Saturday, 27 September 2014

Harvest


Isaiah 5: 1-6
Matthew 6: 25-30

What are we doing when we celebrate harvest festival?

I have been following quite a few conversations on Facebook this week – some headed up by people who say “harvest festival is sentimental tosh and in any case most of the harvesting happens in August in the UK and not in September or October, so the church should stop wasting its time” and the other point of view being “harvest festival reminds us to be grateful for our food and teaches children that milk comes from cows, not Tesco’s”.

I wonder whether the fact that you’re here at this service means you love harvest festival – or are you just here because you have to be and are you secretly loathing every minute? Don’t panic, I’m not about to take a vote.

What I’m going to do is suggest (in that way that preachers usually do) that our celebration of harvest should be neither a sentimental occasion that doesn’t go far beyond “don’t the apples smell great” (though they do, of course!) nor a cynical “this has got nothing to do with our modern world”.
Harvest festival can be a chance for us to think carefully about our place in the world, our duty of stewardship, and the urgency of using the power we have over the created order, for good and not ill.

And I used the word ‘urgency’ there quite deliberately. There is a really urgent need for us all to get our heads around our place in creation, before it’s too late.

Back in August I had a great holiday, camping in Pembrokeshire. It might seem like a strange choice of activity of holiday for some, but I went to a public lecture on climate change,
given by Professor Tavi Murray of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – one of the few women who have been working on the science of glacier erosion in Greenland. From what she said, and from some reading and discussing I’ve been part of since, I have come to grasp three facts about climate change:
1. Climate change is real, weather patterns are changing faster than ever before and human beings are causing it.
2. The effects of climate change are not just fears for the future, they are realities now, especially for the poorest people in the world, who find it hardest to protect themselves from the effects of hurricane and flooding, and can’t just “move house”.
3. We  - human beings - can make a difference to the world and stop the damage of climate change, but we’re all going to have to work and fight for it.

But this view of the world is not just a scientific or political view – I think it is also a deeply theological view, a view that is about God and our relationship to a world that has been created by God. At harvest festival we have an ideal opportunity to think about our world, our place in the world, and the place of God in our world.

So let’s just look at our Bible readings.
The “song of the vineyard”, from Isaiah is a warning from the prophet about the human duty to take the world seriously. It was written at a time when God’s people were split into two kingdoms – of Israel and of Judah. Life was pretty hard in both places – and in fact the Northern kingdom of Israel would eventually be conquered in 722 BC and the Southern kingdom would be conquered by a different power in 586 BC – about 140 years later. Some people hearing the story of the vineyard thought that it was a warning that God would no longer take care of his people – disaster was coming and it would be an “act of God” – maybe even punishment from God.
The problem with this sort of message – if we apply it to how we feel about our world today – is that it can make us fatalistic – convinced that we are powerless and should just abandon ourselves to our fate.
But if you listen carefully you hear that what the people are being warned about is not the forces that surround them, which they are powerless to do anything about, but their own action – their own “fruit”. God says to his people “why did my vineyard yield wild grapes?” – and if you read on to verse 7 Isaiah explains that the Lord God was looking for justice from his people, the vine, but found only bloodshed and injustice.

In this world of ours, as in that world of Isaiah, God expects his people to act justly, to be a force for good in the world.
So Isaiah teaches us that we can’t blame God for climate change, but we need to accept our role as stewards of creation.

Jesus also teaches people who are feeling anxious and uncertain about life – after all he’s talking to a people whose land is occupied by the Romans.
“Do not be anxious – isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field…”.
I think for many years I simply thought that Jesus was giving us his version of the song “Don’t worry – be happy”. God looks after birds and flowers and so he’ll look after you too – it’s not your problem.

If that was the message of what Jesus was saying then we’d be off the hook on climate change. Don’t worry – it’ll be alright, God will take care of us and get us out of the mess we’ve got ourselves into.
But looking again at this passage, I think Jesus is saying something rather deeper than just ‘flowers and birds are OK and you will be too’. Jesus says ‘consider the lilies of the field’ – look at them, look at how the world works, think about the natural created order. Yes God made it and ordered it and cares for it, but he also placed everything into an ordered whole. In modern scientific terms we talk about an ecosystem – a web of life, things interconnected, relying on being in balance. And human beings are just a part of that ecosystem – like the lilies and the birds, we are created beings with wants and needs .. and in the case of human beings responsibilities.
God calls us stewards of creation – those who care for it, tend it, have power to change things for the good of all creation.

So this harvest festival, as we consider the gifts God has given us – gifts of fruit and grain and garden – let’s also remember our gift of stewardship.
Our climate is changing – this is not just an act of God – it is our responsibility, and Isaiah and Jesus both teach it is our responsibility to do something about it, too. We can reduce our carbon footprint, use less energy, be happy to consume less, and press others – and especially governments to act on climate change.

Give thanks to God for the beauty and order of the world – and pray for the strength to tend it and care for it, even as we are held and cared for by God’s love, seen in Jesus Christ. Amen.

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