Thanksgiving for the Harvest – 2018
Now that I’ve effectively hurdled the milestone of my 62nd birthday, I feel I now have even more carte blanche to bemoan the fact that even reminiscing just isn’t what it used to be! For instance, I remember when a shopping trip to the greengrocers would reveal a small assortment of locally grown produce - various root and leaf vegetables, a selection of apples, pears, bananas, oranges and possibly some plums, the odd melon, pineapple or coconut if you were lucky. The vegetables tended to be mostly the sort which you could grow in the garden, greenhouse or allotment - though perhaps delivered a few weeks earlier than you might expect from home-grown produce. But everything had its season, and one could look forward with eager anticipation to the first strawberries of summer, or the arrival of the cauliflower, cucumber or tomatoes. This seasonality in the food that we ate meant that each season held its own delights for the lover of fresh food.
How things change! Now I’m not necessarily saying that this is a bad thing, and that we should go back to the "good old days". For one thing it’s opened up some new markets for smaller countries to export the crops that they can grow and we can’t – and Fairtrade has made us more aware of our duties to pay properly for these goodies. But it does mean for children growing up today the whole concept of a Harvest Thanksgiving really doesn’t mean as much as perhaps it did to my grandparents. Silage gathered into round bales wrapped with pink or black polythene doesn’t have the same mystique as the sight of a combine harvester and fields of gently waving golden corn. And anyway, by the time the Churches get around to celebrating harvest, most of the crops have already been safely gathered in for some time.
Not so of course in some countries. We’ve all seen those horrific television pictures of the problems some African countries have had with a total lack of rain. In some cases the seed hasn’t even managed to germinate, let alone get anywhere near ripening. In such places there is little chance of a shortfall being made up for by imported produce. So if there is no really defined time in late September when we can breath a long sigh and say that the harvest is safely gathered in, why do we still continue to have Harvest Thanksgiving? It seems a question worth asking - I mean, is it simply tradition - a throwback to the Victorian lifestyle with echoes of Constable’s Haywain? If we no longer rely on a satisfactory harvest in this country to supply our needs in the way that our forefathers did in the past, then why all the fuss?
Of course, like many other ancient pagan customs, harvest rituals - such as the offering of the first fruits to the gods - were taken over by the early church in an attempt to water down the influence of the traditional pagan beliefs. By the Middle Ages, on 1st August (Lammas Day) the first corn from the harvest was made into the unleavened wafers for the Eucharist. But when the harvest had been gathered, "Harvest Home" would be celebrated in a farmer’s house – not at Church.
Nowadays, harvest is usually observed in late September or early October - a tradition that I was surprised to learn only goes back as far as the middle of the 19th century and courtesy of a Cornish clergyman. This is all a bit depressing isn’t it? The closer we look at the harvest celebration that has been handed down by the established Church from its pagan past, the less it seems to have relevance to our modern world. To understand the real significance of this festival, it seems we have to go back much further - back to the real roots of our Christian faith within the Old Testament and among the Jewish people, and their relationship with God.
From very early times the Jewish year was punctuated by festivals – known as the "Feasts of the Lord". They were occasions of joy and celebration reflecting on all the good things that God was perceived to have given to and done for His people, as well as being those times where the people could come close to God and ask for forgiveness and cleansing. Among the various festivals that the Jews celebrated was one which seems relevant to this Sunday - the Feast of Weeks, which you can read about in Leviticus 23. Celebrated fifty days after the beginning of Passover, it was essentially an agricultural celebration at which the first fruits of the harvest were offered to God. The priest offered two loaves of bread made from the new flour, along with animal sacrifices. The festival later became known as Pentecost - from the Greek word meaning "fiftieth" (as it fell on the fiftieth day). Doesn’t life get confusing? Now it seems we ought really to be having our Harvest Thanksgiving on Whit Sunday!
In a time when it is difficult to relate to Victorian prints depicting harvests of old, and Constable’s ‘Haywain’, and when so many inner-city children wouldn’t recognise peas or broad beans if they saw them growing in a field, maybe we should be looking for a deeper spiritual meaning to harvest. In this way, the offering we bring, the fruit and vegetables, the beautiful flowers and foliage which decorate so many Churches at harvest time, can still serve to remind us of all the good things that the Lord has given to us, and about which we can too easily become complacent. And while we’re saying thanks for the food we eat, what about the gas and electricity that’s used to cook the food, the petrol that gets it and us to the supermarket, the shelter of the homes where we eat it - there are so many things in our lives that we should be grateful for. And today, of course, our giving of harvest gifts has the added dimension of food banks.
But Jesus’ words in John’s gospel remind us that our needs are not just met by a constant supply of broccoli and sweetcorn. “Do not work for the food that perishes”, He says “but for the food that endures for eternal life”. As we know, Jesus had a way of taking the ordinary things of life and bringing out of them a tremendous and eternal truth. And so it’s entirely fitting that our own thanksgiving for the harvest is offered within the context of the Great Thanksgiving of the Eucharist. “I am the bread of life,” says Jesus, and so Jesus – the well-spring of all the good things we enjoy – becomes the centre and focus of all our thanksgivings.
