Sunday 4 October 2020
‘The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.’
Father, take our minds and think through them. Take our lips and speak through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for love of you. Amen.
Good Morning, everyone. It’s Harvest! And you could probably have written this sermon for me. Time when we acknowledge the great gift of God’s creation, time to remind ourselves how lucky so many of us are to have more than we need, time to share our good fortune with others. Please give generously.
But hold on a minute: because this is no ordinary Harvest, this Harvest of all Harvests is not one for going through the motions, this is a Harvest Festival that a few months ago we were not sure we would all even be alive to celebrate. And it brings with it a fresh opportunity to ask ourselves this – what does it really mean to give generously?
It might help to ask yourself the question, what is the most generous present you have ever received? From my childhood, one present stands out: the Christmas present from my sister Edana in 1975. Edana has always been an inspiration, three years older and always a few steps ahead of me, showing the way. I’ve always loved her for her clear-sighted compassion and her unfussy, unflappable, unstinting kindness. As we approached Christmas, aged 13 and 16, I bought her a new palette of blue eyeshadows, and wondered what she might have in store for me. And she began to drop more and more hints that I was in for something very different - and she was obviously very pleased with whatever it was.
I’m not sure if I ever admitted this publicly before today, but I have to say that curiosity got the better of the 13-year-old me and I got to the point that I just couldn’t wait. And I ended up tiptoeing into the room where the presents were all being stored, to search it out. And yes, I’m embarrassed to say I opened it, coaxed the Sellotape off the wrapping with the utmost care, to discover this extraordinary gift.
Edana had just taken up woodwork in the Sixth Form and she’d mentioned once or twice she’d been making a box. It seemed unlikely that anyone in our family would have any skills in that department and I’d envisaged a horrible accident of a thing, wonky but well-meant, destined to come home for us all to joke about, before being consigned to history. But here it was, a substantial, brilliantly crafted box, the wood polished and gleaming, joints perfectly dovetailed. And on the top corner, on the diagonal, she’d spelt out my name for posterity. I just couldn’t believe it - that all that work, all that finessing, all those hours she had decided should be for me. It meant so much.
And I promptly emptied my piggy bank of every last penny of my savings and bought her Rod Stewart’s new album Atlantic Crossing, the present right at the top of her wish list and on Christmas Day she was similarly astonished and we both felt the same, like we couldn’t be more blessed.
In the reading from Corinthians today, we hear that ‘Each of us must give as we have made up our mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.’ If we’re honest, we all know what it feels like to give without cheerfulness – perhaps a present given for form’s sake, or a donation to get someone off the telephone or the doorstep without really thinking about the need or the cause. These gifts given with closed hearts are diminishing in every sense. They erode rather than deepen our relationships. They erode rather than grow our self-respect. But giving from an open heart is quite the opposite.
Coming here to Salisbury always reminds me of South Sudan, where I took my last trip as Chief Executive of Christian Aid in 2017. The civil war was raging on and I found myself dropped by UN helicopter behind opposition lines in Unity State where famine had been declared, seeing how we were setting about spending the money so generously raised from the people of Salisbury Diocese in response to Bishop Nick’s special appeal. I was terrified to go to be honest, not least because humanitarian workers had become targets and a number had been tortured and killed. But your generosity and the courage of my own colleagues spurred me on.
In Nyal, I met people who had waded through swamps for five days to flee the fighting, bearing their elderly and their children on their shoulders. In extreme conditions in which they might have thought just of themselves, they literally carried the most vulnerable and the most needy. The place they reached where I met them was desperately poor but local people were sharing what they had and pulling together with those who have arrived. And thanks to people like you and the skills of the humanitarian workers involved, those people were able to feed themselves, using fishing equipment we’d given them to catch tilapia in the river and new seeds and tools to grow vegetables they’d never seen before like kale, onions an tomatoes. To thank us, one group of women sang and danced and gave us two chickens and an aubergine. The most precious possessions they could share, from the little food they had, out of their almost nothing, it was their joy to give.
