Sermon from Harvest Evensong
St Margaret’s , Binsey
Evensong on Sunday 12th October 2014 [ Harvest]
Revd. Professor Martin Henig
The Harvest is for the Animals too!
Psalm 139:1-11; Proverbs 3:1-18; 1 John 3: 1-15
Honour the Lord with thy substance, and with the firstfruits of thine increase.
So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I wonder what particular word, what special association, might come to your mind at the mention of the word ‘Harvest’? For some of you it might be the moon, traditionally very bright at this time; for others it might be the loaf, the staff of life; or indeed the new wine mentioned in Proverbs. These are all good associations linking the world of humankind with the world of nature, while for us Christians bread and wine are essentially linked in our thought with the Holy Eucharist.
However, I have to admit that from the age of eight the word has been linked with ‘mouse’, and not just any mouse but the smallest and most delicate mammal in Eurasia, the Harvest Mouse (Micromys Minutus) , a tiny creature only some five and a half centimetres in length, and frequently to be found making its nest on the stalks of wheat and oats as well as in more natural, and probably safer, habitats. The Harvest Mouse reminds us that Harvest, the garnering of food for the late autumn and winter is not just a human pre-occupation. At the moment the squirrels are very active in my garden gathering hazel nuts from the hedge and walnuts from the tree. And of course we can see them equally active in the trees around this church. Birds are very grateful at this season and later into winter, for the berries on the bushes and the ripening rose hips, and the seeds which can be extracted by some species from pine cones, a source of supply which continues into the cold season. For many species (especially those which hibernate or semi hibernate) it is important for them to eat large amounts and to build up layers of fat, and unlike humans who indulge to excess and become obese, this is for them a matter of life or death.
How well do we humans conform to this natural cycle? Not very well, I fear. Jesus, indeed, tells a parable about a rich man whose land produced such an abundant harvest that he decided to demolish his barns and build bigger ones only to be told by God that he is a fool and that ‘this night thy soul shall be required of thee’. He concludes with the moral that ‘he that layeth up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God’ is like this stupid and arrogant farmer.
There is the Biblical injunction :
And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest.
And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard: thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the Lord your God.
By extension of course we should also think of other creatures. How often do we see such agricultural restraint? Do we not rather observe attempts at maximising yields at all costs, by the use of excessive fertiliser and damaging pesticides which have decimated the wildlife of the fields? Thus we see hedgerows grubbed out and vast prairies created so that no fields are left which have corners which we refrain from gleaning.
Similar greed and covetousness has led to the Factory Farming of animals, no longer subject to any kind of natural cycle but simply treated as commodity to produce meat or milk or eggs for overfed and over-indulged humans. I have often commented on how we distance ourselves from God by condoning such practices, but the shocking nature of this over indulgence was vividly brought home to me last week as I gathered up litter fouling the streets as I walked to Morning Prayer on morning, finding a large tub of chicken legs, doubtless purchased on whim by someone whose greed was greater than his belly and abandoned on the pavement. Did the profligate who bought and abandoned these sad remains spare a thought for the suffering of the birds?
Unless we treat the earth with much more respect, unless we treat both the poor of the world and all of God’s creatures with much more respect we will not only inexorably come closer and closer to Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ and a ‘Silent Autumn’ too, but imperil our own existence individually and as a species. It is estimated that in many places the number of wild animals of all sorts has been halved in no more than three decades. In some places the bees on which pollination depends are being wiped out by pesticides, just part of the human degrading of the planet.
Nature will somehow get her own back: The prophet Joel describes a plague of locusts as an act of God sent to punish human arrogance and impiety:
What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.
And of course such an event will affect the natural world as well as the human world. Nowadays our response to events in nature is more nuanced; God is not out to punish impious words or sexual misdemeanours in this sort of way,as was believed in ancient times, but we cannot expect to escape the results of human induced deforestation, desertification or climate change caused by our own selfishness and short-sightedness as a species.
Church Harvest Festivals are generally, I fear, alarmingly human-centred and speciesist. In place of apples from the orchard, marrows from the compost heap, and the odd berry-bearing branch from the hedgerows which lead us back to God and gratitude for his beneficence intended for all creation, there are tins of baked beans and packets of intensively farmed cereal products and just possibly the odd apple air-freighted from a distant Continent. The Harvest should never be about the right of our species to all the fruits of the earth or even aimed at providing a one-off donation to a food bank, once given and soon forgotten. No, it is about God’s Grandeur as expressed by Hopkins in one of his loveliest poems:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…
But he goes on to lament what mankind has done to mar the wonders of nature which is God’s:
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Hopkins, of course, ends the poem on an optimistic note, trusting in God, but I often wonder how far as a society in Britain let alone elsewhere we have progressed. Indeed in the way we treat our environment I am fearful we have often regressed and certainly new technologies give greater power to destroy fragile ecosystems.
As I watch the squirrels and the birds, at least I try to build up a relationship with my fellow creatures which is one of partnership rather than of dominance and I hope that you will join me in this. We are called to build up relationships of love rather than fear,of partnership, rather than exploitation, which lead us back to Gospel and indeed pre-Christian values. As Isaiah proclaims:
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.
Politicians and Economists speak and write all too glibly about ‘growth in the economy’ and ‘enhanced productivity’ as virtues. They urge us to continue to exploit the earth through building, mining and mechanised farming as though there is no tomorrow, as though there is no reckoning, no judgement. But the book of Proverbs extols Wisdom which belongs to God and Jesus reminds us that all we are, all we fondly claim to possess belongs to God. Our rights are no more (and admittedly for that matter no less) than the harvest mouse in the corn, the bat in the church belfry or the goldcrest in the yew outside the church door, or indeed the very vegetation which God intended to cover so much of the earth.
Last Thursday was the first day of the Jewish festival of Sukkot or ‘Tabernacles’ (festival of Booths in English), one of the four great pilgrimage festivals when the faithful were enjoined to go up to Jerusalem- as Jesus certainly did. As the second, Greek, name suggests, during the eight day period of the festival observant Jews would dwell in booths, made of leafy branches, partly open to the sky and the elements. This would remind them in part of the forty years sojourn in the wilderness, but it was also a harvest festival celebrating the fruits of the earth, so humility before the creator was very much part of it. For the Christian that holistic approach to God as manifest in the whole of Creation finds its most radiant expression in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. I make no apology for coming back again and again to the sacrament in which Christ, to whom we owe all that we are, continues to give himself to us. As he loves us and all his creation, so we owe it to him to be generous in our love, to our environment and to the plants and animals who share this world- God’s world- with us as fellow guests.
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
 As an archaeologist I study ancient Roman signet rings and one of my favourites is an engraved gem found at Woodeaton near Oxford which seems to show a squirrel with a bushy tail eating an acorn but if one looks carefully you can also read the animal as a mouse standing on a curving corn-ear! See J.Bagnall-Smith, Oxoniensia 63 (1998),pp.159 and 161 no.6.1. To me this little object delightfully encapsulates ‘harvest’ for the animals.
 Luke 12:16-21
 Leviticus 19:9-10
 Ghillean Prance, The Earth under Threat. A Christian Perspective(Glasgow 1996) is a sobering account of how appallingly we are misusing our finite planet.
 Joel 1:4
 Isaiah 11:9
 John 7:1-52
 H. O’Donnell, Eucharist and Living Earth (Dublin 2012)