22nd Sunday after Pentecost – 6th November 2023 – Janet Spence

In today’s gospel a group called the Sadducees – a small elite Jerusalem-based group, conservative both in religious and political outlook – challenge Jesus.   The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection and would have rejected entirely Jesus’ teaching about resurrection, and so from this opposing position they enter into a potentially confrontational encounter with Jesus.  They have come with a prepared dilemma, aiming to demonstrate how ridiculous the idea of physical resurrection is.

The question of the Sadducees is in essence not a question but a trap.  By presenting this absurd situation of a woman having been married to seven brothers their hope is that they will show that Jesus is not the Messiah but a false prophet, and that resurrection is an absurdity that can only be endorsed by fools.

Jesus, however, doesn’t dismiss the Sadducees quickly, or hurtfully, instead going towards them, and meeting them where they are.  He listens to their question, engages with it and with them, and acknowledges the importance of marriage on earth, not dismissing the law as written in Leviticus, to which they refer.

He then seems to engage with them in exploring the law, using the traditional Jewish approach to this known as Midrash. The Berakhot (an early written record of these explorations which were not permitted to be written down before the 1st century CE) asserts that ‘in the world to come there is not eating or drinking or marrying or envy or hate’.

Jesus seems to echo this by asserting that, whilst the laws governing conventions of marriage (or other parts of life) may be valid in this life, they are not really applicable in relation to life after death, where we will have bodies fitted to heaven; they will be heavenly bodies.

The Jewish oral tradition of midrash was a way of responding in community, and in safety, to questions that arose from Jewish scriptures.  Jesus would have grown up surrounded by debates and conferences seeking to explore more deeply the laws, ethics and theology presented in Jewish scripture, placing the unchanging holy scriptures alongside new lived realities and experiences, and seeking understanding.

There’s almost a feeling when reading this passage that Jesus is teasing out his arguments as he speaks.  He is learning, discovering, and gaining understanding through the encounter with the Sadducees.  We could almost say that this is a passage that demonstrates midrash, and in keeping with this tradition, Jesus turns to other Scripture to help understanding; in this case the book of Exodus, one of the five Mosaic books in which the Sadducees were firmly rooted. Jesus speaks of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as continuing to be alive to God.  He is not saying they are already resurrected, but that they are alive in God’s presence, awaiting their final bodily resurrection.

The Sadducees’ question is unanswerable.  Such questions are, of course, never straightforward, and so by definition there cannot be a straightforward answer.  Jesus, the man who lived in Galilee in the 1st century, had no human experience of life beyond earthly life.  And being fully human, and fully divine, it is hard to understand to what extent (if any?) he had knowledge beyond that available to humanity.  (Another unanswerable question!)

Nonetheless, we do ask these questions about what happens when we die, as we all surely will: is there an afterlife?; what will it mean to be ‘me’ if there is?; and what will my relationship actually be to those I love here and now?

These are universal human questions that continue to be pondered over academically by philosophers, neuroscientists, and theologians, as well as those of us simply trying to live our lives as best we can. Perhaps they are particularly acute at this time of the year, a time of remembrance through the church festivals of All Saints and All Souls, and in our commemorations on Remembrance Sunday next week.

Indeed, I noticed yesterday in the window of The Next Chapter, a social enterprise therapy centre and bookshop on William Street, that every one of the books on display relates to death, dying, grief, and how we live with the questions around these concerns.

What do we do with such mysteries; what do we do with unanswerable questions?  Doctrine, faith and tradition can help inform us as we debate unanswerable questions, but can such questions ever be answered?

As a society, I sense that we have lost touch a bit with the idea that engaging in discussion and debate together, with others, helps us as we strive towards understanding that we do not yet possess  I wonder whether new understandings become more possible when our intention is changed from seeking to reach a final definitive answer, and instead becomes a willingness to engage in creative thought and some risk-taking?

Jesus often taught not what to see, but how to see; sought not indisputable, unchanging answers, but ongoing discoveries of depths of meaning that may change with time and place. He often responded to questioning not with answers but with reflection and invitations to new questions.

This is a gospel passage of courageous conversation.  In fact it is the only episode in the gospels describing a meeting between the Sadducees and Jesus.  Courageous conversation can be scary, and threatening for all parties, and we often avoid it, because we might discover that we haven’t got all the answers, and that those with whom we would normally disagree just might have something worth hearing.

