Sermon at the Harvest Festival Service, Aughrim, Co Wicklow at 7.30 pm on Sunday, 7th October 2007
I remember a bus journey. It was January 1991. The bus left at six in the morning. We had to be at the bus stop early to make sure we got a seat. We had our breakfast at a little café at the roadside. The bus was going to take us from a place called Banaue to Manila, the capital city of the Philippines. It may have been January, but the temperature was over 80° and we had to sit on the bus for over ten hours. The journey was depressing. We passed mile on mile of people living in relentless grinding poverty; some had houses made from bamboo; some have shelters made from whatever they could find; some seemed to have nothing at all. They didn’t protest; they different complain; they seemed to quietly bear whatever hardship came their way.
There were so many people, I don’t remember their faces. But there is one face I will remember; the face of a little boy. He and his mother travelled on the bus for a short part of the journey. Perhaps he was two years old. He was dressed in a woolly hat and a tee shirt, possibly the only clothes he had. He sat on his mother’s lap and he stared at me. Perhaps he hadn’t seen many Europeans, perhaps he was just curious. I smiled at the little boy and thought about my own little boy who was 3 months old and was 8,000 miles away. Life seemed to be very unfair. Why did the little boy on the bus not get the same chances as my own little boy?
The other thing I thought about as I went along on that January morning was harvest thanksgiving. Just before I had left Ireland, I had been asked to preach at a service in the neighbouring parish the following autumn. What could I say? How do you talk about rejoicing when the world was full of so much misery? What could I say at the harvest?
The little boy on the bus was lucky. His mother could afford a bus fare. Others had no money at all. Earlier in that visit, when we had first arrived in Manila, we had gone to a place called Smoky Mountain, a place that mercifully no longer exists. Smoky Mountain was the city rubbish dump: it was filthy, the stench was overwhelming; fires burned all of the time. When Jesus used a word to describe ‘hell, he used the word ‘Gehenna’; Gehenna was the city rubbish dump outside of Jerusalem. Smoky Mountain was a picture of hell, yet at the time there were thousands of people who were so poor, they were living on Smoky Mountain. I thought to myself, how can anybody stand up and sing thanks to God while people were going through a living hell?
I never found an answer to my question, not then, not during a visit to Tanzania in 1998, nor during a return to the Philippines six years ago. Christian Aid has had a profound influence on my life in prompting me to constantly ask questions about justice, about peace, about truth.
What sort of Christianity do we have? Do we actually take God seriously at all? If we do, then we have to ask ourselves, when God looks at this world and sees the gross inequalities, when he sees the huge wealth some people have, and the abject poverty in which others live, what does he make of us? Looking down on us this evening, what would God make of us? If the little boy on the bus, who is probably eighteen or nineteen now, if he is still alive, if he asked us why he had to live in poverty, while we had all we needed, what would we say to him?
I don’t know what you would say, nor do I know what I would say. When that boy went to church on Sundays, he would have heard week by week about a God who believed in justice and fairness, and he would have wondered why that justice did not extend to himself. The boy would probably have said nothing because one of the things absolute poverty does is to grind people down into a sense of resignation and hopelessness.
God is not so quiet. God is very outspoken when it comes to some people living in misery while others live in luxury. The book of Genesis tells us that God has created us in his image and because we are created in his image, each of us is special. Turn to the prophets in the Old Testament, men like Amos, and they are clear as to how we should behave: no-one should be left poor, and if anyone is poor, it is the duty of God’s people to help them.
A cry for justice reverberates through the pages of the Old Testament and turning to the New Testament, we are presented with the teaching of Jesus himself. I saw a lovely T-shirt at an Christian gathering a few years ago. On it were these words, ‘I asked Jesus how much he loved me and he said ‘This much’, and stretched out his arms . . . and died’. God loves each of us to send his Son to die for us personally. How then does God feel when his people, the people for whom His Son died, leave their brothers and sisters to die from famine and disaster and war?
Do you know what God says at one point in the book of the prophet Amos? He is so angry with the people of Israel that he says, ‘I despise your festivals’. The people were coming along to sing their hymns of thanksgiving, but God would not listen to them because they would not do what was right.
How does God see us? He loves you and me so much that he sends his Son and how do we respond? We can change the world. If we want to we can create a world where there is no hunger, no poverty, no little children dying for the want of basic necessities. We can change the world.
I remember seeing a figure about ten years ago about how much it would cost to make sure all the children of the world got proper treatment, It was a colossal figure, colossal. It was as much as the United States spent on cigarettes every six months; it was as much as western Europe was spending on alcohol every three months.
The little boy on the bus, and the hundreds of millions like him, need an answer. What are we going to do? You and me here this evening, what are we going to do? It’s easy to feel overawed, to feel the task is so large that we can do nothing. We might feel that even if we gave every penny we have, what difference would it make?
Most of us will have heard the Starfish story, “I awoke early, as I often did, just before sunrise to walk by the ocean’s edge and greet the new day. As I moved through the misty dawn, I focused on a faint, far away motion. I saw a youth, bending and reaching and flailing arms, dancing on the beach, no doubt in celebration of the perfect day soon to begin.
As I approached, I sadly realized that the youth was not dancing to the bay, but rather bending to sift through the debris left by the night’s tide, stopping now and then to pick up a starfish and then standing, to heave it back into the sea. I asked the youth the purpose of the effort. “The tide has washed the starfish onto the beach and they cannot return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun rises, they will die, unless I throw them back to the sea.”
As the youth explained, I surveyed the vast expanse of beach, stretching in both directions beyond my sight. Starfish littered the shore in numbers beyond calculation. The hopelessness of the youth’s plan became clear to me and I countered, “But there are more starfish on this beach than you can ever save before the sun is up. Surely you cannot expect to make a difference.”
The youth paused briefly to consider my words, bent to pick up a starfish and threw it as far as possible. Turning to me he simply said, “I made a difference to that one.”
If we think about billions of people in need and trillions of dollars needed to help them, we will get nothing done. When we focus on one child, one woman, one man, one community, we see things in a different way. We can make a difference to individuals.
I would love to see a day when all the people of the world can join together and give thanks. The little boy on the bus would have loved to have seen a day when everyone can give thanks. That day is not a dream, that day is possible, if we want it to happen. Do we hear what God is saying to us? We are his people, do we care for his people?
I will finish with one more very brief story, from an American source:
After Jesus ascended to heaven, the angel Gabriel approached Him and said, “Master, you must have suffered terribly for people down there.”
“I did,” He said.
“And,” continued Gabriel, “do they know all about how you loved them and what you did for them?”
“Oh, no,” said Jesus, “not yet. Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know.”
Gabriel was perplexed. “Then what have you done, to continue your work?”
Jesus said, “I’ve asked Peter, James, John, and a few more friends to tell other people about me. Those who are told will in turn tell still other people about me.”
Gabriel frowned and looked rather sceptical. He knew well what poor stuff people were made of. “But what if Peter and James and John grow weary? What if the people who come after them forget? Haven’t you made any other plans?”
And Jesus answered, “I haven’t made any other plans. I’m counting on them.”
Jesus counts on us. It’s left to us. Jesus loved us enough to die for us. Do we love him enough to care for the little boy on the bus?