Yesterday, I travelled to attend a gathering of clergy colleagues from across Durham Diocese, seeking to encourage one another in how we might share the good news of Jesus Christ with some of the 99.2% of the population of our region who are not part of any church. As my train approached the station, it began to rain. As I stepped onto the station platform, the heavens opened. With nowhere to shelter, I had no option but to head to the church where we were meeting, four minutes’ walk away. By the time I arrived, I was soaked to the skin. I could not have been wetter had I stood under my bathroom shower, fully clothed. It was a miserable start to the day, but one that made me utterly dependent on the hospitality of others, and in that there was greater blessing.
This coming Sunday, one of the churches I serve is marking Harvest. In previous years, this has been a major celebration. Every windowsill has been dressed in floral glory. The cubs and scouts, brownies and guides, have attended, parading flags. The food donations of a community have been brought forward, gathered together, for distribution to those in need. This year, while we shall be supporting two local organisations we partner with, harvest will be on a far smaller scale, something that is a cause of sadness. Deeper than that, it is a cause of shame.
The Old Testament reading set for harvest this year is taken from the prophet Joel. The context is one of successive failure of the harvest, due to invasions of locusts. This is the context in which Joel is called to share good news, a word of encouragement that is good news for the soil, for the land and for the human, the creature made of soil. God’s loving-kindness drives out fear, and in its place, joy follows.
Joel helps the community to see God’s goodness towards them in the failure of the harvest, and in the bounty of the harvest. This is a key insight for us to grasp. Harvests are vulnerable, expose our vulnerability. The bringing-in of a full harvest is, indeed, a cause for celebration. But the failure of a harvest to materialise, due to flooding or drought or disease, invites us to identity with those whose survival is tenuous, with those more closely tied to a local harvest that is more greatly impacted upon by a global environmental crisis. The inconvenience of bare shelves at the supermarket invites us to reconsider the idol we have made of convenience, and all we have sacrificed to that god. A more sparse collection to carry to the food bank invites us to consider afresh the systemic injustice that necessitates their existence. And all of this gives us cause to recognise our own frailty, our dependency on others.
God is in the harvest devoured by locusts, as well as in the harvest that fills the barns. Lament and repentance and hope and praise and celebration are all part of the experience of faith, of walking through life with God, of becoming progressively aware of God with us in all circumstances.
The passage from Joel concludes with the declaration, repeated for emphasis, that God will deal with his children’s shame. The experience of shame is that profound sense of being ‘not enough,’ and God’s response to shame is to cleanse us of it. Hence the imagery of abundant rain, poured down (and my recounting being soaked to the skin). Apart from God, we are not enough; but God obliterates our self-sufficiency in a gracious flood that renews the earth, the creature made from the soil.
99.2% of the population of the northeast are missing from our churches. For those who remain—for the most part the remnant of a generation who were brought up going to church and who met their spouses through church youth and social groups—this abandonment is a cause of shame. But they were beautiful in their time, and something new will be beautiful in its time. This community flourished as a church plant, in response to changing times, eighty years ago; and some new form will flourish again.
The best thing I can do for this people is to speak peace to their fear; to remind them of God’s goodness, loving-kindness over the years, both lean and full; to declare cleansing for shame; and hope for a future, that extends beyond what will see us out; to point to the signs of God in our midst, however small or strange those signs might be.
And no, it does not cause me worry that our Harvest will be small this year. God will yet deal wondrously.
‘Do not fear, O soil;
be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!
Do not fear, you animals of the field,
for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
the fig tree and vine give their full yield.
‘O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
‘I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
‘You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again
be put to shame.’