[My sermon from 8am Communion and Harvest Matins at Avington, Rebecca]
I had a great aunt of whom I was incredibly fond. She was full of life and laughter and fun and was well named. Aunty Joy was one of the most joy-filled people I have ever met and as far as I could see all who spent time with her found themselves joy-filled too. As someone who had been widowed relatively early and who had no children of her own, Aunty Joy often spent Christmas with us. Her present to me was not infrequently a pack of beautiful writing paper. The kind that comes with pretty sheets of paper and matching envelopes, usually tied together with a matching ribbon and a bow. As an early lover of nice stationery, this was more welcome as a gift that it might have been by other great-nieces! My thanks were usually fulsome and certainly sincere.
Today we are celebrating Harvest here in Avington and during the All Age Service in Easton. Next Sunday it will be the turn of Itchen Abbas and Martyr Worthy, and of course that is when we are gathering to enjoy our harvest lunch. I would like to take this opportunity of thanking all those who have made the church look so festive and to our young people who made the harvest loaf. Do take some time after the service to really enjoy the flowers and admire the young people’s hard work. And a reminder that today is the deadline for getting tickets for the harvest lunch; please speak to Vanessa Rosewell if you have yet to purchase yours! It is not too late to join us!
Harvest Festival is a time to say thank you to God for all that we have, and in particular to thank him for our food and all those who work to produce food for us. Hopefully we often take opportunities to say thank you to God. As we regularly say in our services ‘it is meet and right’, ‘it is our duty and our joy at all times and in all places to give you thanks holy Father, heavenly King, almighty and eternal God .’ But Harvest Festival gives us a particular occasion on which to focus on God’s generosity and to respond with gratitude.
Of course, I thanked Aunty Joy in person when I unwrapped my lovely present and probably thanked her again when she left us to return to London. However I then wrote her a more considered thank you, usually using some of my new writing paper. When all the Christmas guests had left we gathered around the kitchen table – more or less willingly – to write our thank you letters. Us children – and perhaps even the adults – might have preferred to play with our new toys or curl up with new books or even to make the most of the more relaxed rules about television watching that were a feature of the post-Christmas period in our house – but it was good to gather together and share the reasons we had to be thankful with each other and the generous givers.
Perhaps Harvest Festival may be compared with these thank you letters. Perhaps it is a little like my taking time to write Aunty Joy a letter, a time to focus on what I was thankful for and why, a time to share my gratitude with others.
Harvest Festival is a point in the year when we can particularly focus on what it is we are thankful to God for…a time to acknowledge that all we have comes from the God who created us and all things. We have much to thank God for: As the popular Harvest hymn puts it ‘we plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. We may do the hard work of cutting, threshing, winnowing and grinding the corn but God gives us the strength and skills we need for these tasks. We may turn the flour into bread but it is God who gives us the brains to weigh out the ingredients and the dexterity to knead the dough. We may use our money to buy the bread but it is God who has given us the gifts and talents we need to earn the cash we have to pay for it. We have much to give thanks for because ‘all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.’
As the hymn reminds us, God gives us each day our daily bread because he loves us and delights in providing for us. He gives to us generously. He gives to us willingly. He gives to us freely. When Aunty Joy gave me the writing paper it was a gift without strings. There was never an expectation that I would use the paper to write to her. It was mine to do with as I wished. The packaging was always so lovely that I could have chosen to keep it unopened and not use any of the beautiful sheets of paper. Instead I chose to do what I am sure she hoped I might which was use it to write to my grandparents. The pristine paper would be covered with my bad handwriting and scattered with spelling mistakes and then bring huge joy to my grandparents when it landed on their doormat. The present became a means of showing my love for those whom I cared deeply for. In choosing to use the writing paper thus it all disappeared but what I had in return was worth more than all the beautiful stationery in the world: a wonderful relationship with my doting grandparents.
We all face a choice, today and every day: do we acknowledge where all that we have comes from or do we not look beyond the fact that it is ours? Do we keep it to for ourselves or do we share it? Both our readings today are about the choice we face as Christians about how we live our lives; about who our master will be. Our Gospel reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus teaches his followers how they should live and shows them what true discipleship looks like. He then gives them the choice: do we live according to God’s values or do we live according to the values of the world. If we choose to live according to God’s values, we will see our time, our talents, our possessions as gifts from God for us to use to help those in need. If we choose to live according to the world’s values, we will see our time, our talents, our possessions as belonging to us, for us to use as we see fit. We can’t do both and a good guide to the choice we are currently making is in how we spend our money. As we thought about last week, God gives us seed to sow in order that he may give us a harvest. A harvest of people coming to know Jesus and having their lives transformed by him. The size of our harvest will depend on how bountiful we have been in sowing the seed. The word for rust in our Gospel reading is the word used of grain which has become infested with vermin and rotting away. Grain is perishable. It will not last. There is no point in holding on to it indefinitely. It needs to be turned into food for us or for livestock so that we have the strength for our daily lives. My writing paper would have looked very decorative sitting on the shelf in my bedroom for a while but then it would started to gather dust and fade in the sun. Acts of obedience to God, giving our time, talents, things and yes, our money so that we might help those in physical and spiritual need are not perishable. We cannot take our money and possessions with us when we leave this world…as the rather grim Spanish proverb puts it…’there are no pockets in a shroud’. Thieves can break through our walls and steal our gold but if we put God first…if we use all that we have and all that we are in his service…if we respond generously to the generosity of God…if we offer God our hearts and lives…well that is treasure that can never be eroded or destroyed or taken away.
So this harvest let us come before God with thankful hearts. Thankful for all that we have. Thankful for all that God gives us. Above all, thankful for his love.
‘We thank thee then, O Father,
For all things bright and good,
The seed time and the harvest,
Our life, our health, our food.
Accept the gifts we offer
For all thy love imparts,
And what thou most desirest,
Our humble, thankful hearts.’