Saturday, September 21, 2019

A sermon for Harvest

Looking back on it now, I had a very privileged child-hood.  I grew up in the countryside of Devon and Somerset.  I took long walks with my dog along country –lanes, I cycled and camped all over the southern moor-lands.  And in the summer holidays, I worked on a local farm, tossing hay-bales onto trailers, and learning to drive tractors and land rovers well before the age at which I could take a driving test.  In my home churches, Harvest was a time of great abundance, with goods from fields and gardens displayed in complete profusion all over the place.

As such, I have a great affinity for the season of harvest.  It is perhaps only those of us who have sweated in the fields to bring a harvest in, who can really understand the sense of satisfaction at a job completed.  In past times, the celebration of Harvest was as much a sense of relief, as anything else.  Relief that drought had not visited the crops.  Relief that the hard work of harvest itself had not resulted in injuries to farm workers.  Relief that winter was coming, and a quieter rhythm of life could take over.

All is very different today.  Harvest now takes place every day of the year.  If plants will not grow in the fields, we grow them in green-houses – resulting in hundreds of square miles of plastic-sheeted fields.  If we can’t grow them in England, we buy them from other parts of the world where they will grow.  Labourers are still needed, but mechanical systems of picking food are taking over, more and more, and no-one tosses hay onto trailers anymore.  If drought beckons, irrigation systems can compensate. 

More to the point, we are no longer a rural society, in the main.  Even those who live in the villages and hamlets of England have usually made their living in the city, then used their wealth to buy-up and convert old farming buildings.  The word ‘Harvest’ just doesn’t have the resonance that it once had.

And yet, at the same time, the world of nature has perhaps never been more in our minds.  We are far more aware than we were in the 1970s of the interconnected nature of all living things.  On our TV screens we witness the destruction of the rain-forests, and the rising of toxic chemicals in our atmosphere.  We worry about the death of the bees, and the arrogance of genetically modified crops.  We watch the melting of the glaciers and ice-fields, and we build our heightened sea-walls against the rising of the seas.

Never has there been a time when we have been less connected to the land, and yet more worried about it. 

The same time period, from the 1970s to now, has seen a marked shift in the way we think about God’s relationship to creation and harvest, too.  In a short while, we will sing that ‘we plough the fields and scatter’, and celebrate that our crops are ‘fed and watered by God’s almighty hand’.  But actually, I doubt that many of us really believe that anymore.  The Book of Common Prayer, from which today’s service is taken, includes prayers for rain at times of drought.  But, in fact, we have far more faith in the science of weather-forecasting than we do in the idea that God sends the rain.

Now you might think that I’m sorry about that.  After all, isn’t this loss of faith in a God who sends rain a dangerous thing for the church?  Surely, if people stop praying to God for rain – or any other need – the churches will empty?

Well, perhaps they will…or at least they will empty of those people who think of God like some kind of genie, or fairy godmother, who will grant wishes in return for the right words.  My hope and observation, however, is that with the advance of our scientific understanding of creation and the harvest, we are in fact growing up.  We are moving away from the agricultural God in the sky, who granted the wishes of his farmers, towards the God who is the energy at the centre of all things.  Our God is the one who inspires us to use the intellects we have been given to shape and control our own environments.

Instead of a father Christmas God, to whom we cry for solutions to our problems, we are confronted instead by the actual God of Scripture.  This is the God who, according to the great Genesis myth, creates a beautiful garden and then gives it to his children with the command that we should ‘take care of it’.  The ancients, who wrote our Scriptures, would have had no truck with the idea of God who controls the weather.  Which is why, as Joseph did in Egypt, they made provision to store up harvests, so that food could be distributed in times of famine.  And it’s why, as the Laws of the Hebrew Bible dictated, the poor and the widow and the stranger should be cared for out of the stored and tithed bounty of the community. 

We have not learned from those times.  The tithe barns that we once possessed to soften the ebbs and flows of the harvest have all been turned into luxury dwellings.  Our society has moved so far from the idea of long term storage against times of difficulty that we proudly talk about ‘just-in-time’ delivery.  That’s the most efficient way of dealing with our needs.  Being ‘just-in-time’ means that we don’t have the costs of long-term storage, and that means more profits for our companies.  But it also means that we are extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of weather.  Or as the Brexit debate is showing us, the vagaries of politics.  If the direst warnings of ‘Operation Yellowhammer’ should come to pass, and medicines and food cannot be shipped ‘just-in-time’ from the continent again, perhaps we will have to learn once more the value of prudent stock-piling against disaster and famine.

So, as a church minister, I do not mourn the passing of a belief in the Weather-God, or for that any idea of a God who, in response to the right words, said in the right way, will supply all our needs – like a sort of heavenly drinks-machine.  Instead, I pray for a church which will teach the world of a God who inspires us to take care of creation, and to share the bounty we possess for the good of all.