The Edges of the Harvest (Leviticus 19:9-10)

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And so we enter into harvest season; we hold festivals and bring tins of baked beans or our prize winning parsnip to the front of church and thank God for another year of his provision and blessings. And yet harvest isn’t just a gift, it’s a responsibility.

We see this back in Leviticus 19. Among various laws concerning lying, stealing and idolatry we come across what to do with the edges of your harvest:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

At its heart, this is a law of compassion, but one with far-reaching implications. After all, this law lead to the first meeting of Ruth and Boaz, who went onto become ancestors of King David and, by extension, Jesus himself: justice for a poverty-stricken immigrant is at the root of Israel’s royal line. When you help alleviate poverty, it’s always wise to listen for the echoes.

But the reason there are echoes is because some laws are also acts of remembrance. Deuteronomy 24:19:22 gives a bit more context for this: God helped the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt, therefore they should help others in need. Yeah, sure, you may have planted the seeds and tended the fields, you may want to glean every last bit of profit from your labours, but ultimately the reason you’re there in the first place is because of God, and if you’re blessed you better make sure you’re blessing others.

This is the relevance of harvest to an increasingly urbanised population. Figures from the Trussell Trust note there has been a 163% increase in the use of food banks over the last financial year, although the number of food banks themselves has only risen by 45%. There are needs out there, and while one-off donations are fine, there’s a more systemic element to this; people can’t be left to starve. There’s a reason we’re talking about Old Testament laws rather than suggestions. This stuff needs to be woven into our day-to-day lives; Israel was called to be a nation that protected orphans, widows and immigrants, to proclaim a Jubilee every 50 years to prevent generational poverty. It’s in the job description.

(So maybe, as Pastor Abe Johnson points out, the story of the widow’s offering isn’t just a celebration of a woman’s faith, but a condemnation of the attitudes that lead to her being so poor in the first place – you can’t divorce Mark 12:41-44 from verses 38-40.)

This isn’t about charity, this is about justice. Our harvest – literal or metaphorical – isn’t entirely ours, not in God’s eyes, and everything, from groceries to rainforests, are called upon to ensure fairness for the poor and oppressed. God has a call on our lives – our souls, our principles and the edges of our harvest.

The Scars of God (John 20:24-29; Revelation 5:6)

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Sometimes we miss the scandal of Christianity.

It’s shocking enough to say that God became human, that the creator and sustainer of the universe contracted and limited and incarnated himself, not as a warrior-king but as a baby. The Almighty had to learn how to walk and talk, had to learn to read stories in which he was intimately involved, had to be dressed and fed and washed.

The Son of God had to be potty trained. How shocking is that?

That was his childhood of course, and childish things would be put aside to follow a path that lead to the cross. We know this story, know that it ends with resurrection, Jesus returning in a body that seems both spirit and flesh and blood. It’s this resurrection that demonstrates triumph over death.

And yet look at Jesus’s encounter with a doubting Thomas; while Jesus is back from the dead, he still carries scars. They could have been healed, but they remain.

This isn’t just an interesting fact about what happens when someone comes back from the dead. This becomes a fundamental part of Jesus’s identity. When John’s having his apocalyptic vision in Revelation 5, a great and mighty figure is introduced, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David. We’re lead to expect some powerful warrior sitting on the throne; instead we get a slaughtered lamb, but a slaughtered lamb with power over all creation.

This is intrinsic to the gospel story, and points to the scars of suffering and sacrifice as being fundamental to Christ’s identity; Revelation, all about Jesus as king, portrays him as slaughtered rather than slaughterer. In John ‘s gospel, those scars are sufficient to prove that he is who he says he is. These aren’t battle scars either, at least not how we might understand that; sure, Jesus won the battle over death, but that was through his sacrifice, not war, through changing the game rather than playing by its rules. A God with scars turns the world upside down.

No, wait: a God with scars turns the world right-side up.

Jesus stands in solidarity with those who suffer, with those who have been hurt and abused, with those pushed to the sidelines, with those beaten and battered and bruised. And, because these scars are self-sacrificial, they also speak of love and compassion.

