The Harvest

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco,  November 24, 2019.

Once upon a time, there was a young man
who lived in Israel who worked many years as a carpenter
but then began to preach.

For maybe three years
he wandered around the
countryside teaching people
and drawing quite a following
but then he made the mistake of
going to Jerusalem
and upsetting the authorities
and the result was
that he was arrested and tortured
and killed.

It’s not, by and large,
a very unusual story.

Similar stories might be told
of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons
or George Fox, the founder of the Quakers
or maybe of Mohammed, the founder of Islam.

But while the Gospel today
tells us something about the events
surrounding the death
of Jesus of Nazareth,
the epistle today,
which was written only twenty years later
at the most,
makes the most extraordinary claims
ever made about a human being.

It says,
“He is ths image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.”
It says that “all things ln heaven and on earth
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers,
all things have been created
through him and for him
and that he himself is
before all things,
and in him all things hold together.”
It says, “He is the head of the body,
the church; he is the beginning,
the firstborn from the dead
so that he might come to have first place in everything
for in him all the fullness of God has
been pleased to dwell.”

That’s what we read in the second lesson this morning
and that’s the most amazing claim
that ever was made for a human being.
No such claim was ever made
for Joseph Smith or George Fox
or even Mohammed.

But stranger still
it comes from a Jew, Paul of Tarsus,
a man who was educated in the best Jewish schools,
in a faith that had for at least fifteen hundred years
been drawing a wider and wider
line of separation
between human beings and God.

Early tn the Book of Genesis
you find God walking in the garden
and looking for Adam in the cool of the day,
and a little later on you find God
stopping ln to have dinner with Abraham,
and then you have God
appearing in a cloud
to give the Commandments to Moses
while the people stand fearfully at a distance.
And then Isaiah, centuries later,
pictures God as being so far above
the earth that the people down below
appear like grasshoppers.

That’s not very high by modern standards
but it was a new record in those days.
And then a century or so later Ezekiel had a vision
in which he could only speak
of “the appearance of the likeness
of the glory of God.”
Gradually, Judaism became a unique religion
in which no image or likeness
of God could be made
and in which the name of God
could not be spoken,
and the distance between
the Creator and the creation was so great
it seemed impassable.

Now, it seems to me
there’s a lot in common
between that understanding of God
and the vision of contemporary science
which also presents a universe so immense
that a God who created it
and stood outside it
would be so remote
as to be beyond all knowing.

Solomon built a temple for God and prayed saying,
“Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you;
how much less this house
that I have built.”

But in spite of all that,
almost two thousand years ago
one group of Jews began to claim
that indeed one human life
had contained
“all the fulness of God,”
and to say that “All things visible and invisible
were created ln him.”

They said that about this young Jewish man
who was nailed to a cross by Roman soldiers.

Now, if that were a claim
made by people who hadn’t known him –
if that were a claim developed
by theologians centuries later,
I would reject lt out of hand.

But it wasn’t.

It was said by people who knew him,
who were there when he was arrested,
and crucified,
but nevertheless went out saying,
“We were eye witnesses.”
“What our eyes have witnessed
and our hands have handled,”
wrote St. John, “we declare to you.”

Now, is that at all reasonable?

That’s the most basic, quintessential Anglican question:
“Is it reasonable?”
Is it reasonable to think
that the Creator of quarks and spinal nebulae
and black holes and infinite space beyond what our minds can grasp
would be present here on earth
in one brief human life?

Yes, it is.
For why would a Creator
indulge himself or herself
with the doing of all this
if the universe were all one vast impersonal
swirl of power
but empty of love or response
or an intelligence able to understand
at least in part
and respond in “wonder, love, and praise.”
ln fact, it seems to me
it’s less unlikely
that the Creator should be present
in one human life
than that the Creator should be present
in all human life
and that that one human life,
the life of Jesus,
should be
not totally different from any other life
but rather a summing up,
a clarification,
a simultaneous showing
of all that God is
and all that we every one of us might be.

To say that all the fullness of God
dwelt in Jesus
is to say something about ourselves also:
to say that human life has that capacity for God-likeness,
for that relationship,
for that holiness.

And that’s wonderful
and it’s frightening.
It would be much more comfortable
to settle for something less:
a remote, unknowable God,
a god who was basically indifferent to us
and uninvolved in our lives.

But that’s not what the gospel offers.
It offers instead a God
beyond all knowing indeed,
but somehow nevertheless
truly known in human life,
especially in Jesus.

Known especially in Jesus,
but known also in Peter and Paul and John
and Francis and Thomas Cranmer
and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mother Theresa
and even in you and in me.

The God of the Bible is
a God who could not possibly
as Solomon knew
be contained in any human building
yet can be present ln this building
and even in the small piece of bread
we receive at the Altar rail.

And that potential relationship
gives a purpose
to the whole of creation.

The Creator of the universe
is a God who loves
and who seeks a response.

The Creator of the universe
is the God who made us
for that purpose.

And all of that brings us around
by a rather long route
to what goes on this week.

There’s a potential danger
in any harvest festival
because it’s a part of a natural rhythm
of seedtime and harvest,
part of a circular pattern
that goes around and comes around,
unchanging year after year. after year.

And there’s nothing more deadly
than a circle; nothing more
deadening than the same thing
over and over again.
When we want to indicate that someone is crazy,
we make circular motion.

When the Hebrew people came
into the land of Canaan
they found people there
who were centered on harvests

They worshiped gods
who could bring them a good harvest
and nothing more:
they worshiped gods without any purpose
greater than a good crop this autumn.

And a great deal oI the Old Testament
is the story of the conflict
between the God of the Bible
and the gods of Canaan,
the God who works in history
and the gods who work in nature.

And the people were constantly
tempted to settle for a good harvest
and the prophets were constantly
threatening, urging, promising, proclaiming
that these gods were too small
and really not worth the trouble.

So the Jews finally did create some harvest festivals.
Passover itself was closely connected to the harvest
and so was Pentecost .
but still Passover remained deeply rooted in history,
in real events,
a real escape from slavery,
an event at the Red Sea
in which God had been clearly at work.
And the more they were defeated after that
and the more the promise seemed unfulfilled,
the more the prophets continued to point toward
a future,
a future fulfillment
of God’s purpose ln history,
and the coming of a Messiah
and a Messianic age
and a harvest of a very different sort,
a harvest of human lives
brought into an eternal kingdom.

That’s the beauty of a harvest festival,
or Thanksgiving, coming at the end of
the Christian year.

Yes, Christmas is coming and all that one more time,
but the tragedy is the story of so many
who get over Thanksgiving and skip Advent
and move right on from
Thanksgiving to Christmas
without stopping to catch their breath.
The tragedy is that they leave out
the weeks that put it in
perspective, that remind us
that Christ not only has come
but will come again
at the end of time
and bring in a final harvest
and sort out the good grain from the bad.

Yes, the world goes around
but the Judaeo-Christian insight is
that even more importantly
it is going somewhere also
ln a straight line with a beginning,
a middle and an end.
That the Creator beyond all knowing
has come here to be known
and to call us to a life
as far beyond this
as the Creator is beyond the Creation.

The Epistle and Gospel today
go together and tell us of that God,
the one who died for us on cross
and in whom all the fulness of God was present
and in whom we also
find the meaning and purpose of life.

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