Deuteronomy 8.7-18 Psalm 65. 8-13, 2 Corinthians 9.6-15. Luke 17.11-19
Harvest services are a distinctive feature of Anglican churches in the British Isles. From ancient times villages in England marked the completion of the harvest with a festive 'Harvest Home', while farmers and their families celebrated the newly harvested crops with ‘Harvest suppers’ in each others homes. In the mid-nineteenth century the rural Church of England added a special Harvest Festival Sunday, when church buildings were decorated with vegetables, fruit and sheaves of corn, and specially written hymns were sung. This quickly became one of the most enthusiastically observed Sundays in the year, and was soon copied in Ireland and Wales, and less speedily in Scotland .
The Harvest Festival took its main cue from ancient ceremonies recounted in the Old Testament, and the religious injunctions that underlay them. As the reading from Deuteronomy set for this Sunday says "When you have plenty to eat, bless the Lord our God for the good land he has given you". This year, for the first time ever since harvest festivals began, churches across the UK are prevented from celebrating Harvest in the usual way. A limited number of people can attend church, but there will be no flowers, no fruits, not sheaves, no harvest hymns. Of course, few of us nowadays have much direct contact with the land, and thanks to modern technology, in developed countries we are no longer critically dependent on good harvests, so while it will undoubtedly be a loss, perhaps it does not matter quite as much as it once would have.
In any case, the message at the heart of harvest festival, even in the Old Testament, extends well beyond the in-gathering of food at a particular time of year. The passage from Deuteronomy continues "When you have plenty to eat and live in fine houses of your own building, when your herds and flocks, your silver and gold, and all your possessions increase, do not become proud and forget the Lord your God. . . . Nor must you say to yourselves, 'My own strength and energy have gained me this wealth. Remember the Lord your God; it is he who gives you strength". If we take this injunction seriously, however, we can hardly see a great spiritual danger at the present time.
Faced with the risk of disease, the world around us has placed all its faith in humanly devised strategies, informed it is believed, by human expertise in science. On the basis of this secular faith, the community's coming together to sing thankful praise to God has been declared not only 'inessential', but unlawful. This appears to fly right in the face of Scripture. Yet to organize a proper Harvest Thanksgiving would be breaking the law of the land. Even joining with another family or two for a harvest supper at home is forbidden. In these extraordinary circumstances, what are faithful Christians to do?
Two thoughts. First, if we cannot celebrate the goodness of God together, we can at least make a special effort as individuals. We can deliberately set aside a portion of time in which to praise our Creator, acknowledge our reliance on nature, give thanks for the bounty of our food, and wonder at the glorious colours of autumn. In this way we will remind ourselves not "to become proud and forget the Lord our God" or fool ourselves into thinking that the world can be bent to our collective will by our "own strength and energy".
Second, the reading from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians draws out a further implication of harvest "He who provides seed for sowing and bread for food, will provide the seed for you to sow and swell the harvest of your benevolence." "You will always" Paul tells the Christians at Corinth, "be rich enough to be generous". If this was true of Christians in the ancient world, how much more is it true of us?
So here is a twofold test in these strange and difficult times. How much time have I given over to thanking God and contemplating the good and beautiful world that is God's gift to me? And what is the harvest of my benevolence?
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