A Sermon for Harvest Thanksgiving Festival
Texts: Matthew 6:24-33 and Deuteronomy 26:1-11
In Matthew, Chapter 6, we read: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear….Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
OK, I’m going to say it. I know some of you are thinking it: was Jesus living in cloud-coo coo land when he said that? “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or about what you will wear???” Surely this is a recipe for disaster and irresponsibility?
The advice of the writer of 2 Thessalonians 3 sounds much more down to earth: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us….For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’" Some commentators think that perhaps those Christian brothers and sisters needed to be told these things because they were taking Jesus’ words about the birds of the air just a tad too literally.
And, what if I walked up to a client of the Birmingham City Mission and told her “Do not worry about your life because God feeds the lilies of the fields”? I can imagine the sort of response I might get. Not the exact words, but the tone of the response. And that might very well be an understandable reaction. Don’t worry? Where was God when I asked Him for help but instead ended up destitute?
OK, to be honest, I find this passage to be very challenging. Taken too literally it can condone idleness on the one hand. Or it can fly in the face of bitter experience on the other hand.
I can’t stand here in all good conscience as a preacher and as a minister and tell you: “Don’t worry, everything in life will work out if you believe in God.” At best, the real-life experience of many, many devout Christians testifies to the fact that this sort of statement is simply not true, no matter how piously many other devout Christians have espoused just such a point of view over the last 2000 years.
At worst, such a belief can do a lot of damage either to oneself or to others. It is simply not true to say that a person will be happy, healthy or well-fed if only they have enough faith.
Not a Prosperity Gospel
So what sort of meaning might we be able to make from these words of Jesus? I’m going to propose that the best perspective from which to regard this passage is not from the perspective of an instruction from Jesus but from the perspective of a hymn or a poem of faith.
But first, I want to change gears a bit and have a pause and step into another world. The world we are going to step into is the world of the Greek philosopher. Don’t worry, I’m going to keep it simple and I think you might recognise a lot of it anyway
In the world of the Greek Philosopher, the definition of “God” is that God’s essence is that of “unknowable Spirit”. The “spiritual world” rules. This is the place where – according to them – God can be found. Spirit is Good with a capital G and anything to do with the body, or even the mind, is inferior to the spirit. In very simple terms – Spirit Good, Mind and Body Bad.
In order to commune with the God-who-is-Spirit, things of the body and the mind must be set aside. A person has to become purely spiritual – a state of being that even the Greek Philosophers believed was very rare indeed.
But doesn’t that all sound a bit familiar? On the one hand, reaching a spiritual place beyond mind and body might seem a bit “New-Agey”, but on the other hand, this “body bad / spirit good” stuff absolutely permeates our culture.
How would the Greek Philosopher regard the birds of the air and the lilies of the field? The Greek Philosopher would say: “Never mind the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields. They are not important in the grand scheme of eternity, they do not have spirits.” “They belong to corrupt matter. God does not care about them.”
But the Matthew reading tells us most explicitly that God does care about the birds and the lilies. God does care about creation. And if God cares about such things as birds and lilies, how much more does God care about human beings.
Regarded poetically, the birds and the lilies are symbols of God’s providential care for Creation. This is not a model to be followed by human beings – it’s not a list of instructions. This is a poem. This is hymn. This is song of praise sung by people of faith to the God who cares about every single part of creation.
Counting Your Blessings Requires Faith
To be a person of faith is, in some sense, to see the proverbial glass as being half full. It’s easy to see the glass as half full when it was just empty and someone has poured water into it. It’s harder to see the glass as half full when we feel that the glass “really ought” to be full and that God is cheating us out of something if it is not.
The passage we read this morning from Deuteronomy is the passage that is read at the Jewish spring harvest – the harvest of grain. Before the passage was read, I asked you to listen for what the people say after they have given their basket of grain to the priest in the tabernacle. This is actually a creed of faith. It is a creed to be recited during the harvest festival: “Our people became a great people whilst we were living in Egypt, but the Egyptians made us suffer. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders and gave us a land flowing with milk and honey.”
