Rural Church Sunday – first fruits, a sermon preached by Mark Ward at Godshill on Sunday 16th July
It would be something of a doddle for me to preach about the feeding of the four thousand or the five thousand given what I do daily for a charity which last year provided almost 1.2 million food parcels for people in this country. It isn’t the reading for today as set in the lectionary but it was one of the two that were suggested when I adapted this service from one provided by the Arthur Rank Centre, which provides Christian support to farmers and a whole host of other rural Christian resources.
I kept the reading and the Old Testament one for good reason. One speaks of “first fruits” and the other of a small boy with five small loaves and two fish. The boy is in danger of becoming the centre of a huge joke when he offers his packed lunch to share with others. But notice this, innocent though he may be he is the only one who does offer anything up amongst the very large crowd.
I’m someone who is very happy to believe Jesus did the seemingly impossible just as I’m willing to believe that God created a big fish which swallowed Jonah and spat him out a few days later unharmed, for God can do anything. So it may well be that Jesus did turn those fish and loaves into a banquet for many thousand. On the other hand it may well be that having seen the boy offer up his packed lunch, many others decided to offer up theirs too which they had been hiding in their bag and the sum total, as is often the case, was that when it was all added together there was more than enough for everyone. But whichever scenario happened, the person who started it all was one small boy, one small boy who even the disciples dismissed as irrelevant.
We don’t know what Jesus would have done if the boy hadn’t offered his lunch but the fact is he took what was offered and he used it for God’s purposes. The boy was the first fruit.
Now, looking around us you might think we are not first fruit given our relative ages. There are few spring chickens amongst us – but just like the boy we are here and we have offered ourselves up. If we were to walk out there and tell the world we were the start of a new Christian revival it is possible that the reaction of others would be similar of that to the boy, they may well ridicule us.
And of course if we were acting just in our own power then they may have a point, but we have a miracle worker to call on. Ah – you might say, miracles only happened in the bible, but is that really true? I personally think that if we could believe more, we would see more miracles. Jesus sent the twelve out to heal the sick and do miracles in his name so clearly he expects it to happen through the use of normal mortals like you and me.
But back to us few here just for a minute – when we go to the supermarket we see perfect fruit and veg, no scabs, no marks, no funny shapes, but that’s only because all the other stuff has been rejected and often thrown away or ploughed back. My allotment grows potatoes with extra bits, forked carrots, slightly nibbles radishes and bendy leeks. They all taste as good as the perfect stuff from the shop even if they do look a bit odd and inside they contain just as much, in fact possibly more goodness because they haven’t been ripened out of the ground and stored for months. Which is a bit like us really isn’t it? I’ve got an ear that works intermittently, someone else will have a bad leg, someone will wish they had done better at school or had invented something amazing. Despite all the stuff that we can’t do, or which holds us back, God is there in our midst and he uses what he has. Would anyone starting as revolution have chosen those 12 disciples on purpose – well given their faults you wouldn’t have thought so, but Jesus did because he knew with his guidance we can do anything.
So like it or not, you and me – we are it, we are the church in Godshill, and Sandleheath, and Woodgreen and Breamore and Hyde and Fordingbridge. We are the ones clinging on to keep the church alive in our rural communities alongside 10,000 other small communities across this land.
But what makes us first fruits? We are the first fruits in this diocese of a plan to raise rural church from being on its knees. When I went to the first Bishop Tim Diocesan Conference in 2012 and we began to explore 4 strategic principles, one of which was to do church differently, I had no idea that 4½ years later this benefice would be chosen to be a beacon project of the diocese supported by funding from the Church Commissioners. But here we are, we are now that small boy, with seemingly not much to offer, and we have been chosen, called out from the whole of the southern archdeaconry of the diocese to lead the revival of rural church.
If we dare to dream, and dare to trust in God, could we end up with 12 baskets overflowing?
So what’s it all about? In October we will start to plan this three year project. Fortunately the funds from the Church Commissioners will provide us with some expert help, including that of the Arthur Rank Centre up in Stoneleigh so that we can rethink how we do church. I have no idea what that will entail but the idea is to make ourselves much more visible to the wider community and to make it simpler for then to find out what we offer and I hope for us to find out what we could offer them that we don’t right now.
Will it mean new technology – probably, but we shouldn’t be frightened about that. We tend to have an aversion to things we don’t understand don’t we but usually it’s because we are fearful of it. When I was a boy I lived over 200 miles from my only set of living grandparents and neither they nor we had a telephone in the house. I saw them at Christmas and perhaps twice a year other than that. It was my only contact with them. I live between 190 and 250 miles from all my 5 grandchildren but I see them and speak to them all every week because of Skype. We sit at our computers, press a couple of buttons and suddenly we are together, talking, showing each other things and so I’m closer to my grandchildren than I ever was to my Grandparents much as I loved them.
So new things, difficult though they may appear to begin with, can make huge positive changes to our lives – we just have to have the courage to give them a go. I’ve said this before but what if we could have a big screen here, and at 9am on Sunday all the people who would love to be here but who can’t get here through ill-health, could join us so we could see them on that screen and they could see us on their TV screen. What if one of them could read the lesson from their armchair?
What if we had a clever screen in here which when you touched it, it helped you find out how to get married here, how to find the Puddle Ducks group in Fordingbridge or that there is a Taize café church next week in Woodgreen. What if you could ask for prayer and that prayer could be said in every one of our churches. The possibilities are endless even though at the moment it might feel like we have 5 loaves and two small fish.
So we are the first fruits and we have a great opportunity. Yes some of the things we do won’t grow. Some may start to look healthy and then die off, some might look very strange shapes to begin with but we may just hit on something which works in abundance. But we have to be prepared to stand up like the boy and offer. And notice – he only offered what he had. Jesus used what he had and did something amazing with it. And then we can say, repeating our first reading slightly amended:
“Now we have entered the land that the Lord our God has given us as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, we will take some of the first fruits of all that produce and put them in a basket. Then we will go to the place that the Lord our God has chosen as a dwelling for his Name and we will say to the priest in office at the time, ‘We declare today to the Lord our God that we have come to the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us’.