The chosen hymns for this week, Now Thank We All Our God and We See the Fruitful Harvest can be found below along with a transcription of the sermon for those who prefer to read.
Getting What We Deserve
There’s an old Billy Connolly routine where he talks about the things mums and dads used to say to their children, maybe they’ll sound familiar to some of you. When he’d been bad, ‘I’ll take my hand off your face,’ was one, but according to Billy, it’s wasn’t so much the taking off of the hand, it was the applying it at a great rate of knots that bothered him. Or when he’d say to his mum, ‘Can I go to the pictures?’ and she’d say, ‘Pictures? I’ll pictures you, my lad!’ Whatever that means…
My mum said things like that too. One was, when I’d done something daft like fall off my bike when I was trying to ride it with no hands, she’d say, ‘That’ll learn you.’ Now, I was a bit precocious when I was wee, I always wanted to come back to her, saying, ‘I think you’ll find what you’ve just said is incorrect, mother, what you mean is ‘That’ll teach you.’ I never did though, I was never brave enough or cheeky enough, and I might have ended up with a hand getting taken off my face…
Of course, what she meant by that was ‘You’ll know better next time, you got what you deserved there,’ and that’s what I’m talking about today. About whether or not we really get what we deserve.
This week’s reading is Galatians 6: 1-10
I wasn’t being serious about my mum ‘taking her hand off my face.’ My mum wouldn’t have done that. For two reasons. The main one being that she’d never have struck anybody, far less me. The other reason is because, well, because I was a good boy – I just didn’t do stuff that would get me into trouble. Now my brother, on the other hand… my brother was forever getting into trouble, he was the wild one, he’d get himself into all sorts of scrapes, all sorts of bother.
We’re not that far apart in age, actually, just under two years. And I think part of the problem was that because I was a good boy, my brother was always kind of in my shadow. I don’t think that’s unusual for brothers, I suppose. And I was a bit of a teacher’s pet at school – you’re probably listening to this, thinking, you sound boring. I suppose I was, really – but because I was like that, teachers were forever saying to my brother, ‘Why can’t you be more like John?’ But he wasn’t like me, because he had an edge that I didn’t have, he just had that wild streak.
And my mum and dad knew this, and they tried to tame it, compensate for it, they tried to make it better. Just for example, my brother was a natural athlete, he probably still would be if he could be bothered – he won’t mind me saying that. He’d always be the one to win medals at the school sports days. I think he held the central region schools high jump record for years and years. I wasn’t a natural athlete, I had to work at it. But where I would join a club and try to improve at whatever sport I took up, my brother just wouldn’t, he just wasn’t that bothered, he’d rather be out having a carry on with his pals. So mum and dad tried to encourage him, and they were right to do it. They’d buy him all the gear, make sure he had the bus fare to get to training sessions, and competitions and such. And I’d look at him with his new running spikes, or his roller skates, or his tennis racket, and I’d say ‘How come he gets all the new, good gear and I’ve just got this cheap hockey stick? He doesn’t deserve all that, I’ve been good and he hasn’t.’
If I thought like that, maybe I wasn’t such a good boy, after all.
Because I was so wrapped in myself, I didn’t understand, I didn’t realise what my folks were doing. They were being smart, they recognised that my brother had a different nature, one that needed cajoling and encouraging, and they did everything they could to get him interested, to get him involved, to get him engaged. And they recognised that he was being compared to me for the wrong things, and that just wasn’t fair on him, so, as I say, they tried to make it better. He needed things I didn’t need. He deserved attention in areas I didn’t.
So I want to ask a question today, do you think we always get what we deserve? We live in a world where some of us are born into wealth, some into poverty. A world of royals and commoners. A world where there are lottery winners and people relying on food banks. A world of the lucky and the unfortunate.
You know, I was watching the film Once Upon a Time in America the other day, and there’s a scene where the gangsters – I won’t go into why – they go into a maternity ward and switch the tags on all the babies, dozens of them, and then they lose the note that tells them which baby belongs to which parents, so they all end up with the wrong ones. The film was set before there was such a thing as DNA tests, obviously. ‘We’re better than fate,’ says one of the gangsters. Because they’d just changed the futures of every one of the babies.
