(I note that a number of people have been accessing this post this week...possibly preachers looking for inspiration, as I often do myself! If you are such a one, do let me know if this reflection has been helpful to you. A comment at the bottom would be appreciated).
It's not easy for us city dwellers to get our heads around the concept of Harvest, is it? I mean, our food arrives on gigantic lorries, is unloaded into our gigantic supermarkets, and then brought out to our cars in gigantic shopping trollies. It's too easy for us to forget that our food had to be grown for us. We forget the skill involved in sowing and weeding and watering and harvesting and packaging and transporting all that food into our local supermarket.
And yet - its important that we do remember. We must remember for lots of good reasons.
So what is Harvest all about? Many things...of course. But here's my take on some of them:
First and foremost it is, of course, a time for giving thanks for many things:
We give thanks to God for our food – which, in the West, is more abundant and varied than at perhaps any other time in human history. We never have food shortages – the shelves of the supermarkets are always well stocked. But it wasn’t always like this, as those who were alive in the war and before can, no doubt, remember. So we are thankful for the abundance, the variety, and the sheer quantity of all we receive here in the UK. We give thanks for the fact that we live in relative peace - a peace which enables the free-flow of goods.
And, we might ask, why do we give thanks to God for this abundance? After all, it wasn't God who planted the seeds, cared for them, packaged them and transported them. We thank God because God is the Creator. We thank God because despite the cleverness of human beings, we are still incapable of copying even the simplest act of our Creator.
Scientists have learned a great deal about how things work. They've learned that all the instructions for creating life are woven into strands of DNA. They've even learned how to splice two pieces of DNA together to create different forms of life. But there is not a scientist in the world who is capable of taking the raw ingredients of life - say a few molecules of hydrogen and carbon - and then imprinting coded instructions on them and making them live. Life is the weird force which makes me live and move and have being - while this lecturn remains dead and lifeless. Life is something we don't understand at all.
Even if, as scientists, we could believe that the Universe has always just existed (as theologians claim that God has always existed) we are still unable to understand why a rock has no life, but a plant or an animal does. We simply don't know what the animating force of life is. We can't re-produce it ourselves.
The book of Genesis gives us a picture to hold onto. It paints a picture of God breathing life into the nostrils of a human being, created out of dirt. Life is seen by the writer of Genesis as a spiritual force - something given to us by our Creator-God. Otherwise we would be just dirt, still.
Do you know the story of the Scientist who decided that God was no longer necessary? One day he climbed a mountain and called upon God. “God! We humans now have the ability to bring people from the dead, we can create our own life, we don’t need you anymore so you can leave us alone.” God listened to the scientist and nodded his head. “Okay, I’ll tell you what, if you can really create life, let’s have a competition, if you can create a better person than me, I’ll go, but we’ll have to do it the way I did it in the old days.” So the scientist agrees and begins to collect some dirt to make his person. God simply watches him and finally asks him what he’s doing. “I’m using the dirt to make a person.” God smiles, looks at the scientist and replies, “First you have to make your own dirt.”
So at Harvest time, we give thanks to God for the life sent forth into the Universe. We thank God for it's complexity and beauty. We thank God for the way that the life in plants and animals sustains us, as well. We thank God for the way the systems of the earth are balanced so that we might have a life-span in which to grow. We thank God for the food we eat that sustains us along the path of our life - a life given to us so that we might grow more and more into God's own likeness.
Another reason we spend time thinking about Harvest is that it is a time for remembering to use the earth’s resources wisely and sustainably:
We need to make sure that the long-term consequences of today’s actions will not jeopardise the lives of generations to come. Did you know that the idea of sustainability goes back centuries? It feels like a really modern thing doesn’t it...for those of us who have grown up in a world 'addicted to oil' (to borrow one of the more positive Bush-isms) and to not worrying about our environment. But sustainability is something that Christians and Jews have been advocating for thousands of years.
For example, in Old Testament times, the ancient Israelites tried to ensure that their agriculture was sustainable; that too much was not taken from the earth without giving it chance to recover. This meant giving the land a rest every seven years, and also every fiftieth, or jubilee year.
Genesis talks about this very principle of using the earth’s resources wisely. In that great mythological story, we see God giving the Garden of Eden to Adam - under a sort of tenancy agreement. In that agreement, God tells Adam that he must rule over the earth, and take care of it. The sad fact is that ever since those days, we have learned how to rule over the land...but only now are we beginning to understand the importance of taking care of it.
