Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Harvest Festival
October 2, 2011, 3:03 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday October 2nd 2011

Harvest is the most ancient and most natural of religious festivals. I suppose it is as old as agriculture. “A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted,” says Ecclesiastes: a time for sowing and a time for reaping; and when the harvest is gathered in, a time for giving thanks. The great Israelite festivals, Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, all began as harvest festivals, for the wheat, the barley and the grapes. Only later on were they also associated with the great events of Israel’s salvation, the Exodus, the receiving of the Law, and the journey in the wilderness.

Because ancient Israel was largely an agricultural society- and Canaan’s pleasant land was abundantly fertile, that is why it was the Land of Promise- it isn’t surprising that our Lord regularly uses agricultural imagery in his teaching. The sower going forth to sow, the labourers in the vineyard, or (as today) the rich fool who planned bigger and bigger barns for his earthly harvest, when at that very time he was to be gathered in, part of God’s harvest.

As always, we need a stereoscopic vision: partly focussed on the here and now, counting our earthly blessings and giving thanks for them; and partly focussed on the eternal realities that this world only foreshadows. In our urban culture, we need to rediscover our dependence on sunshine and rain, on farmers and gardeners, on seed being sown and flocks being tended. The food we eat every day does not just magically appear on the selves of the supermarket. Even if we only grow a few herbs on the window-sill, or some tomatoes on the patio, we remind ourselves that we are not self-sufficient, that life itself is a miracle and that all creatures should, in their own way, give praise and thanks to the Creator simply for their existence.

The great Saint Augustine (of Hippo, not Canterbury), after his conversion wrote a little book on Christian Teaching. Right at the beginning, he posed a question which a whole tradition of theology then followed. All kinds of things are useful, he said; but what are they ultimately useful for? In what do human beings find their fruition? The word he used is often misleadingly translated “enjoyment”, but it means far more than we mean by enjoyment. An apple-tree (to take a simple example) achieves the purpose of its existence when it produces fruit. In the natural world, each generation of living things exists in order to produce the next generation. Some kinds of moth, I saw on television the other day, after months as caterpillars, when they reach their adult state no longer eat- they simply mate, lay their eggs, and die. They have reached their fruition, in passing on life to their offspring. For most creatures, life does not end as abruptly as that, but still in the natural evolutionary order, fruition means simply producing fruit: the offspring that gives each species a kind of immortality.

So: in what do human beings find fruition? Augustine knew that at the simple, natural level, the same is true for human beings as for any other species: we live on in our children. But as a Christian he knew that God the Creator has more in mind for us than that. He has given each living soul, made in his image, inbreathed with his own breath of life, its own personal and individual immortality. What, then, is our destiny? In what do we find our fulfilment? Augustine answered, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The fruition of the human being is its loving union with the Creator. That fruition begins, right now, when we recognise his goodness and give him thanks for his loving-kindness towards us.

So for Christians, there is more to Harvest than just thanksgiving for natural blessings. There is the perception that in giving thanks we are entering into, or deepening, a personal relationship with the Creator of all. It is no accident that our central act of worship is called “Eucharist”, “Thanksgiving”. “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” “It is right to give him thanks and praise.”

One last point. Today, the second of October, is the Feast of the Guardian Angels. Christian tradition has constantly believed that each of us has an Angel-guardian, appointed by God to watch over us and guide us. Our Lord himself said of children that their angels constantly see the face of God in heaven. We heard on Thursday, Michaelmas, of the war in heaven between the angels of light and the angels of darkness. This expresses the truth that, in this world, there is always a struggle between good and evil. It takes place externally, in our social and political arrangements. It takes place internally, in the minds and hearts of all of us.

There is a story in the Second Book of Kings about the prophet Elisha. The Syrians were besieging the city in which the prophet was living, and his servant came to him and said, “What shall we do?” Elisha replied, “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed, and said, “O Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes that he may see.” The story continues, “So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” The armies of God, the hosts of heaven, stood guard around God’s servant. We should remember this: the angels stand guard to defend those who are on the side of the Lord.

Our Lord said, “The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are the angels… The Son of Man will send his angels and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin… Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” As a hymn that we shall not, alas, be singing this morning puts it:

For the Lord our God shall come,
And shall take his harvest home;
From his field shall purge away
All that doth offend that day;
Give his angels charge at last
In the fire the tares to cast,
But the fruitful ears to store
In his garner evermore.

Then, thou Church triumphant, come,
Raise the song of harvest-home;
All be safely gathered in,
Free from sorrow, free from sin,
There for ever purified
In God’s garner to abide;
Come, ten thousand angels, come,
Raise the glorious harvest-home!


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