Readings: Joel 2.21-27 and Matthew 6.25-33
Looking back on it now, I had a very privileged child-hood. I grew up in the countryside of Devon and Somerset. In the summer holidays, I worked on a local farm, tossing hay-bales onto trailers, looking forward to the reward of a cheeky glass of cider with the Farmer at the end of the day. 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.
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 there were no injuries to farm workers, this year.
All is very different today. Harvest now takes place every day of the year. If we can’t grow the food we want in England, we buy it from other parts of the world. Labourers are still needed, but mechanical systems of picking food are taking over. No-one tosses hay onto trailers anymore. 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, record breaking temperatures every year, and forest fires across the globe. We watch the melting of the glaciers, and we build our heightened sea-walls against the rising of the seas. Ironically, there has never been a time when we have been less connected to the land, and yet more affected by it.
The last few decades 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. In fact, we have far more faith in the science of weather-forecasting than we do in the idea that God sends the rain – despite the number of parishioners who ask me to pray for good weather when their birthday party is taking place!
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 understanding of creation and the harvest, we are in fact growing up. We are moving away from the medieval God in the sky, who granted – or refused - the wishes of his farmers. Instead, we are beginning to glimpse the God who is the energy at the centre of all things: the God who inspires us to use our intellects 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’. That was my message to last week’s Green Festival, at the Pallant Centre. I argued that the stories of religion give us a framework for action in the face of the climate catastrophe. I asked them to consider taking up a new slogan: “take care of the garden”. I suggested that, as a slogan, it has deep religious roots for those who want to excavate them. It also contains a sense of command, of imperative, that human beings really need to hear. “Take care of the garden!”
Our abuse of the planet doesn’t only result in heatstroke and loss of agricultural land to drought and fire. It also has huge effects on the populations of countries who are worst affected by these changes. That in turn leads to wars over resources – including Putin’s present war to capture the grain fields of Ukraine. Wars, and famine, lead to mass migration – as people desperately search for hope in other places. Such people become targets for modern-day slave-traders, who will promise migrants a land of milk and honey, if they will “just step into this van, or cargo container” and be transported around the world. On arrival, these people find that there is no milk and honey, after all. Rather, they find they have been sold into illegal slavery – as labourers, factory workers or as sex workers. Can you imagine what it feels like to leave your home and family, promising them money to tackle their poverty, but then finding yourself as a slave without any power over your life? The Medeille Trust exists to help such people, when they are liberated, to get their lives back on track. And that’s why we are supporting them today.
This is the God to whom Jesus directs us in our Gospel reading. After telling his disciples not to worry about clothes and food and drink, he says this: “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness: and all these things will be given to you as well”. Jesus is calling the world to hear the cry of the Kingdom: feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and set the captive free to “take care of the garden”. If only humanity would embrace the teaching, mythology and commands of the Kingdom! If only justice would flow like rivers, and the inequities of humanity were washed away. Then, as the prophet Joel says, “the threshing floors will be filled with grain; the vats will overflow with new wine and oil, and then you will know that I am the LORD your God, and never again will my people be shamed”. Amen.