We have lost that ancient wisdom from our human consciousness. We plough and plough the land until it turns to desert. We lift the resources of oil and gas laid down over millennia, and plan to use them up with three or four generations. Instead of letting land lie fallow every seven years, to recover, we fill it full of chemicals in the hope that we can keep going - making money from crops - for just a little longer. It's madness...and it flies directly in the face of the wisdom of our ancestors, and of God, passed on down through the pages of the Bible.
Harvest time is also a time for remembering to share the fruits of the earth:
Alongside that idea of letting land lie fallow every seven years, Hebrew Bible law had another ground-breaking idea that we have also forgotten...that of the year of cancelling debts.
Here are some words from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 15. In verse 4, God is reported to say “There must be no poor among you…” In those words, God sets down a condition of the tenancy agreement which simply says...”You must share what I have given you. You may not keep more than you need...and there shall be no poor among you”. Later in verse 7, God is given these words by the writer: “Do not be hard hearted or tight fisted towards your poorer brother. Rather (in verse 8 and following - & somewhat paraphrased) be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs - and when the seventh year comes...the year for cancelling debts...freely forgive your brother your debt to him."
"There must be no poor among you". As you'll be well aware, the Harvest has failed in South Sudan again this year. Millions of people are facing starvation because of two things: the lack of rain, and the unwillingness of the world to share what we have.
It does us good, I think, to remember that we have green fields and flowing rivers entirely by accident. I did not choose to live in England...I was born here. I live in a country with bulging supermarkets entirely by accident. If I had been born in South Sudan - I would be starving today. The same goes, frankly, for all the wealth and comfort that we have. We have it only by an accident of our birth. I benefit from central heating and a warm dry house. I benefit from owning a car, and having a television to watch. And yet I didn't invent central heating. I didn't invent the car. I don't know anything about how a television works. I possess all these things because of the accident of my birth. And now, I find, that English law give me rights to possess these things. I have the right to live in my house, drive my car and watch my television.
But as a wise man once said, 'with rights come responsibilities'. Once we begin to really understand that we have all we have only comes by the accident of our birthplace, perhaps we will begin to take God's love for the poor - for those who don't have these things - more seriously. I have the right to possess my stuff - but I have the responsibility to share my stuff as well.
Perhaps if we took that responsibility seriously - personally and as a country, then, perhaps the people of South Sudan will be able to thank God for the harvest today, as much as we can. Not the harvest in their own land - but the abundant harvest taking place across the whole world in which they should be able to share.
So as we give thanks to God today - we remember our responsibility to help create a world in which everyone can give thanks...wherever their food comes from.
Jesus often talked about the perils of having too much and keeping for oneself what should be shared with others. You will remember I’m sure that parable of the rich man whose crops were so abundant that he planned to build more barns in order to store them. He did not sell or share his harvest. Then, on the night that he had finished building and stocking his barns, God said to him, “You Fool! This very night you will die!” So he died, and was not able to enjoy the results of his wealth. Jesus said that we should not store up treasure for ourselves on earth, where it will rot. Instead, we should build up spiritual treasure that will last.
So maybe harvest time is an opportunity for trying afresh to get the balance right between providing for ourselves and our families, and building a world which is based on mutual support and help for those in genuine need - rather than on materialism and greed.
There is a new phrase doing the rounds in Christian circles, which I rather like...and which is a constant challenge to me. It’s the phrase “living light” - and implies that we need to live in such a way that we are not shackled to anything material. That doesn’t mean that we give up all material things - God has given us physical bodies with physical needs - and its right that we should relish in God's creation. But we should never let any of them become our masters.
Linked to that idea, Harvest is, finally, a time for remembering that God sows spiritual seeds in our hearts, and wants them to bear an abundant harvest. In that story of the man who built huge barns, Jesus reminds us that earthly food is transient, and to seek the food that lasts for ever - the spiritual food which is offered to those who follow his Way.
You see - God gives us a choice - pure and simple. Either we can live for ourselves, and reap the consequences (for example of an unsustainable world economy). Or we can look for spiritual wealth, through Jesus - and join with all of God’s people in building a better world.
So for me - and I hope for you - that is what Harvest-time is all about. Yes, remembering to give thanks. But also reminding ourselves to use the earth’s resources wisely; remembering to share the fruits of the earth, and finally remembering that God sows spiritual seeds in our hearts. It is of course entirely up to us whether we listen to these messages, and let those seeds germinate and grow.