Greenbelt Gatherings – Rev Dr Phil Wall
Deuteronomy 24:17-22; James 2: 1-9, 14-17
So this time last week I was muddy and damp, head to toe in my waterproofs, slightly pungent after a few days without washing and sharing wine from a plastic cup in a soggy field near Kettering. And I blooming loved it! I wasn’t having some kind of ministerial breakdown…though you might have been forgiven for thinking that had you seen me…but was instead enjoying the delights of Greenbelt – the glorious and annual coming together of people from all over the UK and, indeed, world to listen and worship, sing and dance, be inspired and challenged, share food, ideas and, yes, toilets. It’s a very lefty, liberal and life-affirming few days whose hopeful spirit even the bank holiday downpours couldn’t dampen. A place where you can gorge on the array of music, art and talks available, find a quiet spot to sit and pray, or maybe even head to the pub, called ‘The Jesus Arms’, for a pint of ‘Jonah and the Ale’.
And on the last night, coincidentally coming back from said place, a friend of mine said to me “I don’t want to leave here – it’s like a little glimpse of heaven” and…I have to admit that I agreed with her. Greenbelt does make for a wonderful few days and so, for the first time since I’d moved down to Ponty, I must confess that I wasn’t overly fussed about coming back. Now before you pelt me with fruit or order me a taxi, let me explain that this had nothing to do with how I feel about things here – I think you know I’m rather fond of the place – and with October coming soon there are a lot of things to be excited about. It’s just…well…I’m hoping that you’ll allow me a few minutes to reflect on what was so soul-stirring about those few days in Greenbelt as we have a look at the passage from Deuteronomy, a key text at this year’s festival. By doing so, I hope not to simply indulge in some misty-eyed longing for Greenbelt…though perhaps you’ll forgive me if I do…but to raise some issues about what it means for us to gather as followers of Jesus – why we do it and why we have to then leave again.
The passage from the book of Deuteronomy speaks of the actions of the community at harvest-time. The laws we heard were given to ensure that all would be cared for, that all in the community would get fed…and you won’t be surprised to hear my enjoyment of the fact that there’s a lot of feeding at Greenbelt! Whether it’s in sharing a plate of festival nachos whilst playing cards; grabbing a slice of toast at the Christian Aid tent or in gathering with thousands of people under a moody sky to break bread together, eating and drinking play a big part at Greenbelt. And when you’re camping, of course, when you have to take some provisions with you, when you’ve no fridge or kettle at hand, receiving a simple cup of tea can revive the spirit; sharing a simple chocolate bar can give you the energy boost you need to head off to the next event.
And the feeding that Greenbelt offers isn’t simply for the body. Speaking personally, I was entranced by music, intrigued by a talk about vulnerability, inspired by some Biblical discussions and enlivened by the conversations that grew organically in tents and around tables. As the Deuteronomy passage speaks of providing for the farmers and the forgotten, the owners and the orphans, I believe that Greenbelt is a place where people of all different ages, theologies and status can be fed with bread and wine, with nachos and tea, with inspiring talks and angelic music.
Secondly, the Deuteronomy passage is one that is grounded in a remembrance of God’s goodness and redemption. In a matter of a few verses, the people of Israel are reminded that they are worshipping the God who brought them out of Egypt, the God who has a living relationship with them. And at Greenbelt, a celebration of God’s goodness and salvation, of God’s constant, grace-filled presence, pervades everything. Worship is conducted in tents, fields and the pub; in silence and stillness; with dancing and drums; with colour and candour. Time is given to wrestle with the scriptures, to ask what God might require of us today, to hear stories which challenge. Space is offered to reflect, confess, get angry or laugh with other pilgrims on the journey. The ground may get damp with rain but the whole place seems immersed in worship.
And, of course, it is often the people with whom you travel, meet for the first time or reconnect with that help make the Greenbelt festival so enjoyable. Our Deuteronomy passage speaks of the importance of relationship, of looking out for the other and the interconnectedness of our lives and the festival can often seem to be a living embodiment of that. It’s a place where teenage Goths chat happily with monks; old and young learn from one another, where denominational ties, sexuality, economic status and learning ability offer no barriers to friendship. That’s not to say that there’s never a cross word said, of course…the night-time snorers and toddler dawn chorus didn’t engender entirely holy feelings from me…and yet, living, worshipping, learning and eating alongside one another, a community identity is quickly encouraged and you find yourself sparking up conversations with strangers in a way that…well, no English man at least, would ever choose to do in normal conditions! It felt natural and good and hopeful and fun. So perhaps you can begin to see why I wanted to stay. At Greenbelt there were no emails to answer, diary to manage, to do list to overcome. At Greenbelt I didn’t have to plan meetings or conduct funerals or visit the sick. At Greenbelt I didn’t have to read stories of racially motivated shootings or terrorist atrocities, I didn’t have to look through tears at the photograph of a three year old’s drowned body. When tents were packed up and drivers navigated their way across the muddy fields and out of the festival exit, it felt like we left a place of joy and justice and grace to return to the real world of pain and suffering and injustice.
