(preached in Zwolle Anglican Church)
Today’s Harvest Thanksgiving is a day of pause to give thanks. We have signs all around us of the harvest of the fruits of the earth.
The Church of England, has set aside a Sunday to give thanks to God for the abundance of the harvest of the fruits of the earth since the 19th century. It was much earlier in North America. According to one historian, the original Pilgrims from England, who stopped for a few years in Leiden on their way to America, got the idea of an October celebration there from the annual celebration of the lifting of the siege of Leiden in 1574. [Wikipedia]
There are many claims to its current origins, but for the Church to have a harvest celebration is to follow a practice through the ages in synagogues and churches, going all the way back to the Old Testament harvest festivals celebrated in Jerusalem at the Temple three times a year: Passover, at the early barley harvest; Pentecost, at the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and Sukkot or Feast of Booths, celebrated at the harvest of the threshing floor and wine vat. [Ex 34:18-23; Deut 16:1, 9-10, 13, 16-17] All these feasts were also associated with giving thanks to God for spiritual blessings – Passover with deliverance out of Egypt; Pentecost with the giving of the Law, and Sukkot with protection during the wilderness wondering to the Promised Land concluding with delivery of final judgement.
For Christians, there is also this intertwining in our thanksgiving – we give thanks both for material provisions and for spiritual blessings. Our readings appointed for Harvest Thanksgiving look to both the material and spiritual provisions of God.
Today’s Old Testament reading [Deuteronomy 8:7-10] is part of Moses’ farewell speech to Israel at the end of his life and as they came to borders of the Promised Land. He instructs them that when they get into the Promised Land to remember always to give thanks to the God of Israel for the gift of the land and of the abundance of the harvest of the fruits of the earth.
Our Epistle [Galatians 6:6-10] and Gospel [St John 4:31-36], focus on Sowing and Harvesting – the Epistle about sowing spiritual seeds, the Gospel about harvesting spiritual fruit.
In the Epistle today St Paul contrasts sowing to the flesh with sowing to the Spirit. What does he mean by that? To sow is take action. To sow to the flesh is to respond to unhealthy desires that come upon us – whether it be pride or all the fleshy desires that flow from that – if we act upon these unhealthy passions, following them – it is like planting seeds of destruction, that in the end only hurts us and others around us. If though, we respond to, if we act according to the promptings of the Spirit – to learn more about God, to pray and to listen to God, to invite a neighbour to church, to love our neighbour in practical ways – we are sowing to the Spirit, and we will harvest spiritual fruit, even eternal life. But it is not just a reward in the next life, but a harvest we begin to experience in this life – feeling more alive, being more present to other people, love filling our hearts, a certain brightness, seeing the significance of our lives and of other people in the light of God, the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, long-suffering, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control [Gal 5:22-23]). And when we see these fruit appearing in our lives, we are moved to giving thanks.
St Paul says that to love our neighbour is to sow to the Spirit. He says, “let us not grow weary of doing good”, to encourage us because he knows that doing good does not always seem to bring a reward, and we can become discouraged. But remember the farmer, who puts all sorts of energy into sowing and nurturing a crop, because he knows it will bear fruit in time. We’re not to despair or give up when an act of kindness to another person does not seem to bring about a change in heart – one day there will be a harvest.
When I think of my own conversion back to Jesus Christ and His Church after ten years outside of the Church – there were all sorts of small individual acts of loving kindness and witness to the faith that led me back to Jesus in my late 20s… It wasn’t one thing – but a whole bunch of seeds being planted that eventually bore fruit in my re-conversion. Maybe you can remember something similar in your own experiences of conversion or re-conversion.
In the Gospel today [St John 4:31-36], the disciples come to Jesus, who is sitting by a well in Samaria, and he was exhausted. The disciples urge him to eat something!
Why was he tired? This Gospel reading comes at the end of a profound conversation that Jesus has had with a Samaritan woman – he has just led her to understand her whole life, her longings, that were not being met by her relationships with many men – and he brings her to see that her spiritual longings can only be met ultimately by God – and that God has come, the Messiah is here to bring fulfillment.