We might discover that there isn’t an answer to be got!  But one thing we can be sure of is that there is, always, more to be discovered.

As the Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letter to a Young Poet

‘Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

Pentecost 18, Janet Spence – 9th October 2022

Pentecost 18
Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7 & 2 Timothy 2.8-15

May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.

Our readings today all speak of a universal human truth, that we live lives in which we suffer. Every person in here today, every person we pass in the street, every person we love, has experienced suffering. Some of you may be in the midst of a time of significant suffering. It is part of the human condition, and though we work hard to avoid it, to reduce it, to relieve it, nevertheless suffering remains part of our lives.

So how do we reconcile the God of love, and God’s desire for our flourishing with this truth?

Our readings this morning do not, any of them, remain trapped in suffering. Instead, they are readings of hope, readings that instruct us on how to live WITH the truth that suffering is part of the human condition, AND that offer us hope within that reality.

Our first reading today from the Prophet Jeremiah was written to the Jewish people who had been exiled to a foreign land in the6th century BC. They had lost almost everything: their community had been scattered, they’d lost homes and livelihoods, and they were a people in crisis.

God’s desire is our flourishing, and this is nothing facile, or flimsy, but in this reading the prophetic voice is very practical …

  • Build houses
    • Which can then become your homes
  • Work to create gardens
    • Which can then be your nourishment.

And then the prophet speaks of the welfare of the city. In v.7 we read ‘seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’ This city was for them a place of suffering and exile, and yet God instructs them to seek its welfare.

One of the beautiful things I have discovered since my ordination here two weeks ago, is the tradition of the Bell Ringers’ prayer before they begin ringing the bells that sound out over the city of Edinburgh.

The bells in our tower are individually named after virtues, and the prayer is that these virtues will ring out and flourish in the city’s streets, including for example faith, humility, reverence, hope, peace, justice, love.

We are called to care not just for our own families, and for our Cathedral community, but for the place in which we live. Called to stop, and notice those who suffer. To stop, and consider those who find themselves in exile here. To stop, and ask, what might God’s desire for human flourishing in this place mean that God is asking of me? God’s desire is flourishing of all who are here; what is MY role in that?

Our Gospel today also spoke of human suffering. This Gospel passage is set in a borderland as Jesus travels between Samaria and Galilee. Jesus is approached, hesitantly, by a group of outcasts who have leprosy. They are a mixed group united only in their exclusion from society.

It is interesting to consider the difference made by the actions of the one who goes back to Jesus. It is clear that, in v.14, ‘all are made clean’. All are cured of leprosy. But God’s desire for human flourishing is not only about a physical cure, but about healing. And I think that in this man’s return to give thanks, the cure of his leprosy becomes healing which allows him to flourish.

When we are ill our bodies demand our attention, we may feel afraid, powerless, and we cry to God. In contrast, I think it is at least partially true that when we are well we take our health for granted, and perhaps forget to give thanks for our well being.

And yet, the one, the physically cured Samaritan, returns to Jesus and prostrates himself, and gives thanks.

Saying thank you changes us: we acknowledge our need of others; we recognise the giftedness of life, and name it; and in away, we are set free to go on our way. There is a spiritual practice which involves deliberately listing 10things each day for which one is thankful. The intention is that this is done daily for several weeks with a proviso that one can never repeat something for which thanks have been given any previous day.

Initially this may be helpful in terms of noticing things each day that we recognise as gift. But as the days and then weeks pass, it can lead us to a changed level of encounter with the world around us. We begin to notice the giftedness of life. And, I think, in this changed awareness and naming of thanks we flourish.

Accepting another’s thanks is also significant – how often do we reply with a dismissive ‘Don’t mention it’. But if someone has taken the bother to say ‘thank you’, might it be good to have the grace to receive those thanks?

So I invite you to notice 10 things every day in the next month for which you are thankful, and see what happens.

Or, perhaps, notice opportunities in the days ahead to both say thank you to another who has given you something (and I’m not talking about a bunch of flowers! But something that the giver might not even recognise as a gift) and on the other side of that, to hear the words when someone says thank you to you, and give that person the joy and setting free of having their thanks
accepted.

The Samaritan who returns to Jesus to give thanks is gifted so
much more than the cure of a disease. He encounters God, and
Jesus’ words to him are powerful.