The scars of God aren’t a blasphemous anomaly, they’re a part of who he is. And that’s shocking but also hopeful: God is with us. Even when the knives are out, even when the war is raging, we’ll know the King through the scars on his hands.

No Jew or Greek but Plenty of Elephants (Galatians 3:26-29)

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Galatians 3:28

I like this verse. It speaks to the Star Trek fan in me , the Utopian; we can get beyond our differences and move forward into the future because we’re reconciled to God and we’re all his children. So let ‘s treat each other as equals and embrace a world in which we’re post-racial, post-feminist, a world in which sexism and racism are artefacts of seventies sitcoms. Our differences take second place to our unity.

But that’s not always true in practice, is it? Our differences do still matter; if they didn’t, would there be protests in Ferguson, Missouri?

There’s a danger that we end up using verses like this as a silencing tactic – “Paul said we’re all one in Christ Jesus, therefore I’m not racist. Please stop asking awkward questions.”

Now, I’m not arguing that, through Christ, we’re all God’s children, all joined together as a family in which, despite our demographics, we’re all equal. But if we are all spiritual siblings, then we don’t get to ignore or explain away the experiences of those outside the church’s power structures. We get to shut up, and to listen, to to join with our brothers and sisters as a force for justice.

We’re not always keen to do this. We don’t like to talk about race. We don’t like to talk about feminism. We don’t like to talk about abuse or mental health, inequality or sexuality. And if go on ignoring each elephant in the room, all we’ll end up with is a church full of elephants.

Here’s the thing. I like to think I’m not particularly prejudiced, but I’m a white, straight western male and I’m acutely aware I have no idea what it’s like to face police suspicion every time I walk down the street. I have no idea what it’s like to receive rape threats just for expressing an opinion online. I don’t know how it feels to be ostracised because of my sexuality, or how it feels to suffer in silence because I’ve been told that depression is just a lack of faith. I don’t go to church and feel a second class citizen because the wheelchair access is like something from The Crystal Maze. I’m not late for church because I’ve had to stop off at the local food bank.

I’m not going to apologise for who I am, but I do have to acknowledge that I benefit from a system that disadvantages others, and I do have to make sure I’m listening to the voices of those without my levels of privilege. Heck, my sons have autism. Life’s not going to be a picnic for them, and as parents we have to be their advocates, and that’s a hell of a fight at times. There may be no Jew or Greek in Christ, but there’s prejudice and bigotry and ignorance and apathy in society, and if we can’t advocate for our family, then all our claims about the unity of the church are empty rhetoric, soundbites for our corporate Facebook pages and about half as useful. We need to maintain a pastoral eye towards these issues; if we don’t, you can be sure the Holy Spirit is.

The people looked at him as if he was crazy. “When did we see you stopped and searched for no reason? When did we see you threatened with rape, or told not to report the man who abused you? When did we see you looking for the number for the Samaritans, or struggling to feed the kids? That sort of thing doesn’t happen in our church. Someone would have mentioned it.”

And Jesus replied, “Whatever you didn’t do for the least of these, you didn’t do for me.”

Weeping in the Silence: Depression and the Church

So. The news about Robin Williams.

How to respond to this? Williams was, by any measure, hugely successful. From the outside, his suicide is incomprehensible, and that’s when the comments start: he was selfish. He was stupid. Depressed? He should have cheered up (after all, he had lots of money and a shelf full of Oscars). And, for some reason, we think everyone needs to hear this opinion in blogs, on social media, in conversation.

Is this really the best response?

Job, in the midst of his suffering, met with three friends, and while their sermons and philosophies are ultimately empty, the greatest thing they do is sit with him, to be present even in silence. They show up and shut up and that’s the wisest thing they do in the whole book.

And then Jesus, arriving at the tomb of his friend, just bursts into tears. And yes, we know he raises Lazarus from the dead, but let’s pause here for a while, in this moment of empathy and grief, because incarnation is at it’s most powerful in times of vulnerability and pain.

