Saturday, 14 October 2017

Another Harvest Sermon

My last of the year . . .

Deuteronomy 26  /  Luke 12

What I want to do this morning is to tell you about the woman whose face appears on your readings sheet. Her name I don’t know, but long after I met her I called her Angela in a poem I wrote about her. In fact, her story in my poem was only partly her own story, it was more a combination of the stories of different people in the place where she lived.

I was in Brazil, in the deep south of Brazil, what is known as the Rio Grande de Sul, and in the old imperial city of Pelotas. Pelotas is a city that still possesses traces of its ancient grandeur; it has some fine houses and a palace, two cathedrals, and three universities. But Angela, we’ll call her that, lived with her family and the other families around her in a very different Pelotas. Their world was the favela.

I was there maybe fifteen years ago. I’d been attending a conference in the busy city of Porto Allegre, some way to the north, as a guest of the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil. The Bishop of Pelotas was one of the other guests, and he invited me to visit his diocese. I saw the old palace, and visited the Anglican Cathedral, and I remember spending some time in a rather fine coffee shop with cakes the equal of any in the world. But I did also visit the world Angela inhabited. The favela where she lived was known as Anglo; Anglo because it was located in the ruinous grounds of what used to be the Anglo-American Salt Beef Packing Company. There’s no great call these days for salt beef.

The favela consists of shacks not unlike a rather poorly constructed garden shed. But each shed contains a family. Dirt tracks run through, and to gain access from the track to the compound of a particular dwelling you have to cross an open sewer. Everywhere was very dusty, rather smelly too.
Anglo has been there for quite a while. Here and there one or two of the shacks had become small villas constructed from breeze blocks and painted pink. And a few of the dusty tracks had the occasional lamp on a post. Later in my visit I saw a newer camp, on some waste ground near the centre of the city and much more vulnerable to being cleared away by the authorities; and there people were living in what were little more than tents.

But don’t imagine that the people in Anglo were anything other than dirt poor. Maybe a lucky few were doing better, but most, like Angela, were just scraping by at best. What did they do? Angela showed me her cart. It’s in the picture. She walked the streets with this cart collecting rubbish, plastic mostly but cans and things as well. I saw them sorted and piled along one side of her small yard. Plastic bottle tops were especially prized, she told me (through my interpreter, a Swiss girl doing a mission placement there). You got the best price for bottle tops.

But the deacon at the little church there told me they didn’t get much of a price for anything; that was the problem. In Brazil everything that can be recycled is recycled, and it’s the poor that do it. But people in Anglo had to sell to the traders who came round and collect, maybe once a week, once a fortnight. They’d never quite know when the traders would come, and they’d no choice but to accept what the traders offered them. Angela had a pile of rubbish, sorted and ready for the trader, but no-one had come, and that day she’d no money to feed her children. The church had a soup kitchen that day; without it, they wouldn’t have eaten, she said. And just the day before I’d been eating cream cakes with an excellent coffee or two without a care in the world. 

I went to the soup kitchen, and met Angela again there. The place was crowded. Mission hymns were sung, joyfully if not all that tunefully. And soup was ladled out into the plastic bowls and tubs the women brought, and bread and cabbages were handed out too.

Everyone there was pretty much in the same boat. They were all living on the edge, at risk, constantly, from petty crime, from exploitation by traders who rip them off, from disease, those open drains didn’t look or smell all that healthy, and from the city fathers who might just decide to tidy things up by bulldozing the favela and kicking them all out.

The soup kitchen was one project, but the church there wanted to do more. It hoped to buy and secure the old Anglo site: some of the old buildings could be used to set up a co-operative to sort, process and bale the waste the folk of Anglo collected. Then they could sell it directly to the big recycling firms and not have to rely on the traders who turned up when they felt like it, offered poor rates and probably also cheated on the scales. I hope that by now they’ve managed to do that. Angela’s children won’t be far off grown up by now. Will they still be as poor as she was? What do they have to look forward to?

Why tell that story at harvest festival? Look at the labels on the things in your kitchen cupboards and fridges, how many different countries are represented. We thank God for harvest today here in Leighton, but harvest is worldwide. More than once in Brazil I came face to face with the contrast between immense wealth and abject poverty. My visit to Anglo was one of those occasions.

In the Old Testament there are many stories of people on the move, not least the people of Israel in the book Exodus being led through the desert by Moses. They journeyed from slavery in Egypt to find a new land, the land promised to them by God, that would flow with milk and honey. I don’t know how Angela ended up in the favela, where she’d come from; maybe like so many she’d travelled in from the country hoping the city would give her and her children a better life. The people of Israel, on the run from Egypt, spent forty years in the desert. How long would Angela be in the desert of the favela?

The people of Israel reached the land God promised them; all they had to do was to cross the Jordan to enter a wonderful place, with fertile soil in which they could grow all they wanted. But before they crossed that river to enter the land, Moses told them they must never forget what they used to be, that they’d wandered in the desert, desperate for food and water, that they’d been slaves in Egypt. And they must never forget that it was God who’d brought them safely to the land they now held; so they must offer thanks, but more than that they must live thankfully.

Our harvest festival is a time to remember that, as one of the Psalms puts it, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all the fullness thereof; the round world and all that dwell therein.” Jesus says, “Consider the lilies; consider the ravens. Seek God’s kingdom above all else, and he will make sure you have what you need.” We thank God for all that’s good in our land and in our lives, but harvest brings responsibility as well as blessing. We honour the giver of our harvest when we use what he gives us according to his mind, and in a way that reflects his love. When we seek his kingdom.

God gives us a rich and beautiful world to share, but we can get depressed, or I can anyway, at all the bad news that comes our way, every bulletin is full of it. And the problems and sadnesses and inequalities of our world can sometimes - often - seem so big, so intractable, so unchangeable that we might just end up believing there’s nothing to be done. I think the church in Pelotas proved to me that day that I’d be wrong to think that. We may only be able to do small things like that soup kitchen, but lots of small things added together make a big thing. Harvest is there to be shared and used, not hoarded up. And every small act of sharing moves us all just a step or two closer to the promised land.

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