‘Get up’ – translated in the gospel into the Greek, Ἀναστὰς( Anastas), is the same used by Jesus when talking of resurrection. The Samaritan is called to rise and be made new. Jesus says, Rise, and go on your way. This man who was outcast, who was not free to go on his way, is set free.

Jesus’ last words to the man are to say ‘your faith has made you well’. And again the Greek translation of Jesus’ words is powerful– coming from the root word ‘sozos’ meaning salvation. God’s desire is this man’s salvation, his flourishing; a flourishing which in this case includes bodily healing and a rising and going forth into new life in community. He is made new.

16. He prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet and thanked him. 17. Then Jesus said to him, “Rise up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Miscellaneous, Memorial Services and the End of the Victorian Era

Miscellaneous

This section covers unconnected matters some of which could arguably have warranted a section of their own.  One example of this is the Cathedral bells.

There were several long articles on the bells, bell-ringers and the belfry in the Victorian era Monthly Papers.  An article published in February 1880 informs the congregation that following the dedication of the bells in October 1879, the St. Mary’s Cathedral Amateur Bell-Ringers’ Society has now been formed.  The hope is “that members of the congregation and friends in the neighbourhood will be willing to assist in defraying the necessary expenses of providing furnishing for the belfry – ropes, lashings, mufflers, etc., etc. – for which about £40 will be required” [About £3,300 today.]   It was pointed out that the first full peal of ten bells was rung on New Year’s Day and they “hope that by next Christmas they may have made such progress in Campanology, that we may then hear a peal of Grandsire Triples ring forth from the spire of S. Mary’s.”

However in the May 1880 magazine it was reported that only 13 subscribers had come forward pledging from 1s to £2, well short of the £40 needed. The hope was “that if each family will give but 2s.6d., we shall have enough, though we hope some may give more to make up for those who possibly give nothing.”

It was also reported that alterations had been made to the tower which would deaden the sound of the bells in the ringing chamber, this would allow the ringers to ring by ear rather than by sight alone.

The Cathedral was not afraid to take a position on political issues which had a moral dimension.

In the February 1883 Monthly Paper the congregation was urged to sign a petition against the “Legalisation of Marriage with a Deceased Wife’s Sister”. It was pointed out that anyone over the age of 18, male or female, could sign this petition.   Maybe this petition had some effect as the enactment of the Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage Act was delayed until 1907.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 was “An Act to make further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels and other purposes”.  The Bill had been heavily supported by the congregation in 1883 and again in March 1884 when the Earl of Aberdeen and the Edinburgh MP Samuel Waddy presented the Cathedral’s petition of 1,524 signatures to Parliament.

This interesting article appeared in July 1896.

“Little Sisters of the Poor.

This Roman Catholic Society does, we feel quite sure, much good, but we are reluctantly obliged to warn those who have been in the habit of subscribing to its funds that they should exercise due caution with reference to the assurance sometimes given that perfect freedom of religious belief and practice is allowed in the Home for Incurables, Gilmore Place.  It is of course implied in this assurance that no attempt is made to bring over any Protestants who may enter it to the Roman Faith.”

In February 1881 a plea was made by the Rev. W. M. Meredith, one of the Cathedral Chaplains, for “any who would undertake as a labour of love, the education of working men, and sometimes of their wives.  He has found a few who are very desirous to become thoroughly good scholars, and surely there are many members of the congregation not only able but willing to take up this work.  It would have to be done regularly and heartily.”

 An article in the October 1894 magazine listed three items required by the Cathedral – a new Mission Hall at Dalry, an Alms-Dish for celebrating Holy Communion (apparently the Cathedral had been borrowing the Theological College’s Alms-Dish) and a magic-lantern.  The successful acquisition of an Alms-Dish was not recorded.  However, the Chapel of the Dalry Mission Hall was opened by the Bishop on 18th October 1898 with the rest of the building being opened by the end of the year. A magic-lantern was given to the Cathedral – it was mentioned in the February 1895 Monthly Paper when it was used for the Sunday School treat on the 3rd January where pictures of the Dean, views of the Cathedral, scenes from the Matabeleland war, fairy tales and comic pictures were shown. Although in March 1896, £5 was requested to purchase an oxygen cylinder, safety lamp and an oxygen gauge for the lantern.

