Sermon: Harvest Questions

A Sermon for a Harvest Service

Preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison

at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields,

September 25th 2022

Deuteronomy 26:1-3, 8-11

I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

These days Rudyard Kipling is best known as the author of The Jungle Book, though most people know it through seeing the movie, either the 1967 cartoon version, or its more up to date CGI version from 2016.

I do like Kipling’s little verse:

I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

When you are trying to understand or explain something, approaching it through questions which ask what, why, when, how, where, and who can be helpful. Today, I want to use those categories as we think about Harvest Sunday, via our Bible reading from Deuteronomy. What’s the what, why, when, how, where and who of harvest in this Bible passage, and so what does God say to us today through words from ancient scripture about celebrating harvest?

Deuteronomy 26 starts with a ‘when’: ‘when you have come into the land that the Lord your God has given you …’ (26:1) This was a message for people about to settle in a land. The Book of Deuteronomy presents the Jewish people as a wandering people, now on the cusp of settling down. And when they have settled in the land, and when they have planted and grown their first harvest, that’s when they are to take action.

How have they come into this land? They have come into the land through the saving activity and the generosity of God. This is ‘the land your God has given to you.’ (26:1) And they have got there because the ‘the LORD brought … [them] out of [slavery and oppression in] Egypt with a mighty hand an outstretched arm.’ (26:8) So, how have things come to be? God has made them happen.

This is why the people are to respond to God at that first harvest time; because God has rescued them from slavery and  because God has led them into a good land: ‘he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ (26:9) God’s generosity is so great here that it has become proverbial: ‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’

And what should people do where about this happy situation? First, what they do is take a basket of the first fruits of the harvest to ‘the priest who is in office.’ (26:3) And where will they find that priest? They will find him at ‘the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.’ (26:2) i.e. the recognised place where people gather to meet with God. Then what they do is make a public declaration of what God has provided for them. And after that, then what they do is have a big, big party – one almighty blowout: ‘celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.’ (26:11) Sounds good to me!

And all of this is a good model for us today, this harvest Sunday. Nowadays, in this time when we find ourselves settled on a planet with an incredible, interrelated economic system that enables the milk, honey and other good things to flow across international borders, now is the time to act and to respond. And how has all wonderful array of good things come about?

Well you and I did not make it all happen. Yes, human effort and ingenuity plays its part in bringing a harvest to fruition and creating the logistical systems that enable us to be surrounded by the fruits of the world, not just of the local economy. But the creative activity of the LORD God preceded, sustains and underpins this human action. As those who took part in last Thursday night’s Bible exploration meeting about Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians might put it, God’s grace precedes human good works.

So gratitude to God is why a church building is where we are today – this place where God is named. It’s the appropriate place to gather to declare what God has done for us. It’s the appropriate place for a harvest celebration, though what we are doing here today does see to me to fall a little short of being a wild, no-holds-barred party, enjoying ‘all the bounty’ (26:11) that God has give to us … Maybe next year!

So that’s the when, how, why, where and what of harvest service today: now, because of God’s generosity, here in church, a celebration. But I’ve mentioned only five of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘six honest serving men’: ‘what and why and when and how and where and … who.’

Who should get an invited to today’s worldwide harvest celebration? Listen to Deuteronomy 26:11 – ‘Then you, together with the Levites and aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house;’ ‘you’, the ‘Levites’, and the ‘aliens.’

‘You shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given you.’ In Deuteronomy, that’s the Jews. Today, that’s us as well, God’s people, Christians, alongside the Jews. We’re, invited to the harvest celebration party: ‘you shall celebrate.’ And you shall celebrate with ‘the Levites and the aliens.’

Levites were fellow Jews. Their tribe supplied the priests and assistants who looked after the place of worship and the worship which took place there. They were at the centre of the central act of the nation’s life – worship of God. ‘Aliens’ were right out of the periphery of society. We’re not talking about little green men. We’re talking about those who were regarded as foreigners – as alien to ‘us.’. Often, they had the low status jobs – field workers, servants and the like. They were vulnerable to mistreatment.

So the word is, that for the harvest celebration you must hold, you include both the most respectable group (the Levites) and the least respected group (the aliens). And that suggests that the groups falling between these two on this social spectrum also rate an invitation.

It’s easier to invite the respectable people to a party. Inviting those we find alien is a bigger challenge. Today, in 2022, whether in local terms or wider, national or international ones, we don’t have to work too hard to think of people or peoples who are shoved to the edge  of things. Benefitting from a global food supply system is a year-round event. So we’re called to put on all-year, every-day-of-the-week sharing party, where everyone, from the most to the least respected, gets to enjoy the ‘bounty of the land.’ That’s extremely challenging, but at least we know that we, wherever we are in the global pecking order, or however we regard ourselves, we also are invited to God’s great harvest party where the ‘bounty of the world’ is shared out.

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