Sermon in Ankara for Harvest Thanksgiving (11th October 2020) - The Revd Patrick Irwin
Today we are celebrating Harvest Festival or Thanksgiving. In mediaeval England it was customary to celebrate the beginning of Harvest on 1st August, Lammas or Loaf Mass day, and in 1841 the Revd Robert Hawker introduced what has become the modern custom of Harvest Thanksgiving into his parish of Morwenstow in Cornwall. Canada and the United States enthusiastically celebrate Thanksgiving, with many Americans casting their minds back to the first harvest of the Pilgrim Fathers or the even earlier settlers in Virginia. In North America Thanksgiving has a central role in the national calendar. In England Harvest Thanksgiving is regarded as a church festival and is seen as an opportunity to thank God for all the good things that he has given us and a reminder for us to share them with those less fortunate than ourselves.
In today’s Gospel Jesus tells a parable about a farmer. What is the farmer’s error? He is not a wicked man. Indeed God does not call him sinful or evil, but foolish. He has not gained his wealth illegally or by taking advantage of others. He is not particularly greedy. Indeed he seems rather surprised by his good fortune as he makes reasonable plans to reap the abundance of the harvest. What is wrong with building larger barns to store away some of this year’s harvest in case tomorrow should prove less rewarding? Joseph conserved parts of the harvest from good years in Egypt, so that the people would not starve in lean years, and for that he was praised.
No, the farmer is not a wicked man, but he has made two mistakes. First he is clearly focused exclusively on himself. “What should I do?”, “I will do this…” His words reveal a preoccupation with self. There is no thought of using the abundance of the harvest to help others, there is no expression of gratitude for his good fortune, in fact there is no recognition of God at all. The farmer has fallen prey, one could say, to worshipping that most popular of gods, the Unholy Trinity of Me, myself and I.
The farmer’s second mistake is to believe that he can secure his future with his wealth. He is foolish, not because he makes provision for the future, but because he supposes that his provision will guarantee his future. The farmer has all that he believes he wants, and yet, in the end, which for him comes that very night, what he has proves inadequate. There is a certain irony in the farmer’s words, “Relax, eat, drink, be merry.” The popular Greek philosophy of Epicureanism, well-known in Jesus’ day, was summarised in the words, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” So the farmer’s words are rather like a joke without the punchline, which God then delivers for him.
The parable reminds us that material abundance is not enough. Riches are not bad in themselves, and they can provide us with a level of comfort in our lives, but they cannot of themselves provide us with the ultimate meaning and joy that we desire. The things that ultimately matter most, such as love and our relationship with God, are indeed gifts from God and cannot be bought for any amount of money.
The parable is an appropriate text for Harvest Thanksgiving because it reminds us how easy it is to forget our debt to God and the needs of our neighbours in our rush to make our own ends meet. We may not have spent the past weeks in the fields gathering in the harvest, sensitive to every change in the weather that can enhance or blight the season’s produce, but we are the beneficiaries of those who have so worked. We owe them a debt of gratitude, but we owe a greater gift of gratitude to God who has given us the harvest and the means to enjoy it. The Biblical account of creation makes it very clear that God has made us stewards of our world, and not its owners, and at Harvest Thanksgiving we thank God for all the good gifts that he has given us to use, for our own sustenance but also to use in his service.
This links Harvest Thanksgiving with the needs of others, those who share with us God’s Planet Earth but are less fortunate than we are in the provision of his gifts. In present circumstances we have decided not to collect harvest produce for distribution but we will take an extra, retiring collection today for the needy among our Iranian friends. It is common nowadays for churches to give harvest offerings to those in need, but our concern for those in need is not something only for Harvest Thanksgiving. It is a perennial concern for our neighbour, deriving from the Love of Neighbour that with Love of God for Jesus summarises God’s law, that Harvest Thanksgiving annually calls to mind.
The parable of the Rich Fool was addressed by Jesus to the crowd, but now he turns to address his disciples. What he says to them is also addressed to us, the latest generation of his disciples. We are not to worry about how we live our life. This does not mean that we are to put no effort into our lives but that we are not to be unduly concerned about them. The parable has pointed out that a man has only limited control over his future, and Jesus’ teaching that follows stresses God’s care for his followers. Undue striving for the things of this life can lead us into “the way of the nations of the world” and to forgetfulness of God. The question at issue is when a proper concern for our own needs and welfare becomes an improper anxiety. The story of the lilies of the valley is not a summons to us to become nudists, but a reminder that God is more important than any designer label.