Sunday, September 29, 2013

What's the point of celebrating Harvest?

The previous blog contains notes from our morning service for our Harvest weekend.  In the evening service we had a much more 'traditional' harvest service with lots of the old favourite harvest hymns!

We had a lovely tea with Hy-Way on Wednesday over in the Tewkesbury Park Hotel – first, June came up with the request for Fair waved the golden corn for Harvest … and then my passengers, Olga and Joyce made a request for the favourites and Olga said from Congregational Praise including Mr Moxley’s Oxfam hymn.

So I thought let’s have a rest from Acts and think about Harvest.  The very word itself is an Old English one and the custom of celebrating the harvest goes back to time immemorial.

That fount of wisdom Wikipedia describes 16th century customs including ‘reapers accompanying a fully laden cart, a tradition of shouting Hooky, Hooky, and one fo the foremost reapers dressing extravagantly, acting as ‘lord’ of the harvest and asking for money from the onlookers.

There’s a play by a contemporary of Shakespeare, Thomas Nash first performed in October 1592 ‘that describes several of these features’ called Summer’s Last Will and Testament.

Maybe we should get Alan to use his contacts and get Morris Men to join us.

From a church point of view it was well established among our forebears by the time they travelled on the Mayflower to America when in 1621 they celebrated their first harvest at Thanksgiving – a custom that has become a major festival in the States.

And over here, harvest festivals as many of us grew up with with their displays of produce, their baskets brought to church gogest back to 1843 when the Reverend Robert Hawker invited people to a special thanksgiving servie at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall.  That then produced some of those favourite Victorian harvest hymns – come ye thankful people come, Fair waved the golden corn and most of the others we are going to sing this evening.  Though the German We plough the fields and scatter is from the pevious century the translation we love is from this century.
But of course in celebrating Harvest we then put the roots back very much into the Bible where the whole rhythm of the Jewish year is built around a succession of harvests.  I like that idea … and it has always appealed to me.  Many of the Jewish harvests are ealier in our calendar year – this is the time when the Jewish people have just celebrated the start of their New Year.  I like to think of Harvest as in some ways the start of the year.  It’s the start of a new school year, a new session at church, and we mark something that celebrates the goodness of God in creation.  Then we come on at Christmas to celebrate the Incarnation, in Holy Week and Easter the death and resurrection and at Pentecost (itself a harvest festival) the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  It is a pattern that takes us to the very heart of God, Creator, Redeemer,  Sustainer, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Turn to one of the classic Jewish accounts of harvest and you will find many of the customs we have grown up with find their roots in the kind of passage we read from Deuteronomy 26.

Indeed, that chapter provides us with one of the classic readings we share on Harvest Sunday.

I can remember in the first Harvests Felicity and I shared with the folk in Yorkshire where the traditions were very strong  this was the pattern we followed – I grew up with it too.

26When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ 4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5you shall make this response before the Lord your God

It’s a lovely picture – that’s morphed from produce actually grown, to fruit and veg bought from the shops, to tined food we offer today.  But basically it’s the same idea.

The gift is accompanied by a wonderful statement of faith in this passage that is recited by everyone.  I guess we sing our faith in our tradition and the hymns we sing sum up the faith we share.  But it’s good to speak our faith.

This is one of the earliest statements of faith –

It’s an account of all that God has done for his people – all they have is His and so they return something of what is his and say a great big ‘Thank you’.

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, 7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’

Then comes a wonderful moment … the gift is presented to God and the indebtedness to God for all the people have is acknowledged.

You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11Then you, … shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

I think it is a wonderful thought.

Let’s just pause at those last words –

You shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

This is the point where if we are going to do a traditional Harvest Service we need to push on a little beyond the produce of the gardens.   We live far from the land – in our houses and flats and rooms.  Think of all the bounty in your house – is it something you take pride in – the fruit of a lifetime of labours.  You have earned it?  Harvest encourages us to think of all the bounty we have in our house and recognise it comes from God.  How indebted we are to God.

