Tuesday 7 October 2008

Earthly and Heavenly Harvests

An address given at the Lorrha Harvest Festival, Sunday 7th September 2008.

1. First, I want to say what a privilege it is for me to join you today in this ancient holy place for your Harvest Festival, to give thanks to God for all the good things he has given us all. And I must thank you, Archdeacon Wayne, for your invitation.

Like all of us I’m sure, I’ve loved Harvest Festivals ever since I was a child! Let us just look around us at this beautifully decorated church, filled with harvest bounty. 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! We all enjoy the colours and the smells of the fruit and the vegetables and the flowers, the familiar harvest hymns, and the cheerful people.

I’m going to talk about two things today: the earthly harvest, for which we are giving thanks today; and then a different, heavenly harvest. The two are deeply interconnected.

2. So first, the earthly harvest.

I do hope you’re cheerful, because we have so much to give thanks for, even though this is a difficult time for many. Cheerfulness is a Christian virtue!

It has been a difficult year for those of you who are farmers, with so much rain, and so little sun. Many of you will be disappointed with how it has turned out, with the return you have got from all your planning and hard work. And many more of us will be anxious about the economic recession, and the turmoil in global financial markets. Worries bubble up: Is my job safe? What about my savings and my pension? How can I stretch my income to pay the rising bills for energy and other things?

But let us look at the glass as half full, not half empty! 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. If the grain price is lower than we would like, it’s because the northern hemisphere grain harvest is bigger than ever before this year, whatever about here in Ireland.
  • And there’s much more than staples for us to enjoy, isn’t there: 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 this year’s foals, and calves and lambs and chicks. But there’s also the fruit of our own bodies - our children and grandchildren born this year - I have a new grandson myself, a little dote - thank God for them too!
  • Above all perhaps we should thank God for our health and strength, and also for our intellects, our god-given cleverness. As every farmer knows, this bountiful harvest does not appear from heaven as if by magic: it takes intelligent planning and hard graft!
In this rich corner of the world today, we will not starve, as our forefathers so often did after a bad harvest. With our cleverness we have invented ways to store food and to transport it, and economic and social systems to distribute it to where it is needed. If we consume a little less, it will probably be good for our health; and perhaps the whole planet will benefit. So let us be cheerful and follow the good advice of Deuteronomy (26:1-11): ‘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.’

Yet for all our cleverness, the earthly harvest is perishable and uncertain. Why has God not given us perpetually good harvests? Perhaps to remind us 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. We remain as we have always been, totally dependent on God’s continuing fatherly goodness.

3. In the passage from John’s Gospel (6:25-35) that we’ve just heard, Jesus asks us to look beyond the earthly harvest, to a different heavenly harvest.

He 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.’ He tells them that ‘the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ And finally he 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?

His teaching is difficult; at least I find it so, but then so did many of Jesus’s disciples, according to John. One way to look at it, which I find helpful, is this:

  • Just as God has made us clever, able to till and keep the world of which we are part, so he has made us in his image to be moral beings, to be souls, with the capacity we call conscience to distinguish right from wrong, truth from lies, love from hate; and to prefer good to evil, as he does. If we use our conscience to make the right choices, we reap a heavenly harvest of good, which nourishes us for eternal life. As the old saw says, the good we do lives after us.
  • 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. We sin. And when we fail and sin, the evil we do poisons our soul, and the evil too is eternal. A bad deed done can never be undone!
  • 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 in our best moments.
  • This is where Jesus’s teaching speaks to me: he promises us all the help we need to reap the heavenly harvest. All we require is the faith to come to him, to believe in him. As the bread of life, he strengthens our souls. He helps us to resist temptation and to do good. And when we fail, he sucks out the evil that poisons the soul – in other words he redeems us. The only cure for a bad deed is forgiveness!
  • It is in this sense that Jesus is the bread of life that endures for eternal life.
What are the practical implications of this? Consider greed for example:

  • Greed is the cause of so many of the problems we face, I think, from global warming to the global crash; old-fashioned, sinful human greed. Greed to consume more than we need at the expense of our planet. Greed for profit at the expense of other men and women.
  • To overcome the problems we need to learn to be generous to others, not greedy for ourselves. We must learn to share. This wonderful planet – our God-given Garden of Eden – would be enough and more than enough for all of us if only we could do so.
  • But we cannot do this by ourselves, because of our innate tendency to sin. We can only do it through the grace of Jesus Christ, the bread of life, who will help us transform our sinful greedy natures into generous ones. He will help us to be as generous as God wants us to be.
  • And think on this: our greed threatens our future; without Jesus’s help to transform our greed into generosity, we stand to lose the earthly harvest too. The earthly harvest depends in a very real way on the heavenly harvest.
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.
  • Let us also thank God for Jesus, whose help we need to reap this heavenly harvest.
  • And let us pray that Jesus will transform our greed into generosity.
If we believe in him, if we come to him, we will never be hungry or thirsty for good things!

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