Reimagining Harvest Festival


There is something of an irony about us town-dwellers continuing to observe harvest festival. I suspect only a very few of us will have harvested anything at all in the past year – or perhaps even in our lives: for many of us our harvesting might have been limited to picking a few blackberries during a walk or some strawberries from a garden planter. But, I think I’m correct in saying, none of us have recent experience of the dawn-to-dusk physical toil of working in a field weeding, or being bent over for long hours picking fruit from cloches. *Of course, all of that work continues – but it is either largely mechanised, or the remaining physical work is provided by migrant labour sometimes, as we know, subject to poor pay and conditions.A cynic might thus see our continuing interest in harvest as rather twee. Sociologists of religion have pointed out the rise of harvest festivals appears to date to the late Victorian period. *As the population balance in this country tipped from the majority living in the countryside to the majority living in towns and cities, so harvest festivals really started to take off.

Why? Their popularity may have reflected the need of that first generation of urban workers to work in factories to retain the old links to the soil. The harvest festival in the urban church could have been an important way of healing the fractures of industrialisation – keeping in touch with the countryside, its values its ways and its people.

I guess that our reasons for still holding such festivals might not be that dissimilar. We might argue, for example, that the continuing interest in marking harvest in church – and also much more widely in watching nature programmes on TV- exactly reflects the fractures our modern lives. *Notice, for example, how harvest festivals often today focus on collecting tins for food banks. We might say that a twenty-first century harvest festival reflects one response to our atomised lives: our desire to find healing for social dislocation by reaching out to the stranger, to the less fortunate.

I wonder too, whether, on top of that in recent years we’ve also overlaid on our harvest traditions something of a response to our psychological dislocation. Harvest festivals may serve to articulate our desire for slowing down, getting back in touch nature, and working with our hands in ways that are healing to our busy lives.

Along such psychological lines, I think of the bread-making classes I teach each Friday on campus to students and staff. What draws young iphone-owning students to come and make bread? I wonder if their motivations include a desire to get back in touch with an ability to make something themselves and with natural ingredients; to slow down and focus for a while on quality rather than quantity; to relocate busy minds in more stable bodies.

Whether as a response to urbanisation, social isolation, or psychological dislocation, harvest festivals might well add to that wider framework of ways in which we remind ourselves that to be in and work with nature and natural things can be quietly but remarkably healing.

Many of us will know from first hand, indeed, that it is when we notice nature and engage with it that our most powerful experiences of the divine can happen. Whether regarding the stars, or considering the leaf or the butterfly, it can be then, as our first reading from the prophet Joel put it, that ‘You shall know that I am in the midst of [you], and that I, the LORD, am your God’. Often, we meet God in and through nature.

Our harvest traditions have then undergone several rebirths – what was in the distant past a celebration of farmers, has become a way of city-dwellers to keep in touch with their roots, and for busy modern people to slow down and detox from the strains upon our souls.

If traditions are always evolving new layers of meaning so as to remain vibrant, what new meanings might we be adding to harvest today?

The context in which we celebrate this Sunday’s harvest festival comes at the end of the week in which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has delivered its starkest report on the urgency and need for our species to act within the next ten years if we are to keep to the preferred target of a 1.5C degree rise in temperature above our pre-industrial benchmark. In order to reduce our carbon emissions we will have to embrace (I quote) ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’.

The risks of not doing so are well-known: increased climate instability and the effects upon human populations, especially those living in more fragile or vulnerable eco-systems.

‘Do not worry about your life’ say Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that I read part of a moment ago: ‘Do not worry’. I imagine there may be a spectrum of responses to the IPCC report – at one end they will include outright denial – there is no problem; at the other end there will be those who immediately accept it and respond. Somewhere in the middle lies anxiety and accompanying it paralysis – and I suspect some of us might find ourselves there. ‘Do not worry about your life … ’ says Jesus. I do not think he means ignore the challenges before us; sit back and wait for divine intervention. We know from his own ministry that he preached on care for the poor, on sharing wealth, he challenged injustice and exclusion; we know that Jesus in his story-telling again and again held up  the vision of the Kingdom of God – reminding, inspiring his hearers what it might mean for humans to live divinely together.

