Harvest Sunday

October 7, 2018

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Preached by the Venerable Richard Brand, Archdeacon of Winchester using Leviticus 23.9-22 and 2 Corinthians 9.6-11 at Evensong on Sunday 7th October 2018, the 19th after Trinity, Harvest.

Come Holy Spirit: what we know not, teach us; what we have not, grant us; what we are not, make us; for your love’s sake. Amen.

A team of American researchers has shown that the risk of civil conflict in Africa rises by 30 per cent in any year after the rains fail. The shape of a country’s political institutions or the degree of ethnic division is not the issue; a failing harvest is the crucial factor. Worse, these parts of the world are particularly vulnerable to climate change, which, of course, they have not caused. The US researchers’ report concludes that it is the ‘cruellest of ironies that the poorest people in the world – in the region least able to deal with extreme weather – also look like potentially the biggest losers in the global climate change lottery.’ More conflict seems inevitable.

These words are quoted by Will Hutton in his 2010 book ‘Them and Us’. In this tenth anniversary year of the UK passing the Climate Change Act and 30 years since the first convening of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the ongoing tragedy and implicit challenge of these words sadly remains. We gather together to keep Harvest Festival; we do so here in Hampshire, and we do so highly conscious of the implications of being part of a global community.

My guess is that for some there remains a form of nostalgia for Harvest Festivals of old, with harvest produce bedecking cathedrals and churches, community harvest meals and a deep gratitude for ‘all good things around us’ in this season of ‘mellow fruitfulness’.

Yet increasingly over recent years, society’s awareness of the delicate balance of the world’s ecosystems and the Church’s keeping this as a season of ‘Creationtide’, have meant that the ‘thanksgiving’ bit of harvest, our gratitude, is being held alongside a desire for others, our brothers and sisters across the globe, to be able to share in something of our blessings.

In the roots of the Judeo-Christian self-understanding lies an interesting combination of law and blessing. We’ve heard a bit of that in today’s Leviticus reading; how the people of Israel were commanded to keep feasts for thanksgiving. But does it make sense; is it possible to prescribe gratitude?

To go back a step, in Deuteronomy, as Moses gives Israel the law, he goes on to spell out more of the promises of God and we are told of the great promise of provision for the people. A people who had so little will want for nothing; the land they’re going to enter is “a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” Even on a good day at Waitrose they don’t always have pomegranates. This is truly a picture of fullness, of blessing, of the generous gifts of God: they will lack nothing.

As we look around us today – both literally in this beautifully decorated cathedral – and considering our fridges, larders and cupboards at home; the supermarkets at our fingertips (quite literally for those who shop online); we too lack nothing. But that’s not always the story we tell others or ourselves. We are much better at telling the story of scarcity than of abundance. And gratitude?

The other week I was at a village church’s patronal festival preaching on those wonderful, encouraging, yet potentially immensely uncomfortable words of ‘Magnificat’ that we’ve just sung. I quoted the theologian Sam Wells, who believes that in this song Mary is saying to each one of us “Are you allowing God’s divinity to transform your humanity? Are you allowing the Holy Spirit to sing a song of joy and hope through you?”

Sam Wells goes on to suggest that there are four question which arise from this; questions we should use in conversation with one another. And the questions are these:

Tell me about the ways in which you are rich.

Tell me about the ways in which you are poor.

Let me tell you about the ways in which I am poor.

Let me tell you about the ways in which I am rich.

In the two and a half years I have been in this diocese and involved in serving the parishes and 200 churches of the Winchester Archdeaconry I have had many conversations with churchwardens, PCC and congregation members, and clergy. Time and time again the vast majority – not all thank God – but the vast majority have been conversations when people have told me about the ways in which they are poor.

Not all, but quite a lot of conversations have been about the way their church is poor financially. Many of the conversations have been about the way their church is poor in ministry provision; poor in volunteers; poor in vision; poor in mission; poor in gifts.

But the greatest poverty I find is a poverty in recognizing and identifying their riches.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of hope and joy and abundance and blessing: for this is the nature of God and these are the gifts of God.

But we are much better at telling the story of scarcity than of abundance. The trouble is, it affects our humanity. Scarcity leads to anxiety and fear. No doubt you have found this in organisations which you know; we often see it in the Church. One of the major development projects of Winchester Diocese is entitled ‘Benefice of the Future’, where we’re looking to do things differently in the multi-parish rural benefices so that the future can be one of not just sustainability but growth and blessing to others. Yet time and again people’s focus in on coping with scarcity and anxiety about the future; so they pull up the drawbridge thinking ‘So long as we can protect our bit, at least we’ll be alright’.

Such insularity and protectionism is seen on a bigger scale in the country; anxiety and fear leading to more extreme language about exclusion, attitudes sometimes now wrapped under the deceptively attractive name of ‘populism’.

The deep sadness of holding onto scarcity is that it begins to erode our humanity; whereas living from a sense of blessing and abundance and gratitude overflows for the good. Consider our second reading from 2 Corinthians where we are given some basic ‘God maths’.

Sow little = reap little

Sow lots = reap lots

If you’ll forgive the pun – so far, so good.

Then the maths goes like this:

Give little = receive little

Give lots = receive lots

Bless = be blessed

It begins with the abundance God has provided and which is overflowing with so much goodness – whether or not you like pomegranates. God has provided; our part is to know, to discover how in giving we receive, we’re made more human; and it helps in making us more human-kind, for…

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.

Writing gratitude into the law is not a contradiction, but a way of prescribing what is good in the truth that when it benefits the weakest it is good for all, nearby and globally. This is what Archbishop Justin Welby has been reminding those with ears to hear. It’s there at the end of our first reading which not only instructed the people of Israel to party, to hold feasts, but also vitally included this reminder of generosity, and pray God, gratitude.

So may it be,