Did you notice I left some words out of that last sentence.  Deliberately.

This is what Deuteronomy 26 verse 11 actually says …

Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

This is one of those special moments in the Books of the Law when something remarkable is glimpsed.  It’s very easy to think of the occupation of the Promised land, that land flowing with milk and honey, resulting in a land peopled only by Jewish People.  Read more closely in the Torah and in the later books of Joshua, Judges … and you will find there is another strand.  One that is sometimes overlooked.   There are in the land foreigners – and the foreigners remain.  And the purposes of God is that Jewish people and foreigners live together sharing the land.  And sharing the produce of the land, the wonderful bounty the Lord your God has given you.

This catapults me back into our reading of Acts.  In Acts 10 and 11 and through to 15 we are at that moment when comes the realisation that the Good news of Jesus is all inclusive of Jew and Gentile – that all are included in the people of God.   This is not a denial of the Jewishness of Jesus and Peter but the fulfilment of a strand in the Old Testament that goes back to this kind of passage in Deuteronomy 26 which affirms the place of the foreigner in the midst.

But this also touches the focus of our Harvest this year when we are supporting Middle East concern – one of the big issues in the Middle East has to do with the capacity for different peoples to live together.  With the exception of the Crusades and of the last fifty years Jew, Christian and Muslim have lived side by side in the Middle East.   In Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Palestine, in Israel they have lived side by side.

There are moves to prise those peoples apart – throughout the Middle East – we see it in the scale of persecution of Christian people.  We’ve seen it in horrific ways in Pakistan last Sunday.  How important to pray for the people of those lands.  In amongst those prayers the prayer that people can live side by side with the foreigner in the midst.

There’s a danger of a backlash – here as well.  Maybe it’s because it’s Leicester and that’s where Felicity and I grew up, but I found it very moving hearing the Neurosurgeon in the hospital in Dublin describing his reaction to the arson attack on his Leicester home which resulted in the death of his wife and his three children.  He was a devout Muslim … but it was moving to hear the way he was so pleased there had been no violence in response to what had happened.

It’s very easy to slip from praying for persecuted Christians to an Islamophobia and a Xenophobia on our doorstep.  And that, it seems to me, this kind of passage is urging us to resist.  The alien in our midst is part of us.

What do you do with all that’s offered …

Well this passge sets the precedent that we have taken to following in our harvest festivals from as far back as I can remember – so well over 50 years!

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, 13then you shall say before the Lord your God: ‘I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me;

We have reaffirmed the importance of the tithe – planned giving of a proportion of your income, we say disposable income – we suggest a twentieth for Church on the assumption that another 20th will go to charitable giving making a tithe in all.

In this instance the giving is for the Levites, the aliens, the orphans and the widows, so that  they may eat their fill within your towns.

This is what underpins our support of CCP foodshare in our harvest today … and also what underpins our use of our Harvest collection that goes on a mission project in Highbury and this year for Middle East Concern in the support they give to Persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

It is an expression of solidarity.

The passage finishes with a renewed commitment to the covenant relationship the people have with their God.

I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments: 14I have not eaten of it while in mourning; I have not removed any of it while I was unclean; and I have not offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God, doing just as you commanded me. 15Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey.’

Concluding Exhortation

16 This very day the Lord your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul. 17Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. 18Today the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments; 19for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honour; and for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised.

Maybe our harvest should finish with a renewal of our commitment to follow in the ways of God in the living of our lives that all we do may be to his glory.

Praying for the Middle East

On the last Sunday of September we always celebrate Harvest.  Just as a new school year is beginning it seems good to start our 'Christian' year with creation and a celebration of God our Father, before moving on to Christmas, Holy Week and  Easter as we celebrate the birth, life and death and resurrection of Jesus, rounding off the year with Pentecost and our celebration of the Holy Spirit and that strength, unseen and yet so real, that is nothing other than the presence of God with us, guiding and empowering us.