And I’m sure I’m not alone in having experienced such a transition. Perhaps you’ve had a holiday…perhaps you’ve had a holy day when all seemed right with the world – when things were happy and hope-filled, when you felt close to God and your fellow sisters and brothers and the future looked bright, only to return to a family emergency, some national tragedy or perhaps even just the loneliness, stress or monotony that normal, everyday life might bring. And, like Peter on top of the Mount of Transfiguration, you long to return to that place of joy, to build your dwelling place there, but you know that you can’t, that Jesus calls you down from the mountaintop and has set his face towards Jerusalem.
So where do we go from here? Onward, of course – but how? Well, let me first suggest that my experience of Greenbelt is not so very different from my experience of gathering here. We might not have travelled miles in our thousands, we might not have Goths or monks in our midst here today and there is, thankfully, no portaloo in sight but this gathering shares much in common with that one. For here we will share bread and wine for the journey; here songs will be sung and silence be offered. In this place, everyone is welcomed; in this community God’s glory might be glimpsed, God’s grace might be encountered. Our lives might be busy or boring, stress or joy-filled, confusing, stable, wild or wearisome and yet however we come, whatever we bring, here we are invited, accepted and enveloped in God’s love. We might not always rush to come and it might not always be fun but here, in this community, we might find a resting place for our journey ahead.
A resting place yet not a dwelling place. More tent than Temple.
And one evening this week, whilst washing, cleaning and fumigating my festival attire, I listened to a BBC Radio Wales show hosted by some Beverley woman and heard the story of Noel Coward and his Jamaican residence, Firefly. “Firefly Hill has given me the most valuable benison of all,” Coward apparently wrote in his diary. “Time to read and write and think and get my mind in order. I love this place. It deeply enchants me. Whatever happens to this silly world, nothing much is likely to happen here.” Firefly was Coward’s cocoon. The place where he felt happy and safe and loved. You can still go and visit it and on one of the walls, Coward’s last poem is written;
When I have fears, as Keats had fears, Of the moment I’ll cease to be, I console myself with vanished years, Remembered laughter, remembered tears, And the peace of the changing sea.
Beautiful words. And yet we know that the sea doesn’t bring everyone such peace. Beyond Coward’s place of refuge life can be hard, the sea can be cruel, bringing death and exposing the broken and unjust nature of our world.
As followers of Christ, we gather together to worship. In tents and fields, chapels and churches we gather together to pray and praise, to encourage and be encouraged, to love and be loved. Yet we also gather together to be sent back out. Our Deuteronomy reading might remind us that the Israelites’ understanding of their relationship with God led to a duty to care for the foreigner, orphan and widow whilst the words we heard from James starkly suggest that faith without works is dead. All of which is to say that it’s good to gather together, whether in thousands at Greenbelt or in slightly smaller numbers here. It’s good to worship God, to enjoy fellowship, to sing songs and share sacraments but our faith cannot, it must not, remain here. To do so would be like sitting back with friends, sipping a cool drink and looking over a peaceful sea, turning away from those who are drowning by the hundred, further down the bay.
As we worship, we must act. As we gather, we must be sent back out. Back into a world that desperately needs a story of good news, love and hope. Back into a world that desperately needs acts of service, compassion and justice. Maybe God is encouraging us to keep doing those things we already are – to bring prejudices and persecution to light in our exciting October program of events, to pick up the phone to a friend in need, to welcome others into our churches and homes…or maybe God is calling us to do something other – to protest or petition, to fight for justice and show our care through other acts of love. This is for us to discern together. But whatever we decide, however we may do it, we must go from here back into the world as ambassadors of the God who gets involved. We must journey onward as followers of the Christ who lived our life, died our death and rose again. We must roll up our sleeves, pick up our pens, put on our pinnies and stride out in the presence of the spirit, back into a world of beauty and brokenness, of joy and deep pain, ready to show and share the love of God to a world that is hungry for it. Amen.