12 October 2008
21st Sunday after Trinity – Harvest
10.30 Communion – Woodchurch &
6.30 Evensong – Ebony
Readings: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Matthew 22:1-14
It is an honour to be asked to preach to you [for the first time] at your Harvest festival and, I have to say and I’m sure you will agree, that the church looks stunning.
Actually I have a bit of a confession to make – Arriving in this wonderful rural community and preaching at Harvest time makes me feel like a little bit of a fraud; it is a bit like me, with my vast knowledge of football [ahem – he said ironically] going to Manchester United and trying to talk to them about tactics for the forthcoming season. So, for this year at least and until you have educated me further in the ways of agriculture, I am going to stick to my knitting and avoid making any sweeping and therefore incorrect statements about the technicalities of farming. Instead, if you’ll forgive me, I want to think about why we celebrate harvest festival in the way that we do, what that may say about our view of God and, perhaps most importantly, to consider how times of trouble – whether that is a poor harvest or other woes – may affect our view of God.
As I said a moment ago the church does look fabulous decked out for harvest in this way – some produce looks like it has come direct from the fields or vegetable gardens and some has come direct from Waitrose or Tescos and it has been arranged around the altar or the Lord’s Table in what looks like the raw ingredients for a real feast, or perhaps a wedding banquet.
But what is it that motivates us to bring fruit, vegetables and various tinned goods into Church? After today’s service I understand that the produce will be distributed around the community and I am sure that all the recipients will be very grateful. But, as I am sure you will appreciate, no matter how much this produce is both needed and appreciated by the recipients this is far from being the most efficient means of being charitable – quite apart from the fact that it is not possible to Gift Aid the donation of a marrow, harvest, of course, only happens once a year and, presumably, those who receive these goods could do with them throughout the year. So, although charity to those in need undoubtedly forms part of the motive for this collective offering there is also something much deeper and more profound going on here.
Our Old Testament reading this morning is from Deuteronomy 26 and it forms a part of the instructions that Moses gave to the people of Israel while they were still wandering in the desert and before they had entered into the land flowing with milk and honey. Moses says to the people that when God brings them into the promised land they are to demonstrate their thankfulness to God by bringing the first fruits of their harvest to the temple, offer them to the priest and lay them before the altar. As it says:
“Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. And you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.”
So that passage touches very directly on what we are doing here today – we are acknowledging that individually or collectively God has brought us into a land of plenty, indeed into the very garden of England which almost literally flows with milk and honey, and we are saying ‘thank you’ to God by offering back to him some of the bounty that he has given to us. And not only are we saying ‘thank you’ to God we are also called to rejoice in all the good things that God has given us.
Naturally, thankfulness and joy should always lie at the heart of our worship and our relationship with God but today that thankfulness and joy is focused particularly on the fruitfulness of our land and we demonstrate that thankfulness by acknowledging that all we have comes from God and offering it back to him in the context of worship. The desire to give thanks to God in a material and tangible manner seems to be a deep seated part of what it means to be in a relationship with God. We are all children of God the Father and, as a father myself, I know that I am most touched when my children bring me drawings and other presents as a demonstration of their love.
So far so good. Whilst everything I have said so far is sustainable and true within a Christian understanding of God before going any further I should just sound a note of caution: Whilst the reading from Deuteronomy looks like clear biblical writ for what we are doing today I would not want to leave you with the impression that we celebrate harvest in this way simply because of the instructions in Deuteronomy – if it were that straightforward then, presumably, we would also be sacrificing all sorts of animals before the altar and we would be putting each other to death for wearing garments containing different types of material and prawn cocktails and moules marinaire would be totally forbidden. Whether or not you think that is a good thing is a matter of taste.
At the time Deuteronomy was written the Old Testament view of God was, on the whole, that God rewards his chosen people with material blessings and, therefore, that wealth and success were indicative of being in a right relationship with God. On this view if you are ‘in with the God-fearing in-crowd’ then God will give you lots of material rewards and you stay within the in-crowd and in with God by giving thanks for that material success who will then continue to reward you with good things. If we are not careful there is at least a danger that this is a view of God that we perpetuate. The very considerable dangers of that too simplistic view of God is that it reduces God to what I have called elsewhere “God as a good-luck genie’ and, even more seriously, when the luck runs out and the harvest fails where does that leave us in relation to God? So, to avoid those dangers we also need to think a little more widely about God from the context of from our own experience of life and, of course in the context of the Christian understanding of God.
I said at the beginning that I cannot talk in detail about the business of agriculture and I shan’t but I do know from general knowledge that our climate is changing and that this is having an effect on crop yields here and around the world. Our ability to adapt farming methods is struggling to keep up with unpredictable weather patterns and, if this continues, it is going to become increasingly difficult to feed the worlds population. So that is a potentially bad harvest on the horizon. At the same time I am sure we are all aware of the rapidly unravelling economic situation. On a purely local level it seems that Kent County Council was the biggest single local authority investor in Iceland and that £50 million of Kent tax payer’s money is now potentially lost. Even if central government chooses to bail out the local authorities then it simply means that the loss is being paid for by income tax rather than council tax but either way the money we thought we had is disappearing into a black hole somewhere. Have we reached the bottom of the financial meltdown or are we on the verge of a substantial and adverse change to our living conditions? Are we about to reap a very bad financial harvest?
Finally I have certainly experienced personal tragedies in my life and I have no doubt that the same could be said for most people here. Everyone experiences loss at some point, whether it is loss of loved ones, loss of health or loss of job.
To put it simply what do we think about God when the harvest fails or when the harvest of our own lives is not what we would have wished for?
Well, if the God we worship is purely the God of the good harvest then it is no wonder that when the harvest fails or when things get really difficult that we are left wondering where God is. However as Christians our understanding of God should come first and foremost from our understanding of Christ. Was Jesus a success in material terms? No, he was born into a poor family as a member of an oppressed people in an occupied country – he preached continually that people should put love of God before love of money and, after only three years of ministry he was put to death as a criminal. In earthly terms he reaped a poor harvest indeed and yet we worship him not only as a the Son of God but, in Trinitarian terms, as very God himself.
It is of course right and proper to give thanks to God and to rejoice for all the blessings we receive individually and collectively. Like a father with his children I am in no doubt that God accepts the offerings we have put before him today wth love and joy himself. But we should also remember that when God’s blessings are less tangible and he seems most far off we worship God not only as Creator of the world but also as Redeemer of a fallen world and we should look to Jesus Christ as the author and perfector of our faith and remember that when we face our personal crucifixions, in whatever form they take, that the joy of the resurrection and a deepened understanding of the true love of God is not far behind.
Finally, and returning to the imagery of our gospel reading and the image of the good things spread before us today, we are each of us invited to the eternal banquet which is the kingdom of heaven, let us put on our wedding clothes and send an RSVP without delay.