Harvest Festival Sermon
aSt Frideswide’s Church, Osney
Eucharist on Sunday 27th September [Harvest Festival]
Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 6:6-10; Matthew 6: 25-33.
Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield.[Joel 2:21-22]
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This weekend our thoughts and our prayers in our parish have been focussed on the Natural World, that is on God’s Natural World for as Christians we should never forget that it is his world, ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. Yesterday we celebrated a Bee Friendly festival here in St Frideswide’s church and churchyard, expressing our concern for the continued flourishing of bees and other insects, increasingly imperilled by the problems of climate change, habitat loss, pollution and poison (i.e.pesticides); without bees we would have very few flowering plants and no fruit. Today is Harvest Festival, the summation of the Agricultural year – at least in Northern Europe, as further south in the lands of the Bible all the great Jewish festivals, Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles (which actually starts this very evening) were linked to particular in-gatherings of crops through the warmer months of the year.
Humans are inveterate speciesists. Consider the usual aims of church concern and mission as expressed in the Church Times and in Diocesan and parish magazines and which are, inevitably, the themes of our weekly prayers and intercessions. Yes, they are indeed all about adequate food for all (‘our daily bread’), health for all, justice for all, care for the poor, care for the vulnerable, care for the old, care for the young, and of course we all pray for world peace (thinking at this time especially of the plight of refugees), though in every case this compassion is apparently limited to human beings; the targets are all very, very worthy though they seem to me to miss the larger picture. Indeed, too many texts in the Bible are only concerned with humans, and too much theological speculation on them, might selfishly encourage us simply to think of ourselves, so that at Harvest Festival we give thanks for our honey, our wine, our olive oil, our cereal crops and our fruit. By extension we might add to the list and sometimes do, our animals, and a neighbouring church (but not ours) has advertised its ‘animal service’ as being about our animals, in that instance of course referring to companion animals sometimes wrongly called pets, although this manner of thought can easily and dangerously lead to considering domesticated animals as opposed to ‘pets’ as mere commodity. It will be no surprise to anyone in this congregation that I find that approach deeply disquieting. In Psalm 50 God, indeed, reproves us for such unthinking arrogance:
I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he goats out of thy folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills.
I know all the fowls of the mountains; and the wild beasts of the field are mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fullness thereof.
However, today’s texts should serve to pull as back to basics, reminding us that everything comes from God, the plants which delight the eye or feed our bodies, the birds of the air and even the swarming locust which in Joel, God has sent to punish the people of Judah. The interconnectedness of creation is, of course, the scheme of life on earth as envisaged in the first chapter of Genesis and which is taken up in a number of psalms most especially my favourite psalm, 104, the great psalm in praise of salvation which the Hebrews may have adopted from Akhenaton’s Egypt. St Francis of Assisi, whose festival falls on 4th October and who we will properly honour next week, indeed, viewed the whole of creation as reflecting the glory of God. He was no sentimental ‘animal lover’ and in fact discouraged his friars from keeping ‘pets’ because that implied an ownership which was God’s alone. Rather he took a holistic view seeing us all as part of that creation whether humans or other animals, and so seeing us all as his brothers and sisters.
Those of us deeply concerned with animals often have to counter the completely irrational charge that we cannot be concerned with humans. It is irrational because of course humans are animals, they-like the bee, the parrot and the porcupine- have the breath of life in them. So let us return to that list of concerns : adequate food for all (‘our daily bread’), health for all, justice for all, care for the poor, care for the vulnerable, care for the old, care for the young, and of course world peace. I hope they are concerns for us all. When applied to other creatures, most of them are embraced by protection and care for the environment and a desire not to harm other creatures. Economic growth which so often means concreting over so much of the earth and despoiling what belongs to God, hunting and widespread cruelty to other creatures through a reliance on animal products on land and sea should, at the very least give us severe moral qualms. Warfare is in a category of its own, a wicked indulgence by humans but other animals are also primary victims of war.
These are very large themes every one of which deserves extensive treatment which it has, in many cases, received and is receiving for example in the works of the Revd Professor Andrew Linzey and the large number of publications put out by the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. And of course our readings today remind us that such concerns sit well with the Gospel, and with fundamental Christian teaching as propounded by Pope Francis in Laudato Si. Jesus’ teaching about the sparrows can too easily be dismissed as simply showing his disciples how much more important they are than the birds, but it has always seemed to me that the examples he chooses are designed to cheer up the rather infantile young men (the Apostles) gathered around him, just as one might tell an infant who has fallen on the ground and is crying that s/he is the most important person in the world. Is it not enough that God cares, God who suffers for creation is, through the incarnation, ever present in all creation, and will save all creation. God does not have favourites.
This is harvest festival, so we need to think about what this means for life in the British Isles. The grain harvested from the fields provides us with ‘our daily bread’ through the winter but there will hopefully be seeds from the borders of the field -and how many farmers leave the edges ungarnered and unploughed as the Bible demands. There is a wealth of berries and nuts on trees and bushes. Hopefully we can help a bit at least in towns to add to this store through the winter by feeding the birds which rely upon us. Thanks to the bees we are enjoying a good harvest of fruit, blackberries on the brambles and apples, pears and plums in the orchard. We have few vines in England, but there are still wonderful cider-apple orchards in the West Country and in Suffok , and perhaps we have to make do with rape-seed oil (and the bees love the golden rape flowers) rather than the wonderful olive trees of the Mediterranean. But it is not just us who benefit from nature’s abundance. I watch the squirrels garnering nuts and know that the fieldmice and voles are also busy. Harvest is a time of rejoicing, a time to give thanks for the year that is past and look forward to the following year. It is of course about praise, not of ourselves but of God.
In the words of the Benedicite the great canticle we sing at Mattins:
Bless the Lord, all works of the Lord,
Sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.