Sermon for Harvest, St Pancras

By October 6, 2013Theology

When I was little, harvest in our church was still about loaves and fishes. My church, All Saints’ in St Andrews, was built with money from the Younger brewing dynasty as a mission to the fisherfolk. Lady Younger wanted to plough the profits from barley back into the sea, to reap a fresh harvest of fishers of men. So our church was always hung with fishing nets at Harvest, and you’ll have your own memories, of churches full of sheaves of corn, windowsills groaning with marrows and tomatoes, and the altar obscured by harvest loaves and precariously balanced jars of jam. Today, our aim is to encircle the congregation with donations for the foodbank, and celebrate a very urban sort of harvest.

To help us, we have that lovely passage from Deuteronomy about the edges of the fields, and the Gospel story of the feeding of the 5,000. Today, we have the edges of our church, and the Foodbank equivalent of loaves and fishes to feed our local 5,000. Let’s start with Deuteronomy. This passage is based on a section in Leviticus about leaving the edges of your field un-harvested, so that the ‘poor and the stranger’ might glean them instead. You may remember the story of Ruth, who gleaned in the fields of Boaz to support herself and her mother-in-law. This provision is repeated in our passage from Deuteronomy, which asks us to leave behind forgotten sheaves, and not to be too thorough in harvesting the olives and vines, so there’s some left for those in need. So far, so smug – aren’t we doing exactly that, rejoicing in our Tesco 2 for 1 deals because we can give the extra help to the Foodbank? OK – well done, chaps.

But I think Anne asked me to preach today because she knows I won’t let you off the hook so easily. You might well have been wondering why that woman with the twins has been plucked randomly from the back pew to give a sermon, and feeling a bit concerned that you’ll be next. Fear not, there isn’t a buzzer under your seat: I’m a professional. But while my doctorate is in Theology, I’ve worked for Deloitte Consulting and Ashridge Business School, hence the choice of Gospel, which is my favourite example of Jesus as Manager. In it, he organises his men to group the crowd into units to facilitate distribution, he assesses the available resources, and creates such synergy out of the loaves and fishes that there is plenty left over. Give the man an MBA!

Again, you might be feeling all warm and cosy about the loaves and fishes you’ve brought for the needy today. And thank you for doing so. It really is incredibly important. According to Oxfam, 1 in 5 UK citizens live below the poverty line. In our parish, it’s worse. Only 25% are classified as NOT deprived. Over a million people will have to use a foodbank in the UK this year, and 3 new foodbanks open every week, largely run by churches. In Camden, since the introduction of universal benefit in April, 600 adults and 230 children have been fed by the Foodbank. So thank you, again, for your vital donations of food.

And please don’t stop there. In these hard times, demand for cheap clothing through charity shops is rising, but 1 in 6 people now sell their clothes on sites like eBay, rather than donating them. In response, Oxfam has been working with M&S – and Joanna Lumley – on a ‘shwopping’ initiative, as advertised this week. Last year, 6 million items were donated through M&S, making Oxfam almost 4 million pounds. You might have an incredibly lean wardrobe, but I wonder, could you check the bottom of it? Apparently women own 20 pairs of shoes on average, but wear only 5 pairs regularly. With men, it’s 7. If you are anything like my husband, you wear the same pair every day. So could you donate a pair of shoes, or get rid of that optimistic outfit you’ll never wear?

But I did say I wasn’t going to make this easy for you. Let’s rewind. Deuteronomy was about not over-harvesting, and the Feeding of the 5,000 is about God transforming meagre resources into plenty. So how do they relate? Well, I’d like to talk to you about greed, efficiency, and generosity. Deuteronomy – and Leviticus – are a stern reminder about greed and over-harvesting, made all the more real by our modern plight. Parts of the sea are already fished-out. Intensive farming has used pesticides that are now killing the very bees that the farmers need to pollenate their crops. And everywhere – in the name of efficiency – the agricultural and extractative industries bleed the land dry, with fracking just the latest technology designed to squeeze the very last drop of profit from our emaciated planet.

As a business person, I have some sympathy with the idea of efficiency. After all, waste is surely not God’s plan. But the sort of harvesting we hear about in Deuteronomy was not about waste, it was about generosity. It was not about leaving food to rot, it was about allowing the poor to harvest their own. Of course, there was some shame in it, like using a foodbank today, but in both cases dignity is maintained by the hard work and creativity required to turn these gleanings into a treat for the family.

I said I wasn’t going to make this easy. I now want to pan back a bit, to look at where this sort of thinking has crept into our lives more generally. Where else might we be pursuing efficiency in a greedy way, and forgetting to be generous? Well, here is a sobering statistic for you. In the UK, 21% of all 16-24 year-olds are unemployed. That’s over a fifth. In Europe, this statistic rises to a quarter. But t he business school where I work is full of stressed-out senior managers, too busy working to keep in touch with family and friends, too over-wrought to sleep, and too frightened to take annual leave in case their absence makes the organisation realise that it might be able to cope without them. Can you imagine what it would do to society if we could send these parents home to spend time with their children, and send their teenagers out to work instead? But we can’t afford it, the Board cries. Of course you can’t, not when your CEO is earning on average 300 times the salary of your typical worker.

But we’re not just greedy about work, paid or otherwise. We’re greedy about lots of things. Important things like pay and pensions, and less important things like lots of room to park or a double seat on the train. I am greedy about eating, and hats, and buying books. I wonder what you are greedy about?

The Church of England’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group came up with a useful concept a few years back, called ‘enoughness’. It’s now a very zeitgeisty concept, but I want to dwell with it a bit.

Enoughness…Breathe…Doesn’t that feel lighter?

This is the essential truth about greed. It makes us so heavy that we topple ourselves. This isn’t just a Christian view. Most traditions have stories about the heaviness of greed. For instance, there’s a West-African folk-tale about a starving man who found a stone that would grind flour on its own. Whenever he visited the stone, he was careful to take just enough flour for his family. His cousin saw him flourish, and was jealous. He tricked him into revealing the stone’s location. When he found it, he stole the stone, and carried it away on his head. But when he got home, he found that the stone wouldn’t come off. It just kept grinding, until his greed literally ground him down into tiny pieces.

This is a grim tale, but it’s borne out by modern research – the irony of our restless consumption is that it just makes us unhappier. We keep wanting more and more, and getting more and more disappointed when we can’t have it. Enoughness is about being happy with what we’ve got, so that the energy and resources we’d otherwise use to get more can be used to help those who have less. That’s God’s efficiency – using generosity to share the wealth around.

The traditional collect for Harvest is a salutary reminder of this. Eternal God, 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. Note we come second!

Harvest festivals have always been about offering part of the harvest – the first fruits – as a thanksgiving to the Creator of them. And this is the essential point of my sermon today. All that we have, we have been given by God. We are chronically in debt, in debt to God, for everything that we have. ‘All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own do we give thee.’ So before we presume to grab the steering wheel from God and start getting hoity toity about our priorities, we should stop. And think about what God might like us to do with our – HIS money and our – HIS talents. Unlike Wonga, he doesn’t demand 5,853% APR. But it’s worth asking yourself again at this time of year, what is his purpose for you, and how does what you’re currently doing with your time, money and talents reflect that purpose? Are you a good steward? What harvest have you produced this year?

In our Gospel, the disciples are worried that the food won’t go round. We might be worried that our small efforts will never bring about the Kingdom in our lifetime. But take a look around the edges of this church. Look at what you have already given to feed the poor in this parish. And think how easy that probably was for you to do. Is there something else you could be generous about this next year, that might be just as easy to do, and just as effective?

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