Sermon for Mirepoix 20th October 2020
Readings …….. 2 Corinthians 9, verses 6-15 ………John 15, verses 1-8
It was the need for a reliable harvest that first set humankind searching for God.
Around 5,000 years ago, human beings started to settle in larger communities. For thousands and thousands of years they had been content with life as hunters and gatherers, perhaps in some regions scratching around in the earth to raise a few simple crops. At the start of the Bronze Age, there were many pressing reasons to live in larger, more sophisticated communities. We learned how to grow staple crops, wheat, barley, rice, sorghum (for example) more intensively and we developed trading practices to manage the harvests. Whole cities, with populations of thousands could now be fed…but everything depended upon the seasons and the weather.
These were, of course, beyond human control. So it is not surprising, therefore, that what we see emerging at this time, during the Bronze Age, is an explosion of religious activity. Human beings turn to gods who alone, they believe, can control the fertility of the land. Because without sunshine and rain at the right times, starvation is inevitable.
There is an odd paradox here.
As we became more urbanised, our dependence on a good harvest increased. While we still lived as nomads in relatively tight family units, we could just pull out the tent pegs and move on, roaming the land for fresh pastures. Once inside four walls and under a roof – staying put – we depended absolutely on what could be cultivated in the fields outside the city walls, and what we could buy.
Our forebears understood that a good harvest depended not just on skilled farming but on the weather being clement. As the opening words of our first hymn state: Although we plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.
This hymn actually gives us a very similar outlook to our ancient pagan ancestors: first, you flatter the fertility gods, then give thanks to them for their power in controlling those factors which make for a good harvest and, finally, you give something in return.
Most of this traditional harvest hymn celebrates God’s power over nature. He brings snow and sunshine, soft breezes and refreshing rain. More than that: he is the acknowledged creator of everything from the most insignificant wayside flower to the stars in the night-sky. Even the winds and waves obey him. Therefore, it is to God that we owe our daily bread.
The hymn then concludes with thanksgiving, recognising that all things bright and good arise from God’s love for us.
And in return…well, all we can offer is humble, thankful hearts.
Many ancient civilisations used blood – sometimes human blood – in their fertility rites as part of their offering to the gods. Nothing was more critical to survival than a good harvest and so nothing less than costly sacrifice was likely to propitiate the gods in control.
It was also the custom to dedicate the first fruits of every harvest to the gods and this practice has continued to this day. How many of us can remember parish churches at harvest festival, heaped with produce from gardens and allotments? Members of the congregation would eye up the produce to see who had placed the biggest marrow, the ruddiest apples, the whitest, tightest cauliflower in front of the altar. Feelings of envy or smug satisfaction no doubt also abundant.
But in Psalm 50, God speaks:
“If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Sacrifice thank-offerings to God, fulfil your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you will honour me.”
So here we have a clear pointer showing how the God of Abraham and David was different to all the other fertility gods. The religion of those ancient peoples, revolving around survival, was all about keeping on the right side of the gods. Sacrificing was the only way they knew to exert some control over the forces of nature. They only dimly understood that humankind’s true relationship with God revolved, as the psalmist says, around gratitude.
In some ways, of course, Jesus’ death links right back to the ancient, barbaric practices of human sacrifice as a form of propitiation. His death was indeed a sacrifice. Its purpose was to ensure a good harvest. Not a harvest of crops and fruit but a harvest of souls. Humankind’s first glimpse of God was as a divine force to keep on the right side of. That was necessary, if our efforts to cultivate the ground were to be successful. But Jesus draws that phase of human understanding to a close. No other sacrifice is needed. Something else is now expected.
In the New Testament, harvest is still significant but it importance is as a metaphor.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses agriculture to illustrate the way we should live our lives.
Just as sowing sufficient seed leads to a richer harvest, so should we be generous with those gifts which God, in his grace has given us. Paul talks about the harvest that comes from upright living. In effect, goodness multiplies itself in the same way that a full ear of corn grows from a single grain. Why do this? Well, Paul says that others will heap praise upon us and thank us – so enlightened self-interest is one motive. But Paul also says that generous living overflows into widespread thanksgiving to God and a growing recognition that we owe everything to God’s unbounded grace.
In other words, as the author of Psalm 50 might have said: “Thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his Love.” Giving thanks to God helps put us in the right mind-set for upright living.
In John’s Gospel, we see Jesus taking the harvest theme a bit further.
Jesus chooses to use the vine as his metaphor. Those of us who live in a wine-growing region are as familiar as Jesus’ contemporaries to the rigorous regime of pruning which is required if the grape harvest is to be any good at all. We have here a recognition that, at different seasons of our lives, there has to be pruning; sappy, unrestrained growth serves no fruitful purpose. No doubt this translates as the need to experience discipline, or apply self-restraint, or overcome hardship or struggle. The point is taken: for life to be fulfilling it cannot always be plain sailing (to mix my metaphors!) So, when things are tough, or when facing seeming disaster, we must be valiant and show constancy.
