Today is our Harvest Thanksgiving. Today, we come bringing food for the foodbank, recognising that the good gifts God gives us are for the relief of those in need as well as our own well-being; and recognising the injustice that results when, as a society, we choose not to look beyond ourselves. As we come, I want to draw out some principles from our readings that might help us to go deeper.
Turn with me to our reading from Deuteronomy. Moses has led the people through the wilderness, but will not be the one to lead them into the land that God had promised to their ancestors. So, Moses gives them his final words of wisdom. The first thing I want to draw out is the idea that the land God is giving them has within it everything they need, either directly or through resources to trade. Of course, it will require effort—God will no longer drop manna and quail into their laps; they will need to sow and reap, mill and bake; they will need to mine and smelt and forge—but the land itself contains everything they need. And I wonder whether we believe that the same is true of the ‘land’ God has settled us in, Sunderland, in the north east of England? Are the resources we need, if we are to flourish in this place, to be found in this city, this region, this nation? What do you think? Is what being true then and there also true here and now? Is this a good land too, or a scorched earth?
The second thing I want to draw out relates to the experience of plenty and the experience of need. Moses goes on to tell the people that the resources of the land will multiply. If you have a male goat and a few female goats, you will get a flock of goats. In an agricultural society and a trade-based society, resources tend to multiply, at least in the long-term. And Moses understood that there was an inherent danger in that: the danger that when we have plenty, we attribute it to ourselves. We believe that we deserve it, that we have earned it through our effort. And because we attribute plenty to ourselves, we must equally attribute lack or need as earned or deserved. Moreover, we must believe that the earth is not fruitful as abundant gift, and so we must compete for resources: which in turn casts those in need as a threat to our plenty. Moses confronts such a tendency head-on: all we have is a gift from God. At times we might need to lose everything to rediscover that in our inability to meet our own needs, God provides: and, in his mercy, the times that humble and test us may turn out, in the end, to do us good. We may be invited by God to experience such times, and may discover them to do us good. We do not, however, get to discover that for anyone else: we do not get to decide that having to rely on a foodbank will do other people good.
Where, then, do we experience multiplication? And where do we experience the humbling of vulnerability and need? Perhaps we experience both in our Iranian brothers and sisters, a community that has grown from one person to many. Their faith has greatly encouraged many of us in our faith. But their lack of resources has also become our lack of resources, our shared need: and our shared opportunity to experience God’s provision.
Turn with me to our reading from 2 Corinthians. The context of this passage is this: the church in Jerusalem is experiencing the hardship of a local famine, and Paul is mobilising the churches he has planted in Greece to send financial support. They have been blessed—spiritually—by the church in Jerusalem; now they can bless them—materially, in this instance—in return. The church in Corinth had committed to give a certain amount, but were now struggling to raise it. Paul encourages them to give as they have made up their mind to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, but cheerfully and as a way of entering-into God’s abundant provision.
Each year, the Bishop of Durham writes to the parish churches of the Diocese asking them to prayerfully consider what they will contribute to the shared cost of providing ministry across our communities. The Parochial Church Council has agreed that we will give £30,000 this year, and the same amount next year. In fact, we would like to give more, but in considering our circumstances as a congregation, this is the amount that we believe is enough beyond our financial resources to require faith while not being beyond the faith we have at present.
This is, indeed, where we find ourselves. Financially, we are behind on our target; but we have faith that it is what God would have us give, and that God will provide. Indeed, I know that this is a congregation that knows God’s generosity and has been set free to be generous ourselves, because again and again I am blown away by the generosity of the Minster congregation. But we need to talk about our financial commitments and needs, because we have a turnover of committed givers who move on, or have died, and new people joining our community.
Even as we bring generous gifts to help those in need of food, this passage from 2 Corinthians gives us the opportunity to think about our committed financial giving. There are two things you can do. The first is, if you do not at present give a regular, committed donation—that is, giving that enables us to plan a budget—then please consider doing so, and talk to Sandra. If you already give, thank you. Please review your giving regularly. You may be able to increase it, cheerfully; you may need to reduce it, if you are to remain cheerful, in order that it doesn’t become burdensome: what matters is that it is an active decision you can act on.
The second thing is this. On Sunday 3rd December—Advent Sunday—we will be holding a Gift Day, on which we will celebrate the generosity of this place and this people, expressed in the giving of our time, our skills, our money. We will take up a collection towards our Parish Share, and I invite you to prayerfully consider what God might be asking you to contribute, over-and-above your regular, committed giving, and to bring your gift that day. More on that to come.
Finally, turn with me to our Gospel passage, from Luke. The famous parable of the rich fool, who hoarded his wealth for himself instead of blessing others; contrasted with God’s abundance on display in the goodness of the land. I am struck by God’s words to the man whose land produced abundantly: ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’
I think we assume that God says this because the man will die that night—and indeed, that is implied. But I wonder whether his demise is incidental, or, rather, simply becomes the point at which it is too late to change? I wonder whether the point of the story is this: that our life is demanded of us by God continually—not as slaves, but as covenant partners in creating a society marked by loving-kindness and steadfast fidelity and mercy and justice. And that, therefore, all the resources we have been given are always to be shared: so, we are to continually ask, who else will benefit, who will share in what we have? In this way—all that we are and all that we have freely given to God—we discover ourselves to be truly rich. And discovering this may we increasingly be known for ‘blessing our communities in the name of Jesus for the transformation of us all.’*
*this, from the Durham Diocese mission statement.