It is wonderful to be here today together as a parish, as we give thanks to God for 170 years of faithful worship and witness in and from this church building to the people of West Hyde and Maple Cross. I would like to express my personal thanks to all those who have worked tirelessly to make this weekend happen and to make this place look so beautiful inside and those who have worked tirelessly to make this place look so beautiful on the outside having now finally completed the much longed for and needed restorative building works.
I was really struck, again, this week by the ministry of Pope Francis and he is rapidly becoming a spiritual hero of mine and of many millions of others. As he made his first official visit to the USA. Earlier in the week, in a speech to Congress he chastised the US Government for not accepting the reality of climate change and it’s impact on the most vulnerable, to make that point more thoroughly, he snubbed the opportunity for a state banquet as it were, to go and eat with some of those most vulnerable at a homeless project in Washington DC. One man who has been supported by homeless charities over 3 years said during the visit that the Pope’s presence there made him realise that he is not alone.
Loneliness and rejection by others, feeling like we are forgotten and don’t matter are probably deep down some of our greatest fears. They surface in our youngest years as we lose sight of our mother in the supermarket, but they reappear regularly and determinedly throughout adulthood especially into our latter years. This church building has been used to champion the worth and value of all - especially those on the margins of our communities throughout its history whether as a soup kitchen or as a site of a food bank because as Christians we acknowledge that this place’s beauty and the worth and value of all people is to do with the love and presence of God Himself.
Our two readings today bring us back to the heart of what we celebrate today. Firstly Jacob, who has been fleeing for his life from his brother Esau, and en route he has an extraordinary dream which challenges and changes his life which reveals the hidden yet active presence of God in the world. And secondly Jesus speaks directly to our very human need for clothing, shelter and food and without downplaying those needs, encourages us to trust in God’s provision.
Jacob said, ‘…Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven…’ On Friday nights we tend to watch a film as a family and eat pizza. Friday just gone we did the same as usual and settled down to watch a Harry Potter film. For those of you that know the story, one of the things I’d love is an invisibility cloak like Harry has. Wouldn’t that be great? You could sneak into all sorts of places unnoticed including late into church - or out again if the sermon was dull. Apparently scientists are a step closer to making that fictional item an actual item and it works apparently by fooling our eyes because of the way we see light.
For Jacob, God wasn’t wearing a cloak of invisibility up to the point where he encounters him and then whips it off - surprise Jacob! Throughout the book of Genesis, God breaks the rules and reveals Himself not to priests or royalty but to a terrified refugee in the run. Jacob’s vision of the ladder to heaven is awe inspiring but God is present there not because of His majesty, but because He longed to re-establish a relationship with Jacob. God has, is, and will be encountered in *this* place not in its beauty or majesty but in the worship and the lives of God’s people here over the last 170 years. Like Jacob found, God is here because He longs to continue to have a relationship with ordinary people like us.
Jesus said ‘…Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Earlier in the year, your will remember the shocking stories on the news about the Ebola outbreak. Now a teenager from Connecticut, Olivia Hallisey, having seen the need, has invented a test for the disease which takes 30 minutes to process and costs about £20. She was inspired to act having seen the same coverage and was encouraged by her science teacher. She hopes what she has done will make a difference but also inspire other girls to do the same.
Jesus is not downplaying simple human needs and wants for shelter, food and clothing, but he is challenging us not to worry about their provision. Instead we should turn our energies to seeking what God wants - loving our neighbour and loving Him - and in so doing we will receive what we need in return as well. This is as challenging to hear today as it will have been when Jesus first said it - of course we worry about how we will pay the next bill, where the money is coming from! Over the last 170 years many people whose worship has filled this place have used their gifts and talents to be a blessing to others - sometimes that work is seen: the very construction of this place required the talents of local people! But much of that talent use is unseen and unsung through a visit, a kind word, an assurance of prayer. This harvest the produce we bring and the money we give will be a blessing to others. The challenge for us to consider is how the money we give and the talents and gifts we have can continue to be a transformative blessing to our communities tomorrow and the next day.
Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel reorientated the rest of his life. As we celebrate 170 years of worship in this place, will you allow yourself to encounter that same God as we worship today, and will you let Him build a relationship with you that will utterly transform your life? This Harvest, as we thank God for bounty and blessing, gifts and grace, Jesus expects us to put our energy into things that give meaning to life. How will you strive to discern how God is working in the world and in our community and join in - and allow God to deal with the rest of our need?