Sermon: Sunday 7 October 2012

Harvest Thanksgiving

The Revd Canon David Monteith, Canon Chancellor

Matthew 6: 25-34

Please indulge me as I take you into a little bit of my recent holiday.  It is 32 degrees in Valencia, Spain’s third city.  It is a cosmopolitan place starkly different to the rural hillside cottage where we had been staying.  I have an addiction to cities and so was relieved to be back in familiar territory with the prospect of a world class art gallery to occupy the afternoon.  The signs were good – a new bold European building with glass and curves and large spaces with white walls and plenty of modern art from Sean Scully (the Turner prize nominated Irish American minimalist).  Usually art – even difficult modern art – inspires and stimulates me but I was left feeling untouched.  We were the only people there because everyone else was having siesta – it was sparse, heartless and cold.

This was in huge contrast to the activity which preceded this – namely walking around the indoor market in Valencia.  It was a beautiful art nouveau space and full of stalls selling cheese and cured meets with piles of ill-shapen tomatoes and peppers, with silver sardines and preposterous monkfish, with pomegranates picked that morning and the place was full of people talking, buying, eating and looking.  I couldn’t help smiling and feeling how good it was to be alive and to be blessed to be part of a community with such riches at my disposal.  I wanted to get out a camping stove there and then to crush the garlic and pour the oil and open the bottle!

‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed…
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings.’

-       God’s Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerald Manley Hopkins writes those words at one of the most difficult times of his life.  The university professor has just failed his theology exams.  He is struggling in the months leading up to his ordination and there is much darkness.  Yet it is then in the darkness that he writes some of the most evocative descriptions in the English language of God’s goodness and blessing to be seen in creation.

Harvest comes as the nights draw in and as we recognise that despite the rain or the economy or our own personal circumstances that God has blessed us again.  We see that there is food enough for the world.  We see that the land can yield bountifully when managed with care.

Jesus teaches his followers to ‘look at the birds of the air’ and ‘consider the lilies of the field’.  In other words, do not take life for granted but instead approach the world more like a toddler excited by colour and texture and taste, discovering that there is ever more to discover.

The flower arrangement on this pulpit looks like a pretty flower arrangement until you really consider it, and then you discover that the dahlia in the middle is not just golden but made up of pink, coral, orange, cream and white and there is beetroot and sprouts and peppers woven into this display!  We see better when we pause to consider.

There are many reasons why we fail to notice and fail to be thankful from busyness to complacence to routine.  The bible pushes us further to recognise that our propensity to not see God’s goodness and so hence to worry more and more is actually a more fundamental turning away from God.  Professor Sam Wells says, ‘the problem is that the human imagination is simply not large enough to take in all that God is and has

to give.  We are overwhelmed… And if humans turn away it is sometimes out of a misguided but understandable sense of self-protection, a preservation of identity in the face of a tidal wave of glory’ (God’s companions; Christian ethics and the abundance of God, 2006 p7). 

So to return us to that glory, Jesus teaches his followers to look and to consider.

A cathedral surrounded by evidence of God’s bounty both in terms of harvest display but also in terms of all of you sat before me is also a good moment to consider our specific response to God’s abundance here.  So this morning there is a Thanksgiving Pack for all of us to take away and complete.  It looks at one measure of our thankful response – namely our planned financial giving back to God and his work through this cathedral.  There will always be space for spontaneous generosity but the bible also teaches us to be more intentional.  Jesus says ‘look’ and ‘consider’.

We need £1700 per day to run this cathedral – of course some people will say ‘can’t you do it for less’ and of course those of us who have responsibility to prepare budgets continuously look at that but that figure will not radically decrease.  Last year we spent 56% of our budget on services, music and ministry costs.  In the same year our voluntary income from money given on the plate and from money which you pledged only amounted to 24% of our resources.  Cathedrals are supported by the national church so we do get a grant which in effect pays for the likes of the stipend, pension and housing for me, Viv and Johannes and to pay for some of our admin needs.  That national commitment invites and supposes a generous local commitment too – maybe more generous than we currently manage?

We know that those who regularly worship here find themselves in very different circumstances – some earning in good jobs, others unemployed or students, others relying on pensions.  And so the amount that each of us will be able to give will vary but the same questions apply to us all.  The Church of England recommends that 5% of our regular income might be given to the church.  So if you earn 50k that would mean giving of about £150/month whereas if you live on £10k the monthly donation might be about £40/month.  And of course if you pay tax then Gift Aiding it makes it worth about 20% more to us.

I want to ask each of you directly to look and to reconsider your giving to this cathedral and to ask you to consider making a pledge for your planned giving.  You can give by standing order, by weekly giving envelopes, by cheque or via the Charities Aid Foundation scheme.

I give like this and so I don’t shuffle in my seat when the collection plate comes round or feel embarrassed that I have no money with me because I have planned what I should give and it just happens automatically each month.  This year clergy stipends are going to increase by 2% and so I will have to increase my monthly amount accordingly, otherwise I will actually be giving less.  So please don’t leave this morning without a white envelope containing all the details – including those for Francis Brown, who is the Cathedral Administrator, who can be contacted confidentially, and please respond even if that is to say it is not possible.

Christians offer worship to God through lives dedicated to his service, lives which try to reflect God’s love – generous, abundant, responsible and joyous.  Jesus recognised that we have a tendency to worry and in particular to worry about the necessities of life to the point where there never ever could be enough.  But Christians time and time also bear witness that when they find ways to give God priority that there is discovery of unseen or unnoticed abundance.  When heaven’s agenda starts to really shape our spending patterns there is growth in holiness and deeper connectedness to each other and to this good earth.

Patrick Kavanagh was a poet who lived close to the land and its seasons.  He sought to apprehend the beauty and truth of life.  He wrote the following words which I hope might be our Harvest Prayer and our Thanksgiving Prayer which we ourselves might begin to answer:

‘a life with a shapely form,
with gaiety and charm
and capable of receiving,
with grace the grace of living
and wild moments too…’

-       The Self-Slaved 

Jesus said: ‘But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.’  (Matthew 6. 34)

© The Revd Canon David Monteith

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