Harvest Festival Sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL
Revelation 14 v 14-18
John 6 v 25-35
I wonder what you think of dahlias? I’ve been discussing the subject of dahlias with several people these last few weeks and thanks to the Bishop of Ely I think I’ve had something of a conversion experience. I was staying with the Bishop and confessed to him my long-standing prejudice against this flower. Indeed you will find no dahlias in the Deanery garden largely because my grandmother infected my attitude to them. She would not have used the term but I suspect she thought they were vulgar and considered them to be at the unworthy end of horticulture.
So the bishop did something very clever. Instead of arguing a contrary view with me he gave me a different kind of experience. He took me to Anglesey Abbey, the National Trust property about six miles north of Cambridge which, amongst other delights, has a dahlia garden. There in a substantial arc were dozens of varieties of dahlias – from the yellow Hillcrest Hannahs to the dark red Carolina Moons. I can still see why some would call them vulgar but what I saw was their abundance, the glorious colour which is mirrored today in the flowers and produce all around us, with which we celebrate Harvest Festival. Thank you so much to our flower arranging volunteers who’ve brought that sense of abundance into our worship.
We’re invited, on this one Sunday in the year, to rejoice in the abundance of the created world; to be grateful for the harvests which bring daily sustenance to our table and amidst the very complex workings of food production to praise God for the bounty which we take for granted. Whilst the created world is certainly full of risk and natural threats it’s also extraordinarily plentiful, showing off and wasting much of its fruit in a profligate manner, offering us more than enough for human need. At this time of year the abundance of creation is before our very eyes.
Yet that’s not the whole story and our two readings this morning remind us that it isn’t only food production and distribution which is complex: it’s the reality of what human systems do based on what we believe about the resources available to us.
We have the passage from John Chapter 6 at Harvest Festival because in this long interlude in that gospel the theme is food. The chapter begins with the feeding of the five thousand and then Jesus has repeated conversations where he tries to engage with those looking for food. He tries to distinguish between being people who’re needy for material satisfaction, and those who long for ‘true bread’ or spiritual nourishment.
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”
Jesus reinforces our message of Harvest Festival, that God is the one who gives to us abundantly but he says, God gives the bread we need in two forms. One is ‘manna in the wilderness’ – the literal food which God provided for the people of Israel when they wandered as nomads, in search of a new land. We too are unable to survive without such basic provisions. But the search for our material needs shouldn’t prevent us seeing that God also offers us ‘true bread’.
“The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world… I am the bread of life.”
In other words,
- God is an abundant giver.
- Our created world reflects his generosity and we have more than enough. Every year there’s between 110% and 140% of food surplus across the globe.
- Yet God is also interested in the distribution of that food. The biggest humanitarian organisation in the world is the World Food Programme. Access to decent food is a development touchstone. More than 850 million people go hungry today and so hunger is about who has entitlement to it. Who controls food and who profits from it? It’s a distributive justice issue. As Nicholas Berdyaev, the religious and political philosopher has said: “Food for myself is a physical concern. Food for my neighbour is a spiritual issue.”
To explore this a bit further we need to consider our first reading from the Revelation to John.
I’m sure you heard in it the imagery of harvest. The language is very different but Revelation as a whole is also developing that same theme of true bread: how does the heavenly reality of things come to be known on earth? Let me just put the passage we heard into context.
There’s warfare in heaven. The opposition to God comes from what is called the Dragon, an ancient serpent whose primary weapon is to deceive humankind. His agents are ultimately defeated and those who ensure their downfall are the witnesses to truth: Jesus, who appears as a divine warrior and the martyrs, those who’ve poured out their life in opposition to forces of oppression.
In the battle to ensure that truth directs human life, Jesus has been the one who supremely witnessed to the truth of God in his life and death. His witness has won people from the realm of lies and illusions. Yet his followers need to be aware that the power to deceive, the power of the Dragon, still holds sway through systems of power and influence.
Our passage from the middle of that story was about the efforts God makes to rescue everyone from that power to deceive. Jesus, comes with a golden crown on his head indicating that he’s claiming the dominion of the territory which belongs to God. The image of harvest we heard is not one of judgement but of God’s protection and salvation, the sickle of the grain harvest, for like a farmer the Son of Man gathers the nations into the Messianic kingdom. This is the promise that we will all be saved from the brutal systems which deceive us into believing that selfishness and greed serve us best. It’s true that an image of judgement is then added in the grapes being trodden in the wine press but this is judgment on unrepentant nations who will not turn from the lies that injustice does not matter, and the illusion that the world evolves only for selfish purposes.
What are the deceptions of the Dragon we see evidenced in our day? Surely they include any human systems which ensure that some have too much food whilst others have too little? Underlying such systems are fear and deception: the fear that we can never have enough: the deception that the more someone else is given the less is left for me. We know that the intransigence and complacency of human greed is driving us forward to environmental disaster and that all manner of social ills result when the basic goods to survive are squandered by some and withheld from others. Christ wishes to draw all into his kingdom of messianic values and we’re asked to become witnesses with him to the deceptions of the Dragon.
Here in the Cathedral we’re soon to change our pattern of how we offer prayer for healing within the life of our worship. Every Sunday we’re going to routinely offer the opportunity to pray for your own healing or for those we care about. Of course we invite you to pray about the ailments and diseases which beset our lives and threaten those we love. But we might also want to recognise our sickness as people who are together infected with untruth – and here is one terrible untruth, that if we share the abundance we have somehow we will be diminished. That having our daily bread means we have to let others go hungry. Let us pray for our healing from that deception.