We Plough the fields and Scatter
Each of the traditional church festivals – Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide and the rest – has a special aura. But surely harvest has a unique atmosphere all of its own. The hymns are full bodied and robust, like a mature red wine. The prayers are vigorous, full of gratitude seasoned with a mixture of hope and wonder. The air within the building is full of evocative smells, like a well-stocked green-grocer’s shop. The perfume of flowers mingles with scent of ripened fruit. The eye is greeted by glorious autumn colours. A spirit of joy, mixed with a fair dollop of self-satisfaction, pervades the service. None of this is said in criticism, for I greatly enjoy harvest. It certainly ranks near the top of the chart of most agreeable church occasions.
After marriage, following a short period of flat-dwelling, our first house was a newly built, semi-detached home. It was blessed, or cursed according to your point of view, with a back-garden of about a fifth of an acre of virgin field, redundant with waist-high nettles, couch grass, willow-herb and buttercup. Brambles grew unchecked, convolvulus flourished.
I tackled the ground with the enthusiasm of youth, cased in a shell of ignorance barely breached by avid reading of library books on gardening. Yet, lo and behold, in due course we ate potatoes and cabbage, peas and beans, produced by our own labours from the previously unproductive earth. Home-grown flowers decked our window-sills, even cucumbers grew in a cold-frame. None were prize specimens, merely “… poor things yet mine own”. Nevertheless, I shared the smugness of the apocryphal countryman in the old joke, who replied dryly when the vicar commented that he and God had done a good job with the garden, “Ay, but you should have seen it when God had it to himself”.
But in reality, harvest festival is an acceptance that partnership is an essential pre-condition for successful harvesting. We may till and sow, but whether there is a crop to reap depends on a mysterious force of life within the seed, and this is not in our power to give. On the other hand, the efforts of mankind are an essential part of the process. The full fruits are not obtained when God has it to himself. Through man’s intervention, the increase in productivity of land has been tenfold, fifty-fold and even a hundredfold.
Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, so say the words of an old popular song. Be that as it may, God the life-force and men and women together produce the harvest. It must be a true, even if not equal, partnership. The song went on to say, “You can’t have one without the other”. I’m not going to argue about love and marriage, but I do contend that God and the people in partnership are fundamental to the successful harvest. You can’t have one without the other.
We plough the fields and scatter
The good seed on the land.
Yet, it is feed and watered
By God’s almighty hand.
Do you recall Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”? Or did you see the subsequent film? The book describes the trials and the exploitation of American mid-western agricultural labouring families, driven eastwards from previously highly productive lands. That land had been rendered barren by ignorance and greed. The earth had become a dust-bowl. The fertile soil literally blown away because greed had led men to take all, and put nothing back. No doubt God murmured as he viewed the desert where once lush crops flourished, “You should have seen it before men had it to themselves”.
There must be a partnership. If nations ignore that fact, and in their arrogance, ignorance or through a false sense of superiority, try to dissolve the union, then disaster strikes. Far from the desert blossoming as the rose, the green field is transformed into arid wasteland. Life and fertility are ever precariously balanced, with death and barrenness on either side of the tight-rope. The true farmer and his wife, the gardener, the plantation owner, are all too well aware that their labours can only succeed if they are in tune with, and not antagonistic towards, what are often referred to as the laws of nature. Nature is another word for that spiritual, creative power we call God. So harvest is a reminder of partnership, the need to work in harmony.
Long ago, early man evolved from being simply a hunter who gathered wild fruits and berries, to become a cultivator of land. The earth was tilled, crops were gathered and herds of domestic cattle reared. The lesson was quickly learned that to be successful it was necessary to co-operate with others. A partnership with fellow beings was a pre-condition for productive agriculture. Also discovered was the truth that, to achieve lasting success, the farmer must respect the land, work with the rhythm of the seasons, and save the seed-corn for future sowing. A teaching that is no less true today than it was in early times.
So surely harvest time reminds us not only of our debt to, but our duty towards, God. But further, that if all is to be safely gathered in, we must share the burden with others and work in harmony with them. As the variety of our crops has increased, so has the need for, and the extent of, the partnership grown. Our partner may be in the antipodes, in Africa, in the islands to the westwards or on the continents of the east. Our reliance on the neighbour is now not merely to the inhabitant of the same village, or to the resident in the same country, but stretches to include an unknown toiler in a field thousands of miles distant.