That’s why, sometimes, the most pastoral thing you can do is shut up; shut up and listen and not try to give answers or explanations or facile attempts at a quick fix. And then you can weep, weep because the person in front of you is struggling under a crushing weight, struggling to fight through the fog, struggling to imagine a future. Now is not the time for a sermon on joy, now is not the time to talk about counting blessings or healing through faith. Now is the time to sit quietly amid the ashes; now is the time to weep with those who weep.

Mental health is surrounded by stigma, and if that’s something that compounded by our churches then our spaces need to become safer. We need to signpost to effective support, sure, but we also need to end a culture of silent condemnation that leaves those suffering from mental illness isolated and with nowhere to turn.

Too often Christian culture is focused on being right, or on being visibly successful, and when these things become paramount, we lose our distinctiveness and our ability to truly help those who sit next to us in our congregations. Amid the sermons and the rockin’ worship needs to be a place where people can be honest and vulnerable, a place where walls can be broken down. The older I get, the more I become convinced that this is the truest expression of church, a place where healing can begin with honesty and where the love of Christ is more concrete than abstract. A place that works with the Holy Spirit rather than getting in His way.

What happened to Robin Williams is a heartbreaking tragedy that’s given an opportunity to confront how we treat those with mental illness and how we either create or contribute an atmosphere that further isolates those living with depression. It’s a moment to be seized for the sake of our brothers and sisters: we can’t afford to let it pass by.

Thomas and Thaddeus, Jonah and Mosul

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Thomas is remembered as the doubting apostle, which always seems a little unfair, given that he went on to take the gospel to India, Iran and Turkey. A community of Christians in Kerala still bears his name.

Thaddeus, however, doesn’t have a defining moment like that. He’s something of a mystery, a man of many names, the other Judas who became known as Jude (for obvious reasons). Maybe he’s best know as the patron saint of hopeless causes, or the Patron Saint of the Impossible.

In the period after the gospels, a hazy time of history, tradition and legend, it’s said that Thomas and Thaddeus brought Christianity to Iraq and, in doing so, founded one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Over the centuries, Christians lived alongside their Muslim neighbours, the ebbs and flows of history bring times of peace and times of persecution; despite this, the Christian presence in Iraq, particularly Mosul, has remained for over 2,000 years.

Until this weekend.

The biblical connection to Mosul doesn’t begin there. The city is located near to somewhere best known as part of the story of Jonah. Because this is where Ninevah¬†was founded, where the prophet was sent prior to, and after, his encounter with the whale, where he’s now buried. And yes, okay, he’s also buried in Israel and Lebanon, but tradition remains a powerful thing.

Until this weekend.

Because this weekend the Tomb of Jonah was destroyed. Because this weekend, the Christians of Mosul were given an ultimatum: leave, pay a protection ‘tax’ or die. Mass wasn’t said this weekend; congregants have been murdered or raped or driven to suicide instead.

It’s difficult to reconcile the two situation – 2,000 years or more of history vs a flurry of tweets. No time to take a step back to appreciate context or perspective. And maybe that’s a good thing – the people fleeing with nothing but the clothes on their backs don’t have that luxury.

But there’s still a shared heritage here, a common tradition and iconography, a brother and sisterhood based on being followers of Jesus. Christians in the west have it easy, but that should never blind us to the pain and persecution experienced by our family elsewhere. We need to recognise that unity, that membership in the one body of Christ, and when one heart breaks, all should break in response as we say the same prayers, sing the same songs. We remember the Christians of Mosul. We remember the Christians of Nigeria. We remember the Christians of Gaza. They are our family.

And of course that’s not to say we ignore everyone else. We are not called to celebrate the deaths of Arab children, we are not called to promote anti-semitism, we are not called to shame our neighbours or despise immigrants. We are called to respond to suffering as the hands and feet and voice of Christ and any other response is just our own politics and prejudice. We stand up for our family so our family can stand up for others. The cities we read of in the Bible are often still inhabited today, individuals walking among the Scriptures. And so often they need our prayers.

(Information on an Open Doors appeal to support refugees from Mosul can be found here.)