Paul Foster’s Harvest Festival sermon, 25th September 2022

Harvest – Deut 26.1-11 and Jn 6.25-35

 

In case you have suspected otherwise, when I was at University in Australia, my summers were not spent at the beach improving my tan, or perfecting my surfing technique. No, rather than that, I went to work to raise funds for the coming year of study. My jobs took me several hundreds of kilometres away from Perth, the city in which I lived, and into the rural areas of Western Australia. I was employed for a couple of months each summer as a weighbridge operator. This occurred during peak harvest season when wheat, barley, oats, lupins and other seed grains were gathered. My job was to operate the manual weighbridge my moving counter-weights along the large beam balance to weight in a truck full of grain. It would unload. Then I would weigh it again when it had emptied the grain into a bulkhead. Each truck would make several trips a day. A ticket had to be written up for each truck and its total delivery load was calculated at the end of a full day of deliveries. After the receival point closed for the evening, separate legers were updated for each grain type to calculate the total amount of grain received. By the end of the summer, many tens of thousands of tons of grain were collected ready for shipping overseas. This was an operation that was duplicated at hundreds of receival points across the state. One way to judge how good the harvest was in a given year was by keeping up to date with the running totals of grain deliveries across Western Australia published in the newspapers. However, I found there was another way to gauge whether or not it was turning out to be a bumper year. About half way through the season in a good year I noticed something else happened. All of a sudden, the farmers seemed to be driving around in shiny new cars! That was certainly one way to celebrate a good harvest. As an aside, I should add that I never saw any of the weighbridge operators driving new cars. Some wounds still run deep!!

The book of Deuteronomy also describes harvest celebrations. However, what it envisages in its ancient setting is on a smaller scale. Rather than truckloads of produce, the people are to bring a simple basket of their first fruits and to make an offering of thanks to the Lord God. As it is presented in the book of Deuteronomy, this was not an existing practice but one that was to take place when the people finally settled in the promise land. This section of Deuteronomy narrates a period towards the end of the forty years of Exodus wandering in the wilderness. Life is about to change from a nomadic existence when manna was provided for the people to eat, to a new time when they would grow crops and feed themselves. In anticipation of that agrarian life, the people are instructed that they should not wait until the end of the harvest season, but rather at the beginning they were to take some of the first fruits of the harvest and to present them to God. As they did so they were to say, “I declare this day to the Lord my God that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give to us” (Deut 26.3). The act of thanksgiving was therefore not just for the harvest, but for the gift of the land and a settled and stable existence after forty years in the wilderness. Moreover, the text provides a liturgy for the service of thanksgiving that recalls the process by which a small family group became the nation of Israel enjoying the fruits of the promised land. The liturgy of the harvest required the individuals presenting the basket of first fruits to say, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there few in number, but there he became a great, mighty, and populous nation” (Deut 26.5). This liturgy of thanksgiving recalls the events during the life of Joseph when his father Jacob (who was renamed eponymously as Israel) went and lived in Egypt during a time of famine. However, despite the growth of the family group into a large nation, the events recalled were not all rosy.

The people were also to remember their enslavement, their poverty, and their torment at the hands of the Egyptian overlords. That act of remembrance was not for the purpose of self-congratulation at their transformed status, or even to legitimate the purchase of a new chariot after a good harvest. Instead, rather than crass sentimentality or self-justification for wealth, it was intend to engender a true humility and sense of generosity. For those of you who read the book of Deuteronomy regularly, you will know that there is an ethical refrain that runs through the book. It is a compassionate and outward looking ethical vision. A couple of examples suffice. In the tenth chapter it is stated that the people of Israel are to “show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10.19). Furthermore, the Israelites were not to harvest the very corners of fields or to go back for a forgotten sheaf of wheat. Instead, they were to be left for the destitute and hungry (Deut 24.19). In the final verse of today’s reading, we see this compassionate concern again, when it is stated that resident aliens should be invited to join harvest celebration in remembrance that all blessings come ultimately from God, and that God’s people are to share those blessings for the benefit of others. If our reading had continued a couple of verses further we would have also heard that portions of the harvest were to be removed from each Israelite land-owner’s house and given to those who were foreigners, widows, and orphans. Whether the people of Israel ever practiced the generosity which this text demands is a debated question. However, there can be no doubt that what is imagined is that the bounty of harvest should call people to a higher standard of love and generosity.

