Sunday 4th October 2020
Deuteronomy 28:1-14, Luke 12:16-30
I love Harvest as a time of year – the colours, the smells, the tastes and, in my family many birthdays, do make it a joyous time of year. But the theme of the Harvest readings, and therefore of the sermon, can be a little predictable. It is usually along the lines of being thankful to God for the good harvest and offering some of the harvest of our lives back to him as a gesture of our thanksgiving, to be shared with those less fortunate than ourselves.
Nothing wrong with that. I have commended it to you many times in the past and I suspect I shall commend it to you in the future. We should be grateful to God and we should care for those around us – loving our neighbours as ourselves is a fairly fundamental part of our identity as Christians and that should be the case not only at Harvest, but every day and in every moment.
We live in a largely wealthy part of a largely wealthy nation during one of the most stable and peaceful stretches of history. Speaking generally you understand, we have a lot to be grateful for in this part of the world and at this period in history and, when you are feeling blessed, it is so much easier to feel both grateful towards God and generous towards your neighbour.
Our reading from Deuteronomy talks about the blessings God wishes to bestow upon his people if they obey him and follow his commands:
You will be blessed in the city and in the country.
The fruit of your womb and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock will be blessed.
Your basket and your kneading dough will be blessed.
You will be blessed when you go out and when you come in.
Your enemies will be defeated and scattered.
Your barns will be blessed [we shall mention barns again in a minute]
The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity.
In fact, that last word is an important clue – this way of thinking is deeply related to what we could now call the ‘prosperity Gospel’. The prosperity Gospel says that if you do one thing, which is normally to send a donation to the proponent’s TV station, then you will be blessed many times over in return. Normally the only people who get rich out of the prosperity Gospel is the people proclaiming it, and it normally preys on the poorest in society, which seems like an inversion of the real gospel to me.
Nonetheless, there is still a persistent thread of theology, which we encounter today, that if the people do the right thing then material blessings will follow.
I don’t want to offend or shock anyone here today, but have you ever seen the film The Wicker Man?
Even if you haven’t, I am sure that most of you know the gist of it. A naïve policeman, played by Edward Woodward, is lured to a strange island where, to cut a long story short, he is sacrificed by being burnt inside a large wicker effigy in order to ensure the island’s harvest and future. Modern versions of this story can be found in the films Midsommer and a series on Sky at the moment called The Third Day.
If the people do the appropriate things then, in return, the land will be blessed and prosperity will follow.
So, if I can put it this way, the theology of Harvest can contain a lurking danger of both neo-paganism and the prosperity gospel – of believing that we have been blessed not because of the unconditional love and goodness of God, but because of our own efforts and sacrifices and obedience. We have been good and, therefore, God has rewarded us and, therefore, we shall share a small portion of that with the poor.
It is easy to see why the successful farmer in the gospel reading was feeling a little smug. He, presumably, had worked hard in planting his crops and had produced a good harvest. It is what farmers ought to do. On the basis of the theology we find in Deuteronomy the farmer probably felt that he had been blessed by God because he had done the right things. It was his response to being blessed that was wrong – rather than sharing what he had with those in need he did what any self-respecting oligarch would do – he bult a bigger barn and got ready to kick-back and enjoy a long and happy retirement. But God had other plans for him and it turns out that his blessing was short-lived because he was not truly thankful towards God. As you would expect in a normal Harvest sermon.
But there is another potential danger in the theology of Harvest which may be more pertinent to us today, which is this: It is easy to feel blessed by God and generous towards others when things are going well for us. When the harvest of our fields or the harvest of our lives is bountiful then we do feel as though God is smiling upon us and, in order to avoid the fate of the foolish farmer, it is easy to give the poor some grain from our barns.
But, what do we think about God when the harvest fails or when the harvest of our own lives is not what we would have wished for? What do we think about God when the land seems blighted with pandemic and anxiety? What do we think about God when we are laid off, or unwell or feel like a failure when judged by the standards of prosperity? Do we feel perhaps that God has abandoned us, that we have not lived up to our side of the ‘if’ bargain in Deuteronomy or even that some kind of sacrifice has to be made in order to redress the balance? That kind of thinking is never that far beneath the surface and I still remember lots of lurid headlines about HIV / AIDS being God’s punishment for homosexuality.
But, as Christians, our understanding of God should come first and foremost from our understanding of Christ. Was Jesus a success in material terms? No, he was born into a poor family as a member of an oppressed people in an occupied country – he preached continually that people should put love of God before love of money and, after only three years of ministry he was put to death as a criminal. In earthly, prosperity Gospel, terms he reaped a poor harvest indeed and yet we worship him not only as the Son of God but, in Trinitarian terms, as very God himself.
What does Jesus say to us today, in these times of anxiety about covid and the risks of recession and unemployment? Does Jesus say that we need to make sacrifices in order to enjoy the prosperity of the land or that we should guard ourselves against hard times by building bigger barns to hide our wealth in?
No, Jesus gives the most counter-cultural answer possible. He says:
Do not worry.
Do not worry about your life.
Do not worry about your body.
Do not worry about your clothes.
Worrying will not add an hour to your life. On the contrary we know now that worrying will probably shorten our lives.
Do not set your heart on what you will eat and drink; do not worry about it.
The pagans run after such things. I mentioned the pagan theology of The Wicker Man and here Jesus mentions explicitly that to worry about material wealth is a pagan activity.
We are not to worry about them.
Why not? Because God already knows what you need and see how he looks after the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.
That does not mean that Christians cannot eat or be clothed or be healthy. But, Jesus says, seek first the kingdom of God and these things will be given to you. That does not mean that will we have all we want, or that this is some kind of prosperity gospel exchange, but it does mean that God will give us what he knows we need.
But we need to seek the kingdom, the kingship, of God before our material wealth and comfort. That is a challenge bigger than most of us are ready to admit. Our society, as much as Jesus’s society, lauds the wealthy farmer with the big barns and would look askance at the farmer who gives away next year’s profits. Jesus challenges our relationship with money much more than he challenges sexual orientation and yet the latter is held up by some as a shibboleth whilst the former is quietly glossed over because it is uncomfortable for us wealthy Christians.
As I said a few weeks ago in my email to the church, we need to let go and let God. Throughout history and around the world people have faced much greater threats then we face day to day – whether it be bombs falling from the sky or being fed to the lions in the Coliseum, and I don’t mean the one in London. If the earliest Christians had let anxiety or uncertainty or hard times turn them against the God we see evident in Christ then there would simply be no church now. Jesus let go and let God and it took him to death on the cross. But, and I have already mentioned a program called The Third Day, and we know where Jesus ended up on the Third Day – risen in glory and paving the way for us back to the Father.
That is where we are called and where we are headed.
If you are feeling anxious – do not worry – God loves you.
If you are poor – do not worry – God loves you.
If the harvest of your life is not what you expected – do not worry – God loves you.
During the good times but also during the bad – do not worry – God loves you.
Follow Jesus and seek first the Kingdom of God – and your harvest will be one of eternal life.