To not worry does not mean to not care. On the contrary, it may mean to care deeply. It does not mean not planning, not campaigning, it does not mean avoiding disciplined hard work, self-sacrifice, or struggle. To follow Jesus’s command not to worry means not allowing anxiety about these things to consume us to the point of paralysis. To ‘not worry’ is to live in trust and to act in faith, without knowing the future, without being in charge of the outcome. It means to choose to live hopefully.

As our world enters the next decade some of our most astonishing intellectual creativity and technological ability will be drawn upon to address our current problems. Already, in this country, we use less coal now than we did in the Victorian period. Today 30% of our electricity comes from renewables. *Who would have thought that an electric car could drive over 300 miles (that’s from here to Newcastle) on a battery that takes less than 3 hours to charge; or that the UK government would aim, within the next 17 years, to make every new car sold in this country a zero-emission car?

When we speak of humans sharing the divine image, part of what we mean is that we seem to have abilities unlike anything else in the animal world. Think of this: it was only about 10,000 years ago that we discovered how to plant crops.

Our technological solutions will need to be accompanied by human and social transformation.

Some of the decisions we will need to take will require limiting freedoms we currently enjoy – like jet travel, which reflects a still-growing part of our carbon emissions. *When we speak of picking up our cross and following Christ towards a vision of God’s kingdom, that might well mean joining those voices which say we all have to be willing to make sacrifices. We will all have to give of our lives that others might live. We will almost certainly need to choose to be generous in supporting those who suffer the worst of climate change and this will mean challenging populist rhetoric around immigration and foreign aid. It will mean being willing to stand up for the poorest and the most vulnerable. It will mean making choices in our voting, and in our speaking out.

It is here that we Christians will increasingly be called to play a role as salt and light in our society. To practise for ourselves disciplines of self-sacrifice, compassion, a concern for justice, and to keep aflame hope and the bigger vision. And to do and speak of these things not just for ourselves, but for those around us, too.

A harvest festival today will be about the future: the valuing of the earth and acknowledging our dependence upon it; a commitment to a certain kind of human life that remembers those made vulnerable by climate change; an act of courageous faith in the face of what might scare us into inaction. And it will involve imagination and a willingness to change.

That leads me to my final words in this sermon. Thank you for your gifts this harvest to Reading’s Food bank. They will be deeply appreciated. I’d ask you now, though, to add to your celebration of harvest in three new ways when you get back home.

First, I’d like to invite you to take a look at the thermostat and timer on your heating and on your hot water boiler. We’ve managed to turn our hot water down to 10 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening. And we’ve really tied hard to trim our heating to when we’re actually in the building. Can I invite you to do the same. Don’t underestimate the long term effect of small changes.

A second new harvest tradition I’d like to share with you: can I ask you to reflect on what you eat. We know that red meat involves the production of far more carbon than white meat; and white meat far more than fish – and so on. Can we shift our meat consumption down a notch? For some people this might mean, for example, a meat-free Monday (something I’m in discussion with the University caterers about). For others it might mean small adjustments spread across the week. If cooking with less or no meat terrifies you there’s quite a lot of experience out there.

And thirdly, can I encourage you to shift your energy provider to a green tariff. Have a look on-line and pick a green provider. The more we demand green energy, the more the market will tip that way. Our family uses Ecotricity, but there are many other providers. If you’ve done so can you put up your hand.

There are many other things we can do. Once we have started with the basics we can let our imaginations guide us further. But we must not let what we haven’t yet down, or can’t do easily, discourage us from what we can. *‘Do not worry about your life’, ‘don’t be anxious’ says Jesus, ‘seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you’.

Mark Laynesmith