Preaching at the Harrow Fair

One year ago, on the Sunday of Labour Day weekend, I began service as the pastor of Harrow United Church, in Harrow, a town of around 4000 souls, half an hour from Windsor, Ontario. The first worship service I took part in was the Community Worship held on the Sunday of the Harrow Agricultural Fair. After the service I was treated to dessert (before lunch!) at the United Church pie tent.

One year later, I was the preacher for the Community Worship at the Fair, and afterwards, bought my own pie. Actually, I rode the pie-mobile back to the church and picked out the two whole pies I bought to take home. We then picked up a load of pies to replenish the dwindling supply at the tent.

diamonds-denim-update 1

Each year the Colchester South and Harrow Agricultural Society chooses a theme for the fair.

The local ministerial has charge of the community worship service, and makes an effort to tie in the theme.

When I heard that our theme was “Diamonds and Denim”, I chose a story about Abraham and Sarah from Genesis 18, in which the founding couple of the people of Israel offer hospitality to 3 strangers, to learn later they were God’s messengers. A group of young people from St. Mark Evangelical Church in Colchester performed a dramatic reading of the story.  They did great!

Here is what I said, when I followed them:

It was great to have the actors from Saint Mark’s bring the bible story to life. That’s what we are meant to do-bring the Good News to life-with our actions and attitudes.

Keeping the custom of their faith and culture, Abraham and Sarah extended hospitality to 3 total strangers, and only later learned they were God’s messengers. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

We don’t know who might actually be an angel for us, bringing a holy word. You can’t always tell from the outside, what’s on the inside. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge a person by the colour of their skin, or the length of their hair, or the way they dress. Don’t judge a person by who they love, or where they live, or the vehicle they use to get around.

Be kind with everyone you meet, you don’t know what they might be going through. Think of the people in your own life. If you didn’t know them, could you tell, just by looking at them, what their life has been like, and what they deal with on a daily basis? Many carry heavy, but invisible burdens.

We all have problems. I have a small one today!

Last year was Christmas at the Fair, and it was easy to pick up that theme in the Community Church Service. We sang Christmas Carols, and heard about the birth of Jesus. This year it’s Diamonds and Denim. There are a few references to diamonds in the Bible. It’s much harder to find anything about denim. There aren’t even stories in the Bible about people wearing pants, because none of them did.

I definitely heard about blue jeans growing up, because I was not allowed to wear them to church. Jeans weren’t dressed up enough. Blue jeans were invented by Jacob David and Levi Strauss, who sold them as work clothes to miners and cowboys. They were made to stand up to rough use.

After World War Two, jeans became the trousers of choice of motorcycle riders, and greasers. Later they were part of hippie culture, and as time went on, the non-uniform of punk rockers and metal heads. These are all sub-cultures that tend towards rebellion and the questioning of authority.

Not only were my blue jeans not fancy enough, they were symbols of disobedience and rebelliousness, not qualities my home church encouraged.

These days, some folks spend hundreds of dollars for jeans. Some of the most expensive are distressed, strategically ripped and torn, to look like they’ve seen better days. Wearing jeans does not really mean you are a rebel, or an outsider. You can’t tell a person by their pants.

Things are not always as they seem.

Diamonds are thought of as rare, and special, and therefore incredibly expensive. But for many years the supply of diamonds was strictly limited, to artificially inflate the market value. The people who kept a tight grip on the world’s supply also hired advertising firms to convince us diamonds are forever, they’re a girl’s best friend, and you can’t possibly get engaged unless you are ready to plunk down several months salary to buy a diamond ring. These are modern ideas, with little basis in history or tradition. Someone made it all up, to get us buying.

I wonder what a diamond would be worth, if all the diamonds that have been dug up hit the market at the same time.

Things are not always as they seem.

Matthew’s Gospel has a story about a king who separates goats from sheep, and faithful followers from those who did not do so well. The faithful are those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those in prison, and extend hospitality to strangers. Those who do all those things found out they would be rewarded, because they did them for Jesus.

This reminds me of another story:

There was an old monastery, in the midst of a beautiful forest, that fell on hard times.  Once it had been busy and thriving, with the monks doing good works, praying, and training the next generation to carry on their mission.

As sometimes happens with churches, and boards, and service clubs, over time, there were fewer and fewer members struggling to do all the work, and every year, less new people appeared with a desire to follow in their feeble footsteps.

There came to be just five monks left, the abbot and four others. The youngest was in their 70’s.

Deep in the same forest was a hut the local rabbi used for personal retreats.  One day, the abbot visited to see if the rabbi had any wisdom. The rabbi welcomed the abbot and listened with care to his plight.

“I know how it is,” he said, “the spirit has gone out of the people.  Almost no-one comes to the synagogue anymore.”

The old rabbi and the old abbot sympathized with each other, and wept together.  They read portions of the Hebrew Scriptures together, and prayed, and spoke quietly of deep things.

The time came when the abbot needed to get back. The abbot and the rabbi embraced.

“It has been wonderful being with you,” said the abbot, “Before I leave, have you any advice that might save the monastery?”

The rabbi shook his head. “No advice, except to tell you that the messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to his fellow monks, he shared the rabbi’s confusing words. They pondered what the rabbi meant.

“The messiah is one of us?  Do you suppose he means the abbot, our faithful leader for so long?  On the other hand, it might be Brother Thomas, who certainly prays a lot.  Or maybe Brother Elrod, who is very grumpy, but also quite wise.  I don’t think he meant Brother Phillip, he’s too passive, but then again, he’s always there when you need him.  It can’t be Brother George. Surely the messiah would not have bad breath!”

Each monk thought to themselves, “The rabbi didn’t mean me, did he?  What if he did?”

As they considered the possibilities, the monks began to treat each other, and themselves with grace and respect, just in case one of them was the messiah.

Because the forest surrounding the monastery was so beautiful, people occasionally came to visit. They’d have picnics or wander along the old paths, most of which led to the beautiful, but broken down old chapel.  They sensed the extraordinary respect that surrounded the five old monks. It permeated the atmosphere.

People began to visit more frequently, and brought friends.  Visitors began to engage in conversation with the monks. After a while, one asked if he could join them.  Then one more, and another after that. Thanks to the rabbi’s wisdom, in a few years the monastery was thriving again.

What if we treated every person we meet, regardless of their appearance, or reputation, as valuable diamonds in the rough, who are actually messengers from God?

What if we treated every member of our group, our family, our club, our faith community, as if they might be just the person we need in our lives?



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