The Gleanings are (probably) not for you

The Gleaners

The Gleaners

Written for BBC Radio Wales’ ‘Celebration’ 20th Sept – harvest thanksgiving

The earth is full of the things you have made. Grass for cattle, vegetables for the people. You make food grow from the earth. You give us bread that gives us strength. [Psalm 104:13-15 (adapted)]

Psalm 104 is a song of praise to God in Creation, and there is much to give thanks for.  However, this harvest time we hear in the news that the wheat harvest has been poor. The price of flour, and then of course, bread will probably rise. As always those who can least afford this will be hit the hardest.  With the pandemic continuing to change our lives there are difficult and worrying times ahead.  However, we can still be ever thankful not least for those who gather or prepare food and especially for those who have delivered it and prepared it when we have been unable to go out ourselves.

Today I want to share with you an agricultural story.  It’s a story of love, of loss.    A story of courage and trust.  A story of the land and of the hospitality of others.  And I’ll reflect a little on my own harvest journey this year in our garden. 

Our Bible readings today come from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Book of Ruth begins with famine and tragedy.  A farming family travels to a foreign land for work.  Naomi’s husband and sons die whilst they are away.  She is left with her two daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth and prepares to return home as she has heard that the famine has come to an end.

Naomi set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me?  Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.  Naomi said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.

What a story of trust and courage.  Here is, we presume, the young girl Ruth with her older Mother-in-law Naomi in search of somewhere to live.  For Naomi, there is no certainty in her returning home – she must trust that there will be someone to offer hospitality. For Ruth this is a new journey to a foreign land.  She is prepared to risk everything in search of security, food and shelter. Many people, as we hear in the news, are making journeys away from persecution, hunger, and lands rendered uninhabitable, times haven’t changed have they.  As we will see, Naomi and Ruth are lucky, there is someone who will offer them a home, but they also must gather enough food to live on.  Ruth goes out into the fields and begins to gather leftover grain behind those who are harvesting.  This old custom is called gleaning. The poor had the right to glean in the fields at harvest time and the owner of the field had a duty to leave a little of the harvest.

And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favour.” Naomi said to her, “Go, my daughter.” So Ruth went. Ruth came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. Ruth said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So Ruth came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”

We’ll return to the significance of gleaning for us in a few moments, meanwhile, Join me walking through our garden this harvest time.  We take a simple harvest through the year of leaves, fruit, nuts and a few planted vegetables. We will never be self-sufficient though. Everything is allowed to grow naturally with little input from us. There is always something to gather – even in winter – though pickings may be slim and we often garden the weeds.  At this time of year I walk amongst the trees and bushes taking a harvest for a green salad of vine leaves, mint, sage, marjoram, horseradish, raspberry, lime, sorrel, clover leaves and flowers; fallen apples and the occasional blackberry from the hedgerow It can be hard to see how there is so much hunger in the world with such abundance in nature all around us for which we do little and receive a great deal.  This year our cherry plum didn’t give a single fruit and the damson and Victoria plum trees were sparsely covered.  Some years a tree will take a break I’m told.  When crops we depend on fail, people go hungry and we become dependant on our neighbours.  In the story, Ruth and Naomi were dependent on the sanctuary of others.  I wonder if we are ready as a nation to offer the same sanctuary, to share our harvest with those who come so that all have enough to eat.

It is clear though in our garden there always seems plenty left over that I cannot reach or that falls to the ground.  These gleanings are readily gathered by the many birds and small animals that rely for their food on what grows naturally. We take what we need to supplement what we buy.  Of course, if the apple or plum tree does not produce a harvest we can always go to a shop, thankful that the harvest somewhere else has been successful.

You’ll recall, in our readings, Ruth going out into the the fields to glean, to gather grain behind the harvesters.  I wonder whether this story has something to teach us in these times? Especially at this time of our harvest thanksgiving.  I’d like to suggest that when you next go to a supermarket you think of this story.  We might think that gleaning is an old practice which either cannot or does not happen due to modern farming practices.  But I wonder as I walk down the aisle in my local supermarket and see the shelf of reduced items.  I noticed recently yellow tape marking out the area around this shelf, I presume to encourage people not to crowd in and maintain their social distancing – it is telling that this was the only area it was required.  I wonder If these are not the modern equivalent of gleanings left out for those who cannot afford the full price.  Perhaps, if we can afford to, we ought to leave these reduced temptations for those who need them. Sadly it seems, there are many in our society who do.  

