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Harvest Thanksgiving

Posted By : Tom Clammer Sunday 5th October 2014

A sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor

2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Luke 17:11-19
 
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 
“I don’t like Harvest Festival”…has to count as one of the most misjudged comments of my last incumbency. I was vicar of a rural benefice of seven Gloucestershire villages, where farming was a mainstay of the local economy. I made this comment in a PCC meeting, where the majority of the councillors sitting around the table were farmers. In my defence, if I had been able to pronounce inverted commas, I might not have made such a mess of that meeting. What I wasn’t saying was that I don’t like the Harvest Festival, the celebration. What I was saying, or trying to say, was that I don’t like “Harvest Festival”, the phrase. Interestingly in no official Church of England document does the phrase Harvest Festival appear. It is always Harvest Thanksgiving. The word Thanksgiving is shot through this feast which we keep here today, and which hundreds and thousands of churches and schools will be keeping over this fortnight or so, as the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness returns to our land and as a nation with its roots in an agrarian society, we are caused to give thanks for the bounty of creation. We are caused to consider the ways in which we depend upon, and are integrated into creation. The ways in which we are part of the world, and not apart from it.
 
So it’s not that I don’t like Harvest Festival, or what my splendid training incumbent in suburban Gloucester used to refer to as The Feast of St Pumpkin and All Marrows, but rather that, especially in a setting like I started off in, in a densely populated suburban area, I think we can risk collapsing this celebration into a sort of wistful looking back to a partially or entirely lost rural bucolic idyll, rather than doing some kind of robust thanksgiving for where we are now.
 
Mary Webb, who in many ways is the epitome of bucolic wistfulness, in her poem “Harvest Song” actually manages to get this almost exactly right. Let me read it to you:
 
The noise of bells has sunk to rest;
The low grey clouds move swiftly on.
The land is still as Avalon,
Deep-breathing in its sleep, and blest.
 
For us the holy corn is spread
Across the quiet, misty dales
Towards the hyacinth hills of Wales,
To give our souls their daily bread.
 
For us that starling flock took wing,
And, like a silken banner blown,
Across the rippling corn has flown,
To teach our spirits how to sing.
 
Now that poem is set of course in Webb’s home county of Shropshire, and it is a lovely, comfortable image of rural peace and industry. But hidden within it are a couple of more profound points. And they are both to do with thanksgiving. The corn is referred to as holy, and that is a reference to the Eucharist of course. The great Thanksgiving, which is at the heart of this service, and at the heart of the church. The greatest thanksgiving which our human hearts and minds can manage. And the flock of birds taking off do so in order to “teach our spirits how to sing.” Webb finds in the natural world an echo of the song of creation, the praise and thanksgiving which is wound into the very fibre of the world. That everything, in the end, is praise. As St Paul puts it in our first reading, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.”
 
Mary Webb, interestingly, had Graves’ disease, which is an auto-immune disease which she carried through her whole life. It affects the thyroid, and her biographers note with interest therefore, her preoccupation with this theme of thanksgiving. Perhaps she recognised the necessity, in the midst of so much that is uncontrollable and seemingly chaotic, the importance, the necessity, of giving thanks for that which is good and gracious. Perhaps also she recognised that thanksgiving, recognising the bounty which we have received, and respecting it as such, is the only sure way not to fall back into the chaos and the darkness of an outlook which is all about me, and not about anyone else’s worth or value.
 
Like many of you, doubtless, I woke in the early hours of Saturday morning to the news of the beheading of Alan Henning, another victim of Islamic State’s seemingly relentless ability to execute prisoners in the name of their cause. There are places in which the questions have to be asked about whether or not our government did enough to secure his release, and in what way our policies about negotiating with terrorists need re-examining. The pulpit is not the place for that. But consider this. When the value of a human life becomes so little that it is acceptable to sacrifice it in order to progress a political agenda, any political agenda, what does that say about a community or an individual’s ability to recognise what it is that creation is? When the natural order of which we are part – and never forget that the Genesis creation narrative, no matter whether you take that as literal or metaphorical, places human beings alongside the rest of the animals as created together on the sixth day, we are part of creation, we are not distinct from or apart from it – when the natural order of which we are part becomes a tool, or a weapon, or something disposable and diminished and evacuated of its capacity to “teach our spirits how to sing”, we actually commit a heresy. We fail to recognise creation as nothing less than the words of God made manifest. “And God said “let there be light. Let the earth put forth vegetation. Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly across the firmament of the sky. Let the earth bring forth living creatures. Let us make humankind in our image”. And it was good.”
 
Failing to recognise that makes creation less than it is. It makes it a nice bonus, a bit of resource to be used and to be valued in terms of price or return. Failing to recognise that makes Alan Henning, or those who have died before him, or those who will die after him, and more people will I am afraid, disposable. And they are not. Creation is not disposable. It is the words of made manifest. Every flower is clothed like a king, and every hair on your head is counted. You are the words of God made manifest, and you are to be honoured and respected and valued. Because creation teaches our spirits how to sing. Mary Webb knew that.
 
Every bit of our world is a Sursum Corda, a great “lift up your hearts.” It is supposed to transport us, to be something of an Alleluia to the one who wonderfully created us, and yet more wonderfully redeems us. That’s what our offertory hymn is trying to get at when it says, ‘when I consider all the works thy hand hath done, then sings my soul my Saviour God to thee – how great thou art!’
 
The sin, the heresy, and the awful, appalling result, the human cost of forgetting or ignoring that, is grotesque and the implications are devastating, as we heard again on Saturday morning.
 
So I do like Harvest Festival. I like Harvest Thanksgiving even more. And even more so when we do it like this, in the context of the Eucharist, with a confident “Lift up your hearts” at the centre, to remind us what is the core of our calling as part of God’s creation.
 
For us the holy corn is spread
Across the quiet, misty dales
Towards the hyacinth hills of Wales,
To give our souls their daily bread.
 
For us that starling flock took wing,
And, like a silken banner blown,
Across the rippling corn has flown,
To teach our spirits how to sing.
 
Amen.