Harvest Thanksgiving - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Harvest Thanksgiving

John 6: 25-35

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25 And when they had found him on the other side of the sea, they said unto him, Rabbi, when camest thou hither?

26 Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled.

27 Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.

28 Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?

29 Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.

30 They said therefore unto him, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work?

31 Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.

32 Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.

33 For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.

34 Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.

35 And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

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As some of you will be aware, I was away last week in Canterbury representing the Church of England on an international commission.  As I was preparing the sermon for our service this morning, there was a particular experience I had there that kept coming back into my thoughts.  Initially I couldn't work out why, because it had no obvious connection with the theme of Harvest.  So I had to reflect on it more deeply - and when I did so, it slowly dawned on me what it was.

First, let me tell you the story.  We were staying in what is called The Lodge at Canterbury, which is residential accommodation situated within the precincts of the Cathedral.  And late on Tuesday evening, long after all the tourists had left, the staff had gone home, and the outer gates were locked for the night, we were taken on a candlelit tour of the Cathedral.  I had done this once before at Canterbury, about fifteen years ago, but I had completely forgotten quite how powerful it is as an experience. 

Picture the scene.  Imagine that you are in a small group of people in that vast, magnificent, breath-taking building late at night.  The first thing that strikes you is the silence.  A silence that is not merely the absence of sound - because it is a profound, living and vibrant silence, reverberating with the prayers of the faithful across the centuries.  And in the darkness, lit only by candles, many of the colours are stripped away - there are few distractions, just that extraordinary, mediaeval stone edifice, a quiet, powerful, spirit-filled presence.

And in that deep silence, and in the darkness, illuminated only by our candles, we slowly walked a vigil of prayer, pausing from time to time: at the great West door; at the famous 'compass rose'; at the site of the murder of St Thomas a Becket; down into the undercroft with its magnificent ancient arches; up into the nave; and finally at the location of the mediaeval shrine of St Thomas.

It was profoundly moving.  Not only because it connected us in a very direct way with the ancient history of that magnificent house of prayer, but also because it was one of those experiences where all the superficial distractions of life are completely stripped away - enabling you to get in touch with something much deeper, and older, and more primal.  In that particular case, one could feel the presence of God, timeless and changeless.

So, you may well be asking, what on earth has that to do with our Harvest Thanksgiving service today?  Well, it gradually dawned on me what the connection was.  You see, what we are doing at this service, when we focus on the simple, but extraordinary gifts of God's creation upon which we depend for our survival and sustenance is, in a way, a kind of equivalent: we are stripping away all the things that normally separate us from the earth, and from the basic and essential tasks of turning the soil, growing, harvesting, to reconnect with some of the most fundamental aspects of human living, and our relationship with God's bounty, which can so easily be forgotten, or taken for granted.

I come from a farming family.  All my childhood holidays were spent on my grandfather's farm, because he was one of the last generation of farmers who never owned a tractor - he worked the land with horses - so each summer my dad had to go and help with the harvest.  Indeed, I have photographs of my dad and my grandfather, and a group of other men from the village, harvesting with hand scythes.  That was in this country, and within my own lifetime.  My grandfather lived close to the soil, and close to the weather, and closer to the natural processes of the earth than most of us know anything about these days, because it was literally his livelihood.

I get most of my food from Waitrose; and despite my very best efforts to be environmentally conscious about what I eat and how I shop, inevitably, because of where I happen to live, a lot of what I buy is pre-packed; and some of it is imported from abroad.  These days, if a particular fruit is out of season, it can be shipped in from a place that can produce it.  If devastating floods destroy a crop in one part of the world, we simply buy it in from somewhere else, possibly grumbling at the fact that the price has gone up by a few pence as a result.  And because of that, we are increasingly out of touch with the natural rhythm of the seasons; and we can also fool ourselves that the real the impact of climate change, and the looming catastrophe that we face, is actually someone else's problem - for us it just means that we get more days on the beach in the hotter weather.  But our separation from the soil can also mean that we lose sight of the sheer, glorious wonder of God's Creation, for the simple reason that we never actually stop long enough to think about it and to reconnect with it.

And therein lies the importance of what we are doing here today.  Because it is a chance to do the equivalent of what I was doing in Canterbury Cathedral last Tuesday night: stripping away all the things that separate us from the soil, and God's amazing bounty, and the true cost of food production - which, even in a world where much farming is mechanised, can still entail long hours of back-breaking work and inadequate pay for those who have to harvest our fruit and vegetables - and to be grateful and to be thankful, and to recognise our own responsibility for the stewarding of the earth's natural resources.  Because we can so easily lose sight of the fact that God's miraculous Creation is not only essential to our survival, but it is a gift that we must learn to steward wisely so that we do not lose it altogether.

And, if that were not enough, it is also beautiful.  After all, it is a pretty amazing God who has created things as astonishingly marvellous and diverse and wacky as pumpkins, and leeks, and brussels sprouts, and pineapples!

There is a marvellous little poem by Doris Manning called 'Every eye sees', which is an appropriate place to end, because it is a hymn of praise to God for the wonders of two different species of cabbage.  'Every eye sees', by Doris Manning:

Who would call a cabbage lovely?
Maybe a market gardener,
   surveying his ordered rows with satisfaction;
the barrow-boy anxious to sell his wares
   to bargain-hunting housewives;

Or a cook making a sharp incision
   into a prime specimen
   to reveal the cream-coloured heart.

Today I have seen a thing of great beauty,
a flower fit to grace the palace of a queen;
deep mauve at the centre
its petals shaded to a picot edge of lavender.
An azalea, I thought,
perhaps a begonia, or an exotic hibiscus.
No, an ornamental cabbage.

How wise the ways of the Creator,
   to make of one family two such varieties,
And we must learn neither to scorn the one as mundane
   nor to worship the other as beautiful
but to appreciate them both for their intrinsic value.

Praise be to God for the wonderful gifts of his Creation.  May we learn to steward them wisely and well.


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