At Harvest we have one of our special collections of the year and always share it between Highbury's mission project, supporting a children's worker for our work among children, and a project linked to the world church.

This year we have been supporting the work of Middle East Concern.

At our Harvest Supper we were introduced to the work they do throughout the Middle East and North Africa and in this morning's service we focused particularly on Syria.

It was good to have our focus for prayer in the Middle East over Harvest Weekend and to have a particular focus for our prayers.

At our Harvest Supper a suggestion was shared that would be good for us all to do this week ... and on into the future too.

So much is happening in the Middle East it is very difficult to know how exactly we should pray.  This is one suggestion and thought, not so much for a prayer time, but rather at those moments when we are confronted on the news with all that's happening.

Each time we hear mention of one of those countries we are so concerned for in the Middle East, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and so on … in that moment say to yourself, “There’s a church in this country and I can pray for them now.”  This is the kind of thing those churches are asking us to pray for …

  • Pray that we maintain a good witness
  • Pray that we won’t be anxious
  • Pray that we stand firm in the faith
  • Pray that we will know God’s peace
  • Pray that we will be courageous
  • Pray that we will be able to reach out to others in need and do the right thing

This morning in our Service our focus was on Syria.  It is through the personal contacts we were hearing about this morning with church leaders in Syria that we are asked to pray the following in our prayers for Syria

  • Comfort, healing and support for the bereaved, wounded, displaced and traumatised
  • Syrian Church involved in meeting humanitarian needs to have the resources to do so
  • Christians in neighbouring countries supporting the 2 million plus registered refugees and (probably) as many unregistered
  • Christians to remain in Syria wherever possible
  • A political breakthrough.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Offering ourselves in the service of God and of other people

Our service today was a special service, welcoming people into Church Membership, celebrating our children's and young people's groups at the start of a new school year, presenting Bibles to some of our young people and then thinking of the way everyone in the church family has something to offer God and to offer other people in the life of our church ...

Call to Worship

Lord Jesus Christ
help us to lead a life worthy
of the calling to which we have been called, with all humility and gentleness and patience,
Bearing with one another in love,
Making every effort
to maintain the unity of the Spirit
In the bond of peace.

Hymn:  33  Now thank we all our God

Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer

Church Membership

Highbury is a place to
share Christian friendship,
explore Christian faith and
enter into Christian mission
with Christ at the centre
and open to all.

Highbury Congregational Church is affiliated to the Congregational  Federation, a fellowship of independent Churches who come together to share resources and to support each other.

We are committed to each other by belief in the living God, revealed in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.

We trust in our Lord’s promise to be with His people who meet in His name.

We affirm the scriptural right of every Church to maintain independence in the ordering of its affairs according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We recognise the oneness of all Christians within the rich diversity of the world-wide Church.  We seek the unity for which Christ prayed by the means He wills.

We are partners in God’s mission with the Churches of the Council for World Mission, a world-wide mission partnership, and with Churches Together.

We worship, work and serve with all who love our Lord to realise His Kingdom in the world, and to help people everywhere to know the joy of His companionship.

God has already placed Jesus Christ as the one and only foundation: there can be no other foundation.  Jesus said, “Where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them.  I give you a new commandment to love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
1 Corinthians 3:11, Matthew 18:20,  John 13:34-35

Church Members are called to

  • Worship God regularly with the whole Church family
  • Remember the covenant with God in the Lord’s Supper
  • Read the Bible and pray regularly
  • Share in the life and work of the Church Meeting gathered together in Christ’s name.
  • Witness by the power of the Holy Spirit to the truth of the Gospel through what they are, what they do, and what they say.
  • Give their gifts of time, service and money to the work of the Kingdom as they are able.

