‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!’ Paul’s instruction in Philippians is perhaps a little hard to follow when we see the pictures of the World Trade Centre, as we wake up each morning half afraid of what we will hear on the news, or we are reminded of the suffering of thousands of people victims of famine or oppression. And yet Paul is emphatic, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ and repeats himself, ‘and again I say Rejoice!’
At harvest we celebrate the sustenance, food, shelter and resources that by the Grace of God and the work of human hands we gain from the world in which we live. In the same way that the Israelites thousands of years ago brought the first fruits of the land to their priests, we bring produce, often a loaf of bread, symbolic of the first fruits of our harvest and what we have been able to do with them. With the availability of foods all year round in our supermarkets, brought to us from all corners of the globe, there are those who suggest that harvest is no longer relevant as a festival, it’s just a relic of an agricultural past, but it would be a sorry thing if we did not find time to celebrate this special partnership with God as stewards of his creation.
It is easy to be thankful when we have so much that is nourishing and good. But what if our experiences of the world God has placed us in are less than ideal? The Israelites remember the years of misery, toil and oppression in Egypt when, forced to work for a nation that set its own leaders up as gods, the ‘work of human hands’ had for them a terrible significance. When the work of human hands becomes divorced from God’s grace then we walk on dangerous ground. How could religious people of any faith become so isolated from the core of God’s love that their labours could cause so much suffering to others. Muslim and Christian alike share a common scripture telling us man is made in the image of God, and share responsibility for an image scarred and defaced over centuries of conflict. In the great loss of life in New York the result of many years of labour, research and development, technological advances in architecture and aviation, ’the work of human hands‘, was abused to catastrophic effect. And yet Paul says ‘Rejoice in the Lord!’
How could God let it happen? God that sees that the grain is nourished and grows strong to give us good things to eat, who created a world of breathtaking beauty, even in the deepest parts of the ocean. What we harvest from life depends on the partnership between man and God. God provides, but man must work to ensure that this provision is fairly shared. To the crowd that had witnessed the feeding of the five thousand Jesus appeared to be a magician, but if they were impressed they didn’t show it. ‘Moses supplied bread for 40 years’, they said. ‘Why don’t you do a miracle and give us bread from heaven?’ Jesus points out that it was not Moses, but God who provided the food. It was the partnership of God’s grace and the work of the Israelites in gathering the manna before it spoiled that kept the people fed. As the bread of life Jesus represents that partnership between humanity and God, ensuring a productive harvest, both physical and spiritual for all who believe in him. Through this partnership it is possible for all to be fed and sheltered. The bread harvested from this partnership will not spoil.
In the case of the hijackers their religion had become twisted and filled with malice, fed by thoughts of hatred and resentment, such things break up that partnership with God, a partnership only broken from man‘s end. If only they had heeded the words of Paul ‘Whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, -if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things.’ It is such a way of thinking, rejoicing in what is good, rejoicing in the provision of God’s grace, that will nourish the seeds of true partnership between the Grace of God and the work of human hands so that all his people gain the benefit of the abundant harvest of his love for us. Pray that we can overcome division with reconciliation, hate with love, greed with generosity and prejudice with understanding so that our partnership will bring the seeds of the kingdom of God to fruition, and the whole world may be free to celebrate a fair and plentiful harvest.