A request was issued in October 1896 for “Church workers of all kinds”. Particularly needed were Sunday School teachers, District Visitors, somebody to manage the Dalry Band of Hope, helpers for the Boys’ Brigade and a temperance worker for Dalry.

This interesting idea was promulgated in the February 1881 magazine.

Family Fines

The Rev. W. M. Meredith acknowledges with many thanks the receipt of “Family Fines” to be devoted to some Mission purpose.  He ventures to suggest that such fines as these – i.e.for untidiness, getting up late, etc., might be collected and given as above.  It would materially assist the formation of good habits, and also be of some help to the Mission work of our District.”

I am not sure how successful this idea became as it was never mentioned again.

This rather sad article appeared in the October 1882 magazine.

Missionary News.

The children of the Catechising Class will hear with some sorry that Maria Kevit, the little girl for whose board and education a S. Marks Mission, Tombuland, South Africa, they have been subscribing for so long, died on the 17th of July, having gone to visit her parents at their home during the holiday time.  The sorrowing father and mother, in a letter to Archdeacon Waters dictated by them, tell of their grief at her loss, and in their broken language, – “Monday, 9 o’clock, when bell rings for school her last bell of her body into the grave rung.  We hope you shall have to send our return of thanks to friends who granted pay for her education and boarding in school.”

There is also a letter from the head schoolmistress of S. Mark’s Mission, from which we extract the following: – “I am very sorry to inform you that our little Maria Kevit is no more.  She died after a very painful illness of three weeks.  She died on the day we opened school.  Her last words were, ‘Tell them at S. Mark’s, that I shall never be able to attend school again.’  Her death has cast a gloom in our school, for Maria was a great favourite in the school.  She was a dear little girl, so gentle and obedient.”

Maria was confirmed at the last Confirmation held by the Bishop at S. Mark’s.  This short account of the good done to this dear child will no doubt encourage the children, who have been subscribers for her education, to interest themselves in some other poor little African child, and there are many from whom to choose.””

During Lent in 1883 it had been arranged for a series of sermons to be preached only to men with a separate series of sermons only for women “in the full hope that, with the blessing of God, something may be done to stay the fearful progress of immorality, and to lead men and women to take higher view of the “sanctification of the flesh” than is, alas! too often the case.  Fathers and mothers are specially invited.” However, due to the illness of the intended preacher, these sermons were never preached.

The Cathedral arranged a course of cookery lessons staring in May 1884.  There were twelve lessons given twice a week at a cost of 3d per lesson, or 2s for the whole course.  The article announcing them stated that “good cooking makes home more comfortable and tempts men to return to eat, instead of going to the public house to drink”.

On 5th September 1889 there was a disastrous fire at the Mauricewood Colliery at Penicuik in which 63 miners died.  The Bishop and Dean arranged for a special collection to be made in the Cathedral on the 6th October although it was made clear that this was a separate collection and should not reduce the amount given normally to Cathedral funds. The amount collected was not recorded.

In September 1899 it was reported that the Bishop of Likoma was in urgent need of “a thoroughly competent engineer, and also a shipwright, or ship’s carpenter.  The engineer should be able to do fitting, erecting, smithing, turning, all kinds of boiler work, riveting included.  A man with experience of work at sea would be very useful.”

Surprising as it may seem the Cathedral was one of the pioneers of the present coffee culture.   If matters had turned out differently the name of St Mary’s could now be rivalling that of Costa or Starbucks!   The following extracts from the St Mary’s Monthly Paper tell the tale of the Coffee Barrow.

November 1881

The Rev. W. M. Meredith proposes to make an attempt to start a Coffee Barrow, which will be easily wheeled about, and will be taken from place to place during the day.  The great advantage of this plan will be that men who cannot well go into a British Workman Public House, or even stop at a coffee stall (e.g. cabmen), will have food taken to them.

It will be desirable to have promises up to £15 before ordering the Barrow, as this would leave a good balance to cover the necessary first payments to the man in charge.  The Barrow itself costs from £8 to £9.  Promises have been received (the money is not needed yet) of £1 from one lady, and 10s. from another.  Mr Meredith will be thankful for further promises of help.

The movement has the full sanction of the Committee of Edinburgh Diocesan Temperance Society.

February 1882

The Rev. W. M. Meredith is glad to announce the arrival of the Coffee Barrow which will be soon set to work.  He begs to thank most heartily those whose donations have enabled this good work to be commenced.

