On Friday we celebrated the feast of St Francis and I was reminded of the story of Giles who wanted to found a religious community at Bartlemas just after the first world war. He was set on Bartlemas but at the last moment the Duke of Marlborough offered him Hilfield in Dorset and thus, eventually the Anglican Franciscans were born. Giles vision was to grow vegetables, there was after the war some enthusiasm for a return to the land to grow food locally. In reality Giles and his companions quickly discovered that the soil was hard and digging was difficult – not everyone wanted to do the work to grow their own food.
Despite living in Est Oxford where the allotment is alive and well, it is still true today that many of us are not particularly connected to the land. In recent years the climate change agenda and groups like extinction rebellion have forced us to look again at how we treat the land and how we understand the human species in relation to the land.
Increasingly we are realising that we need a return to the land, not as some kind of conservative, Amish community simplicity – although that might work – but recognising at all sorts of levels our connections and involvement in the land. Recognising the way we hugely exploit the planet and its creatures for our own selfish consumption.
So that brings us to today and our celebration of Harvest. Maybe nobody here has literally ploughed the fields and scattered the good seed on the land but increasingly we feel the desire to be authentic, to be connected, to understand about our food and where it comes from and what our consumption of it might mean for the ecosystem as a whole.
On Friday we had a short Meditation in the churchyard, thinking a bit about Michaelmas which in the old farming traditions was connected with the final threshing of the grain, the separating the wheat from the chaff, the burning of the chaff and the collecting of the good seed.
We spent some time in prayer looking at what was still thriving but also looking at what was dying and decaying and thinking what is it in our lives that we need to separate out and leave behind – outmoded ways of thinking about the planet, about consumption, our negative emotions and behaviour.
The meditation reminded me of our hunger for authenticity and for connection. At the heart of this desire for connection is the incarnation itself. God doesn’t remain distant, but he comes to live among us as one of us. And this church with its statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary focuses our hearts and minds on God’s coming among us. We don’t have a huge statue of Mary ‘because we think we might be Anglo-Catholic’ but because the Incarnation is at the heart of our faith. We too want to understand ourselves as getting down and dirty – as among and of creation rather than above it or in charge of it, but we struggle to see how we can do this.
So this Harvesttime I want to leave you with three thoughts:
Harvest is about a thanksgiving for the abundance of creation but how can we authentically enter into thanksgiving when we live as part of a society which is nervous of the hard graft involved in getting our hands dirty? This isn’t just an invitation to weekend gardening -although I could do with that – its an invitation to think about soil, about what we grow in it, about the things we buy which are grown in it. And behind that is a bigger question about how we as the little people can make sense of the bigger picture of sustainable or rather unsustainable farming and agriculture. How can we live in closer and gentler relationship to the earth?
From flour we get bread and many of us may have had the opportunity to bake bread. In today’s Gospel Jesus says we should work for the food that endures for eternal life. The bread that we share at this table also needs to be connected, grounded in our own spiritual lives. We need to consider how we are fed at this table for eternal life: that’s about our worship – even down to simple or rather prosaic things like choice of hymns, the way we sing the psalm, the way we learn more about our life with Jesus, the way we pray. If we are not being fed here then everything else in our lives can be out of kilter. I want to reach out and ask people here to talk to me more about the shape of the Liturgy (that’s the worship literally it means the work of the people), the things which touch us in the place of the heart and the things which are not working for us. Jesus says ‘I am the bread of life’ but we need to be able to discover that truth, and to embrace it for ourselves in this place. So lets begin a conversation about that
And I want to finish with this amazing squash which Bedford gave to me. It is Beautiful. In all our yearning for authenticity and connection, for engagement which feels tangible. We mustn’t let go of beauty and mystery – this squash is both beautiful and mysterious to me! Harvest is the naked joy, the shock of the gift of God, the harvest abundance mirrors the abundance of God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ.
Sometimes things can feel fragile here and the future can feel uncertain. Harvest thanksgiving needs to be more than ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ if it is going to be true for us and authentic for us. We need courage to risk living for God even in the midst of vulnerability and change. Harvest thanksgiving says to us – look at this, look at this beauty, this variety, this plenty. May your thanksgiving be also a stepping out in faith, for a faith which is connected, which feels authentic which is deeply aware of the crisis we face as a species and is hungry for real change which is economic, social, political and most of all spiritual. A real hunger for the food that endures for eternal life. Amen.