Sunday, 10 October 2021

Seeking a harvest of justice
and righteousness for
the sake of God’s Kingdom

‘The tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and the vine their full yield’ (Joel 2: 22) … grapes ripening on the vines in Platanias, near Rethymon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 10 October 2021, (Trinity XIX)

10 a.m.: The Harvest Eucharist, Saint Michael’s Church, Pery Square, Co Limerick

11.15 a.m.: Choral Matins (Harvest), Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick

Readings: Joel 2: 21-27; Psalm 126; I Timothy 2: 1-7; Matthew 6: 25-33 (Harvest, Year B)

Harvest themes in windows by Johnny Murphy and Reiltín Murphy (1982) in the Bishop O’Brien Memorial Chapel in Saint Saviour’s Dominican Church, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

It is good to have a pulpit swap this morning as we celebrate the Harvest. This time, however, the swap is not between me and the dean, but between me and your new curate, the dean’s vicar, the Revd Dr Leonard Madden.

So, a warm thanks to Dean Niall Sloane for inviting me as the canon precentor to be in Saint Michael’s Church and Saint Mary’s Cathedral as we celebrate the Harvest this morning.

Autumn seems a good time to take stock in so many ways. The summer holidays are over, the children are back at school, colleges and universities have reopened, and there is a new sense of freedom – freedom tempered with caution – with the easing of pandemic restrictions.

Before the clocks go back and the winter evenings close in, our Harvest Thanksgiving Services today offer us time to take a few steps back and just see where we are going.

But, during my years of ministry in Dublin, I realised how contorted we can become in city churches and parishes as we try to make the Harvest relevant in an urban context.

Wendy Jacobs wrote recently in her column in The Irish Times [25 September 2021], ‘The innocence of past harvest festivals is gone, and we cannot help talking (or at least thinking) about the degradation of our planet – of pesticides and intensive farming, eroded top-soil and uncontrollable wildfires, the growing heap of species becoming extinct.’

Harvest time is a time to take stock of the riches we have been blessed with, to realise what we have and what we no longer need, what we have been blessed with and what we can bless others with, what is here and what is missing.

How might we reflect, however, on Harvest in a way that gives it fresh meaning outside its traditional rural and agricultural context, in a world that is emerging from pandemic lockdowns, and realising that there are so many other global problems that we were in danger of inoculating ourselves against over the past two years or so?

They are so easy to list: global warning, forest fires, polar icecap melting, the rise of the far right, racism and anti-Semitism, the problems at home of isolation, domestic violence, access to adequate housing and healthcare, worrying trends in teenage suicide … it is a list that seems to grow exponentiality the more I dare to peek above the insulated lockdown duvet that I have wrapped myself in for so long.

How can we be like the people described in our Psalm who have sown with tears, but move on to reap with songs of joy? Even though we may be weeping as we carry the seeds of future crops, is there still hope that we may come again with joy, shouldering our sheaves? (see Psalm 126: 6).

I would suggest that if we want future generations to reap future harvests in a world that is safe, that is secure, and that is just, we need to pay attention to what we are sowing today, in our lives, in our society, in our world. Three sets of seeds that show we value and accept Christ’s admonition at the end of our Gospel reading this morning: ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matthew 6: 33).

Sowing the good seeds in our lives, in our society, in our world?

We need to sow the seeds of love if we expect a harvest.

I cannot go through life taking for granted the people I love and the people who love me.

Sowing the seeds of love include giving time, ‘the present of time,’ not only hearing but listening to what they say, seeking out opportunities for shared, quality time … and the harvest is when those seeds blossom into beautiful, shared relationships.

We need to sow the seeds of tolerance, pluralism and diversity if we want to grow and harvest a better society in the future, a future in which all people have their basic needs met and in which they are encouraged to – are nurtured to – grow to their full potential.

If we fail to sow or nurture those seeds, then the weeds of intolerance, racism, discrimination and hatred will take their place, and when they grow they shall soon choke and destroy any good plants struggling to grow.

There is no evidence that President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) ever said or wrote, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’ But the Irish lawyer John Philpot Curran (1750-1814) once said, ‘The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.’

We have seen the rise of far-right populism across Europe and North America, with its racism, Islamophobia, ant-Semitism and violence. Let us not be too smug in thinking it could not happen in Ireland.

And, thirdly, we must sow the seeds that will produce what is good for our neighbours.

In our Gospel reading, Christ urges us to ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matthew 6: 33).

The word righteousness here translates the Greek word for justice (δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosíne), seeking both the will of God and the good of other people. The word δικαιοσύνη appears seven times in this Gospel, and in the Sermon on the Mount, of which this reading is a part (5: 6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33).

The equivalent word in the Hebrew Bible is tzedakah (צדקה‎). Sometimes the full meaning of this Hebrew word is lost in the common translation ‘charity.’

We normally understand charity as a spontaneous act of goodwill and a marker of generosity, over and above our social obligations. But tzedakah, in Jewish understanding, is an ethical obligation, a religious obligation to do what is right and just, which Judaism sees as an important part of living a spiritual life.

Unlike voluntary charity or philanthropy, tzedakah or righteousness is seen as a religious obligation that must be performed regardless of my financial standing, and is mandatory even when my financial means are limited.

Charity is benevolent and even optional; justice (משפט‎, mishpat) and righteousness go hand-in-hand. When righteousness is understood as tzedakah then, like justice, it is not an option, but is a religious obligation. We might say, to appropriate a Gospel phrase, it is the fulfilment of the law.

Martin Luther King brought the two concepts together when he so often quoted the Prophet Amos, ‘But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream’ (Amos 5: 24).

Christ’s warning in the Gospel reading about worrying about food and clothing reminds me of those times when I worry that some of the speciality foods that I enjoy as luxuries are not available when I go shopping. Someone close to me then gently reminds me that these are ‘First World’ problems; she chides me to consider whether many people in Damascus or Kabul share these minor irritations.

But life is more than food and the body is more than clothing (verse 25). If we want a harvest for the world and for the future, then, as Christ tells us in this morning’s Gospel reading, then we must ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (verse 33).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The west door of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 6: 25-33 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 25 ‘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? 26 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? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 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? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’

Saint Michael’s Church, Pery Square, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical colour: Green

Collect:

Eternal God,
you crown the year with your goodness
and give us the fruits of the earth in their season:
Grant that we may use them to your glory,
for the relief of those in need
and for our own well-being;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Preface:

And now we give you thanks
because you make us stewards of your creation,
to praise you day by day
for the marvels of your wisdom and power.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of the harvest,
with joy we have offered thanksgiving for your love in creation
and have shared in the bread and wine of the kingdom.
By your grace plant within us such reverence
for all that you give us
that will make us wise stewards the of the good things we enjoy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Grapes ripening for the harvest in Panormos, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.



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