A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Harvest Festival, Sunday 9 October by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer.
This is first time that I have preached at a Harvest Festival in a place that could be said to be even remotely rural, but I’m comforted by the thought that Harvest Festival was really meant for townies like me.
Three years ago in a suburban London school, we asked the question: how did Harvest Festivals begin?
To answer that, we went back to the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. We see [3:35] an arena full of sheep, village cricket, maypoles, bee-keeping and other rustic stuff, at the foot of a great, green hill. Into this idyll comes engineer-entrepreneur Isambard Kingdom Brunel (played by Kenneth Branagh). Then, in a sequence called Pandemonium, the great tree at the top of the hill is torn from the soil, and from the hole in the hill, to the mechanistic rhythm of a thousand drums, come grubby, grim-faced factory workers. They rip up the grass and the ripe crops as Brunel and his top-hatted industrialist friends summon up smoking chimneys and whirring machines.
That was Danny Boyle's fifteen-minute history lesson on the Industrial Revolution - something like this may have been played out on a small scale down the road in Wilton as the carpet industry got going - and it was during that very time, in the 1840s, that Harvest Festivals caught on.
Why, I asked the students, keep Harvest Festival in the middle of a great, dirty town? To keep alive the memory, said one, of where you had come from. Yes, and to be reassured that the God who had cared for your forebears over centuries through the cycles of summer and winter and springtime and harvest would still care for you and your children among the spinning jennies.
Another thing Harvest Festivals did for these newly urban worshippers was to keep them in touch, amid the shuttles and pulleys, with the farming cycle, and what it shows of the ways God works. Often the Bible offers the processes of agriculture, sowing and reaping - and the time in between - as pointers to how God works with us and the world. We can call it the harvest principle.
We meet it this morning. Moses tells the Israelites that, the first time they experience the harvest in their new home in the promised land - that miracle of seed turned to fruits, when the small gives birth to the great - they should offer their first produce to God and recall that they themselves are a kind of harvest, a band once few in number who in time became a great nation. Time to give thanks.
For us, harvest is more complicated. A farmer in the Devon corner of our diocese, asked about this year’s harvest, referred not only to the haymaking (bad) but also to the crop of tourists (good - and something we know about here). We have also found new fruits of the earth and new ways to harvest them - like the UK’s first fracking deal, confirmed last week.
Here we find the harvest principle at work again. In the energy we have burned over generations - as producers, travellers, householders, consumers - we have sown seeds of change in our soil, our seas and our skies. Here too the small can give birth to the great, as an increase in average temperature of just a degree or two can produce far-reaching effects. Most people who pay attention to this are persuaded that the signs are there that our activity is helping warm the globe. Only UKIP has climate-change scepticism as party policy, though there are individual politicians who are sceptics. Andrea Leadsom said she had two questions on her arrival as Minister of State for Energy in 2015. The first was about fracking. The second was, ‘Is climate change real?’ The reply: ‘Yes, Minister.’
But it’s still complicated. Even a Hurricane Matthew cannot be definitely pinned down to human CO2 production; other things - recession, terrorism, Europe - always seem more urgent; and China opens - is it one? two? three? - power stations a week, so what’s the point of our puny efforts? And meanwhile, those flights to Barcelona are s-o-o cheap...
Well, here, I hope, we are not so despairing. I hope we trust that we can make a difference, because in God’s economy the small can give birth to the great, and deep change can happen even when you can’t see it. I hope we seek to understand that prophetic warning that those who sow a wind may reap a whirlwind (Hosea 8.7). So we have begun to look at what we can do to make a difference for God and show that the gospel is good news for the earth. We have registered the Cathedral with the Eco Church award scheme, and our answers suggest that we should, even as we are, be eligible for a Bronze award. Watch this space - if we achieve the award we get a plaque made from recycled church pews.
If we are to move beyond Bronze, though, there will be challenges to our attitudes and habits. For instance, one question asks whether we encourage ‘personal use and consumption of Fairtrade and/or ethically sourced goods’. Answer, Yes: see the stall at the west end each Sunday. Another asks whether worshippers here ‘receive encouragement to undertake a personal carbon audit’. Answer, Not yet - but, in the spirit of Socrates’ rather overstated claim that an unexamined life is not worth living, I would be up for that.
Attitudes and habits can be so hard to change, however. How can Go make a difference for us there? We find an answer to this in the gospel reading, which is about the thing that harvest is for: food, the fruits of the earth plus the work of human hands. Food brings a kind of harvest in the human body. We know the effect food has on us, and that effect follows the seed and harvest principle: the small gives birth to the great. The effect can be sudden - like food poisoning - but more often it takes time: you can skip a meal and not collapse, you can have the odd binge and not wreck your health. Yet week by week, little by little, what you eat shapes the person you become. Therein lies the horror of child malnutrition in South Sudan, and the importance of the charities (Trussell Trust, Alabaré, Salisbury Trust for the Homeless), that our gifts of produce are supporting today.
So if Jesus is ‘the bread of life’, he shows how we are most likely to know the effects of God in our lives:
not, usually, in the sudden transformation - like the injection of a life-saving drug - but rather by a gradual yet deep changing, like the kind that comes when you get into the habit of eating healthily.
It is the daily and weekly diet of feeding on God - the snatched moment to pray or read the Bible; the morning protected for church despite all the other stuff shouting ‘What about me?’; the word of thanks for a nice meal, and for the fact that there is a meal there at all; the unheroic failures followed by opening your heart to God and saying, ‘Please help me’ - these are how God gradually makes our attitudes and habits more fruitful, makes in us a harvest of righteousness and makes our lives better news for the world.
It is summed up in what we do here when we break bread. Here is our reminder that this harvest of righteousness is not personal hygiene for the soul but good news for everyone, ‘the bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ It is our reminder that we humans are made to sit at table together; and that, when Jesus broke bread before dying to save the world, he made every soul for whom he was to die my companion and yours.