I think it’s true that for some people where they are in life, and what they get from it, is not much more than what you’d call an accident of birth, some get the silver spoon and some don’t. Some people call it God’s plan, but, you know, I can’t bring myself to think that God makes a conscious choice about who’s going to be rich or who’s going to be poor, I don’t think God plays around with the tags on babies, making random decisions over which of them will have a good life and which won’t. This might not make me popular with some theologians, I know that. But what I do think is that God gives everyone an equal chance of being who and what they want to be, being who and what he wants them to be.
And I think that’s illustrated really well in our Bible passage from Galatians today. ‘People will reap exactly what they sow,’ it says. What we put into life determines what we get out of it. And if we do good things, good things will come to us. It’s like Karma, isn’t it? Now, Karma isn’t a Christian concept – again, I hope the theologians aren’t watching – but I can’t help thinking of it, and agreeing with it, when I hear ‘Let us not become tired of doing good, for if we do not give up, the time will come when we reap the harvest.’
What we’ve got on the table here is a harvest, kind of. A seed was sown amongst the people of Alva Church, amongst you who’re watching now, to come together to provide food for those who need it. And the thing with seeds is that when you plant them you don’t know if they’re going to grow or not. You can do all the right things, prepare the soil for them, make sure they’re watered right, but for a while you’re left wondering if they’re going to take root. Well, this seed did grow, a few items became a few more, and then a few more than that and, well, here’s the result – and this isn’t all of it, by the way.
It says in our passage, ‘Help to carry one another’s burdens’ and that’s what all this will do, help with someone else’s burdens. It says as well that if you do, ‘you will obey the law of Christ.’ The Bible’s full of laws, full of rules, but there’s only one law of Christ. John 13:34, familiar words, ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ This is an example of that, of doing what Jesus told us to do. To love one another.
And in giving, we receive. ‘People will reap exactly what they sow.’ What we put out; we get back. It doesn’t matter whether we’re born rich or poor, we all have the capacity for giving. And it doesn’t have to be material things, some don’t have anything material to give, but loving each other, helping to carry each other’s burdens, well, when we do that, and I’ll repeat it again, ‘the time will come when we will reap the harvest.’
So my question was, ‘do we get what we deserve?’ Some of us are dealt a bad hand in life, some have circumstances thrust on us that are hard to handle. Let’s face it, we’ve all had some tough circumstances to deal with over the past six months or so. None of us deserve having to go through the things we go through, whatever they are. The people who need this food don’t deserve to be in the position they’re in, my brother didn’t deserve to be compared to me, the teacher’s pet. So in a physical sense, a material sense, no, we don’t always get what we deserve. But in a spiritual sense, yes, I think we do. And that, to me, is what celebrating harvest is all about. It’s about celebrating the fact that the good seeds we sow in our lives, and more importantly in the lives of the people around us, whether we know them or not, well, they’re seeds that’ll one day bear fruit in this world and they’ll make sure of our place in the next.
If you’d told me when I gave the first reflection in an empty church back at the start of the lockdown in May that I’d give the last one at the end of September, I’d never have believed it. I’d have thought we’d have had services back long before now. But as well as this being our last online-only reflection (probably), it’s also my last service here at Alva, my time – I’m sad to say, is up. And I heard earlier this week I’ve been chosen to preach as sole nominee to be the minister at Portsoy Church, up on the Moray coast.
And you know, it’s really fitting that today is a Harvest service, because Harvest – and I know I didn’t really cover this in my reflection earlier – Harvest is all about giving thanks. So I’m going to take the chance today to give my thanks. I want to thank Jim, first of all, for teaching me not just about what being a minister means in church, but in life too. I want to thank Anne for all the good advice and for always keeping it real. Thanks to Margaret for our many chats and for making me something like an honorary member of the Church Organ Society. Thanks as well to everyone in organisations like the Guild, Chums and the Men’s Club, the kids at Zones, and not forgetting the Saturday morning Crumblies, for their love and friendship. And I want most of all to take this chance to give my thanks to the people of Alva Church, for making my time here such an enjoyable one. You welcomed me as part of your family, both here in the church and in your homes, you encouraged me, you supported me, you prepared me. This place, and all of you, will always hold a special place in my heart. Thank you.
I’m going to close with an Irish blessing – it just says all the things I want to say. May the road rise up to meet each and every one of you. May the wind be always at your backs. May the sun shine warm upon your faces; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you all in the palm of His hand.