The alternative version to that creed – the “glass half empty” version of it might read – “A megalomaniacal leader named Moses who thought he was God’s gift to Israel, led us out of Egypt into the wilderness where we were homeless and starving. Our people were almost wiped off the face of the earth.”
The Jewish liturgy asks its people every year to recite this creed of faith that God is good and brings them to the land of milk and honey. In the Jewish liturgy, this is as much a statement of faith for today as it is a recitation of history. This is the people who were enslaved in Egypt. The people who were scape-goated during the Inquisition. The people who were slaughtered in the Pogroms. The people who were gassed in the concentration camps. The people of whom many mis-informed Christians today are happy to say “killed Jesus”.
This is the people who every year recite as their creed that God is good to them and that God blesses them.
Don’t tell any church official, but for me this sort of statement of faith is more of a genuine statement of faith than reciting a list of doctrines.
It takes faith to see the proverbial glass as half full when it could so easily be seen as half empty. It takes faith to see the few drops of water in the glass as a blessing when previously the glass was full.
Harvest and a Thankful Heart
We live in a society where most of the things that town-dwellers need for our every-day well-being – like our food and our clothing – are things that we acquire “second hand”.
I’d venture a guess that none of us here live primarily off the land and we’ve acknowledged that as a congregation by saying that it makes more sense for us to celebrate the Harvest Thanksgiving by taking a donation for Birmingham City Mission than it does to bring gifts from our gardens
Speaking personally, this lack of primary contact with nature and with the land can mean that I lack appreciation for nature and for the providence of God. In my case, the Methodist Church pays me a stipend and then the necessities of life – like milk and vegetables – seem to magically appear in the supermarket where I buy them and consume them.
When I remember to think about it, I am aware, for instance, that British dairy farmers are in crisis because of the recent drought as well as because the big supermarket chains are forcing them to sell milk at a price below their cost of production.
These farmers will be well aware of two theological issues: God’s hand in nature and human greed.
Whereas, as a town-dweller, I have a false sense of being “in control” of my life, the dairy farmer knows he or she has no control over the weather, the rain and the grass supply to feed the cows. As a town dweller, I suspect that I proclaim that “God is good” with a false understanding of how dependent I am on God. But the Christian farmer is asked to proclaim “God is good” even in a year of drought.
The farmer also experiences first-hand the effect that the growth of the large supermarket chains have on the price that the farmer can get for the milk. In order to make more profits for themselves, the large supermarkets are in a position to say “We will only pay you X pence per gallon less than your cost of production”. And as long as consumers are complacent about this state of affairs, British farmers are at a very real risk of being driven out of business – as is happening at the moment.
We can’t do anything about the weather, but if we’re going to claim to be Christians and proclaim that “God is Good”, then I believe that we are obliged to take action for justice when and where we can. To paraphrase a medieval Jewish rabbi: God does not require us to change the world single-handedly, but he does require us to contribute to the building of God’s Kingdom.
Harvest and Faithful Discipleship
Harvest is a metaphor, perhaps, for a life of faithful discipleship. There are many things in our lives over which we have absolutely no control, yet it is an act of real faith to declare that God cares about God’s creation and that God’s purposes for all of creation are good.
Faithful Jews declare even today that God continually brings their people to the [gesture] “land of milk and honey” Faithful Christians declare that the God who cares for the lilies of the fields and the birds of air cares even more for human beings.
And, as faithful people, we acknowledge God’s sovereignty and God’s good purposes by coming to the tabernacle with our harvest offerings to present them to God in thanksgiving. When it comes to offering back to God a portion of what he has given us, we do have a choice.
We can refuse God our acts of thanksgiving so if we so choose. We can refuse to do justice if we so choose.
To give our thanks and to pledge to live justly is an act of faith. To offer back to God our harvest, our resources, our time, our talents and our money is an act of faith that we can participate in the coming of the Kingdom of God and God’s Righteousness.