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Andrew's Blog

Lammastide - the beginning of harvest

Last week, at the very end of July, Anna and I walked up to Foscote and across the fields, when we saw a combine harvester at work, starting to bring in the first of the wheat harvest. Talking with parishioners at the St Edmund’s coffee morning, held outside the church yesterday, I was asked “What was that, a red Massey Ferguson?”

I answered that I supposed that it was – and then was told just which farmer it was who would have been at work. It was a reminder to me of just how close we are, living here, to the farming life – a reminder made sharper by the conversation that followed, about the width of cut that different machines offer (from 18 feet to 40 feet) and their comparative advantages and drawbacks!  

My mother was a farmer’s daughter from Norfolk; and as research for a book that I am writing, I have been reading about how the harvest was brought in during the first half of the 19th century. An 1843 description of harvest in Norfolk describes the activities and methods: “Thirty-four men mow the wheat and in order to lay it evenly, their scythes are fitted with cradles made of iron rods. These men are each followed by two women and a boy or girl to gather up the corn into small sheaves. Eight teamsmen ..... follow to shock up the sheaves, of which they place ten in a shock, or stook ... 300 acres of wheat is cut in six days. Carting takes a further eight. Eighteen to 20 days are needed to complete the harvest.

How times have changed!

But what has not changed is the importance of the harvest, however close or remote we are to it. Bread is for most of us still a daily essential; and the importance of the flour from which it is made was reinforced at the start of the recent pandemic, when the shelves were cleared of it.

As such, it is an opportune time to remember the ancient English Christian custom of baking a first loaf of bread from the flour of the first harvest and then bringing it to church to have it blessed. In early Christian times this custom came to be fixed for celebration on August 1st – last weekend – a day that was called “Lammas”, formed from the phrase “loaf mass”, when prayers were offered for a successful harvest. I remember some years ago attending a Lammas service in another rural church, where an elaborate loaf baked in the form of a sheaf was placed upon the altar – and how strangely moving that service was: connecting us with the faith of all who had worshipped in that place over so many centuries.

So early August is Lammas-tide, a time to focus on bread and our dependence on the fruits of the harvest. Blessing a loaf of bread in church may sound a bit odd to some. But it’s interesting to note that in some Christian traditions, such as the Eastern Orthodox church, prayer books also include prayers to bless not just bread but for digging wells, for salt, for sowing seed, for barns, for herds and enclosures for cattle, bees, beehives, honey, planting vineyards, stocking fishponds – and much more.

What’s interesting to note about all these blessings is not so much their specialness, but rather their very ordinariness. Many of them have to do with a farm life that most of us never touch directly, but the produce of that farm life is relevant to us all, in the foodstuffs upon which we all depend. Even the most meagre of diets—bread and water—includes bread. Bread goes to the very heart of human life.

It is therefore no coincidence that when Christ broke bread at the first  Eucharist, and instructed us to “do this in memory of me” he chose to do it through something so universal, made with the hands and the knowledge of a baker, and at the same time, the fruit of God’s creation.

We recall Jesus’ teaching after the feeding of the five thousand, where he describes himself as the Bread of Life – the one who provides everything we need in life: the answer to our prayer “Give us this day our daily bread”. Just as the bread distributed to the five thousand was sufficient for all bodily needs, so the life of Jesus in us has the potential – if we seek it – to fulfil our inner needs, our thirst for love and grace, for belonging and significance.

At Lammastide, the first fruits of the harvest were offered to God as a response to his provision. 'All things come from you, and of your own do we give you.' So may we reflect, even at this difficult time, on how by God's grace the seed will continue to grow, the dough will rise, and that the fields around us will yield a rich harvest. And may we remember also to be thankful in everything we do: recognising that the first claim on all that we have is God's, because He is the provider of all things.

Trinity Sunday - the beginning of Summer

trinity-sunday-846x444

It was on the Sunday after Whit Sunday (Pentecost) in the year 1162, that Thomas Becket was consecrated as perhaps the most famous Archbishop of Canterbury. It was he who subsequently decreed that the day of his consecration should be instituted as a new festival, in honour of the Holy Trinity. This feast became so important that the Anglican church has always named the long season of summer Sundays – right through until Advent, in fact – as “Sundays After Trinity”: an observance that spread from Canterbury throughout the whole of the Christian world.

