Entering the Harvest Mystery

Few moments of shock await us at 8am as we settle down daily in silence in the St Alphege Chapel for morning prayer, but last week was different.

As the weather had just turned, I’d fish out a tweed jacket to wear, fresh from its clothes bag protecting it over the winter. As I looked down in prayerful silence, I noticed to my horror an enormous moth hole on the right lapel, and suddenly I felt, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, naked and ashamed before the Lord; well, before the Dean at least.

And this is interesting because I thought that I didn’t care very much about clothes – a luxury afforded to men and particularly to vicarly men, who are only expected to wear a smile of beneficence and cycle clips, so I can’t make much of a virtue out of it. What I realised, though, was that I did mind about my image, and that I didn’t want people thinking that I was the sort of person who’d go about wearing moth-eaten rags, just as I’m not the sort of person who would willingly embrace polyester.

When Jesus said, ‘Do not be anxious about what you shall wear’ he was talking to people for whom the basics were a worry, and there’re plenty in that condition in this country. People on low incomes or with insecure business and jobs are facing real worries as universal credit is withdrawn and fuel prices escalate.

And there are the poor of Hampshire: at the Churches Together AGM last week we were talking about the refugees we’re supporting, some of whom arrive with only the clothes they’re standing in, whose lives are changed by human care and the minimum of financial support.

You may blush with me at our comfort and security in the face of so much basic need.

However, this is not to say that the comfortable can’t be anxious; anxiety is part of the human condition and can unite us in a common search for what might cause us all to flourish.

So let’s admit our perennial anxiety and see where it leads us. You see, it isn’t just the people actually running out of petrol queueing at the pumps, but the people who fear they might run out. The crisis is, partly, anxiety fuelled. And our common existential anxiety is that we might be caught out, caught short, diminished, destroyed if we don’t push out the boundaries of our safety and security way further than mere essentials.

A flawless wardrobe isn’t an essential criterion for ministry in the Church of England, but I now realise it’s a crucial part of my social armour, protecting me from undue scrutiny and embarrassment. What could be more unremarkable than a vicar in tweed?

Last month, a joint message was published by the leaders of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches and the Anglican Communion: Bartholomew, Francis and Justin. For the first time these three have written together, and it’s about the protection of creation. They exhort us to make different choices – to choose life over death.

They say we’ve ‘maximised our own interest’ and ‘concentrated on our wealth’ ‘at the expense of future generations’, that we have behaved ‘in ways which demonstrate little concern for other people and the limits of the planet.’

This is true, and they’re right that this is not only selfish but also unjust: our own gain is often at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable.

But I don’t think that we’ll change our behaviour because ‘tomorrow could be worse’ as their message warns – this could easily be dismissed as Project Fear and be the catalyst for making us more anxious and hence more defended.

We have instead to take a cool look at anxiety, to admit that it drives us and look at what makes us less anxious and therefore more content to draw in our elbows.

And the one word I want to offer you as a remedy to all this anxiety is ‘Harvest’. Harvest is the end of a long and organic process, and a new beginning

As Jesus puts it in John’s Gospel: Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

A lot of the defending we do of the empires of the self, or the small fortress of our families, has false thinking at its centre. We believe that we are in competition with one another for the world’s resources, that our first imperative is to secure for ourselves enough, enough not to worry – enough toilet rolls not to worry in lockdown, for example. Why toilet rolls of all things, you wonder, because there’s nothing more essential, more basic, to life in the civilised world than personal hygiene.

But Jesus word’s offer the rule of Harvest where goods are multiplied, where one grain can produce much fruit if it dies, if it is planted in the earth, the ground of creation.

To believe in harvest is to believe that what we give up, hand over and do not defend will be fruitful for us all. We are not hard-wired for selfishness but for altruism. Did you know that making a donation of just 5p has been proved to make you happier?

And we are all made to die. This is not a massive blunder on the Creator’s part; it is our universal vocation as creatures. The only question for the creature made in God’s own image is, can we, like God, live our lives as gift? Can we with Christ and in Christ offer our body and blood for the life of the world?

The Ecumenical Patriarch, the Pope and the Archbishop call on us to choose to eat, travel, spend, invest and live differently, to make what they call ‘meaningful sacrifices for the sake of the earth which God has given us’.

This is right of course, but my caveat is that our being called ‘selfish’, ‘short-sighted’ and ‘profiteering’ is not intrinsically motivational, because we are really worried; and in times to come, when even water is the scarcer, we will be more worried still – unless we enter into the mystery of the Harvest.

Seek first God’s kingdom and then everything else essential will be yours as well – is how Jesus sets our sights toward the mystery.

But perhaps the easiest way into Harvest is to reflect on what we’re doing here, where we are feeding from a life given in death. The words of administration of communion in the old service make this obvious: The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.

The given-ness of Jesus’ body in death is in holy communion the very means by which our bodies and souls will be preserved unto everlasting life. And ‘preserved unto’ doesn’t mean ‘pickled for’, so that receiving the bread is a way of keeping our creaturely life going for ever. It means that by receiving the sacrament by faith with thanksgiving we are sealing into our souls and bodies the Harvest dynamic fulfilled by Jesus, so that our lives became stamped by Jesus’ everlastingly self-giving life. His self-sacrificial life becomes our life.

That’s a big idea, but it’s also the simple sense we have in this Eucharist. If we participate openly, by the end we feel less defended, readier to be sent out in the power of the Spirit to live and work to God’s praise and glory. This sacrificial life becomes the root and ground of everything we’re seeking to attain, the door by which we step inside the mystery of Harvest