In all they do they rejoice in the forgiving love of God, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, knowing that when they fail they do not give up but go on in the strength of God.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  Love your neighbour as yourself.    Mark 12:30-31

Questions for Church Membership for
Karen Waldock and Charlotte Armstrong

Do you believe in God and Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?

Do you promise as you are able to share here at Highbury in the church’s worship, in its mission, in prayer, in church meeting and in giving so that Highbury really can be a place to share Christian friendship, explore Christian faith, enter into Christian mission with Christ at the centre and open to all?

I do


Going deeper … a time with the children

I am going to get the children to tell me what happens when they go out to the back

Starting with the all together time … then going into their groups

I will then have some fun with the titles of their groups … but at the same get them to say they do Bible stories and hear what Jesus does

Bubbles – I will get some bubbles and talk about fun together and great stories

Splash – little bit older – a bucket of water and I will splash the youngsters and get them saying more stories

X-Stream – I will threaten to pour the bucket out as a stream – and then maybe get someone to throw the bucket of water down the slope by the front door – we are beginning now to launch out think more – how the good news goes out into the world

M:Ocean – getting older and out on the ocean the big world – big issues, big feelings …

And then introduce D:per – going deeper

I will then suggest that actually we are all basically doing the same thing – in the main part of the church we tell Bible stories, stories of Jesus … and we are making connections – listening out for what God is saying to us and his word for us … what we can do about it in our world.  In a sense we are all going deeper.

All of us are using one basic course book – and actually it’s the same one.  It’s the Bible.

Stories at a children’s level – but then we need to go deeper – and as you find out the Bible re-pays reading and really getting to grips with …

So for those in M:Ocean we present a Bible, the Youth Bible that helps you in going deeper – but the idea is that you will be continuing to use it as a real tool

Presentation of the Youth Bibles

And we all of us need guidance.

I will briefly tell the story of the Ehtiopian Eunuch and the question he asks …

An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get ready and go south  to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This road is not used nowadays.)  27-28 So Philip got ready and went. Now an Ethiopian eunuch, who was an important official in charge of the treasury of the queen of Ethiopia, was on his way home. He had been to Jerusalem to worship God and was going back home in his carriage. As he rode along, he was reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah

k*. 29 The Holy Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to that carriage and stay close to it.” 30 Philip ran over and heard him reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah

He asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

31 The official replied, “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?” And he invited Philip to climb up and sit in the carriage with him.  

Reading:  Acts 8:32-35

The passage of scripture which he was reading was this:

“He was like a sheep that is taken to be slaughtered,
like a lamb that makes no sound when its wool is cut off.
He did not say a word.
33 He was humiliated, and justice was denied him.
No one will be able to tell about his descendants,
because his life on earth has come to an end.”

34 The official asked Philip, “Tell me, of whom is the prophet saying this? Of himself or of someone else?”

35 Then Philip began to speak; starting from this passage of scripture, he told him the Good News about Jesus.

A Hy-Spirit Song

Offering of Money Gifts for the church – everyone remain seated

Reflections and Building up the Body of Christ

I grew up with Bible stories.  I love telling Bible stories to children.  But as I come back to them they connect more and more with the adult world I am very conscious of.

That came home to me forcibly last Sunday.  On Sunday evenings I am preaching through the Book of Acts and last Sunday I arrived at chapter 9 – which describes the encounter Saul who was to become Paul had with the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus.

When I was a child Damascus was from off time and in a far off place.  It is right at the forefront of our minds.

Read again the account and it is a brutal time when the first followers of Jesus are facing persecution – indeed Philip is on that road to Gaza because of the brutality of the persecution that is going on.  We were reflecting on the way Christ meets us in the middle of dark times.  And out of those dark times God brings unexpected good.

