Sermon on 5th October 2014
Priory Eucharist Readings: Deut. 8:7-18; ‘Harvest of Selves’; Lk. 12:16-30 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing (Lk. 12:23)
Have you ever played the guessing game ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral’? One person has to think of something and then the rest of us will ask them questions about it as we try to work out what it is. Well, if you had asked me a few days ago what ‘Harvest’ was, I would have answered quite automatically that it covered the category of ‘vegetable’ (which obviously includes fruit and nuts and herbs and pulses, and mushrooms, as well as any produce — like tomatoes — that can be either ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’, depending on who you ask!).
Perhaps if you pushed me, I might also have included bread, and dairy products, and new wine under the heading of ‘harvest’. It seems that the man in Jesus’s parable was thinking along similar lines to me. After all, his ‘harvest’ consisted of things that could be gathered into ‘barns’. But then I was surprised to notice that in our first and second readings, ‘harvest’ is treated as something much broader than just the annual gathering of the vegetable crop.
Deuteronomy speaks of ‘wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates’ and a land of olive trees and honey’ (there’s something else I didn’t think of). But it also speaks of ‘flowing streams, with springs and underground waters’. We are not in the ‘vegetable’ kingdom any more! ‘When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied…’ (Deut. 8:12-13). This is a ‘harvest’ of animals, and vegetables, and minerals. All of which are spoken of as ‘multiplying’. That is, they reproduce themselves, they are fruitful, in a way that is clearly beyond human control. There must be a deliberate echo to the command God gives in the first creation story, to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen. 1:28), a reminder that all of this — animal, vegetable, and mineral — come from God. We are the recipients of so many gifts that have nothing to do with us. Deuteronomy continues: ‘Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth’ (Deut. 8:17). And the parable Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel says that the rich man’s land produced abundantly (Luke 12:16). It was nothing to do with the man himself! So harvest is a chance for us to remember all that we have been given; everything that sustains life, and therefore to remember that life itself is a gift. Our need to recognise that we are the recipients of gifts not of our making; this is part of what makes us human. We are creatures. Our lives are given to us as gifts.
So every day should be a miniature harvest festival for us. Every morning when we wake up is an occasion to thank God. Every mealtime, whether it be the Mustard Seed, or the Dining Club, or a humbles repast… is an occasion to thank God. And every payslip or bank statement we open, every time we have occasion to be thankful for the existence of a loved one… These are our harvest festivals, as Hermione’s poem recognises: ‘I / Know about / Abundance. I know about / Gratitude. I know that sense of having / So much that it / Spills over and out.’ Harvest is an occasion for gratitude for God’s abundance: ‘You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you’ (Deut. 8:10). But Deuteronomy immediately points to a danger that all of us fall into: ‘Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God…’ (Deut. 8:11). ‘Forgetting the Lord our God’ is another name for pride or self-sufficiency. It happens when we think we have earned the money that multiplies in our bank accounts. Even if it multiplies more slowly these days than it used to! This was the mistake of the man in our gospel reading today: ‘“I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God’ (Lk. 12:19-21).
We must beware because this can so easily be us. ‘Forgetting the Lord our God’ is another name for idolatry, which happens when we worship the things that sustain our lives rather than the one who gives us life in the first place. Food and drink, cars and houses, luxury items, our bodies or the bodies of other people, even the lives of our loved ones or our own selves. This is the mistake of late-capitalism in the West, and especially in our own society, where bodies and clothing and home-ownership are fetishised. And what is a ‘fetish’ if not an ‘idol’? In short, ‘Forgetting the Lord our God’ is another name for sin.
It is an individual sin as well as a social sin. We see its effects in every part of our world, from Syria and Iraq to what is happening in Gaza and Hong Kong. The antidote is always the same: it is what Jesus calls being ‘rich towards God’ and Hermione Roff calls ‘the great / Harvest act of gratitude, of / Gratitude and giving back’. This implies a much more radical trusting in God than we are used to. And it has implications for the way we live our lives and use our resources. Our problem is that this ‘giving back’ costs us much more than a few tins of soup once a year. It means giving up control, giving up ourselves. It means becoming ‘servants to one another’ and, like Jesus, being ‘broken for others, shared until all are fed’ (from the hymn ‘Christ be our light’). As Hermione’s poem puts it, this feels like ‘being / Picked, and consumed, by someone / Hungrier than I, / Hungry even for my / Bruised, imperfect flesh and / Smudged soul. I / Know that even in the / Act of being consumed I am most / Surely fed’. And so, the Eucharist becomes the ultimate harvest festival. In it we offer back to God what he has freely given us. This is why we place our gifts, in the form of money, onto the altar with the words ‘All things come from you, and of your own have we given you’. This is why we place bread and wine onto the altar with words of thanks to the God of all creation. And this is why bread and wine become for us the broken body and outpoured blood of Christ, giving himself for us. And in that very act, transforming us into people who will give ourselves for others. This is what it means to be rich towards God. ‘[…] even in the / Act of being consumed I am most / Surely fed’. Amen.
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