Vicar's Sermon - Barnard Castle Harvest 2016
In the window of Curlew’s bookshop the other day there was a book with a title along the lines of ‘How to read a church’? There have been a number of similar books written down the years: books that help people to understand the different architectural styles of church buildings and help them to identify which are the oldest parts of the building and when additions or adaptations were made. But then these books go beyond the architecture to describe the symbolism of the church building: why it is that (in many churches) the font is placed by the main door of the church…why it is that many fonts have 8 sides…why it is that some churches have a painted ceiling in the chancel and so on.
In our worship we make use of signs and symbols. Here we process the gospel book into the middle of the church – bringing it from the altar in procession so that we can gather around it to hear its message just as Christ came from God and gathered a community of disciples around him to hear his message. Here we present candles to those who have been baptised: shine as alight in the world we say ‘to the glory of God your father’. We anoint those who have been baptised with oil. We exchange rings at a wedding, we share the peace, we are signed with the cross in ash on Ash Wednesday. I am sure that you can think of other symbolic acts, other symbols.
But chief amongst them is the bread and wine of communion. week in, week out we take bread and break it. We pour out wine and we share it and we do the same on this our Harvest Festival day.
Harvest itself is a service crammed full with symbolism. We decorate our church with the fruit of the earth and we go overboard with our decorations – why, because God’s provision for us is overabundant, it is generous. He doesn’t hold back in providing us with enough to sustain and feed us – albeit that we have yet to find the will and the means to ensure that his gifts are shared equitably. ‘God has blessed us’ says the Harvest psalm and we bring signs of his blessing into church to celebrate his goodness.
And our Harvest gifts are signs of thankful hearts. I know that we don’t all bring baskets of potatoes and suedes and carrots to church anymore, our gifts are more readily used and distributed as packets of food (tins and bottles) but the day is a reminder of the call to offer the best of our own labours to God for His purposes. Our harvest readings sometimes recount the way that our ancestors in the faith would bring the first fruits of their produce before God to bless Him for His goodness. We receive God’s gifts and we offer them back to Him for His service: the Festival crystallises for us the fact that we are stewards of all that God has given. Our giving on this day is a means of symbolising the fact that we live all of our lives as those who know that ‘all things come from God’ and so we offer is gifts for His service.
And then Harvest speaks of the care of the earth and the desire for justice amongst and between people. There can be no doubt that the threat and the impact of global warming, felt initially in the 2/3rd s world has reawakened a theology of creation and a reflection on how we should live together on this one earth that God has given us. The prayers that you will find in our modern liturgical books are very different to those in the Book of Common Prayer – they recognise the violence that can be done to the created order, the fragility of the earth as well as its capacity for renewal. They speak of international trade and pray for the end of the exploitation of the poor.
Thanksgiving, stewardship, justice, the created order – these things, and more, find themselves laid before us as we gather to sing our favourite harvest hymns and then adjourn to eat and drink together.
Yet still there is a greater symbolism as bread and wine are laid on the altar, broken and poured out, shared..
Jesus, in our gospel reading encourages us to look beyond the surface of things, beyond the fact that those who gathered around him had just filled their stomachs with the bread shared with the five thousand on the hillside. ‘Can you not see?’ he asks ‘The miracle of the bread is pointing to something more than itself. The physical loaves and the full stomachs are not an end in themselves they are a sign of a spiritual reality.’
If the end of our Harvest Festival is a beautiful church, a bunch of flowers bought at the auction, or a tin of beans donated to the FoodBank then we have not even begun to understands its meaning. These things are signs and symbols that are pointing beyond themselves to Jesus. ‘I am the Bread of Life’ says Jesus. ‘As you follow me, as you live a life that takes its cue from how I live mine so you will find fulfilment, so you will find yourself filled with the gifts that God wants for you, never to be hungry again, never to thirst again’.
He is the bread of God, come down from heaven, who gives life to the world. He is the source of our life in God so it is as we feed on Him, bread for the world, offered, broken and shared that our lives are transformed. It is as we follow in His way, offering our own lives to be broken and shared that we find life itself.
‘All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above’ we sing, but He is the greatest of these gifts. Jesus: to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit be ascribed all majesty might dominion and praise, this Harvest time, now and for evermore.