The Great Reversal: a sermon for Harvest Thanksgiving 1 October 2017

Scripture Readings: Exodus 16:2-15

Matthew 20:1-16

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Two stories. The first, from a man who makes his living growing our food.

frank-zulu-pigeon-pea-field-thumbFor Frank Zulu of Chithumbwi village, Malawi, abundant life is in part denied because the rain is no longer reliable. He says: ‘Sometimes it rains heavily and washes seeds away and then it suddenly stops; sometimes it rains very late so our seeds die in the ground; sometimes it doesn’t rain at all.’

The consequences for the maize harvest, and therefore communities, is devastating. Frank says: ‘In Malawi, when we say somebody is hungry, we mean they don’t have maize. When the maize is not in harvest or there are shortages, people starve.’

With support from Christian Aid partner Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM), Frank has diversified his crops to include sweet potatoes and pigeon peas, which are better able to survive low rainfalls… However, even with a successful harvest of pigeon peas, the poor market prices for individual farmers prevent Frank and his family from getting a good price for his crops…

Frank and his community [often experiences corruption] at the farm gate where he sells the pigeon pea crop to traders. Often, these middlemen use illegal buying scales and exploit individual farmers. These ruthless tactics have the effect of driving prices right down. For Frank, this is a disaster: ‘Even though I am growing more pigeon peas than ever, my life is miserable because of the low prices offered by the traders. The money is not enough to feed my family or pay school fees for my four children’.[1]

Second story: of a woman who found she couldn’t afford to eat:

FoodbankMandy, in her forties, had just lost her husband, and she and her teenage son were facing financial pressures. The cost of the funeral was covered, but they were having difficulty meeting the additional costs associated with their bereavement- the extra journeys, the cost of feeding family members who came to Inverness for the funeral.

It was a great comfort to Mandy and her son in their grief to know that for the next few days they didn’t need to worry about food. The [Highland] Food Bank team saw Mandy from time to time over the next few months, but they didn’t find out if Garry got that job. And in a sense they don’t need to know. What’s important is that the Foodbank is there for people when they need help, a link in the chain providing support and human warmth at a difficult time.[2]

Two stories, from different parts of the world- one local, one from Africa. Frank Zulu is one of the millions around the world who tries to make a living from producing the food we eat. But for too many people in agriculture around the world, corruption and unfair trading practices make it difficult for them- and often, their problems are exacerbated by climate change.

Many of us here don’t have much connection to the production of food. In fact, they say there are children in Britain who don’t know that milk comes from a cow. Yet without the farmers, and all who process and transport our food, the supermarket shelves would be empty. And while we hunt for bargains and complain about food prices if they go up, many in that supply chain are often denied a decent standard of living.

Mandy and her teenage son were in difficulty because of the unexpected- the death of her husband. And it was exacerbated by the expectations which a family are put under when there is a death. She was lucky to have her funeral costs covered- many people struggle to pay even that. What has become known as ‘funeral poverty’ is a growing problem, as families are forced into debt to pay for funerals. Rev Dr Martin Johnstone, Secretary of the Church of Scotland’s Church & Society Council, points out that:

‘Every week, ministers in all parts of Scotland spend time with families who are not only grieving the death of a person that they love but are also worried about how they will pay the funeral costs. It is unacceptable that families are being forced in to debt by the rising cost of funerals – a cost for which many local authorities and funeral directors must take responsibility’.[3]

Yet even with the funeral paid for, those extra expenses which come from losing a loved one- who might have been providing the family income- can cause problems. Mandy found herself referred to the Highland Foodbank. Very often, people turn to foodbanks in our country when they are suddenly in trouble. But it is surely a scandal in a rich country like ours that people are finding that they do not have enough to eat. It’s great that we are supporting the Foodbank, and helping to meet a real need with our donations today (and week by week). But it is a disgrace that we need them at all.

We often take food for granted, but what happens when that changes? The Israelites might have been slaves in Egypt, but in today’s reading we find that they weren’t always enamoured with finding freedom. Moses had led them in an Exodus from Egypt. They have a miraculous escape- didn’t Moses part the waters of the Red Sea so they could escape Pharaoh’s pursuing army? And yet, here they are in the desert, and they are complaining. They almost wish they were slaves again- ‘At least back in Egypt we got enough to eat!’ they moan.

We have become used to enjoying cheap food, food brought to us from all across the world, even being able to enjoy food out of season because it comes from somewhere else. Yet there are grave injustices involved in getting the food to our table. For the last couple of decades, church-based organisations like Christian Aid or Tradecraft have highlighted these injustices- which can involve middlemen with unfair scales in an African market, commodity markets where traders bet on the price of food, boardrooms where price is everything and the welfare of the farmers who harvest the beans, the coffee, the bananas or whatever count for almost nothing.

