I wonder what Harvest Festival means to you? The truth is that it can have many different meanings, many different themes.
It can be all about the tastes, smells and sights of fruit, vegetables and flowers – thank you to those who decorated the church so beautifully for today. “Cauliflowers fluffy and cabbages green,” Autumn Days when the grass is jewelled…” – if you have anything to do with children, you will now be humming along… or perhaps from an older generation “All things bright and beautiful.” Harvest can simply be a time when we enjoy the world around us and give thanks to God for it.
It can also be a time to celebrate and pray for the work of those who “plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land…” Modern Harvest Festival services originated in the 19th century, growing out of Harvest Home celebrations – boozy, raucous affairs put on to mark the end of the harvest season, the moment when “all was safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin”. In a village like this, that’s actually a real part of our community life – there are those in our congregation who do make a living from the land. But for many that’s not the case, and Harvest celebrations can be about whatever kind of daily work we do. Depending on what you do for a living the fruits of your labours might be educated children if you’re a teacher, healthy people if you work in the medical profession, people who’ve received justice if you’re a lawyer, people who are cared for if you are a carer, people getting from A to B if you work in transport, and of course there are many things we enable by voluntary service too. Our labour matters, paid or unpaid, humdrum or dramatic.
But both those themes have their shadow side as well. They make us aware of the threats to our environment, something we are increasingly aware of as the world warms and many people already suffer the effects of droughts, floods and hurricanes. We hear about species becoming extinct as their habitats are destroyed, and we realise that our own species is not immune to that. And as we give thanks for the fruits of the world’s labour we remember as well those who have no job and those whose jobs are poorly rewarded, little valued, those who are exploited or given the message that there is nothing useful they can do and then condemned as scroungers when they need help and support.
So Harvest Festival can feel like a real ragbag of ideas, and it’s not always easy to hold it all together.
It seemed to me, though, that the two readings we’ve heard today might help us to do that.
The first reading was the one we read together – those words from Psalm 148. It’s a wonderful hymn of praise, and everything gets to join in; angels, animals – wild and domesticated – trees, plants and even natural phenomena like fire and hail, snow and mist and tempestuous wind. I love it that even the sea monsters get a look in. If ever there was a celebration of creation this is it. In fact it is creation itself that is doing the celebrating. Quite how this works is a question we could ponder. How does a sea monster praise God? Is there a hymn book where they can choose their favourites …”wide, wide as the ocean,” perhaps…? What would a prayer written by snow and hail look like…?
I don’t really think, though that this was what the psalmist had in mind, even if we do find the occasional “creeping thing” in church, and birds on the wing if we leave the doors open.
The person who wrote this psalm had a serious point to make and that was that everything in God’s world had its place and its dignity and that God’s ideal for the world could only come to pass if they were treated like that. The creation story that the Bible begins with tells us what God thinks of what he has made. “God saw everything that he had made and indeed, it was very good!” says the story. We take the goodness of the created world for granted, but you wouldn’t have found that sort of attitude in the creation stories of other cultures around the Middle East at the time.
There are shared features, because they have shared roots. The Bible stories were influenced by Babylonian tales the Jewish people heard when they were in exile in Babylon 600 years before Christ , but the Bible stories have a very different message. The Babylonians told a story of the world coming into being as a side-effect of the union between the chief male and female gods. It was then shaped by battles for power between their offspring. The Greeks and the Romans have similar stories. There’s no real affection for the world in itself, let alone for the human beings that populate it. It isn’t “very good”; it just is. The idea that the world was loved by its Creator, that it was the summit of his work, his pride and joy seems to be quite distinctive to the Bible, and of course it makes all the difference to the way we regard the world, and God, too.
The gods of these other cultures didn’t come walking in the garden in the cool of the evening, longing to spend time with the people they had made and crying out “where are you?” as the God of the Bible does. Although, like them he is portrayed as angry sometimes, they never make themselves vulnerable or experience anguish in the way the God of the Old Testament does. When his people reject him and drift away he keeps on calling to them. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?....My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” he says through the prophet Hosea. (Hosea 11. 8)
The point is that his creation matters to him, not just as some sort of trophy which reflects his greatness, but in and of itself, from the creeping things to the sea monsters, from the humblest child to the greatest king. Everything has a place; it is meant to be here. You are meant to be here. I am meant to be here.
And that brings me onto the second reading we heard today, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. In the first century it was common to believe in a Day of Judgement, a literal moment in the story of humanity, perhaps just around the corner, when God would break into human history and sort the world out. Two thousand years later most people probably think of this more as a metaphor, a symbolic reminder that our actions have consequences and that sooner or later we discover this – sometimes in ways we would rather not. When hard times come upon us and our communities – wars, recessions, civil strife, natural disaster – we soon discover whether we have the resources to cope with them. These resources are things we have built up beforehand through living together with justice and compassion. They are things like a cohesive community where people know and care for each other, a just distribution of wealth and land, the personal maturity that enables us to let go of status and possessions and not let people’s worth be defined by them.
Jesus’ parable reminds the people of his time, and us as well, that when the chickens come home to roost – whatever that moment of crisis might look like – it is whether we have learned to treat others as if they matter, as if they have just as much right to be there as we do that will make the difference in how we cope, whether we believe that God has created us in all our rich diversity as brothers and sisters, rather than strangers, rivals or enemies.
In the parable both groups are presented with identical scenarios – people in need of food and drink, homes, help, love - but how they see those people is very different. One group sees the needy people around them as nothing to do with them, not their concern , hardly worth noticing at all. The other sees that they are all – rich and poor, strong and needy –part of one family, with a connection to each other that means they can’t turn away. I was deeply touched this week at the reaction of the people of Italy to the drowning of African refugees off the island of Lampedusa. They called a national time of mourning, even those these people had never even made it to their shores at all. They recognised that what had happened to them was the business of everyone.
It’s a message which is as old as the hills, but which we continually need to rediscover. We belong to one another – not just the people, but the animals, the plants, the very rocks and oceans which form our planet. We know now, though, that this is not just pious sentiment, it is scientific fact. When we forget it, when we stop caring for the world around us and the people and other creatures who share it with us, we are all impoverished and we are all endangered as a result. If the sea monsters – the great whales – are struggling and declining, it is a sign of trouble for all of us, of changes in the oceans which sustain our lives too. At Messy Church last week we made the displays you see on the pillars, thinking about the different habitats in the world and the creatures that lived in them. We thought about long words like “camouflage” and marvelled at how creatures often had the same colouring as the landscapes they lived in – they belonged there, they had a place there, which we should honour. To go back to the question I posed early – how do sea monsters praise God?- perhaps that’s the answer, by being sea monsters, being themselves. Our job is to let them take up their space in the world. It is the same for each of us, and harvest reminds us of it. We are part of one another, part of one great whole, whatever we have to give, or need to receive, and if we forget that, the harvest is poorer for us all.