2 Corinthians 9:6-15 : In suffering, consolation – an atypical Harvest festival

This sermon was preached at the Eucharitst in St Nicholas’, North Lopham for Harvest on the 4th of October 2020.

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It has been too long since I was last here with you in North Lopham. I was here for a Eucharist with you on the 4th of August 2019 and haven’t made it back since. Now it’s true to say that both John and Tony have been here with you regularly but I haven’t been able to join you and share in worship and fellowship with you in over a year. To be fair, there have been good reasons for this as John and Tony’s presence here has given me more opportunities to grow as a priest by serving primarily in the town of Diss; something which has been very helpful as a curate who is still training and learning. 

I was looking forward to joining you back in March.  I should have been with you for the 1st of March and the beginning of Lent. Alas we had to rearrange because I had to be on a Curate’s Residential that weekend. No fear, the plan was clear. I was tasked with doing a sermon series throughout Lent in each of the village Churches, ending here at North Lopham on Palm Sunday.

Alas, although I made it to Bressingham, South Lopham, and Roydon, the nation entered into Lockdown before I could make it to Fersfield and then here to North Lopham, depriving me once again of the opportunity to be here with you in person. The Palm Sunday when I had hoped to be here was instead the launch of our video reflection series by which we hoped to offer what we could until we were able to be reunited.

This sense of it having been a long time since I was here reminds me very much of Paul’s second letter to the Church in Corinth. He opens with these words: 

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.”

– 2 Corinthians 1:3-7

Paul identifies with the Corinthians by acknowledging that both he and they have shared in a time of suffering while he has been gone. He goes on to say that he had intended to join them sooner and will later end by saying that he intends to return to them.

Is this not similar to you and I? We had hoped to meet, but were prevented and have each endured the unprecedented lockdown and concerns surrounding Covid which continues to shape our lives, and will do for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it today means that we meet to celebrate harvest but it’s hardly the harvest festival we would ordinarily expect. We’ve been unable to decorate the Church with more than a token gesture here and there, and we can’t gather in the food offerings like we normally would.

Harvest is supposed to be a time of celebration, but in truth we might not feel that this has been a year of things to celebrate. Maybe we’ve even wondered, “Where is God in all of this?

For Paul, the glory of God is found in the suffering of Christ. “Just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.” That is, by Christ’s death upon the Cross he embraced the suffering of all of us and took it with him into his tomb. By his resurrection, emerging from the tomb to live again and forever more, now impervious to the shadow of death, he has won for us a consolation; a promise of redemption, forgiveness and healing such that leads us in the paths of eternal life. Lockdown has been hard, but what Jesus endured was harder; and he endured it for us, so that we might have hope in the midst of our present sufferings that we shall share in his eternal blessings. 

Holding on to this hope, we find that we are capable of great things – even things which we don’t instinctively recognise as being great. For instance, you have been back in this building for worship since the first Sunday of August; an achievement of which you should be satisfied for even today and the last couple of weekends I have been hearing of Churches reopening for worship for the first time since Lockdown. It’s not that we are better than they are, but we should acknowledge that we have had the opportunities to gather in our limited way which is a testament to our faith and desire to do what we can to worship God, to receive forgiveness of our sins, and to participate in the Eucharist. And you have done this freely and willingly without any pressure. 

It is these kinds of acts to which Paul refers when he encourages us to be ‘cheerful givers’, acts of generosity which we apply ourselves to because they form our response to the generosity of God’s love for us shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Paul says:

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work… thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

2 Corinthians 9: 8, 15.

This is the harvest not of wheat and grain, but of righteousness and personal character. As we can’t do harvest in the normal way, let us look to the heart of what the harvest represents for us; the witness of our changed lives impacting the lives of those around us. That is, of our being the Church, of our glorifying God by our obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of our sharing with others. 

This has never been more important for us to take to heart than in a year like this year, with all the hardships we have faced as a Church. And now we find ourselves anticipating the imminent arrival of five more churches joining the Diss Team Ministry. Next month, St Nicholas’ North Lopham will go from being one of six, to one of eleven, and the simple reality of the situation is that the health of our Churches depends more and more on the people of God in the pews than on the clergy standing at the front. 

We will pray for you daily, we will come and baptise, marry, and bury, and we will celebrate the Eucharist with you, forgiving you in the name of Jesus and encouraging you in all that you do. Yet it’s not just about us coming to you in the name of Jesus, the living son of God; it’s about how you will respond to the presence of the Holy Spirit within your hearts and live out your faith in your community, and attracting them to come and share in the fellowship of the Church. As Paul says, the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.

God will be with you, even on the Sundays when the clergy cannot be with you in person, and if you’re prepared to dare with generous hearts; God will honour your efforts with the fruits of the Gospel. 

And so let us not be afraid or fearful of the difficulties which lie ahead; the promise of the Gospel is that Jesus will be with us in them, and in the light of his presence, the darkness shall be dispelled that we might glorify God in all things as we strive to keep our Churches healthy in this new season of the Church’s life. 

Amen. 

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