Interestingly, this is the one festival in the Christian year that does not relate to particular events. Other festivals – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Passiontide, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost – all of these relate to specific events in Christ’s life on earth. But Trinity Sunday is different. It refers instead to the faith that we profess, of a God who is the three-in-one creator, redeemer and sustainer.

For many Christians, however, Trinity Sunday is an annual reminder of the difficulty of our faith. How can three be one? But of course, when we are dealing with faith, we are always dealing with something more than we can fully grasp or define.

The early Christian Church, however, felt that definition had to be attempted. And so evolved what has been called Christianity’s ‘new mathematics’, whereby 1 + 1 + 1 = 1: one God, ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ – which we have heard in today’s gospel reading from Matthew – the so-called ‘Great Commission’: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

This can be a very difficult concept to take in. And so we do one of two things: either we fall back on saying “it’s a mystery” or we attempt to define our faith in complex creeds – and whichever route we take, we are left open to criticism. It can be hard to find a way through. So as always, let’s look at what the Bible tells us. The Gospel of John is especially rich in Trinitarian language. In John 1: 29-36 we read how John the Baptist gave this testimony:

“I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”

In this one passage, the writer speaks of the Father (“the one who sent me”) the Spirit and the Son. Then, in John Chapter 14, Jesus tells his disciples: “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (14:26). Finally, in John 16:13 we read:

13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

At Pentecost, we heard about what Jesus told his disciples: that when he was gone, the Father would send this mysterious spirit that in Greek is called Parakletos, the advocate. We have to remember that the disciples, most of whom were destined to be dragged before the courts to explain their rebellious faith, would need all the help they could get when this happened. But this is not an educated lawyer that Jesus is talking about, when he says ‘advocate’: he is talking about the Holy Spirit.

So perhaps we can begin to see how the post-Pentecostal experience of the early Church eventually led to the formal doctrine of the Trinity. At this point, I’d like to quote, as I have done before, from a sermon given by Rowan Williams on Trinity Sunday back in 2009. In it, I think, he explains very powerfully how it was that the early church came to this understanding:

“…when the disciples have stood alongside Jesus, and then failed to stand alongside him at his crucifixion, but then were recalled to stand alongside him again in his resurrection, then the risen Lord says, 'Go and do the same'. ‘Go, baptise, go and draw people into the mystery of the threefold love. Go and draw people to stand in my place and pray with my prayer and breathe with my spirit.’ And they do.

And out of that, comes the teaching. Out of that experience … comes the doctrine. Because if you try long enough to stand in that place where Jesus is … sooner or later you'll begin to search for the words that might begin, just a little, to do justice to this mystery – and you will understand that you stand with the Son, crying out to the Father, borne up by the Holy Spirit. And bit by bit, the Church of God learns that language and begins to teach that doctrine.”

I think that Rowan Williams helps us here to understand how it was that the Church came to the conclusion that there is an inseparable link between God the Father, the creator-judge; Christ the redeemer; and the Holy Spirit, who gave the first Christians the power at Pentecost to take their faith out into the world.

This Holy Spirit is described by Paul (in Galatians Chapter 5) not in terms of fire and wind and speaking in tongues, but in terms of the “Fruit of the Spirit”: “Love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. Whenever we seek meaning in our lives, a search for sense and grace, these are the qualities – the gifts of the Spirit – that help us to become more fully human. And when we fall short of our human potential, as we surely will - but still receive forgiveness and a renewed determination to live a more purposeful life; it is then we have an experience of salvation.

Creation, revelation, salvation: a powerful example of the Trinity made real.

So on this Trinity Sunday, let us pray:

Lord, we pray that day by day we might, little by little, become more Christ-like people:

People who praise God the Father, the creator, who gave us bodies to live in this created world;

People who praise God the Son, who through his incarnation, his life, teaching and suffering, brought us salvation;

People who praise God the Spirit, who leads us beyond this world – and into eternal life.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

"The Blessing"

I thought it would be good to share this song - "The Blessing" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUtll3mNj5U) which has been put together by over 65 churches and movements (representing hundreds of others), who have come together online to sing.

