A bishop’s message: Don’t worry

On Sunday, October 7, the Bishop of Dorking, the Rt Rev’d Dr Jo Bailey Wells, joined the congregation at St Mark’s for Apple Day and Harvest Festival.

The reading was Matthew 6: 25-33 and Bishop Jo then preached on what Harvest means now and the need to rely on and trust God.

Matthew 6: 25-33
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

The sermon:

Thank you for Apple Day. Thank you for planting a community garden at St Mark’s. In a 21st century suburban congregation it’s really quite hard to work out what Harvest is all about, what’s relevant in the agricultural sense to this festival and this gospel. There’s the real danger of Harvest Festival becoming something rather quaint and folks-y, something we don’t quite connect with on the daily scale of what we expect for our style of living, let alone survival. Most of us are very distant from the harsh realities of growing our own food and needing a good harvest to literally eat throughout the coming months. Even we who have gardens or allotments aren’t dependent on them for our daily bread: if the apples harvest is really pitifully tiny –as mine was last year – we can go to Aldi or Sainsburys and buy some. We don’t have to go without. And we see formerly seasonal foods all year round; we’re rather spoiled with fruits and vegetables, bread, cheese and fresh meat more or less on demand.

So today we connect to Harvest as best we can: we put things at the foot of the altar today and in the Foodbank box regularly to give to people who have no money for enough food, even their daily bread. We share what we can according to what we have, which reflects what Christian communities have done from the beginning: pooling our resources and sharing with those who are less fortunate. It’s a valuable practical response to the difficulties of facing real hunger and it’s a major witness to our living God. (How many food banks or debt charities or homeless shelters do you know run by the Humanists or the Secular society?)

Who remembers what happened in 1984 when Bob Geldof was so appalled by the scale of the famine in Africa that he got his friends together and transformed one song into a vast flood of instant support? Amazing impact, both the money raised but equally the coming together. But since? The world is in an even worse mess now than it was in 1984. Climate change (however caused), unrestricted population growth, human greed, war, religious fanaticism and economic injustice all contribute to massive insecurities about the very basics of life. And now in America there is the fear especially among women in Trump’s America that might is right, that abuse prevails, that it’s ok for teenage boys in a drunken stupor to grope women and have their way. It will take a generation to replace the current bloodymindedness with a spirit of gentleness again

The readings today reflect on a variety of things but I think one main theme connects all of them: acknowledgement of the need to rely on and trust God. The Lord hath done great things. If we have food and clothing we will be content with these. And perhaps most of all: Don’t WORRY.

The Gospel reading focusses on not worrying about what might happen. Look at the lilies, says Jesus. They don’t spin or weave; they don’t think about tomorrow; they’re clothed and watered, God provides everything they need. But the point of this story is not really about abandoning responsibility in the hopes that someone else will take care of you; or about “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we might die”. It’s more about trusting God because God looks after all creation on a daily basis. This is God’s miracle.

Now….I’m not someone who uses the word “miracle” very often…but when I plant a tiny little tomato seed, I‘m having faith that it will produce a 5 foot plant with edible fruits so long as I do my bit. This is all really up to God; and is, to me, a miracle of creation. Nothing I can do, apart from trying my best to take care of it, will make it germinate and grow and give me … tomatoes.

God feeds the birds of the air; we are of more value than they are, says Jesus. We’re told to stop being anxious about tomorrow: Do not WORRY. We’re not told to ignore the fact that tomorrow inevitably arrives with its own problems whether we like it or not. We pray with confidence that God will give us each day our daily bread; not that we will be provided with all the loaves of bread we need to store up for the indefinite future so that we don’t have to exercise our normal responsibilities and duties of this life. To the Old Testament people of God during times of tremendous worry they are told with absolute confidence that the Lord will do great things and that they shall eat and be satisfied because God is wonderful and deals wondrously for his people.

Matthew’s Gospel says that Gentiles, meaning “those not of our faith” or “foreigners”, will be the ones who worry, probably because they don’t have the assurance that God is in charge and knows what we need. By contrast, our work is to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

All these things; what we eat, what we drink, what we wear. It may not be the highest quality of expensive clothing, nor much more than daily bread and water. But it will be enough. Life is more than food and the body is more than clothing. Building the Kingdom is the work we have to do, putting into practice the two essential commandments to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. We will have a rich harvest indeed if we can really do both these things.

And to return to the question of how can we feel really attached to Harvest, to make it more than a rather pale echo of when we needed to pray for rain, and then pray for fair weather, and offer prayers in times of dearth and famine – yes, you’ll find all of these in the Book of Common Prayer; written in an era when supermarkets didn’t exist, and real, grinding poverty and hunger raised their ugly heads when the harvest failed. Perhaps we can focus on not only the practical help of feeding our less fortunate neighbours, but also what we would like to harvest in ourselves and gather in, then share out. We can hopefully learn that being content with having enough is better than loving money and being dedicated to the pursuit of money to the exclusion of caring for our neighbours. We can hopefully learn to plan and have faith but not to worry about things which might or might not happen. And we can hopefully put into practice the reality that harvest includes not only a lovely show of fruit and veg and tins of soup but also the ripe fruits of our Christian faith: love of God and neighbour, peace with ourselves, generosity of spirit, and a trusting relationship with God; who may not shower us with designer clothes and champagne but who will indeed care for us all our lives.

Let me end with a story:

There is the story about old lady who was very poor. She had nothing. No shelter, no food, no proper clothes. She prayed to God and God gave her 10 apples. This was wonderful. ‘Now I can get the things I need,’ she said. She was so hungry of course that she ate the first three apples and so was full. The next three apples she traded to rent some modest shelter so that she could be safe from the rain and the sun. She exchanged the next three apples for some new clothes, so she was no longer cold at night and would look smart during the day. But there was then one apple left over. ‘Why did you give me one apple more than I needed?’ she asked God. ‘So you can have something with which to say thank-you to me,’ replied God. God gives us enough to say thank-you.

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