March 1882

The Coffee Barrow has been set to work with varying success.  It is wheeled along Princes Street, George Street, etc, etc.  Any who take an interest in it are invited to inspect it, and hints will be gladly received by the Rev. W. M. Meredith.

It has been suggested that those who are giving large parties (though this will not be the case just at present during Lent) should ask the man to bring the barrow to their house for the comfort of the cabmen waiting to take away the guests.

May 1882

The Rev. W. M. Meredith will be exceedingly obliged if anyone will recommend him a thoroughly honest, sober, active man, to take charge of the Barrow, as the first man employed has given it up.

January 1883

Those who most kindly assisted in getting the Coffee barrow started, will be glad to hear that it is paying its way.  The man in charge has only required 5s. to start with.  He has been able to live upon the earnings and pay his lodging. He has been able to establish a trade with the Cabmen, and regularly, twice a day, he goes round the cab stands at the West End.

February 1884

Those who kindly assisted in the purchase of the Coffee Barrow will be glad to know that it prospers.  Mr Fairbairn, to whose care it was committed, reports that it has been the means of rescuing one man from a dishonest life, and helping him to an honest livelihood, and that it is doing good in many other ways.

That is the last time the Coffee Barrow is mentioned in the Monthly Paper, so Costa and Starbucks are safe!

Memorial Services and the End of the Victorian Era

Several memorial services were held in the Cathedral during the Victorian period including, of course, that of Queen Victoria herself.  Two of the most well-known non-royals to be remembered were General Gordon in March 1885 and William Gladstone in May 1898.

On 14th January 1892 the eldest son of the Prince and Princess of Wales, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, died of pneumonia during an influenza pandemic at the age of 28.  The Cathedral held a memorial service on 20th January which according to the report in the February magazine was well attended.  “The Memorial Service in our Cathedral, on the day of the Prince’s funeral, was a striking proof of the loyalty of Edinburgh citizens; and the dense crowd which filled every part of the building to excess, showed, by their dress and demeanour, that they could, and did indeed, mourn with the Royal mourners.”  Prince Albert had been engaged to Princess Mary of Teck for only 6 weeks before his death.  The following year Princess Mary married Prince George, the future King George V.

The most important memorial service of the era was that of Queen Victoria herself.  The date and time of the service was announced in the February 1901 Monthly Paper – Saturday, 2nd February, at 3 o’clock.  The same day as the funeral service of the Queen in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.  As a large crowd was expected over 2,000 tickets were issued, which could be obtained on request. The article warned that ticket holders would only get preferential admission up to 2.45 “at which hour the gates will be thrown open to all.”

The March 1901 magazine thanked all those involved for ensuring “the arrangements were sufficient, and were carried out without the slightest hitch occurring.”  As well as the 2,000 ticket holders it was estimated by a police inspector on duty, that over 1,000 non-ticket holders were also admitted. Unfortunately, considerably more had to be refused entry after all the standing room inside the Cathedral had been filled.

Thus ended the Victorian era in St. Mary’s, certainly one of the most interesting periods of the Cathedral’s life and witness.

The Edwardian era did not start well.  An elaborate Coronation Service, including choirs and clergy from around the diocese, was planned to take place on the 26th June 1902 in the Cathedral at the same time as the actual coronation service in Westminster Abbey.  Much of the music, readings and prayers would mirror those to be sung and said in the Abbey.  However, due to the King’s illness the Coronation was postponed until the 9th August but as the Cathedral choir and the choirs from the other churches were then on holiday, “it has been reluctantly decided to abandon the intention of having a special musical service.”

Finally, here are copies of two photographs of the nave taken some time before the organ console was repositioned in 1897.