The Blessing image

Technically accomplished, it is also a beautiful piece of worship music. In the words of the publishers:

"Standing together as one, our desire is that this song will fill you with hope and encourage you. But the church is not simply singing a blessing, each day we're looking to practically be a blessing. Many of the churches included in this song have assisted with supplying over 400,000 meals to the most vulnerable and isolated in our nation since COVID-19 lockdown began. This alongside phone calls to the isolated, pharmacy delivery drops and hot meals to the NHS frontline hospital staff.

Our buildings may be closed but the church is very much alive!"

Lyrics:

Verse — 

The Lord bless you

And keep you

Make His face shine upon you

And be gracious to you

The Lord turn His Face toward you

And give you peace

As we receive, we agree, amen

Chorus —  Amen, amen, amen

Bridge — 

May His favour be upon you

And a thousand generations

And your family and your children

And their children, and their children

May His presence go before you

And behind you, and beside you

All around you, and within you

He is with you, He is with you

Original Song “The Blessing” by Cody Carnes, Kari Jobe and Elevation Worship.

Written by Chris Brown, Cody Carnes, Kari Jobe and Steven Furtick

Audio produced by Trevor Michael

Video edited by Level Creative

For questions and more information please contact theukblessing@gmail.com

A very different Easter

The empty tomb

Three years ago, my wife Anna and I celebrated Easter somewhere very different.

On Easter Day, we attended a sunrise service on the banks of the Chobe River in Botswana, just over the border from Namibia. It was a mix of traditional hymns and African singing, local people mingling with elderly British ex-pats, with the sermon preached by a visiting, evangelical American pastor. Despite the location, the sun was concealed behind grey cloud, which made us feel strangely at home, as did the hot cross buns and miniature Easter eggs that were handed out after the service!

I thought then about how different it was from the villages where we worship week after week: different – and yet, essentially the same, with people gathering to witness their faith and celebrate the most extraordinary event in recorded history. This is the story that has spread to the farthest reaches of every continent; the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the implications that these events have for how we live, how we treat each other and for our relationship with God.

Three years on, this Easter is very different again: but this time, it’s unlike any other – no gatherings in churches anywhere this weekend, but services held only online, along with TV recordings made in previous years. Yet despite the challenges of the uncertain times we are living in, the key messages of Easter remain undiminished – the two central propositions of the Christian faith.

·      Firstly, that Jesus was not just another radical who challenged the authorities and became difficult, but that it was God himself who had entered His creation in the person of Jesus Christ. This is not a God who is remote and unknowable, but a God who, in that human incarnation, lived what we would recognise as a normal life for 30-plus years and then suffered the very worst that any of us could experience – torture and violent death. If the story ended with that violent death, then it would indeed all make little sense. But of course, that is not where the story ends.

·     The second central claim of the Easter story and the Christian faith is that Jesus then rose physically from the tomb: that on that first Easter morning and on some ten subsequent occasions was witnessed walking, talking and even eating with the disciples and others. Death had truly been overcome – it was a very real and tangible demonstration that death was not the end.

Without the resurrection, nothing about Christianity makes sense. If it’s not true, then nothing matters. But if you accept the Resurrection, then you see everything from a quite different viewpoint: it changes everything. I have been re-reading Rowan Williams’ thoughts on the Easter story recently. Sometimes, he cuts through the difficulties with an extraordinary clarity – no less than when he observed that “all Christian theology is essentially reflection on Easter”. For at Easter we realise that although Jesus’ crucifixion seemed to mean that the whole purpose of His life and mission had been defeated, the resurrection then demonstrated victory, over both the worst that humans can do to each other and over the apparent finality of death. The impact of this is immense – as are the implications for the life that it challenges us to lead.

We have seen in these last three weeks how people of all faiths or none are responding to the challenge that Christians recognise in the commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself”: the immense generosity of spirit demonstrated by so many acts of kindness and selflessness all over the country.  That is truly something to celebrate this Easter. For, in Rowan Williams’ words, this is a time when we can “simply ask for whatever healing it is that you need, whatever grace and hope you need … then step towards your neighbour. Easter reveals a God who is ready to give you that grace and to walk with you.”

May we all receive and celebrate that grace this Easter; and may it sustain us as we await the better times that will surely lie ahead. Amen.

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