It is all rather strange, isn’t it. Here we are in the year 2021, situated at the very heart of one of the world’s greatest cities, surrounded on all sides by concrete, tarmac, shops and office blocks. And yet, we shall close this service by singing, ‘We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land.’ Which I suspect that most of us don’t happen to do on a regular basis, and quite possibly never have done.
It is worth remembering, however, that although the realities of farming life may feel rather remote from us here today, for the majority of its 1500 year history this church was surrounded by fields and agriculture. In the Elizabethan period there were thriving market gardens five minutes’ walk away in Holborn, and virtually the whole of Southwark was farmland. Indeed, I have a map of Elizabethan London that shows Spitalfields and Moorfields as precisely that – fields. Grays Inn Road, Drury Lane, and Oxford Street each cut a path through open fields; and Covent Garden was exactly as it sounded – a Convent Garden.
And even those who lived in this city making their living from other trades still felt the effect of poor harvests very directly – because in past centuries everyone lived sufficiently close to the soil and the agricultural year to feel its impact. Prolonged rainfall in the early C14th led to the Great Famine of 1314-1317, a terrible time in which farm animals drowned in flooded fields, and crops were ruined. Whole families died of starvation and from diseases linked to malnutrition. And all this time the City of London still had to be fed.
Traditionally, the Harvest Thanksgiving was a celebration and a time of relaxation and enjoyment for agricultural communities after the hard work of the Harvest had finally been completed. It was an occasion to thank God for the bounty of nature, which is why it was traditionally marked in the early Autumn, when the summer was over and people had began preparing themselves for the challenge of surviving the harsh winter that lay ahead. But its significance affected everyone.
Now, as I indicated a moment ago, all this may seem very remote to us here today, in the heart of the city of London. But perhaps we need to pause just for a moment and reflect on that a bit more.
Some of you will have heard me speak before of my paternal grandfather, who died in 1974. He was a farmer throughout his entire working life, and yet never owned a tractor, because he was the last generation to work the land with horses. My great grandmother on my mother’s side came from a long line of landless agricultural labourers, and I can remember my grandmother telling me that in her youth it was by no means uncommon for the food to run out before the end of the week, so there would quite often be a day when the five children in her family simply didn’t eat.
So we should always remember that, against the great sweep of human history, and the breadth of human experience, the level of affluence and excess that most of us enjoy in this country today, isn’t actually representative at all – quite the opposite. A chastening reminder of that in our very midst has been the necessity of foodbanks, here in 21st century London, to feed families – some of them families who are actually in work – because levels of poverty are such that without the support of foodbanks they simply cannot afford to feed their children. And then think beyond that to the millions who live on our planet today, whose circumstances leave them condemned to an entire lifetime of poverty, hunger, and subsistence living.
We who have so much can so easily forget, or choose to ignore, the plight of those who have so little. We can also very easily lose touch with the fundamental links between our weather, and the quality of our land, and the processes of production that create and supply the food that we can so casually pick up in the local supermarket. Because, for many of us, if a harvest fails in one part of the world – so what? We can still find most of what we want, because it can be imported from elsewhere, perhaps requiring us nothing more significant than the mild irritation of a temporary price rise. For many years we have been shielded from the catastrophic long-term effects that our lifestyle and our shopping habits are having upon the environment and our climate – invariably, in the process, hurting most those who have least.
Our Bible readings this morning shed some important light in relation to these themes. Our Old Testament reading from the Prophet Joel is a wonderful passage rejoicing in the abundance of God’s goodness, and drawing the whole of Creation into that celebration:
Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!
Fear not, you beasts of the field,
for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit, and fig tree and vine give their full yield.
Be glad, O sons of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord, your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication …
The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil …
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied.
Fear not! And precisely the same theme is picked up by our reading from St Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus says to his disciples:
Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
For me, the fact that here, in this part of the world, we are an industrial, rather than an agricultural society has, if anything, made the significance of our Harvest Thanksgiving service greater than ever before. We really do need to take the time to reflect on the importance of so much that we are so privileged to take for granted that we have lost sight of its true and essential worth. And also to rejoice in its sheer beauty and diversity! We really do need to take the time to celebrate and to be thankful for God’s good gifts to us in Creation. But we also need to take to heart the message of the Gospel about the lilies of the field. Because not only do we need to learn to be grateful that we can greet each new dawn knowing that we shall have the food that we need for that day – more than enough of it – we also need to let go of our fears for what might happen in the future.
Because when we are afraid of what tomorrow may bring, those of us who have more than we need, cling on to as much as we can today, just in case…. And this is where our second reading today, from the First Letter of Timothy, is so important: as it points out, if we are driven by a desire for more than we need, we fall into a temptation that brings ruin and destruction in its wake.
More specifically, when we lack generosity of heart because of our fear, then we end up wasting what we have, while others starve. That is why a life of fear can never be a life of faith. It distorts our priorities, and turns us inwards, to our own selfish concerns. And when that happens, we are all the losers.
At our Harvest Thanksgiving service today rejoice and to be glad; give thanks for the abundance of God’s creation, and for those whose labour feeds us. But a thankful heart must always be a generous heart – because we must remember that these are God’s gifts, not our possessions by right. That is why here at St Bride’s we shall today be launching another Foodbank collection – so that we can share what we have, in a way that will cost us little, but benefit others greatly.
In the words of today’s Collect:
You crown the year with your goodness
and you give us the fruits of the earth in their season:
grant that we may use them to your glory,
for the relief of those in need
and for our own well-being;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.