Reading Luke 12.16-30
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
While it may not have quite the widespread significance it used to have, I must admit I still have a soft spot for Harvest Festival. Partly, it’s nostalgia: it takes me back to the church of my childhood, when we Sunday School children would process up the aisle to present baskets of fruit, vegetables and flowers which, later, would be distributed to people and organisations in the local community, or auctioned off to raise funds at the harvest sale which always took place the following evening. I can still picture the scene in church: sheaves of corn, the rich autumnal flower displays, and the specially-made loaf from Smithard’s, the local family bakery, which always had pride of place (and was very much like the loaf presented to us on Friday by Falcons School at their harvest assembly, and now at the high altar). There were a few other things in the display as well – the less colourful, but still essential fruits of the earth, such as a lump of coal; a glass of water; and a plate of soil. Perhaps you have similar memories: they can take us even further back in time, resonating with our collective past, when life was physically and economically hard for many, but people appeared to live in closer harmony with the natural cycle of the seasons, daily life and work being reliant upon sun and rain, light and darkness. Harvest is somehow part of the liturgy of time, isn’t it?
But today’s festival isn’t just about the past; it is also about today and tomorrow.
In the 21st century, though, and in the suburbs of SW London, you might logically question why we sing about ploughing fields and scattering seeds, when most of us have no real connections to the agricultural world. Also, harvest in this country is not the life-and-death issue it once was. After all, even if the weather were to ruin things and the British harvest were to fail completely, the shops would no doubt still be full of produce brought in from all around the world. It’s just that things would cost us more, and our carbon footprint would be even bigger than it is now. Furthermore, given the fact that many things can be grown both in and out of season, blotting the landscape with polytunnels, has harvest festival become redundant? Are we clinging on to an age long gone, when it was more meaningful, and a good harvest meant that the family had a reasonable chance of surviving the coming winter?
As you walk round a supermarket – at any time of year – you can all too easily assume that harvest is now a year-long, rather than a seasonal, event. With the choice and abundance of food that marks our modern urban lifestyle in the Western world, not to mention the amount of food we throw away, the traditional harvest can seem little more than a distant, quaint folk-memory. We have largely lost touch with the rhythm of the seasons and their fruits. Now we are the hunter-gatherers of the shopping mall or the mega-food chain – just as tenacious as our ancestors, but more attuned to shopping hours than to light and darkness, or sun and rain – with shopping hours increasingly meaning 24 a day. As time goes on, we seem to get even further removed from the experiences of earlier faith communities who, for centuries, offered the first fruits of their harvests to their gods in gratitude for all they had received. So, the Harvest Festival today, can – if nothing else – serve as a reminder of our dependence upon the earth and its produce, and those who labour to bring it to our shops and homes. But a modern Harvest Festival can do more than that.
In recent decades we have become increasingly aware of the fragility of the environment. The industrial-scale looting of oceans and seas, the commercial destruction of natural habitats, the increasing threat of global warming, the polluting of the skies, the factory-like processing of sentient animals, and the continuing controversy over GM crops, are increasingly awakening in us a sense that the earth and the living things we take for granted are precious and vulnerable. We are having to learn that natural resources are not necessarily infinite. And even here in the suburbs, there is recognition among many people – religious and secular – that we live within an interdependent and intricate relationship with the earth, its people and our environment. But it has to be admitted that our powerful technologies of breeding and production push us right to the boundaries between use and abuse. The land, the sea and skies, and the extraordinary and wonderfully delicate interplay of the life they sustain, is not something that can be instrumentalised. If it is, then though we may avoid a material famine – at least in some parts of the world – we run the risk of experiencing that deeper famine of an alienated and homeless spirit. We are in danger of inhabiting a world that is so under our design that it can no longer surprise us. When it does, with – for instance – earthquake or tempestuous weather, we are shocked. Because of the apparently controlled order and planned fruitfulness that we are able to manufacture, we put ourselves at risk of squeezing out all gratitude, forgetting our interdependence and, to use traditional religious terminology, forgetting also our status as creatures.
On Harvest Festival day, we come to give thanks for flowers, fruit and vegetables, and for all life’s blessings. As the mediaeval mystic, Meister Eckhart, once said, ‘If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you’, it will be enough’. It’s the shortest and simplest prayer imaginable, but one we perhaps too often forget. But this thanksgiving will find real meaning in an attitude towards life and a response to life that can have many practical outcomes. One of these might be the recognition that we, and our interests and needs, do not lie at the centre of the universe, but that we have responsibilities towards our planet and those we share it with, not least those who have little or no harvest – of any description – to celebrate. The gratitude we offer today cannot complacently thank God that we are well provided for, when we know that vast numbers of people around our world struggle to survive, suffering and dying each day because of hunger, thirst, injustice and inequality. Also, as the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi this coming Wednesday reminds us, neither can our gratitude ignore the animals, birds, fish and all aspects of the environment which are also part of this intricate and interdependent network of life on planet earth.
In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, let us thank God today and every day for the goodness and loving kindness shown towards us, and bless God for our creation, preservation and all the benefits of this life. Because living a life based on gratitude, rather than one which constantly complains that nothing is ever right, can make all the difference. But let our gratitude be more than just words. Instead, let it move our consciences, our wills, our actions and the choices we make, and take seriously the challenge to live more simply, more fairly, more sustainably and more harmoniously with both creator and created.