Although it was difficult for any story apart from one to get space on the front pages of the newspapers this week, I noticed the following in a tiny corner. Several editors were outraged by a certain statistic. The statistic was presented in the following manner: “more than 30,000 migrants have crossed the channel in small boats this year.” I fully understand the issues with undocumented migrants, or the distinctions drawn between genuine refugees and economic migrants – although that binary might not quite as clearcut as some would have us believe. What saddened me most as I read those stories replete with bristling outrage, was that there was no sense of generosity, no sense that many of our own families have been migrants seeking a better life, and ultimately that there was no love for the foreigner, the widow, or the orphan. While I am uncertain about whether the people of Israel ever practiced the generosity required by the vision of our text from Deuteronomy, I can make a better assessment of whether our contemporary society is willing to practice such love and generosity – but I leave you to make your own assessment on that matter.

Our gospel reading takes us to another wilderness setting with a gathered group of people. Earlier in that chapter from John’s Gospel, Jesus had performed one of his miraculous feedings, and then immediately he withdrew from the people across the Sea of Galilee. The next day the people set off in pursuit of this miracle-worker who had fed them. Upon their arrival, Jesus challenges their true motives stating that the reason that the people followed him was because they had eaten and were satisfied, not because of his message. In the same way that the people of Israel were at a point of transformed existence from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle, Jesus also offers his hearers a transformed way of existing. Instead of pursuing perishable food, they are offered a type of sustenance that Jesus promises will endure to eternal life. I am not sure if at this point in the story whether John the evangelist goes out of his way to portray the people as intentionally thick and uncomprehending, but it feels like it to me. After having been miraculously fed in the wilderness by Jesus the people demand a sign from him. They seem to have forgotten the feeding. To make matters worse, they recall the miracle of the provision of manna from heaven, and basically challenge Jesus to perform a miracle like that. Surely here the story is dripping with irony. The people have just seen Jesus perform the very thing they are requesting, but they cannot recognize it. In response, Jesus has to spell it out for them – the true bread of God is that which gives life to the world. The people still seem to miss the point – they seem to want this bread so that they might never have to seek physical food again. Then Jesus makes it clear that he is not talking about physical bread, but spiritual food. In one of the seven famous “I am” sayings in John, he declares “I am the bread of life, he who comes to be shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6.35). This is the true sustenance that is offered to the people, eternal life through belief in Jesus himself.

There is much deserved concern around food at the moment. Due to war, due to climate change, the global harvest is likely is likely to be smaller this year than has been or several decades. We cannot avoid the uncomfortable truth that there will be more people who die this year due to malnutrition and starvation, due to lack of basic food staples. We may not be directly responsible for these shortages, but I do not believe that absolves us from responsibility. The lesson of the harvest instructions in Deuteronomy is to recognize that what we have is a divine gift and we are called upon to be equally generous towards those described as aliens, widows and orphans – in fact towards all in need who partake in our common humanity. Closer to home, as food prices spiral and energy costs rise, there will be many in our nation and in our own city for whom even a meal a day is a luxury and heating homes is no longer possible. As the people of Israel were told not to strip the land, but rather to leave provision for the destitute it is now more imperative that we provide more for the poor and needy. Here is one suggestion. This week it was announced that the National Insurance increase is being reversed – one suggestion is that rather than keep that increase for ourselves maybe it could benefit those in greater need. Deuteronomy indeed reminds us of our responsibilities to attend to the practical needs of fellow human beings. The reading from the Gospel of John reminds us that alongside that we also have other gifts to offer to our communities, the bread of life itself. The Christian message does not draw a distinction between provision of physical and spiritual need – giving bread that sustains this life and offering bread that leads to eternal life are unified and unambiguous priorities for people of faith like you and I. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest the gospel message has a preferential priority for those in need. The proud are brought down and the humble exalted, it is the hungry who are to be filled while the rich will be sent away empty (Lk 1.52-53). Harvest is not primarily to be a time of gathering, but one of generosity and giving.

When we reflect on our own lives, we see that in many ways we are like the wandering people of Israel who needed to be brought into a new mode of existence, we are like the crowds blinded in pursuing physical food instead of seeking the true bread of life. In a moment, when we gather around this table we will see set before us bread and wine. These remind us of a bounteous harvest, but they remind us of so much more than that. We will gaze on earthly elements, but the eyes of faith will see the bread of life that sustains even unto eternal life. That gift is not to be accrued or hidden away, it is to be shared abundantly for the life of the world. So as you go out of this place today think of the bounty of the harvest. Think not of how much you have, but instead of how much you can share – then give generously. Think also of the bread of life, given for the life of the world. Remember also the words of Jesus, ‘the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest” (Matt 9.37-38). I pray that I and you would each be one of those workers offering the first fruits, sharing the bread of life, this harvest festival and evermore. Amen.