 

 

Paul Foster’s Harvest Festival sermon, 25th September 2022

Harvest – Deut 26.1-11 and Jn 6.25-35

 

In case you have suspected otherwise, when I was at University in Australia, my summers were not spent at the beach improving my tan, or perfecting my surfing technique. No, rather than that, I went to work to raise funds for the coming year of study. My jobs took me several hundreds of kilometres away from Perth, the city in which I lived, and into the rural areas of Western Australia. I was employed for a couple of months each summer as a weighbridge operator. This occurred during peak harvest season when wheat, barley, oats, lupins and other seed grains were gathered. My job was to operate the manual weighbridge my moving counter-weights along the large beam balance to weight in a truck full of grain. It would unload. Then I would weigh it again when it had emptied the grain into a bulkhead. Each truck would make several trips a day. A ticket had to be written up for each truck and its total delivery load was calculated at the end of a full day of deliveries. After the receival point closed for the evening, separate legers were updated for each grain type to calculate the total amount of grain received. By the end of the summer, many tens of thousands of tons of grain were collected ready for shipping overseas. This was an operation that was duplicated at hundreds of receival points across the state. One way to judge how good the harvest was in a given year was by keeping up to date with the running totals of grain deliveries across Western Australia published in the newspapers. However, I found there was another way to gauge whether or not it was turning out to be a bumper year. About half way through the season in a good year I noticed something else happened. All of a sudden, the farmers seemed to be driving around in shiny new cars! That was certainly one way to celebrate a good harvest. As an aside, I should add that I never saw any of the weighbridge operators driving new cars. Some wounds still run deep!!

The book of Deuteronomy also describes harvest celebrations. However, what it envisages in its ancient setting is on a smaller scale. Rather than truckloads of produce, the people are to bring a simple basket of their first fruits and to make an offering of thanks to the Lord God. As it is presented in the book of Deuteronomy, this was not an existing practice but one that was to take place when the people finally settled in the promise land. This section of Deuteronomy narrates a period towards the end of the forty years of Exodus wandering in the wilderness. Life is about to change from a nomadic existence when manna was provided for the people to eat, to a new time when they would grow crops and feed themselves. In anticipation of that agrarian life, the people are instructed that they should not wait until the end of the harvest season, but rather at the beginning they were to take some of the first fruits of the harvest and to present them to God. As they did so they were to say, “I declare this day to the Lord my God that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give to us” (Deut 26.3). The act of thanksgiving was therefore not just for the harvest, but for the gift of the land and a settled and stable existence after forty years in the wilderness. Moreover, the text provides a liturgy for the service of thanksgiving that recalls the process by which a small family group became the nation of Israel enjoying the fruits of the promised land. The liturgy of the harvest required the individuals presenting the basket of first fruits to say, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there few in number, but there he became a great, mighty, and populous nation” (Deut 26.5). This liturgy of thanksgiving recalls the events during the life of Joseph when his father Jacob (who was renamed eponymously as Israel) went and lived in Egypt during a time of famine. However, despite the growth of the family group into a large nation, the events recalled were not all rosy.

The people were also to remember their enslavement, their poverty, and their torment at the hands of the Egyptian overlords. That act of remembrance was not for the purpose of self-congratulation at their transformed status, or even to legitimate the purchase of a new chariot after a good harvest. Instead, rather than crass sentimentality or self-justification for wealth, it was intend to engender a true humility and sense of generosity. For those of you who read the book of Deuteronomy regularly, you will know that there is an ethical refrain that runs through the book. It is a compassionate and outward looking ethical vision. A couple of examples suffice. In the tenth chapter it is stated that the people of Israel are to “show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10.19). Furthermore, the Israelites were not to harvest the very corners of fields or to go back for a forgotten sheaf of wheat. Instead, they were to be left for the destitute and hungry (Deut 24.19). In the final verse of today’s reading, we see this compassionate concern again, when it is stated that resident aliens should be invited to join harvest celebration in remembrance that all blessings come ultimately from God, and that God’s people are to share those blessings for the benefit of others. If our reading had continued a couple of verses further we would have also heard that portions of the harvest were to be removed from each Israelite land-owner’s house and given to those who were foreigners, widows, and orphans. Whether the people of Israel ever practiced the generosity which this text demands is a debated question. However, there can be no doubt that what is imagined is that the bounty of harvest should call people to a higher standard of love and generosity.

Although it was difficult for any story apart from one to get space on the front pages of the newspapers this week, I noticed the following in a tiny corner. Several editors were outraged by a certain statistic. The statistic was presented in the following manner: “more than 30,000 migrants have crossed the channel in small boats this year.” I fully understand the issues with undocumented migrants, or the distinctions drawn between genuine refugees and economic migrants – although that binary might not quite as clearcut as some would have us believe. What saddened me most as I read those stories replete with bristling outrage, was that there was no sense of generosity, no sense that many of our own families have been migrants seeking a better life, and ultimately that there was no love for the foreigner, the widow, or the orphan. While I am uncertain about whether the people of Israel ever practiced the generosity required by the vision of our text from Deuteronomy, I can make a better assessment of whether our contemporary society is willing to practice such love and generosity – but I leave you to make your own assessment on that matter.

