This is the text of my sermon at St Nicholas, Bradfield, for Christian Aid at their Harvest Festival on 9 October 2016
Autumn is that time of year when we celebrate God’s abundance and rejoice in His blessing. I love the changing colours of this time of year, the rich reds and golds on the trees. We get to have real English plums, and the hedgerows are full of bounty too. One of our family Autumn rituals is blackberry picking. All those juicy berries in the hedge ready to pick without any of the hard work beforehand!
Mind you, I get to enjoy all the harvest without any worry or effort beforehand. I don’t have the stress of getting all my grain in before it rains, or worrying about whether my carrots and parsnips are too skinny or too knobbly for Tesco, though maybe Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall’s efforts mean our parsnips can be a little more knobbly these days. The harvest is not a foregone conclusion, which is why we’re here today to give thanks for it. Some of us are more dependent on the land than others for our livelihoods, but in this country we can be fairly confident that it will rain, it will at some point be sunny, and we have resources to make up for it if something doesn’t grow.
But I want to tell you about a part of the world where Harvest is much more tricky. Christian Aid met a woman called Rodah and her neighbours in the countryside in Kenya, where the weather is very dry. Everything needs water to grow, so when the river dries up, Rodah has to go and fetch water. She uses a container a bit like the one we use when we go camping. I took it to church full of water and asked the children to try and lift it up – far too heavy, one of them nearly fell over! But everyone guessed correctly that Rodah has to carry two of these almost as far as from Bradfield church to Sheffield city centre and back. Her water supply is six miles away. When you have to carry water like this, you can’t carry enough to make everything grow. Sometimes Rodah couldn’t grow enough food to feed her children and they would be hungry. She would have to spend money to buy food instead. So that meant there wasn’t enough money to pay for school, so her children had to stop going. Who here would be sad if they couldn’t go to school?
In Kenya, they don’t have spring, summer, autumn and winter like in England. But they do have seasons – the rainy season and the dry season. So, in the rainy season, the rain waters the land, and the water comes back in the river so it is much nearer to collect. Then, in the dry season, the river dries up. But because of climate change, the weather in Kenya is changing. The rain doesn’t come when Rodah and her neighbours expect it, so they don’t know when to plant their crops. The dry season lasts longer, and sometimes the rain doesn’t come at all. So the people living there are no longer able to grow enough food, and the six mile trip for water happens all year round, not just for a short time. That’s why Christian Aid went to meet Rodah.
Christian Aid is supporting the Anglican Development Services to work with Rodah’s neighbours to see how they can help them make their lives better. ADS gave the farmers different seeds, ones that grow better in dry conditions, so they can grow more food. The farmers were given some training too, about new, better ways to farm their land so that things would grow bigger and better. And ADS also helped the community to build a sand dam, which would trap the water in the river so that it would last through the dry season.
Now Rodah grows enough food to feed all of her family, and she has enough left over to sell in the local market. Her children are back at school – hurray! She has enough money and enough work to employ other people to work on her land too, so now they have more money. This story is repeated throughout the area, so now quite a few people have more money to spend. This means that other people can set up small businesses. There is a tailor in town, making school uniforms for all the children who can now go to school, women selling hand-woven baskets and other businesses too.
This is just one of many stories of Christian Aid helping communities build a better future, one story that we wanted to tell you so that would know where your money goes. Christian Aid made some resources to tell this Harvest story and showed them to Rodah. She burst into tears, she was so overwhelmed by the idea that people like you cared so much about her and her neighbours. When asked what message we could pass on to churches in the UK, Rodah said ‘Go and thank them very much for the water source. Because if it was not for this water source, we would not have this crop.’
Now we’re going to turn to the Bible passages that were read out earlier (Philippians 4:4-9 and John 6:25-35). The story in John’s gospel takes place just after Jesus has fed 5,000 people. The well-fed crowd seems pretty impressed by this. So impressed that they go looking for Jesus, wanting more from this miracle worker.
But Jesus is very astute. He cuts through the veneer and challenges them – are they looking for more signs of God, or more food for their bellies? Jesus knows they’ve been drawn in by their physical desires, but he wants to take them beyond this to understand that their spiritual needs require more attention.
He tells them to focus on working for food that will sustain them for eternal life, which means believing that Jesus is the one sent by God, the son of God. But they are still asking for a sign, still asking for the bread of heaven, the food of eternal life. So Jesus has to spell it out for them. He is the sign. “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever come to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
We need to recognise that we are one a spiritual journey, to give attention to our spiritual life. On our spiritual journey towards God, to eternal life, Jesus is all we need. He is our guide, our light in the darkness, our strength to carry on, our shelter in the storm. He is utterly dependable, with us every step of the way. Like bread, he will sustain us.
It’s interesting that this is the text for Harvest. Superficially it looks perfect – Bread of life and all that. But just under the surface it is a little at odds to focus on a time when Jesus was speaking about food for our soul when here today we are really celebrating our physical food. Harvest is just a real world, ‘flesh’ festival. Churches are full of real, physical offerings. We are thankful that the harvest has been gathered safely in and there will be food in our bellies for the next year.
And then Jesus tells us “do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures for eternal life.” What are we to make of this? Do we say that all that we don’t need to do anything but pray and worship , and all these other things will miraculously fall in our laps?
