Today we are celebrating our harvest thanksgiving. The Bible is full of references to harvest, so there’s no shortage of readings to reflect on.
We began with that passage from Deuteronomy which tells us how in ancient times Jewish people held their harvest thanksgiving service.
Christianity shares with Judaism, its parent faith, a firm belief in the goodness of the world. The material creation is good, a gift of our heavenly father. We rejoice in and celebrate the blessings that come from the good earth that God has made. We acknowledge that all we receive is God’s gift.
At the same time, we are mindful of the call to reflect God’s generosity and goodness. We are to share the blessings we receive, so that no-one is in need. This requires, of course, that we have to be attentive and notice those who are in need. So this too is part of our harvest thanksgiving.
But harvest is also used as a metaphor in the Bible. It speaks of the harvest we reap from “doing what is right” and a “harvest of righteousness”. Not crops, these, but the good things that grow in our lives by the grace of God. But these good works are connected with the harvest of the earth, because they are about enabling ourselves and others to grow and flourish as God intends.
There is also the harvest at the end of time, of which Jesus speaks, the gathering of all the redeemed into God’s Kingdom. The produce of the good earth nourishes us for this earthy life. But the bread of God which comes down from heaven nourishes us for eternal life. That bread is Jesus himself, his flesh given for the life of the world.
Today’s gospel reading is set just after the feeding of the five thousand with the bread and fishes, earthly food, and the crowd have followed Jesus because they want more of the same. But Jesus instead begins his teaching about the Eucharist, making the promise of the great gift that he would leave to his church at the Last Supper.
This is the food that endures to eternal life. In the Eucharist earthly bread and wine become the sign and vehicle of that heavenly food. By the power of the Holy Spirit the earthly harvest of wheat and grapes becomes our spiritual food and drink, the body and blood of Christ nourishing us for the eternal harvest of heaven.
So all of these aspects of harvest are there in the Bible: the produce of the good earth, which is God’s gift, and which we are to share; the harvest of good works and righteousness in our lives; and the harvest of eternal life when all the redeemed will be gathered into God’s kingdom.
But what I’d like to focus on today is what comes before a harvest. All the things that need to take place before a harvest can happen.
First, the ground needs to be prepared, the earth ploughed and fertilized, stones and weeds dug up. Hard work! Only then do you get to sow the seed. And then you have to nurture and water the crops as they grow, and protect them from pests, diseases and bad weather. Finally in the course of the seasons, with the right amount of rain and sun, the crops ripen and are gathered in.
It’s a slow business, and it takes as long as it takes. You might harvest a crop of wheat in a few months. But if you’re growing a crop of walnuts, you would wait decades before your first harvest. But you can’t rush it. There is no such thing as an instant harvest. Growing and nurturing something to maturity takes care, hard work, and lots of patience and time.
And just as that is true for the harvest of the good earth, so it is also true for the other harvests that the Bible speaks of. The harvest of good works takes a lifetime of discipleship and persistence. And likewise the harvest of the Kingdom is not instant. “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few”, says Jesus, “therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”
The labour of the eternal harvest is not the work of a year or even a lifetime, but is the work of the whole church throughout time. We, with all our brothers and sisters in every time and place, have a part to play in that long labour.
As with the earthly harvest, the harvest of the Kingdom has its times and seasons. There are times of preparation and waiting, which can be hard work, especially when little growth seems evident. But think of the seed lying dormant in the soil, awaiting its time to germinate and grow. There are times of particular care and nurture – and some crops require more TLC than others. But all these lead in their own time to ripening, maturity, and gathering in abundance.
As a parish church, over the last three years, we have been working through our mission action plan. That is, the ways in which we have committed ourselves to working for the harvest of God’s Kingdom. In common with the rest of the Diocese we have been doing this under three headings: growing in confidence as disciples of Jesus Christ; being compassionate amid the needs of our society; and being creative in new ways of reaching out to people.
If you were with us three years ago you’ll remember that we didn’t just sit down and write a mission action plan. First, we spent a month in prayer, reflecting on some passages of scripture and how they spoke to us of God’s call to be his church in this time and place. Then we embarked on a process of conversation and listening, which led to a mission action plan that everyone could feel they owned and had a stake in.
At the same time, our brothers and sisters in Grace Church, who share the use of this building, have been responding to the same themes – confident, compassionate, creative – in their own work for God’s Kingdom.
Our Bishop Rob, the Bishop of Edmonton, has now asked both churches to embark on a conversation together about our mission. Part of that will be responding to the Bishop's call to the whole area to find new ways of being intentionally missional in the communities we serve.
But first, we are to have another month of prayer, in November this year. It is absolutely vital that we begin with prayer. “Ask the Lord of the harvest”, says Jesus – that has to come first. Listening and waiting on God must come before we can follow his call to us.
We don’t know what conversation might come out of that month of prayer, or where it might lead. That’s how it should be, of course, if we are serious about listening to God and following his call. But we can be sure that there is no need for anxiety or apprehension. In the will of God is our peace, both in our personal lives and in our life as a church.
Our task is to labour in the harvest, but the harvest is not our own. It belongs to the Lord of the Harvest, who has called us and sends us. The fruit of the harvest is ours to nurture and gather, but his to give. And we work gladly to bring others into God’s Kingdom, because God in Jesus has found and saved us. God promises us a place in his harvest, our call now is to be faithful in laboring to bring that harvest about.