Jesus is sitting at the well, physically tired, but he is feeling full, satisfied, thankful, he has just harvested a soul for eternity! He has just brought this woman to an epiphany, to the release of joy in her – the Gospel of John says, she left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this man be the Christ?” [John 4:28]
Jesus tells the disciples, who wanted him to eat, that he has food to eat that they do not know. His food is to do the will of his Father and accomplish his work – He’s here to bring people home to God.
And Jesus encourages us to join in with this harvest feast that he is enjoying! Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. [St John 4:35-36]
Jesus is saying to the disciples in his age, that others have done all the sowing and tending of the grass and now it is time to harvest. What does he mean that the fields are “white” or ready to be harvested?
We can think of the preparations of Israel through the ages by God, by their being chosen, by their being brought out of Egypt, by the gift of the Law, by the gift of the Promised Land, by the sending of Prophets to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, and we can think of in Jesus’ day of the ministry of John the Baptist – all the sowing has been done – and they needed simply to complete that work by leading people to the fulfilment of their desire – to receive the Messiah, the Christ who has come!
What about in our day, in the Netherlands – in what way are the fields ready for the harvest?
We could say that all of those who have gone before us in the long history of the development of the Christian West have been sowing. Our ideas of justice, of goodness, of the dignity of each human being, our ideas of the need for mercy, our society’s care for the most vulnerable, our medical system, our general outlook of good will towards others and our interest in the wellbeing of the world – none of it in our society is perfect, but there is so much that is so good. If we look at the best aspects of our society and of its ideals, it has been shaped by Jesus Christ. It is for us to help people to make the connections, between what they hope for, and Jesus Christ who fulfills their highest longing. As people come to realize that physical pleasure, or material prosperity, or vain worldly goals, or radical individualism, are not ultimately satisfying, they are white for the harvest, ready to have the connection made between what they really long for, and the One whom they really long for.
I was at Archdeaconry Synod this week and we had a guest speaker – Michael Harvey. He has been travelling the world, encouraging churches to be more inviting. He emphasizes the importance of simply making an invitation, of inviting people to come to church. He has looked at all the reasons why people hesitate to do so, and is convinced that our arguments for not doing it are mostly related to ourselves rather than the other person – we are afraid of this or that. He wants us to remember that this is about the other person – to ask is to provide an opportunity for them to come to Jesus, to meet him, and to begin to understand his or her life in the light of God.
Also, we are so much geared for success that it can hinder us because of fear of failing. But Michael Harvey reminded us that to ask, to make the invitation, is to succeed – whether the person responds or not at the moment, it changes us – we enter into the labour of our Lord. It is an act of love and it will bear fruit, if not in the other person immediately, it will certainly bear fruit in us, making us more bold in future to invite someone else. We have become his faithful servants.
We’re also to remember that God is at work in the lives of all people before we ask the question, and our invitation is only a part of what He is doing in them already. We do the inviting, we leave it to God to bring to fruition the seed planted in them. If they do not respond immediately, the question no doubt is doing some work within them afterwards even if they say no.
The Good News about our involvement in mission as a church is that there are a myriad of ways to participate in this work – whether it is sowing to the Spirit by not growing weary of doing good, by loving our neighbour, or reaping in various ways by simply inviting others to church or, if you are able, by sharing more explicitly the good news of Jesus Christ. Not all of us have the same skills, but all of us can participate in some way in God’s work of sowing and harvesting.
Today we are at church to give thanks – through the songs we sing, through our thank offering, but also in a much greater way.
If you do a word search of the word “thanks” in the Gospels, it is striking that it is reserved by Jesus almost exclusively for the night he was betrayed, when he gave thanks to God in the upper room, [or in the miracles of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, which point to that night]. Jesus takes the Passover meal – a meal established to give thanks for the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt – and he fulfills its true and ultimate meaning. He tells the disciples of his own self giving for us – He took the bread and gave thanks. He took the cup and gave thanks. And he said, This is my body… this is my blood… And he tells us to do this in remembrance of Him. Jesus offers His life for us, and as we receive Him we are taken up into the life of God.
And we too, in Him, will offer thanks by offering ourselves, our souls and bodies, back to God in the prayer after Communion. We are being called by Jesus into mission – sowing and harvesting – we can really do this! – this is the ultimate way to give thanks, to join in with the calling he makes to us all! He says not just to the Apostles, but to each of us very directly:
Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.”