6 October 2013
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
One day an agricultural salesman visited a farm with a view to selling the farmer a new combine harvester.
“No, thanks,” says the farmer, “my pig takes care of all the harvesting – I have no need for your fancy gizmo.”
“Could save you money in the long-term” tries the salesman.
“No, your combine would never match my pig’s productivity – you should see him go – swishing away with that scythe.”
The salesman is intrigued about this pig and asks to see it. The farmer leads the salesman to an enclosure. Standing within – tall and proud – is the most magnificent pig the salesman has ever seen. But the pig has got a wooden leg.
“That sure is an impressive pig, sir, but why’s he got a wooden leg?” asks the salesman.
“This pig is more than ‘impressive’ mister – I’m sure he’s unique! Do you know he can also drive the tractor!?”
“Really? But why’s he got a wooden leg?”
“He drives our children to school and back!! – even helps them with their homework!!”
“I’m impressed” admits the salesman, “but why the wooden leg?”
“THIS PIG is also a leading authority on organic farming; thanks to him we’ve managed to branch out, and now our revenue is higher than that of any other farm in this county!!
“Yeah, yeah!! You’ve got one hell of a pig – I can see that by just looking at him – but why does it have a wooden leg!?” Insists the salesman.
“Did I mention the publishing deals? This pig’s just written a best seller – we’re going to be even richer now!!”
“Amazing, truly amazing – but why the WOODEN LEG!!!!!!!!!!” The farmer looks admiringly at his pig and then turns to the salesman: “Well, with a pig like this – you just DON’T eat him all at once.”
Sorry about that.
At its heart Harvest Festival is a very straightforward type of event. It is about recognising that all of the gifts we have come ultimately from God, taking some time out from the busy-ness of our lives to recognise that fact and then to say “Thank You”.
In a way we have a mini-Harvest Festival here every week: when the collection is brought to the front of church it is given to me and I raise it up to the Altar and say a prayer which goes like this:
“Heavenly Father, everything we have comes from you, and of your own do we offer you. Bless these gifts to your praise and glory.”
Everything we have comes from you, and of your own do we offer you. Harvest is about recognising that everything we have comes from God and symbolically offering something back as a thanksgiving.
Now of course the reason we do that particularly at this time of year is because not that long ago in the grand scheme of thing the natural rhythm of the agricultural year permeated every aspect of life. In rural areas such as this within the last 100 years most people in the village would have been involved in some aspect of farming and, in arable areas, when the fields needed harvesting everyone would be out helping to gather in the crops. The whole reason that we have six weeks holiday during the summer is so that the children would be available to help in the fields during the busiest time. Now they mostly sit around being bored and missing their friends from school, so perhaps there is a lesson there – put the children back to work on the farms!
And once the crops had been safely gathered in then the community could take the time to gather themselves into church and to thank God for the harvest.
The reading we had from Deuteronomy, which is one of the oldest books in the bible, recalls the time when the Jewish people were first settling in the promised land, the land of milk and honey. In that reading God tells the people of Israel that when the promised land has produced its rich harvest they are to take the firstfruits – not the leftovers or the windfalls mind, but the first fruits – and they are to put them in a basket and present them before God, remembering the hardship from which they came and “…rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given you and your household.”
How brilliant is that? God commands his people to ‘rejoice’ in all the good things they have been given.
Now the beautiful display around our Altar reflects the agricultural roots of this festival but, of course, the reality is that most of us most of the time have very little involvement with growing the food that we eat. That is a bit of a shame actually because Annabelle has been growing tomatoes this year and not only have they tasted wonderful coming straight from the plant to the plate but it is also very useful to be reminded that these things don’t just appear by magic on the shelves of Tescos.
Nevertheless it is the case that for the majority of people here and throughout the country we are not involved in growing food and the vegetable aisle at the supermarket is often the closest we come to an agricultural environment. It is therefore important when we come to give thanks for the gifts that God has given us that that is what we do. If God has given you the gift of being a teacher then give thanks for that and offer the firstfruits of that gift back to God, if God has given you the gift of being a parent or a housewife or a business executive or a doctor or even, may God forgive me, a banker or a politician or anything at all in the A-Z of what makes you you then today give thanks to God for that and offer the first fruits of your gift back to God. A true Harvest Festival is not about pretending that we are living in a Thomas Hardy idyll but about recognising the harvest of your life and your gifts.
But, before we all get too carried away in rejoicing in how lucky we are to be so blessed as to live in such a place and such a time of abundance there are two important, and I think biblical, caveats that I know you would be disappointed if I didn’t mention. The first is that this should not become a festival of being pleased with ourselves to the exclusion of those who have not been similarly blessed in whatever way. In this village there are people in real need, within a few miles of here there is depravation and poverty to equal that anywhere in this country and around the world there are people, including many children dying of malnutrition and preventable diseases every moment of every day. Offering the firstfruits as thanks for our gifts only means anything real if it is about helping those whose harvest of life has failed.
And that is also why I am very keen that our harvest festival does not just become about making the church look pretty with lots of seasonal fruit and vegetables. Now I know that people get very touchy about this sort of thing, and this is my first harvest here so I need to tread carefully, so I’ll explain a little more. Firstly I have no problem beautifying the church for worship and as you get to know me better you will come to know that I do place a high value on the place of aesthetics or beauty in worship. However if we become all about making the church look nice whilst not looking after our neighbours in need then we have strayed too far from our primary call to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and heal the sick. That is why I am so delighted that we are building our relationship with the Bridge Trust and that the harvest offerings from this village will be going to help those in desperate need. And, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I am also very keen that this support of those most in need is not merely an annual offering but becomes a regular part of our lives – that those of us lucky enough to take food and shelter for granted can spare a little each week for those who cannot take anything for granted. Society feels like it is taking an increasingly harsh attitude to those in need but as followers of Christ I would say that we have an obligation to offer practical love and support to our neighbours – and as we know from the parable of the good Samaritan our neighbours goes rather wider than we may always be comfortable with.
And the second caveat is this: although many of us have become divorced from the agricultural world which grows our crops the reality is that we would all soon starve if the land stopped producing food and we know that the climate of the world is changing because of our mismanagement and greed. This summer the ice in the arctic reduced to the smallest area ever recorded and yet someone still had the gall to say that this was a good thing because the lack of ice opened up the region to oil exploration – it was the reliance on oil which got us in the mess in the first place!
I want to close with one final thought about that terrible joke that I started with – it wasn’t entirely gratuitous. The farmer in that joke had a most amazing pig which did the farming for him, took the children to school, did their homework and wrote bestsellers and yet they were eating it bit at a time. We laugh at the farmer for slowly killing the thing which has been so beneficial to his family.
There are no prizes for guessing where I am going with this, but no apologies either.
Our “amazing pig” is planet earth, given to us by God, and it is currently wearing a wooden leg. True thanksgiving to God for the gifts he has given us should include waking up to the madness and unsustainability of the current situation and doing all we can to put it right. Eating bacon sandwiches and not caring about the future may sound like an attractive option but I don’t believe that it is the God-given option. I have been pleased to learn of the Low Carbon community and other environmental groups in Hadlow and it would be interesting to explore how we might integrate those issues and ideas more closely into our church life because to worship God whilst ignoring the damage we do to his creation, the creation which sustains us and those that follow, feels like the sin of hypocrisy.
So yes, Rejoice for all that God has given you today but do not forget the foundations on which it is built.