On a personal level I can add to my weekly shopping list ‘something for the foodbank’ and offer in that spirit of gleaning a little food for those who rely on the generosity of others.  As a church we can offer a place for collections of food to be gathered for our local foodbank.  As a society we should be asking how we can end this poverty and hunger so that there may truly be each year a harvest for the world.

What are you looking for?

Jesus said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. (John 1:29-42)
What are you looking for? Well, I could write a list and it would probably be quite mundane. My keys. (Always my keys.) The pen that I just had. That piece of paper I just put down.  It might even be funny if it wasn’t so often that I’m now half convinced there isn’t a conspiracy of some sort to move what I just had when I step out of a room. What are you looking for?  Not an easy question to answer once you’ve exhausted the immediate.

Did Andrew and his companion know what they were looking for? We are not told, but they ask: Where are you staying? It’s one of those questions you ask, it’s an everyday question, benign, redundant and fills an awkward silence. I find myself asking it of visitors, silently criticising myself for not being more original in the asking. I ask it along with Where are you from? and What are you doing here?, (in terms of activity, not why on earth did you come to this place.) They are the empty questions. Useful for Jesus as it turns out as he filled the space with an invitation. Because if Jesus had replied like most visitors reply, oh we’re staying at such and such a place. Oh that’s a lovely place. Good food, great view of the lake. Have a good stay, bye… No, Jesus turns the superficial question into an invitation, come and see. Always the invitation. It cuts through the simple question and invites the beginning of a relationship based not on a few words spoken in passing, seldom to be met again, but with the prospect of getting beyond the superficial.

Sometimes we forget what we’re looking for.
Sometimes we forget we’re looking.

Every act, a bold venture or a mindless chore, is seeking something, expecting something. What? What are you hoping for? What do you need?
Are you looking in the right place?
What is it that you want? (No not that)  What is it that you want more than that? And now once more, even more than that, what is it that you are looking for? Search for that and let the rest go. (Steve Garnaas-Holmes

So, what am I looking for? This January during Epiphany. I’m looking for moments of beauty, for love for hope, depth. For that which draws us as a nation and as a church community together. For the words to express that which words cannot express. Looking for those rare moments that speak of that of which we cannot speak, and to find the words to share them. For the experience of that which is beyond our ordinary experience. I’m looking, this epiphany time for a moment in the company of Jesus to be able to recognise the Christ and I’m looking, still looking to understand what that might mean. And I’m Failing magnificently at it.  But I’m always looking and waiting for the invitation once again to come and see and to find the courage to ask the question, What are you looking for? And to offer that invitation, come and see. And then in company to take the first steps to begin anew to discover something of the depth of love, and of hope and of beauty of which the gospels speak so timelessly.

Solstice Pilgrims

Emmanuel, come.
Mary. Emmanuel. This fourth Sunday of Advent at the solstice, the shortest of days in the year when we yearn for the the light to return as others suffer the dire consequences of too much heat. The injustice of it all. And I feel like switching it all off and not knowing, but then I too become disconnected. And we yearn for connection. We bear each others pain in the knowing and the sharing. Who bore your pain Mary? Did Joseph? Encouraged by the angel in the gospel of Matthew to not ‘do the righteous thing’ but to do the dangerous thing to stand by her. Yes. She’s pregnant. And no, Joseph, It isn’t yours. What would we do? How many women will we stand by who are like Mary this Advent. How many women will we empower this advent as we support Christian Aid to enable them to help themselves out of poverty? What did Joseph do? He offered a gift of legitimacy. In a culture of shame upon women who were pregnant out of marriage he offered a home and a place for Mary to be secure. Will we do the same to those who are branded as illegitimate or foreign or different in some way. What would we give for such security for those women around the world who live in fear of tomorrow because of the situation they find themselves in. And yet, Mary chose her path, knowing it was more than her own life. Mary, Joseph, then Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. Our companion on the way. Knowing that somehow perhaps those choices and actions, however small at that moment would change things for the future. In that moment of knowing, the light begins to shine out of the darkness. It works so well in the northern hemisphere. Where the nights are long and light is at a premium. So yesterday in the meagre short hours of light we walked, unhurried along a path. Squandering those precious hours of light simply walking in the company of others, offering ourselves to each other as companions on the way carrying each other for a time. At this darkest moment of the year our expectation grows and our Advent waiting is almost done.

As the light fades on this shortest of days
May we who have walked to the turn of the earth
dwell in the company of brightness
With winter’s shrouded colours born of waiting
in anticipation of the light that is to come.
May we return to this moment when the darkness
closes in and be cradled as in candlelight
encouraged as by bird song
a haunting vespers which invades
our inner silence and calls companions
and friends together out towards the light.