Rural Church Sunday – first fruits (a different sermon to Godshill!) preached at Ellingham on 16th July by Mark Ward
Today is Rural Church Sunday. I wonder what image that conjures in your mind. Do you see the idyll of the English countryside, thatched cottages, the village green, the thwack of leather on willow, horses in the paddock, a blue, blue sky and tea and strawberries on the lawn?
Or do you see vast fields, huge machines, backbreaking harvesting, up at dawn, to bed after dusk, perhaps way after dusk, endless paperwork and possibly a huge loss, or being stuck in a tied cottage with poor plumbing, rotting windows and being paid a pittance, out to milk the cows in the depths of winter or to feed the sheep way up in the hills in 2 feet of driving snow?
They are of course both possible as listeners to Ambridge will be well aware – the big profit farm with its new techniques, the traditional farm with a bit of machinery gone wrong costing thousands to fix and even the foodbank as well of course as wife-beating and a court case which kept Margaret and me on the edge of our seats for the whole of our holiday in Pembrokeshire last September and now a female revolt in the cricket team.
The church used to celebrate the rural way of life much more than it currently does. A few years ago I celebrated the whole rural year with the parish of Hale & Woodgreen. In January we stood in the car park of the Horse & Groom on a very cold day and celebrated Plough Sunday. A few months later we beat the bounds, and then at the beginning of August we celebrated Lammas – the first fruits of the harvest and then of course Harvest. Somehow it put us back in touch with the agriculture that gives us our daily bread and far more.
But when I was growing up in Grantham in Lincolnshire our harvest festival was celebrated by the local businesses bringing up what looked like huge Tonka toys because the town in those days made enormous dump trucks and other agricultural gear built on its heritage of Ruston & Hornsby who had been the original manufacturers of mass produced traction engines and steam ploughs. We didn’t sing “we plough the fields and scatter”, we sang “we plough the field with tractors” because that was the reality. I was also privileged to live within the confines of a Welsh hill farm for several weeks a year for some years and on the coldest, snowiest days Ivor the farmer would reassuringly appear up in the hills where our cottage was on his tractor to feed the sheep. When I started work we soon moved to the Lincolnshire fens. Our house was surrounded on 3 sides by fields and they grew bulbs and gladioli, so in the spring we looked out on a riot of colour.
It all feels quite comfortable doesn’t it? But in that same Lincolnshire where the sky goes on forever and the sunsets are spectacular, there were then people who were almost slaves working for gang-masters who subcontracted the harvesting. It is a bit better now but not much and everyone speaks Polish, Bulgarian or Romanian now instead of English – but it is a hard exploitative life.
Jesus lived a pretty rural existence – Jerusalem was really the only big place in his life but most of the time he spent wandering from village to village, hamlet to hamlet, meeting the subsistence farmers of his time, scratching a living from the land whether it be crops or sheep or goats. So I guess when he met that vast crowd we were reminded about in that oh so familiar gospel story this morning, they were out in the countryside. They must have travelled from miles around to hear him. Most I suspect had little more than what they wore and scratched a living. They were after something more and this Jesus appeared to offer it to them.
I often wonder what happened – did Jesus do something extra-ordinary himself and somehow create all the food and the 12 baskets over from nothing – it’s reasonable to suppose he did because he was and is capable of anything, or could it have gone like this:
The boy has been sent off for the day by his mum with the two fish and the 5 small loaves – was he with anyone else or was he alone – did he go to listen to Jesus or did he just get swept up in the crowd? Naively he sticks his hand up and says – “I’ve got my packed lunch”. I guess those around him laughed at his stupidity, but Jesus saw something in the boy no-one else had offered – generosity. Once Jesus acknowledged it could it have been that a few more people admitted they had their lunch too, and some enormous bring-and-share meal suddenly happened. I don’t know. Maybe not but it’s a fantasy I have about this story. How often do we hear about people who share everything they haven’t got? We saw it after Grenfell Tower, the mainly poor local population cleared their own wardrobes and cupboards to provide so much that the surplus has had to be stored for the future – I know this because some of my Trussell Trust vans came down from Coventry to pick it up and take it to be stored until it can go back as people are rehoused. – Generosity.
Let me remind you of the first reading – take some of the first fruits of all you produce from the soil of the land and put them in a basket. Then go to the place that the Lord your God will chose.
And for me that’s what Rural life is about – how ever hard it is, the rural shares its bounty with the rest of the country, and now the world just as the boy shared and a miracle occurred. But we have to still acknowledge that for some life is hard and so as the rural church we must also show great generosity.
I was asked to contribute to a diocesan film recently and the question I was asked was “what does being generous mean” and I said “it means not just giving away what is easy to give, but giving a bit more so it hurts”. Maybe you think that’s trite but it’s really easy to give away what you don’t need – it’s less easy to give away what you think you might need or even what you do need. I hear lots of grumbling about the money the church takes from us and when I do I often say – well don’t give it then, because if you give it grudgingly it’s no gift, but if you give it because you want to grow the kingdom of God here on earth giving it will feel so much better, even if it does hurt a bit. Hurting for many of us here might be one less meal out – when the poor give out of generosity it often hurts much more. I wonder what the widow did for a meal after she gave away her last pittance? And what did Jesus give away – his life. And notice this, in that first reading it doesn’t say – give away to God the stuff you have left, the manky bit that’s mis-shaped , he says give your first fruits – that’s the newest of new potatoes or the first picking of peas – the best.
On the assumption you are here today because you want the kingdom of God to thrive in this place, then I guess you too see something in Jesus just as that mass crowd did. Our challenge of course is how do we respond – can we be like the boy – generous and share willingly what we have, even if it does hurt a bit, I hope so. Amen.