Friday, 5 October 2007

Harvest Sermon

Bits of this appeared in an earlier posting: Crazy World - Irish Rugby, Spiderman 3 and the Gardai in Lusk but this is 'churchy' version (greatly expanded).

“When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression”

In tonight’s Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy chapter 26, a reading which gives us wonderful imagery, such as “a land flowing with milk and honey”, and a promise that “you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given you”, you might be surprised that I chose as my text for tonight one of the preceding verses which seems to be more about suffering than thanksgiving and celebration! Words like ‘hard labour’ , ‘toil’, ‘affliction’ and ‘oppression’ do not fit well with our traditional understanding and expectations of harvest!

When I think of Harvest the kind of words and pictures that come to my mind are of a happy event, the culmination of a years work – a testimony to the skill of the farmer in knowing when to sow and when to reap, how much fertilizer to use, when to spray – I see full grain silos and plenty of hay and straw, and churches such as this one decorated with the fruits of your labours. We have also come to realize in recent times that harvest is not just a rural festival but can also be a time for those who do not work on the land to give thanks for the fruits of their labour, whether in the home, the office the factory or wherever. But what all of these aspects of Harvest have in common is that they are about success! Harvest is traditionally about success albeit a success in which we acknowledge that God plays the decisive role.

Thankfully this year has, despite predictions to the contrary, been a success – the twin threats of torrential rain and the proximity of Foot and Mouth ultimately did not frustrate the harvest and while quality and quantity might have been down, prices were up enough to compensate. And so this year we do have a lot to be thankful for.

But – What about others? What about the vast swathes of English countryside where the fields turned to Lakes, what about the farms affected by Foot and Mouth and now Blue tongue….. and further afield, what about the Sudan where war and population displacement have destroyed the farming infrastructure or parts of Africa and Asia where drought regularly makes the land barren and infertile?

How would we feel about the harvest if that was the situation we found ourselves in, or to take harvest in its broadest context how do we celebrate harvest when we feel our own lives are not bearing fruit? I don’t want to be a dampner but these are very real questions if harvest is to have meaning in the bad times as well as the good – and I believe it can and does, and perhaps even more meaning in times of catastrophe and pain.

So what is there in this notion of harvest that we can take into the darker corners of our lives? Surely harvest thanksgiving in times of disaster is empty and hollow?! That may be but let us consider what we are saying by implication – We are saying I will praise God not because God is God and worthy of praise at all times but I will praise God when God gives me what I need or want! In other words its about me – Its not about God! Its about my success!

This fascination with success was brought home to me recently in the context of Ireland’s World Cup campaign and the criticism of the squad and most especially Coach Eddie O’Sullivan. Criticism is certainly justified but it is thrust of that criticism that concerns me. It was typified by the crass interview question put by TV3 reporter, SinĂ©ad Kissane, who asked if, in light of the Irish performances in their pool, he would now consider his position. This to me was depressingly symptomatic of the ‘One strike you’re out’ culture which now defines Irish society. In this rarefied environment failure is unacceptable and carries an immediate and terminal penalty. This is a pessimistic culture which assumes we are defined by our past with no hope for a better future – once a failure always a failure! Such a society that cannot accept failure and learn from it is dehumanising and demoralizing. It ensures constant frustration and ultimately destroys the learning curve that is part of life. To use a basic if not base analogy: When potty-training a child do we expect a constant and unbroken progression or do we resign ourselves to the inevitability of the you know what occasionally hitting the fan rather than the potty? One of the things that appeals to me about Christianity is the expectation that we will make a mess of life on a regular basis – and that despite this we can pick up the pieces and start again. We may live in a post-Christian Ireland but this is one element of Christianity that even the most militant secularist might usefully take on board. The alternative is a very ruthless and cruel society where success is the new God and failure the new leprosy! Its worth noting that the Gospel from Luke 17 about the healing of the 10 lepers does not see leprosy as the end! – There is life after leprosy!

This is an area where we as church can make a difference – we can challenge a society which is based on instant gratification and a lack of tolerance for failure.
In a time of instant credit, instant communication there seems to be no place for looking forward – we live in the moment and what we cannot have now is useless and irrelevant to us.
Something happened to me this week that illustrated this perfectly. On Wednesday afternoon I got a phone call from my wife who was in Scotland on business. She had called to confer over a gift for our son. She was in Woolworths and saw ‘Spiderman 3’ DVDs on sale and was checking whether he had already got the film. I was able to tell her that he had not and so she decided to buy it as a “I’m home – sorry for going away gift”. A few minutes later another call from Scotland – “It’s not available yet! – It’s only on pre-order! – all the DVD boxes were empty! – The displays were just an enticement to purchase something that didn’t yet exist! Not only can we not wait for success but we can’t wait for anything and if we can’t have it now then we console ourselves in purchasing an option now on future fulfilment. It seems to me that this demonstrates how insecure we are as a society. We worship success but we have no resources to deal with failure and disappointment.

So, how do we turn our failures around? How do we celebrate harvest through times of ‘toil and oppression’ as the writer of Deuteronomy describes it?
For me the answer, or at least the beginning of an answer came in a sermon I heard last Sunday. We clergy don’t get to hear others preaching very often and it is important to hear others proclaim the Gospel if we are not to get entirely wrapped up in our own agendas. This is where the internet is a great resource – Some years ago while visiting America I paid a very short visit to Harvard university campus in Cambridge Mass and in the college bookshop came across a book of sermons by Peter Gomes, an African American who is the senior chaplain to the university. I came to love his writing and still listen to his preaching online on a regular basis. Last Sunday he preached a sermon entitled “When things don’t go your way”, and there were a couple of very profound observations that he made that might be helpful to us. He said that it was important to make mistakes and that we should even be thankful for our mistakes!

Does that sound strange? It should do! It flies directly in the face of the culture of success that increasingly dominates our lives! So why or how can mistakes be a good thing? Because they present an opportunity for change. Our mistakes draw us up short – they cause us to stop dead in our tracks and ask questions like Why did that happen? What am I doing wrong? How could I do better? What are the things that really matter to me?

These are questions we don’t ask when things are going well – rather we sail on regardless, increasingly addicted to the drug of success and with no time for reflection. I can’t remember who said it and the quote may even be a bit inaccurate but there is a lot of truth in the saying that “an unexamined life is no life at all”. Reflection and memory are part of being human – how sad it is if we have no time for them!

Our own Judaeo Christian tradition has huge resources to help us with living through the difficulties of life into a time of fruition and harvest. Harold Kushner a Jewish rabbi points to the story of Cain and Abel (the sons of Adam and Eve) and how Cain killed Abel and then fled as a fugitive. Despite that tragedy which taught Adam and Eve about heartbreak, they picked up the pieces, had a third child and several more after that. Commenting on the same passage, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said of Adam & Eve: “It is a fine thing to begin, but it is a much greater thing to begin again after what you have worked for has been taken from you. Again coming from Auschwitz (the most terrible failure of humanity) was Victor Frankl who said: “What happens to you, no matter how hurtful or unfair, is ultimately less important than what you do about what happens to you.

So back to tonight and our celebrations – let us indeed be thankful for the success that is demonstrated around us – for the Harvest, for the fruits of our labours that God has blessed. And let us also try and bring that harvest into the broken parts of our lives and our World – We might be surprised at how receptive those places can be – but perhaps we should not for as the songwriter Leonard Cohen puts it: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in”.

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