This is plainly stupid. Unless we sow and reap, there will be no harvest. Unless we milk the cow, there will be no ice cream at Our Cow Molly. But perhaps Jesus means us to go about our daily lives, but to do it trusting, believing in him. We all have our part to play in making the world turn, in business or public service, on the land or in the office. Perhaps Jesus means that we play our part, but do it with prayer and trusting our lives to him, and then the Bread of Life will ensure that we won’t go hungry or thirsty.
This somehow seems to make more sense, and various versions of this can be heard between Christians everywhere.
But then why is the church collecting for the foodbank? Are we saying that people need food parcels because they didn’t have enough faith? Or that good Christians don’t need food parcels? Or consider Rodah and her neighbours in Kenya. If only they’d prayed harder, then the rain would have fallen. They just need to trust in God, then there will be enough to feed their families. I don’t think any of us can accept this analysis.
We know that Jesus is the path, the way to God. There are no hoops to jump through, no exams to pass, no 11+. To know Jesus is to be reconciled with God and to be fully resourced for our spiritual journey through life. We’ve created symbols and rituals which can help us on our way, but the bottom line is that all we need is Jesus.
But God remains concerned about our physical life too. He gave the Israelites manna every day when they were lost in the desert to meet their physical needs. The passage from Philippians also tells us to let our requests be known to God in prayer and supplication.
We have to deal with this mismatch. We have the gift of eternal life. But this earthly life is precarious, many are only just holding on by their fingertips, and some do not make it. What does it mean for the church to say ‘Jesus is the Bread of Life’ while people are going hungry?
I think we know what it means. We cannot stand by. We do not stand by. That is demonstrated here by your offering of food, and hopefully later by your offering of money for Christian Aid. I just want to take you to James, who expresses what we know is true, that our faith in Jesus is revealed when it turns to action, and that without action, our faith is exposed as being no faith at all. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16).
The church is called to be Good News. Christian Aid is the outworking of that. 70 years ago, people in churches in Britain and Ireland saw the plight of displaced people in Europe after the second world war and could not stand by. Christian Aid was formed as the way for these churches to live out their calling and help these refugees however they could. Today, Christian Aid is still the agent of the church, working round the world to bring an end to poverty. We are your organisation. So that’s why we come back to the churches regularly, to ask you to continue to give to support the work we are doing in your name.
I’ve shared one of Christian Aid’s stories, and there are many more to share. Our vision is an end to poverty. Wherever we are involved, we always work through local partners. We don’t parachute in with our solutions, but ask grassroots organisations to work with those in need to bring about their own solutions to their problems. Christian Aid and the partner organisations can add value in terms in terms of knowledge or finances, but poor communities are the experts in their own situation and they can be the agents of their own change. This empowerment is the key to unlocking long term change towards that vision to end poverty.
One part of the solution in Kenya that I didn’t mention earlier involves cameras. A few of Rodah’s neighbours were given cameras to take pictures of the dam, the thriving crops and the new businesses. They documented in detail the transformation of their community brought about by simple interventions. Now these photographs are being used to show what a difference can be made. They are being shown to the Kenyan equivalent to local councillors to advocate for the same transformation in other neighbourhoods and communities. With the right help, the people in Rodah’s community were able to build the dam and transform the way they look after their land to build sustainable farms and businesses, lifting them out of poverty for the long term. But they also have the power to support their neighbours, and help them to advocate for their own solutions to poverty. To call the local leadership to account, to ask for funding from the powers that be in Kenya, so that the balance of power is shifted in favour of the poor.
I wanted to tell you about this because it shows how the effects of one project can be amplified. Christian Aid’s partner can work with a small group, but once that group is empowered to advocate for their rights and the rights of their neighbours, then the same transformation can be wrought many times over. A neglected community now has influence to challenge that injustice and bring about change. Money brings power. Christian Aid works with the poorest communities in the world, those without power, those who have a voice that doesn’t get heard. Making sure that voice is heard is one of the most important things that Christian Aid can do.
So how do we respond? What does it mean for the Church to say Jesus is the Bread of Life while people are hungry? What does it take to be a church that cares for people’s physical as well as spiritual needs? I can make a few suggestions, and I’m sure you can think of more. Please give generously to the work of Christian Aid today. It takes around £500 to construct a sand dam like the one built in Rodah’s community. Training for 5 farmers costs around £160, and seeds for 28 farmers costs about £64. Christian Aid’s work is not just about Harvest, but goes on throughout the year. If you would like your support for Christian Aid to go on throughout the year, please make a regular gift. Regular gifts really help us to plan what we can achieve in the long term. We can also amplify the voices of the poor. Partly we do that when we give to Christian Aid, and we do it again when we join in Christian Aid’s campaigning. But we can also do it when we challenge injustice and make decisions which shift the balance of power in favour of the poor, for example when we buy Fairtrade tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar. There are voices in the UK that need amplifying too. Perhaps it is time to ask your MP why 1 million people needed food parcels last year in the UK – one of the richest countries in the world?
This harvest, we give thanks that Jesus, the bread of life, gives us food for eternal life. We also give thanks that God has provided us with this harvest and takes care of our physical needs too. And our response of love and worship is to give, act and pray so that we can be good news to those who are hungry.