A Harvest Sermon preached by Canon Simon Butler
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Harvest Thanskgiving, 18th September 2022
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; John 6:25-35
This is the feast-time of the year,
When plenty pours her wine of cheer,
And even humble boards may spare
To poorer poor a kindly share.
While bursting barns and granaries know
A richer, fuller overflow.
And they who dwell in golden ease
Blest without toil, yet toil to please. Dora Read Goodale (1866-1915)
Harvest Festival is a time for thanksgiving, for the provision of our daily needs and the hand of God in that provision. Unlike our American cousins, we lack a day like Thanksgiving, when we can gather and celebrate the goodness of life, without any external reason, a day simply to be thankful. Harvest Festival is the nearest we come to that in Britain and, as the poem above indicates, and our Harvest Hymns acknowledge, we are connected in our gratitude to the bounty of the earth and the toil of the hands of others. In earlier ages, that toil would have been ours, as almost everyone lived closer to the land in those days. But as we as human beings have increasingly gravitated towards urban life, our connection to the soil is much reduced. I find it good to be reminded of that connection, not just through the keeping of Harvest Thanksgiving even in this inner-city parish, but through watching Countryfile which helps me to keep abreast of the life of our rural communities and in touch with our ongoing connection to the soil. We have much to be thankful for in our farmers, agricultural workers and those who work in the food supply chain across the globe.
Scripture talks about harvest in both a literal and a metaphorical way. Our Old Testament reading this morning is an account of the inauguration of the harvest festival of Jewish antiquity, where God was offered the first fruits of the harvest as a sign that everything comes from him. Up until recently, and still in many rural parishes, that tradition is kept up by the offering of the Lammas Bread, baked from the first harvest of wheat, traditionally brought to church on 1st August, Lammas Day. Our own practice of Christian stewardship where we are invited to give a portion of our time, talents and treasure to God, as a first priority of giving and a mark of our reliance and gratitude, has that same theme. To God belongs our first allegiance, to him is due our first and foremost thanksgiving.
But the harvest of Scripture is also metaphorical. Jesus in our Gospel reading is seen as the bread which has come down from heaven, the Bread of Life itself. Feeding on Jesus, the first fruits of the harvest of the resurrection, which we do in the Eucharist week by week, is a repeated taste of what we have been promised in the great harvest at the end of the age. This is the food that does not perish, the manna from heaven that never fades.
And there is a third way of understanding harvest in Scripture which is both metaphorical and physical. This is what the Apostle James calls the ‘harvest of righteousness’ or the ‘harvest of justice’. He puts it like this, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3:17-18). This is the harvest that comes from doing the right thing, doing the just thing, a metaphorical harvest, with a real physical result. We may not be farmer bringing in the corn, but we can be those who harvest goodness and gratitude in the world. This is part of what Jesus means when he says in the Gospel reading, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Two examples this morning of practical sowing and reaping.
Today we are having special collections for Pakistan at the end of the service. The plates at the back and the card reader will enable you to make a tangible gift to flood relief, if you’ve not done already. An area the size of the UK has been flooded and has been underwater. Lives have been washed away and there is a desperate need for food, healthy drinkable water and shelter. A million homes have been damaged or destroyed. And if you want a comparison, imagine the homes of the expected 750,000 people who have paid their respects to the Late Queen in the Queue to end All Queues, and then add a third. Livestock has been lost, people who had little already now have nothing. As one of them Muhammad Farooq, a 37 year old resident of Rajanpur, said, “The future is looking miserable for us. We’ve lost our home, crops and our animals. I don’t know what is going to happen next. Things are so uncertain at the moment that I can’t even begin to plan what to do.’
The truth that is slowly dawning on many people is that many of us in the West hold some responsibility for this disaster. The harvest of our lack of righteousness, our greed, our squandering of energy and carbon, our general selfishness, has brought the climate crisis upon the world, which now the fast-developing nations like India and China are also participating in, leaving the poorest in the world to suffer, including many of their own citizens. These seasonal floods have become catastrophic because of the way we have lived. It now falls to us to make some amends at the least. Sometimes our generosity is motivated by simple human compassion, shaped by our faith to the Servant Jesus; in this case, perhaps our generosity needs to be shaped by penitence too, for all of us are responsible for this tragedy’s extreme consequences. There will be a collection at the end of the service. Let our generosity reflect not just a harvest of generosity, but a harvest of righteousness that seeks to do something to put right the wrong we have done.
And closer to home, we have the cost of living crisis. About fifteen to twenty people turned up last Monday (or wrote to me with their ideas), and we recognise that as a church we need to do something to sow a harvest of righteousness in our community in the coming year or two as a response to the challenges that threaten people in our neighbourhood. We need to get that response right, of course. There’s no point in offering help when it’s not the help that’s needed. That says more about us than it does about the person in need. So we are consulting our partners locally – people of goodwill as well as fellow Christians – to see how we can respond together.
There’s another verse that can amplify the way Christians can sow a harvest of righteousness. This time a verse from St Paul to the Galatians highlights it, “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Galatians 6:10) The question we pondered at the Cost of Living Meeting was this: how can we support those in our church family who are facing cost of living pressures. One of the challenges we face – and its one that arises in more prosperous communities like ours – is how we can have honest conversations about need when talking about need or asking for help carries such potential embarrassment or even shame. We are thinking about how we can help those who really need it. But one thing we can all do, and it’s something I’d like to challenge us all to do in the coming weeks, is for us all to talk about it when we see each other. Here’s a question we can all ask and answer, “What are you most worried about in the cost-of-living crisis?” When we all ask the question and when we answer it truthfully, it can begin to normalise talking about money and need, something none of us in our culture find easy. We’re so addicted to be in control that talking about what we need seems like weakness. Well, perhaps one way we can serve those who genuinely are in need than we might be, is to start to make it easier to talk about need and neediness, by sharing ourselves.
Some years ago I listened to an online sermon by a chap called Rob Bell, who was then leading a big church called Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At the end of the sermon on need and serving our neighbours, he did something revolutionary. He put big collection plates in the middle of his large congregations and he invited people to part with all the money they had in their wallets and purses that they didn’t need (this was probably just before we all started paying for everything by card). So far, nothing very challenging. But what he then did was he asked anyone who needed money, who was struggling to make ends meet, or who had some debt, or whatever other need they had, to come and help themselves. I have no idea what happened next, but my mind was thinking like yours might be right now that people would take advantage. I think that told me a lot about myself, whereas what Bell was doing was reminding us of the need to help our brothers and sisters in a completely radical, and quite shocking way. I don’t propose to do that here at St Mary’s, although as I’m disappearing for three months tomorrow, I won’t have to answer to the consequences if I did, but I do want to invite us to go deeper in talking about and asking about the needs of others, and to begin to invite and develop a culture of generosity so that those who are genuinely in need can get some of the help they need from their fellow Christians. As the little poem at the beginning put it, And they who dwell in golden ease/Blest without toil, yet toil to please.
When we serve those in need we serve Christ. Scripture teaches that clearly. Practising it is often very difficult. But when we do, we sow a harvest of righteousness, we fill the barns of heaven with joyful service, that not only helps our neighbour in need, be they from Battersea or Pakistan, but pleases our Lord and Saviour himself. Amen.
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