A Sermon for Harvest Festival: What to do with an abundant harvest

I’m taking another break from the lectionary this week, to celebrate Harvest Festival. Even in those congregations whose connection with rural life is very remote this seems to remain one of the more important occasions which we celebrate. I once attempted to lead a Harvest Festival in which I failed to include the “We plough the fields and scatters.” The congregation complained bitterly. I (quite reasonably, I thought) pointed out; “We don’t, we don’t plough or scatter.” This was not an acceptable argument. Something inside even the most urbanised worshipper knows that our relationship with God is deeply tied to the earth and its fruitfulness, and this is something which we must celebrate.


What to do with an abundant harvest

Luke 12:16-30

(Genesis 8:15-22)

Jesus’ story starts with a harvest.

The land of a rich man produced plentifully.

As the story goes on, actually, it becomes clear that this was more than a regular harvest. When Jesus says “plentifully” he actually means “abundantly” or “excessively”. This is a harvest that has produced more than enough,with lots to spare. This is what put the rich man to thinking, what will he do with all this extra harvest?

For over more than a decade now we have lived in a social/political/economic climate that talks so much about “austerity”. And the crisis of the last six months has increased the likelihood that this kind of talk will continue for the foreseeable future. “Austerity” is literally the opposite of “abundant” or “plentiful”. In a climate like this, it is easy to overlook how plentiful our circumstances are. While there is real need in our society, while there are genuinely those who go without very near to us, we still live in a very rich place. For all the economic troubles that confront us, which are being made worse by what we are going through, depending on how you measure it the UK still has the 5th or the 10th largest economy in the world.  (And remember that league table has about 200 member in it, so either way Britain is pretty close to the top.) Of course unlike the world of Jesus and the rich man in his story, our economy is not tied to the seasons of sowing and harvest. Productivity is pretty much continuous around us. As if we lived with a constant harvest. We are in a time and place where someone could step back at any time and admire just how much was being produced, and acknowledge that what is produced by our economy is, like the rich man’s harvest, “plentiful”. We as a society, and probably most of the individuals in it, have more than enough to meet our most immediate needs. Which in global terms makes us more like the rich man in Jesus story than the majority of the people living in the world right now.

The plentiful harvest poses a question. The rich man wonders what he will do with all his crops. As a society, and perhaps as individuals we should perhaps wonder, what should we do with our wealth?  How do we use what we don’t need right now to meet our basic needs? The rich man’s answer is that he will keep it all for himself. And it is now that it becomes clear just how abundant his harvest has been:

What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?

This is a harvest that is beyond normal expectation. It is a harvest that outstrips the rich man’s ability to store it up:

I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones

You could almost hear Jesus’ listeners gasp. This harvest isn’t just big. It is miraculous! Only harvest of such gigantic proportions would make it worthwhile to take such extreme measures. The rich man won’t just extend the barns he has. He won’t just build a few new ones. He’ll tear down what he has and start again bigger and better. And then, in his ongoing conversation with himself, he reveals his objective, where he is going with all this:

I will store all my grain and all my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

The rich man achieves his life’s aim. And he offers his definition of the good life. He defines a good life, his aim, as a life that is freed from the need to be productive, one in which he no longer has to work. He is looking for a life in which he can indulge himself, by eating and drinking, for a life which is filled with merriment. The rich man’s aim and his definition of the good life is not so different from that of most people around us, which is to have enough resources to live without work. It is that kind of offer which the lottery makes. The rich man in the story in a sense has won the lottery. The miraculous harvest gives him the means not to work any more and instead live a life of pleasure. People buy lottery tickets with that aspiration in mind. And even if we don’t buy a lottery ticket, many people work hard towards the same objective. The ideal for work is to work hard enough and successfully enough, to have saved up enough, to not have to work any more. Early retirement and comfortable retirement are significant aspirations . The ideal life in our society is the one in which we are no longer tied to a job and the need to be productive, and instead are free to enjoy ourselves in whatever way we choose.

In the story God declares the rich man a fool. And judgement is passed against him:

This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?

The rich man is about to die. His plan for himself comes to nothing. He is a fool not because he dies and doesn’t get to enjoy what he planned. His death merely draws attention to the shortsightedness of his thinking. But he would still have been a fool had he lived to enjoy the spoils of the miraculous harvest. He is a fool, in the Bible’s terms, because he ignores where that harvest came from. And he ignores why it was given. The rich man ignores God. One of the reasons the harvest in the story, as Jesus tell it, is so large, miraculously large, is to make it plain where it came from. The harvest was not something the rich man achieved or made himself. This harvest was given  by God! Which is meant to point us to the reality that all productivity, every harvest, ultimately finds its source in God. God is the source of all our well-being. By ignoring God’s role in the abundance he had received the rich man was also able to ignore why that abundance existed. God does not provide a surplus now for any to store up for later in a way that liberates them from responsibility to others. The surplus, the abundance, exists to be shared now to meet the needs of others. There will be another harvest next year. There will be more productivity to come, which will meet the needs of the future. This goes to the heart of God’s ongoing care for us. In the story from Genesis, when Noah and his family emerge from the Ark, God promises:

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.

God has created a world that is capable of meeting our needs, that will continue to be capable of meeting our needs. That is why we celebrate a harvest festival each and every year. God keeps caring for us and will keep on caring for us. To try to escape from that cycle of productivity is to deny the providential care of God, and to have become, in practice, an atheist. This is why we pray: “Give us this day our daily bread.” For God to meet our needs now. Trusting that tomorrow God will provide another opportunity for the same prayer and its answer.

Which leaves us with the same question as confronted the rich man with his miraculous harvest. What do you do, when you have more than you need for right now? How do we avoid being foolish? How do we avoid acting as if God isn’t there meeting our needs? How do we become wise? Jesus warns:

So it is for those that store up treasure for themselves but are not rich towards God

“Store up treasure for themselves” For themselves! “Storing up” denies God’s ongoing care for us and pretends that we are able and better qualified to meet our own needs. The rich man thought the good life was idle pleasure, if we think carefully we realise he was mistaken. He denied his connection with and his responsibility toward those who were around him, his family and his community. Was the rich man selfish because he was an atheist? Or did he become an atheist because he was selfish? Perhaps there is no answer to that question. What is clear is that selfishness and belief in God are not compatible. Where an abundance exists, where individuals, or societies as a whole, have more than they need for their immediate needs, where God has given an excess, (and everything that is produced or harvested ultimately comes from God) where there is a plentiful harvest; It is provided to be shared. Wisdom as opposed to foolishness, wealth towards God consists in the recognition that any surplus we might have is there for the benefit of others!

Amen.


Creative Commons Licence
What to do with an Abundant Harvest by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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