Harvest festival encompasses not a single aspect of living, but a whole range of attitudes and experiences. It may once have been a pagan celebration of a successful gathering in of the necessary food which would enable life to be sustained throughout the winter, but within a christian setting it is something beyond that narrow concept.
I spoke a few minutes ago of the American novel, the Grapes of Wrath. The Americans call their harvest festival, Thanksgiving. And thanksgiving is also a part of our celebration. “All good gifts around us..” we sing. And indeed, God’s contribution to the partnership are gifts. Centrally the gift of life with its power of continual renewal. And the appropriate reaction by a recipient of a gift is to voice gratitude – to say “Thank you”. So as well as a recognition of our association with God as labourers in the field, we come to express thankfulness. Our debt acknowledged in words and in song, in prayer and meditation.
Coupled with gratitude is wonder. Wonder at the infinite variety of life; wonder at the inter-dependency of one form of life upon other species; wonder at the miracle of life itself. Wonder and worship not only begin with the same letter, but the concepts are woven inextricably together. Worship without wonder is salt that has lost its savour.
And yet another component of the Harvest Festival is that of hope. We hope that our future hunger shall be satisfied. The words of the old covenant, that there shall be for ever, “seed-time and harvest” gave comfort in ancient times, and may give comfort today.
But we now recognise that there is a qualification to the promise. Poisoned land may not produce, contaminated soil will give tainted crops. There are sheep grazing on British soil whose flesh is unfit for consumption because of radio-active fall-out. Excessive nitrates spread on land are washed into rivers affecting the lives of those who drink of its waters. The hope for the future is dependent upon acting responsibly in the present. Caring for and respecting the environment in which we dwell.
A covenant is not simply an unconditional promise, it implies an agreement, a commitment, a bargain if you like. It is based on trust, nurtured in commitment. Harvest will follow seed-time provided we do our part, and do not subvert or sabotage the golden cycle; disregard the fragile balance that allows the earth to be fruitful.
Dust-bowls, polluted land and rivers, impure air, sullied lakes and oceans are not God given, but man made. Harvest celebration should surely include time to reflect on our responsibility towards generations yet to come. If hope is to move from being merely pious to the certainty of faith, then we need to accept that the covenant is not an unconditional guarantee. It is, if you like, a treaty.
Finally, harvest ought to be an occasion of which we reflect about how the fruits of the earth are distributed. An old political slogan spoke of, “To each according to need, from each according to ability.” The world has still the capacity to produce enough to feed all its peoples, yet one third of the world goes hungry. To each according to need is a part of the equation yet to be solved.
We have spoken of partnership. A partnership between us and our maker, and a partnership between fellow beings. A partnership that is implicit in our responsibility to generations yet unborn. And there is a partnership to be forged with those go hungry whilst others feast.
Harvest can be purely a smug self-congratulatory orgy, but there is no real, lasting joy or satisfaction in that. The joy of harvest surely is a recognition of, and a renewal of faith in, our inter-dependency upon one another. It is an opportunity to bask awhile in the warmth of the love of God who is the source of all life, the creator of all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small. It allows us the space to stand in awe.
Traditionally, part of the harvest celebration has been in feasting together, in the harvest supper. No accident that it is celebrated in company, for the essence of harvest is that it emphasises “we” and “us”, rather than “I”, “me” and “my”.
“Man shall not live by bread alone”, preached Jesus. Harvest is not simply gratitude and pleasure the fruit of the earth will sustain our physical existence. It is a time of re-affirmation in the faith in values which sustain true life. We consider again a relationship with God, and debt to, as well as a responsibility for, others with whom we share this earth. The harvest succeeds when true partnership, with God and with other fellows, is strong.
So may we go forth, glad that we have shared our joy, lifted in the company of one another, and determined to maintain and strengthen partnership, co-operation, and equality in the service of the creator of us all. Having come as thankful people, may we depart to labour on.
C.J. Rosling 7 October 1994
Mexborough 9 October 1994
Hucklow 24 September 1995