Tradecraft

We Christians claim that Jesus Christ is the Lord of our lives. That should mean that our Christianity has to go beyond the walls of the church, or the confines of our family life. Our faith should even inform our shopping. What food we buy, where we buy it from- these questions should be part of our Christian living. Keep bringing donations for the Foodbank to church, because the Foodbank has people who need help every week of the year. And think, also, about how you shop; about if you are buying fairly-traded food? Did you know that the farmers who can hardly make a living from what the supermarkets are prepared to pay for their crops are in this country, as well as abroad? Educate yourself a bit about how far your food travels to get to us. Should we really be eating food flown in from around the world when we know that those aircraft contribute to climate change that is causing real hardship across the world? Christians should be learning about and trying to change the injustices of the food marketplace.

And what about the fact that people on our own doorsteps need help to be able to eat? The Trussell Trust is the charity for foodbanks nationwide. There have 400 foodbanks, giving emergency food and support to people in crisis across the UK. And they are continually seeing an increasing need. In the last year, they gave 1,182,954 three day emergency food supplies to people in crisis[4]. That includes 436,938 children[5]. They’re worried about the effect of government social security reforms- a subject which has been making the news this week:

Foodbanks tell us that Universal Credit is inadvertently leaving people without any money for six or more weeks, leading to debt, rental arrears, and poor mental health. People in seasonal or insecure work are finding it difficult to budget as they don’t know how much they’ll get paid next month. It’s led to one foodbank seeing a 67% increase in their referrals, and another has been working flat out to help people with their claims. We are concerned this will only get worse as winter approaches and more pressure will be put on stretched voluntary groups left to step in and help in the absence of other practical support.[6]

They can also tell us about the people who are referred to foodbanks. The statistics are stark:

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Almost half of households [referred to foodbanks] reported their incomes were unsteady from week-to-week and month-to-month. 78% are severely food insecure (meaning they had skipped meals and gone without eating- sometimes for days at a time- in the past 12 months), while over half could not afford heating or toiletries… 3 in 5 households had recently experienced rising or unexpected expenses, with 25% of these saying higher food expenses were to blame, confirming the impact of food inflation on squeezed budgets[7].

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And another stark statistic: the average household income in the month before they were refereed to a foodbank was just  £319.43.

It’s interesting that, in a Britain which has become more and more secular in recent times, the Trussell Trust has been the charity which has emerged to support foodbanks across the country, and which researches why people are getting into such poverty they need to be referred to a foodbank. It’s an interesting story:

Carol and Paddy Henderson founded The Trussell Trust in 1997 based on a legacy left by Carol’s mother, Betty Trussell. [They began with trying to help homeless children living at railway stations in Bulgaria.] The Trust’s work soon expanded not only in Bulgaria, but in the UK too.

Whilst fundraising for Bulgaria in Salisbury in 2000, Paddy received a call from a desperate mother in Salisbury saying: “My children are going to bed hungry tonight – what are you going to do about it.” Paddy investigated local indices of deprivation and ‘hidden hunger’ in the UK. The shocking results showed that significant numbers of local people faced short term hunger as a result of a sudden crisis.

 

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Paddy started Salisbury Foodbank in his garden shed and garage, providing three days’ of emergency food to local people in crisis. In 2004, the UK Foodbank Network was launched teaching churches and communities nationwide how to start their own foodbanks.[8]

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The Trussell Trust describes their mission and values in these terms:

The Trussell Trust is a charity founded on Christian principles. We work with people of all faiths and none, but are inspired to do what we do by the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:35-36:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Our vision: To end hunger and poverty in the UK.

Our mission: Bringing communities together to end hunger and poverty in the UK by providing compassionate, practical help with dignity whilst challenging injustice.[9]

BlythswoodOur local Highland Foodbank supported by the Trussell Trust is run by Blythswood, a charity with a Christian basis. And much of the food is, of course, provided by churches.

So Foodbanks are more than just charities. Certainly they provide emergency help for those in need (and more than just practical help- people referred to Foodbanks also meet with care and concern from the staff and volunteers). But they are also a witness to the fact that our country fails to measure up. How can it be that in such a rich country as ours, poverty seems to be increasing? Why is it that we have so many people who simply do not have enough to feed themselves and their children?

Earlier, we heard how farmers in Malawi like Frank Zulu are often conned out of a fair price for their produce by the traders they sell to. Exploitation of agricultural workers is a something which has happened for centuries. I find today’s Gospel reading really interesting for lots of reasons, but partly because of the picture it gives of agriculture in Jesus’ day.

