Harvest Sermon – 3 October 2004

The interesting thing about harvest is that people have become more and more keen on celebrating it the further they have got from being the ones who gather in the crops in the fields.

The harvest festival is a festival which most people think goes back into the mists of time. We imagine joyful peasants accompanying horse drawn carts full of produce back into barns. We imagine the whole village coming together to celebrate that all has been safely gathered in. And a lot of us, quite probably, think back to harvests that we knew as a child and fondly imagine that it was ever thus.

Not so, of course.
The ?all is safely gathered in? style of harvest festival is something that is pretty modern and goes back little further than the creation of this church by our Victorian forebears. The hymns that people tend to think of as being traditional harvest hymns, some of which we sing today, have relatively modern dates to them. And you will find little mention of harvest festival in Cranmer?s prayer book.

In Scotland, if ever there was a traditional harvest, it was Lammas-time ? the celebration of the first fruits of the harvest at the start of August. The idea being, and this one does go back into the mists of time, that if you offer God the first bit of the harvest, God will be so pleased and delighted by the offer, that you get a bumper crop and get to keep the rest all to yourself. Good economics. Bad spirituality.

As I say, that idea goes back long before Christianity.

So harvest is something of a muddle. Yet we still celebrate it here, and I think that it is right that we should. Let me give a three reasons why.

Firstly, it is good to be thankful.

Secondly, it is good to recognise the labours of others.

Thirdly, it helps us to be aware of the spirituality of the environment, and our place as human beings on this beautiful, but fragile planet.

Let me take those one by one.

First, it is good to be thankful. Indeed, I think that being a thankful person is part of what it means to be a whole person.

I remember a few years ago, whilst I was working as a chaplain in another university far away from here, I was asked to a formal dinner. There were bigwigs and honoured guests and tidy respectable students. We were all sitting at long tables, anticipating a great meal.

Just as the meal was about to begin, the Most-Senior-Academic stood up and announced, ?The Chaplain will now lead us in grace?. Well, I suppose I should have realised that there is no such thing as a free banquet. Saying grace at University dinners is an occupational hazard.

However, as the Most-Senior-Academic sat down, he hissed at me, ??and remember ? no mention of God here! We are a secular institution.?

Well, what do you say? Maybe you have some ideas. I was on my feet by this point. And had to think quickly. ?Will you all stand?? I said, to gain a moment of time. And I said. ?We will all stand for a moment of thankfulness before we eat??(there was a thoughtful pause and I said:)?Amen?

The people said a hearty Amen and sat down to a splendid meal. And the Most-Senior-Academic smiled a bitter smile and said in my ear, ?well done?.

Now, I tell that story to illustrate the point that matters this morning. Being a thankful person is part of being whole. For everyone has in them a sense of thankfulness. There is not a culture in the world which does not try to teach its children to be thankful people. To be thankful is to be human.

And on this harvest day, let us, meeting as we do, before God, remember that.

We are a thankful people.

Now secondly, I said that harvest allows us to remember that labour of others. Whether it is the virtues of science, or the skills of a team or those who do indeed gather the harvest in the fields ? it does not matter. We rely on others for our daily bread. And it is good to remember them once in a while.

I said at the beginning that harvest has got more popular the further people have got from actually gathering in the crops themselves. Harvest Festival is one of the unlikely products of the Industrial Revolution.

And perhaps that is not an anomaly, but rather a jolly good thing. For to remember our interdependence is to think of others and to do so is to extend our sense of thankfulness beyond being thankful simply to our creator God, to being thankful for our neighbours.

There are those who are frightened of our neighbours in other countries. Yet the church has always maintained that we are all God?s children. And we all live on a planet which has the resources to feed us all.

The reminders that we get from time to time from groups like Christian Aid of the effect of world trade laws on the poorest nations keep the hope before us ? that all God?s children will be fed.

Let us celebrate this Sunday morning the commitment given this week to reduce the burden of debt owed to the UK by the poorest nations. And let that news make us hungry for more change.

And finally, let us remember on this harvest festival day the environment.

As the years go on, our stewardship of creation is held up to ever greater account. Let the urgency of the need to keep the environment in mind never leave us when we come into church.

Let us green our faith. Let us keep festival year by year. Let us celebrate the bounty of the earth year by year. Let us feed all God?s people better year by year.

And let us be thankful.

All is safely gathered in?

Not yet, but the task is ours to do.



  1. Rosemary Adams says

    Thank you. I would like to borrow your anecdote of saying ‘grace’ to begin my harvest sermon on Sunday. However, I would also like to say that you serve a higher master than any uni MSA. Knowing you were a Christian, and asking you to say grace, he should expect you to pray to God. Whose approval do you seek most?

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