one generation, but recycled, repurposed – or lost!  

As “food which endures” is a crop where seed corn is set aside  for the next planting. The temporary, emergency manna is a provision  in which the people have no hand, thus it is neither harvest, nor an inheritance. 

Selfishness, exclusivism, and the abolition of diversity are not just immoral, they are thrombosis in  the circulation of Creation.

Inheritance is  a concern which draws many older people to become deeply engaged with the Care of Creation: bequeathing a safe, healthy, beautiful  planet, a common home, for their children and grandchildren. To delight in what delights us.  In a climate crisis, the older generations,  whose contribution, likewise; has been devalued, have the work of encouragement to do: the handing on, rather than the taking it with them. In so many ways.

A number of times this year I’ve been face to face with the most beautiful and inspiring fellow creatures. But will there be puffins in the Scottish islands in fifty years’ time? Quite possibly not. 

Because the crisis of nature, that accumulation of disasters which can no longer be seen as natural, is right now. 

At the World Council of Churches  in Germany  a few weeks ago, a young woman from the churches of Pakistan made it abundantly clear; that the unprecedented floods in her country are not merely tragedy without a cause, but an injustice with a cause. And with responsibility.

In the disruption of climate, even heaven itself – as the writers of the Bible present and understand it – is shaken out of balance.  For whatever else we may understand Heaven to be, it’s also always sky.   

So when Archbishop Justin Welby says of prayer,

 ‘it’s not about sending requests into the sky, it’s about allowing God to make us more like Jesus Christ’  

He’s both right and wrong, for spiritually, biblically and realistically speaking, the sky is no neutral dumping-ground. 

Jesus Christ, the Word as Flesh deals firmly with just such problems in the Gospel reading today.  Looking, as we pray  – in obedience to him –   in the Lord’s Prayer for the will of God to be done in the whole of Creation, in sky and soil. 

Or perhaps I should put it this way: for the will of God to be done in the Earth including Heaven. On this planet including the atmosphere. The sea and the sky, both warming, changing.

The Bible becomes far more coherent than I had ever been led to believe, when we accept that our cherished scripture is experiential – written out of the knowledge and practical learning of humanity. That is it terrestrial – written from the point of view of those who look up and see the curvature of the Earth as a dome which God has set in place.  

Scripture comes  with real knowledge of the natural cycles of air and water; indeed, the water cycle is mentioned in the same breath as the Word of God.  It speaks substantially the same language as  the indigenous peoples in respect and love for life beyond human life.  Scripture is built on the observable  habits of wildlife,  even of insects,  which is presumed to be schooled by God. The Wisdom of Solomon was in his familiarity with trees, animals birds, creeping things and fish.   ‘Speak to the Earth and the animals and the birds of heaven and the fish of the sea’, says the book of Job, and they will pass on that knowledge. 

But as we have done with minorities of language and race and identity, we speak about them, rather than to them. Stewards rather than partners. As if “heaven” were part of a superior Creation, and Earth the work of an inferior God.

Yes, it’s inspiring and wonderful to look  out into outer space, as with my children, I did last week, when Jupiter came closer  to the Earth than for sixty years, and from our back garden we got such a good view of the planet and five of their moons,  perhaps sharing something with those of Jesus’ disciples who were rudely admonished by the Angel at Christ’s ascension: we are here to be concerned in our life, our prayer,  our choices, with this common home we share with everything which, having breath, praises God. 

Even with the trees, who breathe out the oxygen which we breathe in.

It’s no accident that the central sacrament of Christianity,  for which our Gospel today is an important support,  is one which involves the most basic and visceral processes not just of our life, but of all life.  The bread of heaven is not given other than with the gift of the bread of Earth. The gift of God’s self, God’s Son is not given without the Word becoming flesh. Eating and drinking.

Scholars and preachers love to pile in at this point with the dismissive insistence that our human language is inadequate to the task.  They don’t “let it be so”:  for as they explain away the poetry of John’s Gospel, they point to the confusion amongst Jesus’ first hearers: which bread is which? 

And  yet, the more I work in churches with an awareness of the frightening gravity of the myriad environmental crises the more I face the  discipline of letting Jesus mean what he sounds like, rather than dismissing him as inaccessible and incomprehensible. Jesus is, after all, proclaimed as the clearest view of God we’ll get.

So many times in wider Scripture, God is recognised as the Creator of Heaven and Earth, of Sky and Soil both. Creation is that one unified realm into which Christ, risen from death, ascends, to be present wherever we engage with that “Work of God, which is to trust in the one”  who referred us to the birds, the trees and the signs of the times in the skies; to the flowers of the meadow; Jesus, who spoke  as firmly and personally to the wind and the waves as to any human being who was in need of healing or putting in their place.

Thus we meet Jesus in person on those occasions, in those places where the alienation between what we might call Heaven and Earth is swept aside. When we take at face value the holiness of what we touch, taste smell and love.

Because you cannot have the one without the other. You cannot enjoy Creation without Creation.

I managed to arrange things about 27 years ago, and indeed also at the ordination of my late wife,  that the first Eucharist at which we presided was a Harvest festival.  

That, in that tiny village church in Wales, the Lord’s Table was also a table full of the produce of the gardens and allotments of the congregation; it spoke of their partnership and the partnership of the Earth. How blessed are you, Lord God of All Creation.

Those Harvest tables, and the ones in my subsequent pastorates also displayed, by tradition, a piece of coal – that dirtiest of fossil fuels, which particularly in Wales had nonetheless been for generations, part of what had kept folk going. 

People have recently asked me whether we should take away the coal. I would say no. The coal, the oil and the gas are a sign of our current relationship with the earth, and if that’s problematic, we need not to pretend otherwise.

but bring that, with a listening ear, to God, who in Christ says to read the signs of the times and take note: 

we bring to God in openness and honesty, what we have and what we are, for God to make life better.

Amen….Amen!

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