And each time we gather to “do this in remembrance of Me”, it’s in and through the staples of life that we meet with our God – in and through that “which earth has given and human hands have made”, and then in “the fruit of the vine and work of human hands”. Ground wheat and pressed grapes - not enough bread to satisfy the meagrest of appetites, nor enough wine to slake a thirst – but just enough, just enough to remind us what a precious harvest we are in God’s eyes, and just how much He longs to gather us together and bring us home.
Pentecost 14 – 26th August 2018
(preached by Fr Nicholas Court, Rector)
Text: “Put on the whole armour of God”.
The cinema in recent years has seen a massive resurgence of the films centred upon the heroes of the Marvel comics I used to read as a boy – Captain America, Wonder Woman, the Incredible Hulk and so on. They seem to have captivated the minds and imaginations of a new group of fans. Apart from the super-powers these heroes possess, many of them depend upon the use of external devices, many of them being the portal through which their powers are made real. So, Thor is nothing without his hammer (which only he can pick up); Spiderman is nothing without the webs he can spin and manipulate to ensnare the public enemies who are his prey; and Ironman only becomes Ironman when he dons his special suit of armour. These items associated with their superpowers become indispensible parts of who they are. What they take up in their hands or what they wear, help to define the alter-egos they become.
This – without, of course, reference to superheroes – is something along the lines of what St Paul is trying to say to us in the second reading we heard a moment ago. He writes to the Ephesian community of Christians who are feeling their way into how they might live out the teachings of Jesus in their lives. All around them, disaster seems to be threatening. Paul, writing (as tradition has it) from a prison cell in Rome, deals with many aspects of this in his Letter to the Church in Ephesus, encouraging them; and he begins his letter with these words: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” But as the Letter continues, he gets bolder and more forthright in his instruction to the community. This is not a call to be a doormat – the Christian calling is to one of a continuous robust refuting and questioning of the status quo. This is what Paul sees in the life of Jesus, and he knows that this is not do-able to God’s standards in our own strength.
So, this raises two interesting questions. How do we discern the will of God? – what God wants for us and for those in whose company we try to follow the teachings of Jesus (the Church) ; and then, once that has been discerned, what are we supposed to do about whatever it is, and how are we to go about that? Well, first and foremost, not in our own strength – either in discernment or in the living out of that discernment. The first part of this is the potential sticking-point. How do we discern the will of God? Well, in the call to action that Paul issues, he hopes his readers will be able to do that very thing. And so we get that wonderful and well-known passage about the armour of God. He writes: “Therefore take up the whole armour of God, fasten on the belt of truth, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, and the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Paul grasps this captivating metaphor to encourage a Christian community unsure which way is forward.
So, what might his words have to say to us here in Ullapool/Assynt/Kinlochbervie – a Christian community 2000 years down the line, also trying to live out the demands of Jesus’s calling in a society where we are not so much threatened with violence and even death (as were the Ephesians) for following Jesus, but with a general apathy towards the Christian faith in our society? Is it the Church’s own fault? There’s no denying that successive revelations in the press about the outright wicked behaviour of some of those in positions of trust in the Church hierarchy - where the highest standards should have been expected - has done nothing to help. Putting on what Paul calls ‘the armour of God’ is not just about serving ourselves, nor is it about self-preservation or saving our own skins. It’s about engaging with what we read in the Gospel, and then finding the confidence and perseverance to make that live in lives given over to God.
And Paul goes on to tell the Christians in Ephesus just how they will be enabled to discern this – by putting on the armour of God. Notice how he links each part of the suit of armour with a Christian virtue - the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. Now, these various parts of armour seem fine as metaphors, but what does it all mean – what is Paul trying to get at? I think he is trying to get us to a starting-point. You will remember how he uses elsewhere in his writings the imagery of the athlete running in a race? Well, it seems he is reinforcing that. He tells us that there is no point in turning up to the start-line without having trained for the race. Most athletes will tell you of the blood, sweat and tears that have to be shed to get them to the line. And here, Paul uses the imagery of a soldier marching off to war – of no use to himself or his comrades if he doesn’t know how to wear his armour properly or how to handle his weapons when he meets the enemy.
Those of us who had the catechism drummed into us from an early age will remember that a sacrament can be defined as ‘an outward, visible sign of inward and spiritual grace’. It means that in the administration of the sacraments of the Church, there is always an outward and visible sign to signify what is going on inward and spiritually. So – the outward and visible sign at Holy Communion is the bread and wine; at baptism it is water, oil and light from a candle; in anointing it is oil – and so on. What Paul seems to have done with his metaphor of the armour of God is that he has – as it were – turned that definition of a sacrament inside-out. The outward and visible sign – that is, the armour – provides the inward and spiritual grace which is needed for the visible outpouring of what it means to be a Christian. The outward becomes the inward, allowing God’s Holy Spirit to live and find its place in our dealings with one another. This – I think – is what Paul found out for himself, there in his prison cell – that his faith in Jesus Christ wasn’t firm because he had superhuman powers, but simply because he had come to rely and trust entirely on the protection and assurance this armour gave him. It is this that lies at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ; and so the challenge is left at our feet both by Paul and by the Gospel – to become living, breathing, talking ‘walking sacraments’, not just by drawing our strength and purpose from Paul’s armour – but by becoming in all we do and think and say, the outward and visible signs of the grace and perseverance that can be ours – and finding in that armour nothing less than we will ever need.