Our gospel reading takes us to another wilderness setting with a gathered group of people. Earlier in that chapter from John’s Gospel, Jesus had performed one of his miraculous feedings, and then immediately he withdrew from the people across the Sea of Galilee. The next day the people set off in pursuit of this miracle-worker who had fed them. Upon their arrival, Jesus challenges their true motives stating that the reason that the people followed him was because they had eaten and were satisfied, not because of his message. In the same way that the people of Israel were at a point of transformed existence from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle, Jesus also offers his hearers a transformed way of existing. Instead of pursuing perishable food, they are offered a type of sustenance that Jesus promises will endure to eternal life. I am not sure if at this point in the story whether John the evangelist goes out of his way to portray the people as intentionally thick and uncomprehending, but it feels like it to me. After having been miraculously fed in the wilderness by Jesus the people demand a sign from him. They seem to have forgotten the feeding. To make matters worse, they recall the miracle of the provision of manna from heaven, and basically challenge Jesus to perform a miracle like that. Surely here the story is dripping with irony. The people have just seen Jesus perform the very thing they are requesting, but they cannot recognize it. In response, Jesus has to spell it out for them – the true bread of God is that which gives life to the world. The people still seem to miss the point – they seem to want this bread so that they might never have to seek physical food again. Then Jesus makes it clear that he is not talking about physical bread, but spiritual food. In one of the seven famous “I am” sayings in John, he declares “I am the bread of life, he who comes to be shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6.35). This is the true sustenance that is offered to the people, eternal life through belief in Jesus himself.

There is much deserved concern around food at the moment. Due to war, due to climate change, the global harvest is likely is likely to be smaller this year than has been or several decades. We cannot avoid the uncomfortable truth that there will be more people who die this year due to malnutrition and starvation, due to lack of basic food staples. We may not be directly responsible for these shortages, but I do not believe that absolves us from responsibility. The lesson of the harvest instructions in Deuteronomy is to recognize that what we have is a divine gift and we are called upon to be equally generous towards those described as aliens, widows and orphans – in fact towards all in need who partake in our common humanity. Closer to home, as food prices spiral and energy costs rise, there will be many in our nation and in our own city for whom even a meal a day is a luxury and heating homes is no longer possible. As the people of Israel were told not to strip the land, but rather to leave provision for the destitute it is now more imperative that we provide more for the poor and needy. Here is one suggestion. This week it was announced that the National Insurance increase is being reversed – one suggestion is that rather than keep that increase for ourselves maybe it could benefit those in greater need. Deuteronomy indeed reminds us of our responsibilities to attend to the practical needs of fellow human beings. The reading from the Gospel of John reminds us that alongside that we also have other gifts to offer to our communities, the bread of life itself. The Christian message does not draw a distinction between provision of physical and spiritual need – giving bread that sustains this life and offering bread that leads to eternal life are unified and unambiguous priorities for people of faith like you and I. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest the gospel message has a preferential priority for those in need. The proud are brought down and the humble exalted, it is the hungry who are to be filled while the rich will be sent away empty (Lk 1.52-53). Harvest is not primarily to be a time of gathering, but one of generosity and giving.

When we reflect on our own lives, we see that in many ways we are like the wandering people of Israel who needed to be brought into a new mode of existence, we are like the crowds blinded in pursuing physical food instead of seeking the true bread of life. In a moment, when we gather around this table we will see set before us bread and wine. These remind us of a bounteous harvest, but they remind us of so much more than that. We will gaze on earthly elements, but the eyes of faith will see the bread of life that sustains even unto eternal life. That gift is not to be accrued or hidden away, it is to be shared abundantly for the life of the world. So as you go out of this place today think of the bounty of the harvest. Think not of how much you have, but instead of how much you can share – then give generously. Think also of the bread of life, given for the life of the world. Remember also the words of Jesus, ‘the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest” (Matt 9.37-38). I pray that I and you would each be one of those workers offering the first fruits, sharing the bread of life, this harvest festival and evermore. Amen.