Sermon for Mattins at Harvest Festival, 20th September 2015James 3:13-4:3,7-8
I don’t know whether a modern farmer ever has time to think at all about what I still think of as the miracle of life. Leaving aside my own, rather hopeless, gardening experiments, why is it that, if you have some good seeds and the right soil to plant them in, those seeds will germinate, will spring up and live?
St Paul said, ‘I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.’ (1 Corinthians 3:6). It’s not the work of our eminent seed producers at Tozers down the road at Pyports, and it’s not the knowledge and experience of the farmers who use those seeds, that make a seed spring to life.
That spark of life is a creation process, which goes on every minute of every day in every place. I’m not sure that it qualifies for the description ‘creatio ex nihilo’, creation out of nothing, but it’s certainly an apparent hiatus in the process of evolution. There does seem to be a need for a life-giving force. I’m certainly happy to believe that it must be God at work.
But if we move away from plant life and think about our human world, again, there is clearly a birth process, a moment when, even in what looks ostensibly as having been an all-physical, all-material creation, an embryo suddenly springs to life and grows into a baby. It is said that a successful fertilisation has taken place. But what makes that particular sperm find that particular egg at that particular time, and what gives the spark of life to their coming together? It’s not something that modern science has been able to shed much light on. Again, I’m happy to accept the idea that it is God the creator at work.
Well, so far, so good; we are celebrating today and giving God thanks for our abundance of food. We are only indirectly connected with the farmers of the world, mainly through Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, and sometimes Lidl or Tesco. But it is right that we should give thanks to God for creating and sustaining the agricultural crops which nourish us and keep us alive.
Harvest Festival is an idea which goes back even earlier than Christianity, but that doesn’t make it any less Christian. The pagans gave thanks to their gods, that they recognised as the ultimate creators. We give thanks to our God in the same way, but as Christians we do it acknowledging that our God has been revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
But what happens when it’s not a seed, not an embryo, that we’re talking about, but instead an organisation, a whole way of life, which provides fellowship and support to all its members? I’m talking about the church.
On Thursday I went to the ‘hustings’ at Guildford Cathedral at which the 14 candidates for the four places to represent Guildford Diocese in the House of Laity at General Synod answered questions from the electors, in an intense session, which lasted two hours from 7.30 to 9.30. I should be open and mention to you that, if you didn’t already know this, I am in fact one of those 14 candidates.
Obviously this is not the time or place to go into the detail of what General Synod does, or the various propositions and arguments put forward by the various candidates, including me. The electors are the members of each deanery synod – so in this church, if you are a member of Deanery Synod, then you are an elector.
What I wanted to draw out in this sermon was that the Church of England, and the General Synod as the parliament of the Church, has identified that growth, or revival or renewal, is something which the Church urgently needs. Indeed there are some pessimistic voices among the bishops who are saying that, unless the Church of England grows and revives, it will be extinct in 50 years.
Some of the questions on Thursday night focussed on the question of renewal and the need to grow. ‘How can the General Synod be an agent for change, and how would you do it?’ was the first question which we had to answer.
I had a rather uneasy feeling, partly of course because I only had a couple of minutes to prepare my answer, and partly because I’m not sure whether a relentless search for change, by itself, is what the Church needs. My reflections on harvest, on new life coming into being and growing, made me feel that the spark of life, which God gives, must be at the heart of things.
How is that spark of new life to keep on coming to our church? Does it have to embrace change all the time, or can it be simply a place of faithful worship and good works, looking to God to ‘give the increase’, to use the language of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians?
So it’s very apt that we should have a passage from the Letter of James as our first lesson this morning. The Letter of James is very short. It’s only got five chapters, and in my big Bible it only takes up four pages. But it is a really practical letter to the early church; it could still apply to many issues which we face in church today. Churchwardens might usefully be given it to read when they are first appointed!
The Letter of James may have been written as early as the time of the meeting of the apostles in Jerusalem which agreed that Christianity was for Gentiles as much as for Jews, which was in 48AD, so only a relatively short time after the date of the crucifixion of Jesus in, say, 33AD. In Acts chapter 15 James sums up the argument and shows how it would be in accordance with the Jewish scripture for Gentiles to become part of the Christian community.
He quotes Isaiah 43:
Behold, I will do a new thing; Now it shall spring forth; Shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness,  And rivers in the desert. … Because I give waters in the wilderness  And rivers in the desert,  To give drink to my people, my chosen. .. This people have I formed for myself;  They shall shew forth my praise. But thou hast not called upon me, O Jacob But thou hast been weary of me, O Israel. (Isaiah 43:19-22)

James’ letter has all sorts of practical advice for the new church. Most importantly, it does seem to some extent to modify the teaching – from the same era – in St Paul’s letters, in particular St Paul’s emphasis on ‘justification by faith’. Salvation of one’s soul was given, simply by faith, rather than earned by doing good works.

James is very clear that ‘faith without works is dead.’ Look at chapter 3, beginning at verse 14.
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?

If a brother or sister be naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding he give them not those things which are needful to the body, what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, …

This is very much practical religious instruction. There’s nothing in James’ letter about growing the church. It’s all about what the people in the early church should do in order to conform with God’s law. There are echoes of what Jesus says in our second lesson, about the last being first, and the little child being as important as God himself.

James is very tough on rich people, pointing out that their wealth may be only temporary, and certainly of little value in the context of the Final Judgement. James has always been a popular piece of Scripture in poor and developing countries. It’s probably got also a special relevance, as a challenge, for those of us who are fortunate and live in rich countries and in rich parts of those countries.

As we do. James challenges us always to look for that ‘brother or sister who is naked and destitute of daily food’, and to do something to help them. That’s what we’re trying to do today, with our Harvest Festival gifts.

My feeling is that, if our Church is a place where people have faith, where that faith inspires them to good works, then God will give the increase. Of course, for the work of the harvest to be light work, it needs many workers. But I do suggest that the harvest itself is the real priority, not just assembling a bigger workforce

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