Vicar's Sermon - Harvest Festival

2 Corinthians 9. 6-15         Harvest   12.10.14 

The Vicar of Baghdad has left the city and is now in Israel. The New York Times and then the Church Times reported the news that Canon Andrew White has had to leave his post.  Perhaps you know of him.   What is clear is that the ISIS militia would have known of him as they approached the city the other week. It is probably as well that he has left – in his time in Iraq the Christian population fell from 1 and a half million to under 200,000. His bodyguards were killed and his church was blown up with a congregation inside it...who could blame him for getting out.  He wrote on his blog: ‘My dear friend the Archbishop of Canterbury has made clear that my profile is so high, I am British and very pro-Israel, which would place me at incredibly high risk.’

Again and again we hear that the Christian communities of the Middle East are under immense pressure. Whether we look at Israel/ Palestine – where Christians fall between the two main protagonists in the conflict (supportive of Israel’s right to exists but made up predominantly of Palestinians and therefore not trusted by their neighbors). Or Syria – where the so called Islamic State threatens them - but where the anti Assad Free Syrian Army sees them as the hated President’s allies. Or in Northern Iraq where they have fled the prospect of gruesome massacre. Or further East into Iran - where the Iranian revolution has meant they have had to keep a low profile – wherever we look in this region Christians have been struggling.

People under pressure need to know that others care, that others are thinking of them. Amnesty International encourages people to write letters to prisoners of conscience around the world, why do they do this? The answer is that for those who feel alone a letter – even one in a language they can’t understand- can help them to stay strong. And if their guards confiscate the letter so that they themselves never see it then still some good is achieved – for those who abuse their power know that someone is watching them.

But hang on. It’s harvest time. Why am I not talking about farmers and field? Isn’t today the day to address issues of ecology – care for the earth, good husbandry and the like? It is. But our New Testament reading is from a letter part of which is trying to encourage support of hard pressed Christians in the Middle East.

In his 2nd letter to the Church in Corinth the apostle Paul devotes two whole chapters to something that was clearly of immense importance to him: the collection of money for the Christians of Jerusalem. It has never been easy to be a Christian in the Middle East but back in the first century Christians felt pressure from two places: the Jewish authorities suspected them of being blasphemers (for that is how they had described Jesus) and wanted them cast out of Jewish society. If you become a Christian you risked your standing in society, you risked your livelihood, you may even have risked your life. The Roman authorities posed the other problem: they had no place for the Christian sect – and they certainly had no place for a group of people who proclaimed another king. Christian allegiance was therefore treason in their eyes.

Under suspicion, under threat, the Christian community was vulnerable. We know of how the apostle Paul had originally sought to arrest and imprison Christians. In time a persecution of Christians saw Peter imprisoned and James beheaded. Many Christians fled Jerusalem.  When times were hard, and the book of Acts speaks of a famine that affected the land, Christians could call on no-one to support them. No-one except the fledgling church that was growing up around the Mediterranean because of Paul’s preaching.  Paul turns to these new Christians and says ‘family means family’.  We don’t live for ourselves. We have obligations to one another. We care for one another. And though you may never ever see any of these fellow Christians your cash is needed by them now....and when they receive it, be assured their lives will be changed for the god and praise will be given to God for the miracle of your gift. This part of 2 Corinthians is an appeal letter plain and simple: with a little bit more grace than Bob Geldof all those years ago at Live Aid, Paul is saying ‘Give us your money, Now’.

At which point you might feel a tad uneasy...isn’t the Vicar always asking for money? Except this sermon isn’t a begging request. It’s a thank you. Our budget in this parish is around £100,000 – we give away approaching £70,000 of this. Most goes to providing clergy in this diocese – you might say we get some of our gift back through there being a priest appointed to this parish – but more importantly our gifts ensure that there being leadership and support in those places where leadership and support are hard to come by. Just this week two of our most able priests in the diocese were appointed to serve in the East Durham Team - (Emma Johnson, now Emma Parker) who you will remember from Cockfield, and Michael Volland, attached to Cranmer Hall in Durham will be working across in Easington Colliery and the surrounding parishes in a place that is at the wrong end of any number of league tables. More than this, our training college in Durham is seconding students year on year to the team to build up the church in this place.  Your gifts support work in prisons, and work in schools. Your gifts ensure that there is a voice for Christ in our Northern Universities. Your gifts touch thousands of children in Church Schools (not just Primaries but Secondaries) and your own knowledge of our own local church school at Green Lane should be enough to convince you of the value of these schools: schools that are places of faith and love and joy for children of all faiths and none.

But beyond what we give to the work of the church in this diocese, we also give 5% of our income to local and overseas charities. So last year we gave to the Citizens Advice Bureau and the local Credit Union - so that those who are struggling can continue to get the best advice and support; and we have given to our Hospices (so that those who are ill or terminally ill can get the best of care). We gave to our Cathedral because it inspires hope in so many visitors.  Overseas, most recently we have given to the Red Cross (in its work with the refugees of Syria) and to the Barnabas Fund (an organisation that specifically works with persecuted Christians across the world.) and to the work of CMS and Us (the Mission society).

And on top of all this we give our time. Yesterday 10 of us ran a children’s workshop in the Parish hall: each of us giving up about 5 hrs in the day to make this happen as well as preparation time. If we’d all been paid the minimum wage you might get some sense of the value of the work done – you do the calculation. And some of you work in the charity shops in town, or volunteer in the school or help the uniformed organisations. You support a whole range of local charities and activities with your time and abilities

You need to hear this because what you do and what you give touches the lives of tens and hundreds and thousands of people for good.  You may not see the gratitude of those who receive your help. You may not know of how your support led to a priest offering ministry to a family in need, or an aid worker bringing hope to those who have lost everything. You may not see how the food parcel you leave at the back of church for the FoodBank may actually save a marriage under pressure. You may not see these things but know, deep down ‘know’, that what you do makes a difference and brings delight to God. And what you give results in praise being offered to His name from grateful, thankful hearts that have been warmed, encouraged, and reminded of the goodness of God by your generosity.

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift. Jesus.