Harvest Festival Sermon
“And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations”
Today many people from this county are in London for the Liberty and Livelihood March. As the newly arrived townie from the urban North I don’t want to speak much about that today – beyond saying this.
Scripture says that humanity is called to responsible stewardship of the planet. And on harvest Sunday of all Sundays we should be valuing our countryside, giving thanks for our farmers, and seeking to support the countryside.
Scripture does not prohibit the eating of meat, although some Christians are vegetarians. But Scripture is clear that killing and bloodshed should be done in sorrow not anger – and there is no place for the gratuitous enjoyment of violence and bloodshed.
I think that covers foxes as well as humans.
I suspect that gives us a theological handle on the very diverse Countryside Coalition Liberty and Livelihood agenda.
Liberty and Livelihood is not just a British issue. Indeed the threat to liberty and livelihood in this country pales into insignificance compared with other parts of the world.
Lets begin with a quote from an inhabitant of Borneo describing the destruction of his forest homeland:
“The forest is our livelihood. We have lived here before any of you outsiders came. We fished in clean rivers and hunted in the jungle. We made our sago meat and ate fruit trees. Our life was not easy but we lived in content. Now the logging companies turn rivers into muddy streams and the jungle into devastation. The fish cannot survive in dirty rivers and wild animals will not live in devastated forests. You took advantage of our trusting nature and cheated us into unfair deals. By your doing, you … threaten our very lives. “
How far we have travelled from the Garden of Eden to the devastated Jungles of Borneo and the Amazon.
It was Ghandi who, when asked what he thought of Western Civilization, said he thought that it would be a very good idea.
In so many ways and places our so-called civilized world turns out to be anything but civilized. So often we have chopped down the tree of life and replaced it with what – mud, slurry and concrete, greed and wanton destruction in town and country alike – a world in which the twin towers are destroyed, the farmers of Afghanistan have no crops and we offer them bombs, half the world has not enough to eat, children and teenagers are murdered and this week just at the end of this very street a young person sat on a bridge deciding whether to jump, wondering whether life in our world was worth living or not.
What word of hope do we have to offer the dwellers of the jungles of Borneo, the mourners of New York, the farmers of Afghanistan or the youthful victims of modern British society and their families?
Just 12 months ago the American Ambassador spoke at the Sept 11 Memorial Service at St Pauls Cathedral. He read from the Book of Isaiah - words originally spoken to exiles in Babylon about return from exile:
· The ruined city will be rebuilt.
· From the ashes will come garlands of flowers
· As flowers bloom in a garden, so justice will bloom once again in our city.
Flowers from the ruins – a message for the exiles in Babylon 2500 years ago, offered to the victims of Sept 11 in our day. God’s promise to a blighted and sinful world.
In 1941 a large swathe of inner city Plymouth was razed to the ground in one horrendous night of bombing. One of the buildings destroyed was St Andrews Church. Years later a photo was taken of the still ruined building – but there in the rubble of what had been the nave, there was the miracle – an apple tree pushing through the rubble and in blossom. It was that photo which inspired hymn writer Fred Kaan to write a hymn for Plymouth, which ended with the lines “the tree springs to life and our hope is restored”.
And as we look round this Church we see the symbols of God’s promise – his promise of garlands of flowers from ashes, and the tree of life in the ruins of so called civilization.
You may know the mediaeval legend which tells of Adam desperately sick, dying. Adam sends his youngest son Seth back to the gates of Paradise to beg the oil of mercy to heal him. But Seth finds the gates of Eden remain locked and he has to return empty handed. He comes home and finds that Adam is dead. He buries his father and plants over the grave a withered branch of a tree. He does not know that the branch is from the tree of life which grew in paradise. And the tree strikes root and grows and blossoms and bears fruit. And so it lives on, until one day long after, it is cut down and its wood is used for an execution, used to make a cross. And one day, over the place where Adam’s skull lay buried, at Golgotha, that tree is used as a gallows whereon there hangs the Son of God who is to us and all humanity the oil of mercy.
Adam of course stands for the whole human race. Once again in our time Adam is desperately sick, some would say near to death. He lacks the oil of mercy to cool and heal his cruel wounds and fevers.
Here is the word of hope – from the ruins of our life and our society, from death, destruction and despair, grows the tree of life which is God’s gift and which brings healing to the nations.
There is an old parable from Hong Kong, which is really about Jesus. It goes like this. Bamboo was a great much loved plant which grew tall and true in the garden. One day the master of the garden cut down Bamboo. He hacked off his branches and stripped off his leaves. He split him down the middle and took out his heart. Then lifting him gently, he carried him to where there was a spring of fresh sparkling water amidst the dry fields. Then, putting one end of broken bamboo in the spring and the other into the water channel in his field, the master laid down gently his beloved bamboo. And the spring sang welcome, and the clear sparkling water ran joyously down the channel of Bamboo’s torn body into the waiting fields. The rice was planted, and the days went by, and the shoots grew and the harvest came. And on that day was Bamboo, once so glorious in stately beauty , yet more glorious in his brokenness and humility. For in his beauty was life abundant, but in his brokenness he became a channel of abundant life to his master’s world.
The tree of life is God’s gift to us – he gives his self that we might share his life.
And so to our scripture for today – the Scripture suggested by Christian Aid for Harvest Festival this year:
John the Divine in a cave on Patmos fleeing from the might and barbaric so called civilization of Rome, has a vision of God’s promise - the vision of the City of God. And through the city flows the river of life, and on the banks of the river stands the tree of life, with fruit for each month of the year and with leaves for the healing of the nations.
I am now getting to know you and learning already not only of your joys but also of your sorrows. So I say: If this is a hard week for you – if life seems hard, if you mourn or grieve or despair –
· remember the apple tree in the bombed Plymouth Church,
· remember the tree of life growing from the grave of the old Adam,
· remember Isaiah in Babylon promising garlands for ashes –
· remember the bamboo broken that life might come to the fields
· remember the tree of life by the river of the City of God.
· See every symbol of life and new birth in this harvest display -
and know that God’s promises are ever sure.
BUT - we are called by God not only to receive God’s promises but also to share them, not only to give thanks for the tree of life but to tend and propagate it, to sow seed and plant seedlings.
Here today we have symbols – symbols of the fruits of creation, the riches of the harvest, the fruits of the field – and for them we give thanks. We also have at the front of the Church another symbol – a bare tree with dead leaves – symbol of the needs of the world.
And this is our challenge today –
· To transform this dead tree into the tree of life
· To transform this symbol of despair into a symbol of hope
· To transform this symbol of barrenness into a symbol of fruitfulness.
In a few minutes time we are going to peg Christian Aid envelopes onto this tree. The money we give today will literally go to plant trees – trees in the war torn deserts of Afghanistan – but more than this, we will be symbolising our hope for a broken world – and our trust in God for the future of humanity.
When you come forward, we’ll ask you to place your gift for the work of this Church in the bowl on this side of the Church and place your Christian Aid envelope on the tree – and we’ll make sure there are people there to help.
And as you bring your gifts, as you stand before the cross, the tree on which Christ died and which became his throne of glory – please, make this a moment of dedication in which you say –
Lord you have promised life and life in all its fullness to our broken world.
Here is my offering –
take it that it may in some small way be used by you
as a sign and token of your coming Kingdom –
And may the fruit which we place on the barren tree this day be a sign of that great and mighty blossoming which one day we will know as we walk by the riverside in the City of God.