Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sharing in God's Harvest

Luke 17.5-10

There is little doubt that these two sayings started their life separate from one another. We can infer this because Matthew's Gospel has an almost identical saying, about a mountain rather than a mulberry bush, but it isn't linked to the saying about slavery, which is unique to Luke's Gospel. This means we are entitled to consider each of the sayings in isolation, to see what it might have to say to us today. But we may also wish to consider why Luke has chosen to link them. How did he expect them to work together?

The first saying is about the huge potential of faith. If we only have microscopic faith, the world can still be our oyster. In today's Observer newspaper there is an article about the peaceful revolution which toppled the communist regime in East Germany in 1989. The author, Henry Porter, reminds us that it all began with prayer vigils outside a Lutheran church in Leipzig. By the time that 400,000 people were attending each vigil the game was up for the regime and it collapsed.

Henry Porter goes on, as you can probably imagine, to compare the events in East Germany in 1989 to the resistance of the Buddhist monks to the Burmese junta today. It is a similar example of faithfulness and courage even if - so far - it has not met with the same success. History proves, however, that faith can and does move both mountains and mulberry trees.

Today people often say that there's nothing we can do to avert global warming. I'm sure you've heard the arguments. Anything we do, even as a nation, to reduce carbon emissions will be more than offset by the continued growth of carbon emissions in India and China, so why bother trying to make a difference? But as Graham Kendrick said at a concert I attended in Harrogate a week ago, it's a big lie to say that we, as individuals, can't change the world we live in. If everyone takes the same negative attitude then, of course, nothing will change and the crisis will simply get worse and worse. But the sooner that tens of millions of people start working hand in hand to reduce the impact of global warming and take care of our planet, the sooner China and India will agree to take part in the process.

And if we can change the world, then surely we can change the community in which we live too. We may be few in number, but we can still make a small difference through the community projects we nurture and support and. above all, through our prayers and faithful example. A bad example won't change the world for the better, of course, but think of the harvest which a good example can yield - in our families, and among our colleagues, friends and neighbours. I'm not necessarily talking about adding to the size of our congregation. I'm talking about influencing the sum of human goodwill and spiritual growth simply by who we are and how we choose to live. It's good to give thanks for the harvest of the land and the harvest of industry, but we should never forget to give thanks for the mighty spiritual harvest which can grow from tiny acorns of faithful witness.

This saying is often seen as a critique of the disciples. If only they had faith as big as a mustard seed they could uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the ocean. But actually it's not a criticism, it's a word of encouragement. The disciples have asked for more faith, and Jesus' response is, 'You don't need more faith! You already have enough!' For it only takes a little bit of faith to make a world of difference.

By linking this saying with the one about slavery, Luke makes a further point. There is nothing extraordinary about changing the world. It is just what disciples do. As slaves would think nothing of plowing and tending the sheep before coming home to prepare their master's dinner and wait at table, so striving to change the world is simply what we ought to be spending our lives doing. It's not a bonus, on top of believing and worshipping, it's a must. It's part and parcel of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Is this different from what the saying might mean if it stood on its own? Well, not really. Except that, when it stands alone, the focus of the saying becomes not what we do to serve Jesus, but the very fact of serving. The calling of the disciple of Jesus is to devote ourselves to doing the will of God, night and day - and serving is its own reward. We are to expect no kudos for obeying our calling, no medals, no special recognition. It is supposed to be enough for us to know that we have served the cause, for we are basically worthless when compared to our master and so it is an honour to be able to contribute anything at all to God's Kingdom, however small and insignificant the change might seem.

So harvest time is not just a time to thank you to God for all that we have received. It's also a chance to thank God for the tremendous privilege of being allowed to be in partnership with him. Let's praise God that we can share in the work of building a better world and pray for the strength to continue doing our little bit. And let us consider what Jesus is calling us to do in our community, and our world, today.

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