Sunday, 17 October 2010

Harvest in the wilderness

Address given at the Lockeen Harvest Festival, Sunday 17th October 2010. It was a great privilege to be invited back, three years after the last Harvest I attanded there. Year A readings (Deuteronomy 8:7-18 and Luke 17:11-19)

We all love Harvest Festivals, don’t we?
Looking around us at this beautifully decorated church, filled with harvest bounty, how can we fail to feel thankful? 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, filled with a sense of accomplishment, now that the year’s work has been crowned with success.

And it’s not just human beings who feel thankful, I fancy. Have you come across John Betjeman’s well known poem, The Diary of a Church Mouse? The Church Mouse has a lean diet for most of the year, nibbling on old service books, floor polish and the stuffing of hassocks. He doesn’t care much for Christmas or Easter or Whitsun, but he dines like a king at Harvest:
For me the only feast at all
Is Autumn’s Harvest Festival,
When I can satisfy my want
With ears of corn around the font.
I climb the eagle’s brazen head
To burrow through a loaf of bread.
I scramble up the pulpit stair
And gnaw the marrows hanging there.

My farming neighbour tells me it’s been a good harvest this year – and if he says so it must be true, because he’s not usually so positive! His grain yield is a bit down, due to the dry summer, but the harvest was easier than last year, moisture is low, and he’s anticipating a good price. Dairy farmers are also happy, he tells me, though dry-stock folk a bit less so. Sheep farmers are pleased too. And those of us like me with gardens are delighted with our excellent crops of fruit and vegetables.

We really do have so much to be thankful for. In the OT reading from Deuteronomy (8:7-18), Moses speaks to the children of Israel as they wait to cross into the Promised Land. ‘The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land’, he says, ‘a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley’. Well, God has already placed us in just such a land: Ireland is well-watered; our yields of wheat and barley are among the highest in the world. Instead of ‘vines and fig trees and pomegranates’, we have cherries and plums, apples and pears, raspberries and currants. We may not have olive trees, but we have rape-seed for oil. It is ‘a land where we may eat bread without scarcity, where we lack nothing’. It is surely right for us to ‘eat our fill and bless the Lord our God for the good land that he has given us’.

But we are not all farmers, and in other respects we are suffering a hard, bitter season.
We are shocked and angered by revelations of financial mismanagement by so many of our leaders. The actions of bankers, developers and politicians here have made the global crash worse than in other countries. Many have lost their jobs, many more have had their take-home pay cut, the old find their pensions are not what they expected. Services are being pared; people are struggling to pay mortgages on homes now worth just a fraction of what they paid for them. And we are being told that we face four more years of increasing pain to bring our public finances back into balance.

It is also slowly – too slowly – dawning on us that our modern consumer lifestyle is not sustainable. To feed this lifestyle, human beings are over-exploiting the Earth’s resources of fossil energy, minerals, water and fertile land. If this continues God’s planet which nurtures us will be damaged, and we will suffer with the rest of creation.

Our lifestyle is also unjust. Everyone can’t enjoy the high consumption that we do in the developed world – there are simply not enough resources to go round. The rich unjustly take the lions share, and so deprive the poor of their aspirations to development.

We know we will have to make changes, but we do not yet understand what and how. We are anxious; we are frightened. And for many people it is difficult to feel thankful.

How is it that we find ourselves in this position?
The root cause of the problems we face is surely that old fashioned sin of greed, to which human beings have always been liable – greed for money, greed for possessions, greed for a lifestyle richer than our neighbour has.

Could it be that we have been forgetting God, and saying to ourselves, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth’?

Our situation is a bit like that faced by the children of Israel as Moses led them out of Egypt into the Sinai desert, long before they ever get to the Promised Land.

God is leading us ‘through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions’. We are being humbled. We are being tested. God has given us a task on our journey - to build a sustainable and just society, more like the kingdom of heaven than the one we know today, the kind of society in which all can flourish. We are journeying through a wilderness - but in the end the journey will be good for us – we will enter the Promised Land.

We need cleansing just as much as the lepers that Jesus met on the way to Jerusalem. (Luke 17:11-19)
We need to be cleansed of sinful greed. Without that we cannot be successful in the task God entrusts us with. And we can be sure that Jesus will cleanse us, if we recognise our sin for what it is, and call out to him, as the lepers did, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’

But let us not be like the nine lepers who failed to show their gratitude. Let us be like the one who turned back, praising God, to thank Jesus. It is against the grain of society today, it is counter-cultural. But if we praise God and show our gratitude, Jesus will bless us, as he did that Samaritan, saying, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well’.

Others will notice the change in us. Our positive, unselfish, grateful attitude will attract them. They will be inspired to work with us to build that sustainable, just society in which all will flourish.

God will look after us on our journey in the wilderness; he will make ‘water flow from flint rock’ and he will feed us ‘with manna that our ancestors did not know’; in fact he will continue to bless us with good harvests. Enough to meet our needs if not our unreasonable wants. And we must give thanks for them, as we are doing today, because our joy will bring others to join us.

Betjeman’s Church Mouse was surprised at harvest time to be joined in the church by so many field mice from outside. The poem finishes:
But all the same it's strange to me
How very full the church can be
With people I don't see at all
Except at Harvest Festival.

As Christians we must go forward confidently, certain that God will bring us into a good land:
  • There will be economic recovery – thank God!
  • We will build a sustainable and just society, more like the kingdom of heaven – thank God!
  • And like the children of Israel we must ‘remember the Lord our God, for it is he who gives us power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to our ancestors, as he is doing today’thank God for that promise too!

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