Sunday, 30 September 2007

Harvest Festival

1. Introduction

  • I love the harvest season. Though I’m not a farmer, I can feel their excitement, waiting for the right moment, and the mad rush when that moment comes; the combines working late into the night, the tractors drawing full trailers racing home to the barn. Beware the tractors though: I once had a car written off by one on harvest duty, which didn’t stop as fast as I did, when I met it on a narrow road!
  • My own harvest is as a gardener, and it gives me great joy to pick my own produce: I was busy with other things this year and rather neglected the garden, so the vegetables weren’t great, but the plums, pears and apples are good, thank God, and so are my wife Marty’s flowers.
  • I love Harvest Festivals as well, as I’m sure you do too: the colours and smells of the fruit and vegetables and flowers, the familiar harvest hymns, the cheerful people, especially the farmers whose years’ work has been crowned with success. A very few mock the Feast of St Pumpkin, and say it is a pagan not a Christian festival, but it is surely right for Christians to give thanks for all the good things God has given us.
  • After all, as our 1st reading from Deuteronomy (Deu 26:1-11) shows, there are good biblical grounds for doing so. ‘You shall set the first of the fruit of the ground down before the Lord your God … Then you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you.’ And John tells us that Jesus himself went privately to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of booths, which is the Jewish Harvest Festival. What’s good enough for Jesus is good enough for me!
  • Deuteronomy talks about a harvest of the fruits of the earth. But in our 2nd reading from John’s Gospel (John 6:23-35), Jesus asks us to look beyond an earthly harvest, ‘food that perishes’, to a different, heavenly harvest, ‘food that endures for eternal life’.
  • So what I want to do in this address is to tease out the relationship between the earthly harvest and the heavenly harvest.

2. Let us look first at the earthly harvest:

It’s so beautifully displayed in this Church, isn’t it? The decorators have every right to be proud of their skilful arrangements, and those who have grown the produce have every right to be proud that the best of it should be displayed here in God’s house.

Just reflect for a moment on the breadth and variety of our harvest:

  • We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, hay for cattle. Our farmers were getting very worried with the wet summer this year, but in the end it has been a good harvest I’m told. The dry weather in August and September came just in time after the wet summer. I see from the Farmers Journal that cereal yields were good, if a bit down, and prices are very high. The hay and straw is saved, so the animals will be all right too.
  • But there is so much more for us to enjoy: there’s milk and honey, butter and cheese, fruit and nuts, blackberries and mushrooms, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips, pumpkins and marrows, peas and beans, cabbage and lettuce, and gardens full of flowers!
  • Many of us work with animals, and there are also this year’s foals, and calves and lambs and chicks. But we should also think of the fruit of our own bodies - that is our children and grandchildren born this year - thank God for them too!
  • What a wealth there is in our harvest to give thanks for!

Above all perhaps we should thank God for our health and strength, and also for our intellects, our cleverness, for we couldn’t produce this wealth with out them.

  • As every farmer and gardener knows, this bountiful harvest does not just appear from heaven as if by magic, it also takes intelligent planning and hard graft.
  • In creating us, in his image we are told, God has created beings which are in a sense co-creators with him of the natural world. We use our God-given cleverness to bend the natural world to better meet our own needs, by domesticating and improving the breeds of different plants and animals, and by developing useful technologies. It is that work of co-creation which takes hard graft and intelligent planning.
  • But we must never forget that we are not masters of the universe: God is. God’s laws don’t change: Nature is as God made it; and what we sow, we shall reap.
  • I think we ought to pray more that we may use our cleverness wisely, to build up this wonderful world, not destroy it. Otherwise, our fields may become scrub, our gardens revert to wilderness, our houses ivy-clad ruins and our towns deserted. It has happened before, it may well happen again: for civilisations grow, flourish and decay. But if it does, God will still be there.

For all our cleverness, this earthly harvest is perishable and uncertain. Without God’s continuing fatherly goodness our material needs would not be met.

3. So what about the heavenly harvest?

In the passage from John’s Gospel that we’ve just heard, Jesus tells the crowd: ‘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. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ He then makes the great claim: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whosoever believes in me shall never be thirsty’. What is Jesus talking about?

  • The teaching is difficult; at least I find it so, but then so did many of Jesus’s disciples, according to John. I find it helpful myself to interpret Jesus’s words in the context of a heavenly harvest, by analogy with the earthly harvest. Perhaps you will too.
  • Just as God has made us clever, to be his co-workers in the material world, so he has made us in his image to be moral beings, to be souls. God has given us the capacity to distinguish right from wrong, truth from lies, love from hate; and to prefer good to evil, as he does. We call that capacity conscience. I don’t doubt that both our cleverness and our conscience have evolved, since that seems to be how God makes his creatures.
  • God surely intends us to use our consciences to make the right choices, to do good not evil. Our right choices are the seed from which grows a heavenly harvest of good. As the old saw says, the good we do lives after us. The good we do is eternal; it nourishes our souls for eternal life. But we are not masters of our own souls, any more than we are masters of the universe: our souls are as God made them, with free will, vulnerable to temptation.
  • So it’s hard to be good. We have to work at it, just as we do for the earthly harvest. It is hard work resisting temptation, putting what is right above our own desires. All too often we fail. And when we fail, the evil we do poisons our soul, and the evil too is eternal.

What a mess it is! How can we possibly be as good as God wants us to be? As good as God has made us want to be?

This is where Jesus’s teaching speaks to me:

  • Jesus promises us all the help we need to reap the heavenly harvest: if we have faith in him, if we come to him, if we believe in him. He will nourish our souls. He will help us to resist temptation and to do good. And when we fail, he will suck out the evil that poisons the soul – in other words, he will redeem us. It is in this sense that he is the bread of life, that endures for eternal life.
  • And furthermore, God guarantees this, by setting his seal on the Son of Man. It is as if the bread of life comes stamped by God with an eat-by date of eternity!

4. So to sum up:

  • Let us thank God for this bountiful earthly harvest. God makes it possible, and we work hard for it, so we should celebrate it and enjoy it.
  • But let us work just as hard for the heavenly harvest of goodness, to nourish our souls.
  • And let us thank God for Jesus, who gives us the help we need to reap this heavenly harvest. If we believe in him, if we come to him, we will never be hungry or thirsty for good things.

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