To celebrate Harvest as we do today, in the middle of a global pandemic is to have an opportunity to think again about how we sow and how we reap, about what we give and what we take.
Since we last celebrated Harvest: over 34million people in the world have contracted COVID and over 1 million have died. Because it is a disease that has affected the most powerful people in the world as well as the least powerful, there’s been a tendency to say that the virus has been a great leveller. But that isn’t really true, is it?
So often the people we’ve relied on throughout this pandemic – the hospital porters, the rubbish collectors, those who work in our care homes, the delivery drivers – they’ve been some of the lower paid people in our communities, often working without adequate PPE. Those who live in shared accommodation in cramped conditions haven’t got the luxury of social distancing. So many things have become more expensive during lockdown just as jobs have been cut and income has become more precarious. And we’ve seen the seriously different impact this has had on Black Asian and Minority Ethnic people in our communities here and indeed on the poorest communities across the world.
Covid has not always shown us in our best light - like the farmer in today’s parable from Luke who decided to build bigger barns to house his bumper crop, who incurs God’s wrath, we know that many people were stockpiling household essentials to the point where supermarket shelves empty and it pushed up the cost of basic shopping for those who could least afford it. As restrictions tighten again, let’s pray that we have all learned how to buy only what we need and leave the rest for others.
If COVID has given us nothing else, surely it has taught us some important lessons:
• That we can manage without 16 types of everything on the supermarket shelves, and that being without our favourite brand of cornflakes Is not life’s greatest hardship
• That however comfortable our homes, we have a real need for outdoor space, to see the light and breathe the air, to see the leaves on the trees change colour and the flowers bud and open - that there is in God’s creation a necessary beauty that is not ours to squander
• And that the most difficult thing for any of us to bear is isolation, that we crave connectedness, that we belong together.
We have worried too much about things that were not important, spent too much of our time, our money and our headspace on them. And yet all the time, they weren’t the things that mattered – our health, our ability to connect with nature, our relationships. It’s taken a keen sense of life’s fragility to help us find what gives us meaning. Those of us who’ve lost loved ones, and those of us who’ve seen loved ones fight the disease but come back from the brink, we’ve learned these lessons the very hard way. We have sewn sparingly and reaped sparingly but today at Harvest we can turn a page, give thanks to God and take an opportunity to sow abundantly so that we reap abundantly.
At Christian Aid, I had the privilege from time to time of sitting with people capable of giving a very substantial gift for Christian Aid’s work as they contemplated making a gift. I have been able to talk with them about how they might choose to donate, both in terms of amount and for what kind of programme. I remember one person confiding that he knew he was really quite wealthy and that that made it so difficult to work out how much to give. You could see the responsibility of getting it right was quite a burden to him. And I shared with him what I had learned from watching others make similar decisions – that when people give wholeheartedly and sacrificially, so that it really costs something and really means something, something amazing happens. All of a sudden you see the weight lift off a person, because their gift is a liberation and their puzzling and struggling gives way to a deep joy. Wholehearted, sacrificial giving is a great balm - the worry goes away and a new peace comes. Consider the lilies, they do not toil and spin and those who do what they are called to do and give what they are called to give reap what they sow and reap abundantly.
This Harvest of all Harvest, we’re all worried about what is around the corner, that is only human.
But friends, this is the day the Lord has made, and this is the day we have. And we are called to live in this moment and be fully present to God as he is to us, giving thanks for his great goodness in giving us the chance to join this service in this great Cathedral and show him that we love him and one another as he loves us.
And there is at the heart of our faith the confidence and knowledge that God so loved us that he gave his only Son, and his Son gave his life willingly for us for the joy that was set before him, so that we might have life and have it abundantly, not so that we could hoard it for ourselves but so that we could share it with others. Love overflowing so that love might overflow. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
So let me say again, Good morning. It’s Harvest! Time when we acknowledge the great gift of God’s creation, time to remind ourselves how lucky so many of us are to have more than we need, time to share our good fortune with others. Please give generously.