‘Once there was a man who went out early in the morning to hire some men to work in his vineyard’. It must be harvest time for the grapes- and that is a frantic time of year for the vineyards. There is only a short window of time you can pick grapes. Too soon, and they won’t be ready to turn into wine- too long, and they start to rot- or they could be destroyed by bad weather.

So our vineyard owner goes to the marketplace, which in those days functioned as a labour exchange- where unemployed workers would gather to find work. Our vineyard owner recruits some early in the morning, but later realises he needs more people to get the harvest in on time. So he goes back at nine o’clock, and at noon and three o’clock for more men. Even at five o’clock there are still men available who can’t find work, so he employs them, too. The vineyard owner pays the going rate for an agricultural labourer- a silver coin a day was just enough to get by on, with little left over. These men lived a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence. If they did not work for a day, there would be no food on the table.

Jesus’ parables are often about familiar scenes from everyday life. Men being paid very little to do back-breaking work, forced to stand in the marketplace every day, being chosen on whether they would work or starve according to the whim of vineyard owners or farm managers- all this Jesus would have seen many a time, all this was familiar to the audiences he first told this story to (which no doubt included many farm workers, and maybe even one or two landowners). But as usual in the parables, Jesus takes the familiar scene and gives it a twist.

The men who didn’t work a whole day- even the ones who only started at five in the evening- all get paid the same. That was not the way it usually worked. If a man had only worked part of the day, a landowner would usually pay a fraction of the daily wage. But this vineyard owner doesn’t do that. Every man, regardless of how many hours he worked, gets the same pay- gets paid the wage for a full day’s work.

The ones who worked all day, under the hot Middle Eastern sun, complain (there’s a lot of complaining going on in today’s readings!). Perhaps we sympathise with them- they worked all day, and got the same as the ones who worked only for an hour or so. They complain that the vineyard owner has treated them unfairly.

But the vineyard owner is working to a different standard of fairness. He is, in fact, doing the right thing for the men who were only employed for a few hours. They too, spent a day in the sun, even if it was just waiting for an opportunity to work. The men who could only get work at five o’clock also have hungry children waiting for them at home. The wage for one hour wouldn’t be enough feed them. The vineyard owner is acting fairly, even generously- for he would have been within his rights not to pay a day’s wage for less than a day’s work.

Right at the beginning of the story, Jesus says: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like this’. For this is a parable of the Kingdom, and perhaps it is one of the greatest parables. For it reminds us that Kingdom is, in many ways, a reversal of the usual way at things. Like the men who worked all day, we often concern ourselves with what we think we deserve. We demand our fair share- that is, what seems fair to us. But the vineyard owner pays everyone the same- so that the unemployed peasants he employed for only a few hours are treated justly. The marketplaces of Jesus’ day treated farm labourers as we do Uber taxi drivers or Sports Direct employees on zero-hour contract- they only get paid for the hours they do, and they don’t have guaranteed working hours. The marketplace treats people as commodities- but God treats people as human beings. Because in the Kingdom ‘those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last’.

‘Raise the song of harvest-home!’ If we are able to eat, let us give thanks. Because it is not that we deserve to eat more than anyone else. In God’s Kingdom, everyone deserves to eat- for food is such a basic human necessity. If people don’t have enough to eat, whether through poverty, unfair trading practices, low pay, unemployment, climate change, a broken social security system- then that is an affront to our generous God. So let us pray and work for a world where the people who produce our food are fairly paid, and no-one has to go hungry. Give us, this day, our daily bread! And may we be truly thankful!

Ascription of Praise

All things were created by God,

and all things exist through God and for God.

To God be glory for ever! Amen.

Romans 11.36 (GNB alt)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2017 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] From Christian Aid material for Harvest 2017: https://www.christianaid.org.uk/sites/default/files/2017-06/harvest-2017-sermon-notes.pdf

[2] https://www.blythswood.org/highland-food-bank-testimonies

[3] http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/news_and_events/news/recent/church_welcomes_action_plan_to_tackle_funeral_poverty

[4] https://www.trusselltrust.org/

[5] https://www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/latest-stats/end-year-stats/

[6] https://www.trusselltrust.org/2017/09/22/trussell-trust-calls-for-a-pause-to-the-roll-out-of-universal-credit/

[7] https://www.trusselltrust.org/what-we-do/research-advocacy/oxford-university-report/

[8] https://www.trusselltrust.org/about/our-story/

[9] https://www.trusselltrust.org/about/mission-and-values/