Paul makes a fleeting visit back to Jerusalem but there is then a 14 year gap which he spends initially in his home town of Tarsus – maybe he is taking time to get his head round this business of following Jesus and all it means, taking time to ‘go deeper’

He emerges after those fourteen years going again to the very place where he had been involved in brutal persecution of followers of Jesus and has a private meeting just with the leaders of the church there.  Maybe understandably they are very ‘iffy’ about him.  Not at all sure about him.  Then they see the genuineness of the work he is doing (verses 7-8) and then comes a wonderful set of verses that we use as the inspiration and model for our understanding of what happens when we welcome people into church membership of our church here at Highbury.

Cephas is just the Hebrew form of Peter – this is where we get the phrase ‘pillars of the church’ from.

Reading;  Galatians 2:9-10 (NRSV)

James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.

All are welcome at Highbury

But as we get to know people and

Recognise the grace of God at work within them
We then welcome them into church membership and extend the right hand of fellowship to them.

We recognise that each person has a job to do – Paul’s was to go to the Gentiles.

And all have a challenge to remember ‘the poor’, those most in need, the most vulnerable around us.

Every single one of us has a job to do.

And this morning we are going to have a second offering.  When twe ook our offering I deliberately got everyone to stay sitting down – usually we make a think of our offering – we are offering our gifts but we are also offering ourselves in the service of God and of other people.  Today we are going to take that seriously and so we are going to have a second offering – and this time we are going to offer ourselves in God’s service.

In a moment we are going to sing … as we prepare ourselves to make our offering – I am then going to give us space to write our responses to on this form together.

Hymn MTS 2 Be still for the Presence of the Lord


As I stand and offer myself in the service of God and in the service of other people I feel prompted to commit myself to serve at Highbury in the following ways ...
1)  Please write in a couple of sentences what you have to offer Highbury.

2) Please identify which area or areas of the church’s work you are drawn to ...
Children’s Work
Youth Work
Pastoral Care
Mission and Outreach

3) Much goes on behind the scenes - please tick what kind of support you feel able to give in what we have described as the ‘support services’ Highbury needs at the moment and for the future ...        
•           IT
•           The Church Office
•           Membership records and master list of Church Members and Adherents
•           Operations diary and room booking
•           Practical arrangements for Sunday services and occasional services
•           Sound and Vision
•           Housekeeping
•           Hospitality and catering
•           Publicity, advertising, leaflets and web site
•           Production, collection, collation and distribution of Highbury News
•           Maintenance and security of the building and grounds, car park, and Manse
•           Development of the building and environment
•           Health and Safety
•           Safeguarding
•           Disability Awareness and Inclusion

Now we make our offering – this time as the plates are brought to the front we will all stand and offer ourselves anew in the service of God and in the service of others here at Highbury

The Offering and Dedication Prayer

There is one body and one Spirit,
Just as we were called
to the one hope of our calling:
One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
One God and Father of all who is above all and through all and in all.
To each of us was given grace
according to the measure of Christ’s gift
to build up the body of Christ.
May all that we offer help us as a church family to build up the body of Christ here in this place.

A quiet song from Hy-Spirit to lead into

In a moment Jean is going to lead us into our prayers for our church, for people in need and for the wider world.  In our prayers we are very conscious of the situation in the Middle East, not least in that city of Damascus.   We are conscious of persecution in so many parts especially of the Middle East – we are supporting this month the work of Middle East Concern in its support of Christians in the Middle East facing persecution.  Our harvest collection will be shared between our work of mission and the work of Middle East Concern – our supper that weekend will be a Middle Eastern Supper from our friend Bassam from Palestine  and Ian will be joining us to help us think through How we Pray for Christians in the Middle East.   He will join us again that Sunday morning too.  Tickets for that supper for £7-50 are available from today.   There won’t be fun and games but our children are very well aware of what’s going on will be thinking of it as they see reports on the news and thinking about it at school – so it may well be that they and especially our older children would get something very valuable out of this evening.  Ian has said – we only hear the bad news – but actually their research shows that there is much that is good happening too as churches are growing and making a very real difference in their contribution to peace and to justice.

Prayers of Concern

Hymn 430  How firm a foundation

Words of Blessing

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light