St Francis, Terriers - Harvest Thanksgiving (25.09.2016)

Tony Dickinson

There is an increasing number of Christians who are keeping the month of September as a time of reflection and prayer focused on God’s creation. This initiative began in the Eastern Church, where the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has played such a central role in putting care for the creation on the agenda of Orthodox Christians that he is widely known as “the Green Patriarch”, but it is being taken up with increasing urgency in the West – and in the world-wide Church, where protecting the integrity of God’s creation has long been seen alongside justice and peace as a central concern for Christians in the present age. For Catholics this concern has been given added weight in recent years by Pope Francis, first by his choice of name and more recently by his letter “Laudato si’”.

So, as we give thanks today to God for his good gifts to us in harvest, we are doing so within that broader framework. But we are doing so, too, in the setting of a culture which has become dangerously disconnected from the earth and from any understanding of its importance for our well-being. For many governments and corporations, and for private individuals, this planet has become a storehouse to be plundered rather than a living organism to be nurtured. As a result, many environmental scientists believe, we are living through what has been called “the sixth great extinction” – one which is largely man-made.

We can see this happening in the bleaching of the corals along stretches of the Great Barrier Reef under the impact of climate change and the warming of the oceans. We can see it in the increasing fragility of bee populations under the impact of the over-use of chemical pesticides and herbicides (in ordinary language that’s industrial-scale fly-spray and weed-killer). We can see it in the loss of habitat as rain-forest is flattened to create pasture and agricultural land is sold off for building. That is something we know about in Terriers and Totteridge. There are people who can still remember when Hicks Farm Rise was part of Mr Hicks’s farm, and who walked to church as children across fields which are now covered by the Taylor-Woodrow estate.

That process continues. This building will shortly be hosting the public consultation which will precede the start of work to do the same to Terriers Farm. Granted that we need housing, we have to question whether building over green fields is the right way to provide it.

It all seems a very far cry from the simplicity of the ritual described in today’s first reading, which recognises harvest as evidence of God’s faithfulness, his covenant love toward his people, and which reinforces the awareness that it is God’s creativity that continues to sustain his people, so that we are, at best, co-workers with God. The direction of movement throughout is “God gave… so I bring… God saved… so I bow down in worship.” The earth’s fertility is not something that ancient Israel took for granted. Nor should we.

That is the importance of Harvest Thanksgiving. It isn’t just an opportunity for a parish get-together. It isn’t just an excuse to decorate the church and to sing some jolly, rousing hymns. It is a reminder that we, too, are creatures, and totally dependent on our Creator. It chimes in with what Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel about “the food that perishes.”

Having enough is good. But having enough must not be taken for granted. Many of us are only one generation away from the generation that endured the hunger of the Great Depression of the 1930s. At one stage my teen-aged father, not long out of school, was the only member of his family who was in work – and he was bringing home only the few shillings each week that he earned as the office boy in a shipping company. There is no rule which says such a collapse cannot happen again, as it nearly did eight years ago.

Having enough is good, but it must not blind us to the source of that sufficiency. Nor should it blind us to the truth that physical comfort and a full stomach is not enough. “Do not work,” says Jesus, “for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” Work, not for what will satisfy a momentary hunger, but for what is real and life-giving and lasting: look, not for instant gratification, but for what gives life to the world. God gives, so we give; from his abundance, from our sufficiency.

That is why for the past two decades our celebration of God’s gifts in the harvest has focused on sharing those gifts with people who have little or nothing for which to give thanks, people who live rough on the streets of the East End, people who have problems of physical or mental health, people who are addicts, people who are exploited, excluded from most, or all, of the things that we regard as important for a good life. Those who have visited Whitechapel over the years know that much of the work of the Mission is not only about binding up wounds but about turning lives round, about sharing the true bread, “the bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”.

That engagement with Whitechapel is a blessing and a challenge: a blessing in that we know that good will result from our generosity; a challenge (one as sharp as the angel’s sickle) in that it faces us with the importance of tackling the needs in our own community. Not just the pockets of financial poverty which there are in Terriers and Totteridge, but the wider areas where there is an emotional and spiritual poverty which takes no account of solvency and credit ratings and where people live cut off from family and neighbours. Where are the opportunities for celebration with our equivalents of “the Levites and the aliens who reside among you”? Admittedly, we may not know too many Levites, but the aliens, the strangers, are here – and for many of us they remain strange, or even frightening, a sub-conscious threat to our security.

This afternoon, from midday until five, the people who set up “High Wycombe Helping Others” are providing the opportunity for us to share a celebration with some of those “others” at a Community Fete in the grounds of Wycombe Museum. I’m hoping to go and I hope that I may see some of you there!

And now to God the Father, who first loved us…