1 Corinthians 3:1-9
A farmer turns up to evensong and discovers that he and the vicar are the only people there.
“What shall we do?”, asks the vicar.
“Well”, replies the farmer, “If I goes to feed my sheep and only one turns up, I feeds her.”
So after four hymns, two sung canticles, one sung psalm, two lessons, prayers for everything under the sun and a twenty minute sermon the service ends.
“If I goes to feed my sheep and only one turns up, I feeds her”, says the farmer on the way out, “but I don’t give her the whole bag full!””
Tonight we gather to think more about our Harvest Festival. If you think about our hymns, you’ll find that there are very few harvest hymns that simply say ‘thank you’ to God for the harvest produce. With only a few exceptions they all use the harvest as a symbol of something else. ‘Come, ye thankful, people, come’, invites the familiar hymn, but quickly reminds us that our lives are under judgment, and that God’s angels are charged ‘in the fire the tares to cast’ and store the fruitful ears ‘in his garner evermore’. Another hymn will ‘wave the fair corn in Canaan’s pleasant land’, but harvest growth is then quickly used as a symbol of spiritual growth, and we are urged to ‘serve the Church below and join the saints in heaven.’ ‘To thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise in hymns of adoration’ but, by verse three, the awesome figure of the reaper-angel is standing over us to elect golden sheaves for garners bright. A grand exception to the eagerness to use the harvest as a symbol of work, judgment or duty is the familiar eighteen century German hymn that allows us to ‘plough the fields and scatter the good seed’ and then sing three full eight-line verses – with a rousing chorus thrown in for good measure – in a simple expression of gratitude for God’s gifts.
Biblical authors tend to follow the same pattern of using the harvest as a symbol. For Matthew, sowing seed becomes a symbol of the opportunities and pitfalls of mission, whilst Paul uses planting and watering as a symbol of a Christian community where members offer their talents knowing that God himself is the sole author of the Church’s development.
Of course, a Harvest Festival is an opportunity to give thanks to the architect of creation who has so fashioned the earth that it yields food for us to eat, and with whom we co-operate with good husbandry, intelligent agriculture, and appropriate storage methods to ensure that there is a plentiful supply. So, in thanksgiving, the German hymn-writer has us sing:
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above;
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord,
For all his love
Rather differently, an eleven year old wrote this poem:
A wicker basket on a kitchen stool Sheaves of corn in a sunlit field,
Full of rosy apples from the tree, Elderberries in clusters,
A basket full of juicy blackberries The scarlet berries of the rowan;
Picked on the rambling common, For these we thank the Lord.
Thanksgiving there must be but symbols also help us celebrate the harvest.
Harvest is a symbol of the unity of the seasons. All four seasons hang together. They are the four corners of the square in which our harvest grows. If, for our climate, winter does not bring its expected snow to seep through the hillsides into the valleys and fill our reservoirs, or if the expected February rains do not fill the dykes and streams, then the surge of growth we look for in March and April will be limited. If summer sees less sun than we expect then not only does the corn fail to ripen, but the seeds of many other plants are impoverished and next year’s harvest is in danger. The dying leaves of autumn are the earth’s food for food for spring and summer.
It was Julian of Norwich who, holding a hazelnut in her hand, marvelled how so small a thing could sustain its life and not disintegrate. The answer came, ‘It exists, both now and forever, because God loves it.’ The pattern of seed, growth, fruit; and then seed, growth, fruit again and again is a sign of the unity of God’s intention in which, even with variation from one year to the next, the seasons fit together into one creative purpose like a million-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Harvest is a symbol of the unity of human work. The harvest is also a sign of God’s intention for human co-operation. An apple, for example, symbolises the unity of human work and effort. This one fruit would not be a part of our harvest except for the co-operation of scores or more people. Was it people in Kent or the Vale of Evesham who planted the tree from which it grew? The fruit was gathered and sorted by implements forged from metal mined where? What clerk wrote down ‘one case of apples’ before releasing the case to the lorry driver of some unknown merchant who was the middleman for the supermarket or greengrocer from which we bought this apple? Every apple we eat, every loaf of bread, every glass of milk, every cabbage, every packet of crisps, stick of celery – the list is endless – is a symbol of the commercial, industrial and agricultural network of human endeavour in our land. What would be on our harvest festival display – and what would be on your table at home – if you had to rely on what you grew in your own back-garden? We may not be as naïve as the young man who, seeing peas still in their pods, exclaimed, ‘Heavens! Another packaging gimmick! What will they think of next?’ But our distance from the source of much that we eat may mean we often fail to appreciate the network of human activity that brings the food to our table.
Harvest is a symbol of the unity of the world. So many foods from all around the world fill our cupboards. The unity of human endeavour stretches across the world. Our kitchens and store cupboards would be impoverished, and our menus less interesting, apart from the co-operation of almost every country of the world. However, it’s more important than this, because it is a matter of shame if we are living on food grown by men and women who work for a pittance. Then, our plenty is their poverty. Sometimes, it is a matter of delight as we enjoy new food bought at honest prices that allow fair wages. And sometimes, frankly, we do not know which it is and so are grateful for the increasing number of fairtrade products that allow us to eat the produce of the poorer nations with a clearer conscience. This is why it’s vital to support those in more challenging situations than us, and today we’re doing that through a collection for two charities helping people in the developing world. This is a tangible way of expressing our thanks.
The unity of the world, of which the harvest is a symbol, gives a new set of Beatitudes:
Blessed are the parents
with food and drink, from super-market and daily work,
bringing gifts of food for the table.
Blessed is the aid worker
with sacks of grain and drills for water.
bringing hope for neglected people.
Blessed is the politician
with vision and plan, strategy and conviction
bringing burning justice and cool endeavour.
Blessed are all who come in the name of the Lord.
Simple thanksgiving must always be part of our Harvest Festival. Our very lives depend on a bountiful God who provides our daily bread. But our harvest display speaks of more than gratitude. It symbolises the unity of human endeavour, and of a world deliberately fashioned within the purposes of God, to draw nations together in inter-dependence, and create the potential for peace. If that symbol became a reality, and the nations lived in peace, what a harvest there would be!