Sermon for Harvest Festival, Sunday 6 October 2019 preached by Canon Robert Titley.
At this service we welcomed students from Godolphin School.
Picture – this year’s Harvest display in the Cathedral
In your busy lives, how many of you have managed to read any of David Cameron’s book about his time as Prime Minister? Ten days ago, the window in Waterstones was full of it. ‘Cameron’s Britain,’ said the blurb, ‘was joyfully united by the 2012 Olympic Games and bitterly polarised by the European referendum’.
That reminded me of my sermon here for Harvest 2016, when I mentioned the Olympic Opening Ceremony, in which a 15-minute sequence called Pandemonium [13 min. 29 sec], by filmmaker Danny Boyle, showed the green and pleasant land of England ripped up and industrialised. The Industrial Revolution polarised Britain between town and country, and my point was that this was the time when harvest festivals were born – partly out of nostalgia for the green fields, but also to express a truth that, even if the only green you saw was in the weeds between the paving stones, you still depended on the seedtime and the harvest. They also expressed faith that the God who had cared for you in the fields would still care for you in the factory.
In our first reading the Israelites look forward to life in the promised land. Moses tells them that, the first time they experience in their new home that miracle of seeds turned into fruits, they should offer their first fruits to God, to give thanks that God still cared about them as before.
The Bible often talks about agriculture in relation to how God works. Let’s look at two things – process and produce. Harvest is the third stage of a process which involves seed, soil, sun, ‘soft, refreshing rain’ – and time. First, you sow the seeds. Second, you nurture them, which sometimes means doing nothing, as the tiny seed receives the colossal resources of rain and sun and soil to put up shoots and ripen. Third, when it’s just the right time, you harvest the crops. You then commit everything you have. Nothing gets in the way of the harvest. That’s next winter’s food, that’s survival. Nothing matters more. That’s why they invented the long summer holidays, so children could help bring the harvest home. That’s the way farmers work in the fields. And that is the way God works in us.
Here we are at this year’s Harvest Festival. We have our marrows and apples, but our tins and bottles and packets remind us how far much of modern life is from the land. We still depend on it, though, and it still shows us how God works in our lives.
Think of a field you are in. It might be your field of work, in a job or at school – perhaps on a farm – either paid or unpaid. It could be the field of relationships, family or friends. It might be public, perhaps political. It might be about the life of a church. Now ask yourself: ‘What does God want me to do? Three agricultural possibilities.
Does God want you to sow a seed, to help start something that may not develop for some time? The tricky thing is, you may not know how it will turn out. Greta Thunberg said a good thing recently. To avoid climate breakdown, she said, ‘We need cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.’ Or you could say, we must sow seeds without being sure exactly what the grown plant will look like. I guess a lot of good teaching is about that. If that might be what God is asking, then pray for discernment and imagination.
Or has someone already sown the seed? Is it time for phase two? Does God want you to nurture something, to help it develop and grow? That may be about watering – I always think that thanking or encouraging someone is like watering a plant – but quite often the best way to help something grow is to leave it alone. Imagine a friend, or a daughter or son, is in the early stages of a relationship. It’s probably not a good idea to keep asking them, ‘So how’s it going?’ You don’t keep digging up a plant to check the roots are OK. It can be hard, letting things grow of their own accord by doing nothing – except pray of course. For phase two we need to pray for discernment and patience.
Or have things moved to phase three? Is this H-hour, the moment for harvest, the time to turn all the promise into something real and tangible? Does God want you to act, to clinch something? Perhaps, but are you sure it’s the right moment? World heptathlon champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson had to make that call in her final event, the 800 metres, on Thursday: when was the right moment to hit the front? Go too soon and she might tire. Go too late and she might not catch the front-runner. If you think it is the right moment, you have to commit, to ‘execute’, as athletes put it. Nothing else matters at that moment. If you think that moment might be now, then pray for discernment and boldness.
Imagination, patience, boldness; and the wisdom to know the right time for each. These are the things a farmer needs for a good harvest. These are (some of) the things that will help us in the polarities and pandemonium of our nation at present. These are the things that might just keep us from climate catastrophe. These are the things we need if we are to be part of God's harvest – or at least not get in God's way.
So much for process. What about produce? Harvest is about food, what we need to live, and Jesus says he is a kind of food when he calls himself ‘the bread of life’. Bread in Jesus’ day is the staple food – like rice in some Asian diets – what you need to survive. In a moment we’ll say the Lord’s Prayer, which includes a phrase we should say to God every twenty-four hours: ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, give us what we need to survive today.
If you’ve got your daily bread, be grateful, and remember that we live in a world where many do not. Today’s harvest gifts will go to people for whom securing daily bread is a daily struggle; and that is a very Jesus thing to do: when our reading begins Jesus has just fed thousands in the wilderness.
But he also cares about food for the soul: what you need to survive and thrive on the inside. That’s why Jesus invites us here as his companions, to share his bread – the bread of life – around his table. He waits to nourish us with imagination, patience, boldness, forgiveness, joy – whatever it is that needs feeding up in us.
Today is a day of wonder. The wonder is that God brings a world into being that produces not only a harvest like this, but also a harvest in lives that can flourish with grace and truth. And this is where we are fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.
Note on discernment In conversation after the service a worshipper asked, How do you know you have discerned correctly? Is it sheer intuition? That can sometimes be wrong. We thought that it was important to test the hunch in conversation – rather as scientist might test an idea with colleagues in the lab - with someone who was on praying terms with God.