Jesus also speaks in uncompromising terms about those who do not bear fruit: they’re fit for nothing but the bonfire because they have cut themselves off from the main plant.
This is important because it goes beyond the normal limits of the harvest theme. As we have seen, simply offering sincere thanks to God for all his blessings was what had been expected. But Jesus is saying that being grateful is not enough. A passive acceptance of God’s generosity won’t cut it. It’s a similar point to that which Paul was making. But, I think, Jesus goes further than Paul whose main purpose is essentially to encourage the Corinthians to live upright lives.
Jesus, on the other hand, wants to emphasise repeatedly the union that exists between himself and those who follow him, his disciples. The image of the vine with its branches is a powerful one because it is a picture of a single plant. The same sap courses through the root stock as through the branches and the side-shoots, and this sap gives succour to the fruit. This is an extraordinary (and truly humbling) message and it shows just how far, potentially, the relationship between humankind with God has come, from around 3,000 BC, when the first farmers started getting a dim idea about the divine to two millennia ago when Jesus forged a much stronger connection.
Jesus is presenting us with more than a partnership between the farmer scattering the seed and God who sends the weather. The significance of that external agency has now diminished. Now, Jesus is saying that he and we are one and that it is our responsibility to ensure that we bear fruit.
It is an incredible role to be given. But what does it mean?
The key, I think, is in verse 8 which ended our second reading: It is to the glory of God that you bear much fruit.
However we live our lives, however we expend our energy, whatever focus we give to the way we spend our time, our motivation must be the glorification of God.
It’s that tricky word ‘glorification’ again. But I understand it here as being a recognition that there is a force active in the world, just as there is the sap rising through the vine, which emanates from and is an expression of God’s Love. It is our job as Christians to make that visible, to make that apprehendable to others. This is how our lives can bear fruit.
I have suggested that the first city-dwellers, who no longer lived so close to the land, depended more critically on regular, reliable harvests; only in this way could large numbers of people be fed. Nowadays, billions of human beings similarly live lives several stages removed from the earth as a source of food. Indeed, in many churches across the land, harvest now means the gathering together of non-perishable food stuffs, packaged and tinned rather, than fruit and vegetables freshly harvested. We have come to depend on food which has passed through many stages of processing. The human involvement of people other than the farmers is now critical. And, at the same time, we are coming to realise that the natural world, its weather and climate, are also affected by human activity in ways that our forefathers could never have imagined.
The more complex and sophisticated our lives the more critical it becomes that we understand the fundamental forces on which we depend. And so, it is now more critical than ever that we respond positively to that challenge to glorify God in what we do.
In the past, the harvest was a potent metaphor for the relationship between man and God. Today, I suggest a more appropriate image is that of maintaining a sustainable environment.
Humankind’s relationship with the earth is a metaphor which runs throughout the Bible. The Genesis story of how homo sapiens started out as a sentient species begins in a Garden. What is a garden if not a patch of earth which has been cultivated for human benefit? It is contrasted to the wilderness, which is a hostile and barren environment. The first person to see the resurrected Christ, Mary from Magdala, mistakes Jesus for the gardener. Who is a gardener but one who tends the earth for human benefit?
A garden is not a wilderness. A garden is a place which has been tamed. It is fashionable in some quarters to rage against the imprint humankind has left on the world as if we, as a species, should be no more significant than any other. Even if it were possible for human beings to revert to little more than a hunter-gatherer existence, I cannot square this with Biblical teaching. The world is ours – at least for a span – and we have been created with the ingenuity and intelligence to make it work for our benefit. We are learning more and more how to do that, without obliging the natural world to pay too high a price for our comfort and well-being. It is a slow process because it is human nature to be conservative and hold on tightly to what we find comfortable. But we also know that crises breed ingenious discoveries.
I could believe that the current crisis about climate is a God-given opportunity for humankind to take that next step in really understanding what Jesus meant when he said,
“As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself unless it remains part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me.”
Surely this is a metaphor for integration, seeing the connectivity which binds all things together, understanding the interdependence of every aspect of living. If Jesus were speaking today, instead of using the vine as his metaphor, he might well have talked about living within a sustainable and harmonious environment, using this to illustrate the way that humankind is grafted into the Godhead.
Of course, in the words of the hymn we sang earlier, “I cannot tell”.
Once upon a time, the need for a good harvest woke human beings up to the existence of God. Today, the need for a sustainable environment might be the push human beings need to understand how they are united with Jesus, and rooted in God the Creator.
Then, when all the hearts of men with love are filled, the skies will thrill with rapture, and the earth and heaven will be as one.
What we can know for certain is that God is working is purpose out. And it is thrilling.