A sermon preached at Evening Prayer in St Mary’s Iffley by Nikolaj Christensen on 4 October 2020.
On this Harvest Sunday I would like to reflect with you on this evening’s reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, the climax of Moses’ long farewell speech to the Israelites whom he has led out of Egypt, through the wilderness, to the edge of the Promised Land: ‘all these blessings shall come upon you… if you obey the Lord your God. … Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock’.
Two chapters earlier, as his final instruction to the people, Moses has given directions for a harvest festival, the feast of first fruits, at which the people were to express their thankfulness to God by giving tithes to the temple and to the poor and the landless resident aliens. And then the final chapters of Deuteronomy are spent on hammering home how the law, the Torah, is the foundation, the constitution of God’s people, is their covenant, their contract with God.
Both immediately before and after the promises that we have heard, we find contrasting warnings of the curses that are to befall those who ignore the laws: ‘The Lord will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly’.
The Second Book of Kings tells the story of how the Book of Deuteronomy was rediscovered during the reign of the young king Josiah. It says, ‘When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes.’ And he said, ‘great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us’. Then he gathered all the elders of the people and had the book read out to them, and he set about a series of reforms to get rid of idolatry and reinstate true worship.
But today is a harvest thanksgiving and we ought to focus on the promises rather than the warnings. We read these passages at harvest time because they highlight the connection between our faith in God, our conduct, and the blessings we receive from God’s world, through everything the natural world produces for our benefit: ‘The Lord will command the blessing upon you in your barns, and in all that you undertake… if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways’.
Now, on the one hand, we might say that this understanding is bolstered by the fact that today we understand much better, scientifically, how our actions directly impact the earth. But that’s not good news. We know that mass extinction and catastrophic climate change would not be happening without us. This year Southern Africa has been hit by the worst drought in 35 years; 45 million people there may not have been at risk of starving this year if it wasn’t for human-made global warming, from our carbon emissions in the wealthier northern hemisphere. And of course, the virus that causes Covid-19 would not have spread from animals to humans if it weren’t for us. We need modern science to fully appreciate all this.
On the other hand, it would also be true to say that we have become alienated from the earth and its fruits. True, many of us grow a few vegetables in our gardens or allotments, but most of us get the vast majority of our food from supermarkets. We don’t generally have an awareness of where exactly it was grown or by whom, or even what’s involved in growing, or raising, butchering, and getting it to us. It’s an alienation that is fairly new to humanity, and fairly exclusive to the wealthier part of the world, something some of us may be able to appreciate from our own family history.
Both of my grandfathers were farmers like their fathers before them. My grandmothers helped out on the farm, as did my parents when they were young. I grew up in a village, and though we weren’t involved in farming, I would see and smell the evidence of farming going on. I went to school with children who lived on farms, I had relatives who were farmers, and I would see farmers at church on a Sunday. Harvest was probably the most well-attended service of the year apart from Christmas. I distinctly remember seeing farmers bring their offerings to church, both of produce and even more vividly their envelopes of money, passing some of their bounty on to good causes.
But I left and moved to a city as soon as I could, and it’s in a city that I’m now raising my family. And when my son visits his grandfather, there are no pigs to go out and feed, and no tractor to have a ride in.
Perhaps you have a similar history. Our gradual alienation from the land may mean that we don’t actually have a better understanding at all today of the link between our actions and their consequences for the earth. Our actions, our perpetuation of pollution and overexploitation, demonstrate that we don’t understand. And so far, we have got away with it. God is patient, and the world he created reflects this: there is a robustness to the world, which means that the consequences of our actions take a while to set in. The problem is that this means that once climate change is fully baked in, it will be equally robust and nearly impossible to undo.
But perhaps this year, 2020, has given us some pause for thought. There’s not much evidence of it in the rhetoric of politicians. But we really ought to have learned this year that we can’t simply go full steam ahead all the time. Sometimes nature says stop. Sometimes nature says no to our plans.
The Scriptures measure our conduct by the laws and commandments of God, but what does that have to do with any of this? I’d like you to notice that God’s commandments – such as the Ten Commandments – are not simply abstract ethical obligations; they are always relational, always about actions done or not done to God or to our neighbour:
‘I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me. … You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house’.
And of course actions done to God’s world are indirectly actions done to both God and our neighbours, who was meant to have equal opportunity to enjoy the fruit of the earth.
The commandments are not arbitrary rules but laws of the spiritual and physical universe. They describe the consequences our actions have for our relationships, in the same way that the laws of physics describe cause and effect in the physical realm. The curses and blessings described in Deuteronomy are not random punishments and rewards, but natural consequences of our actions. It is wise to follow God’s commandments; it is unwise not to follow them. If you lie, you’re going to damage your relationships; if you act with integrity, you’re going to strengthen your relationships. If you envy what others have, you’re going to become bitter; if you give thanks for what you do have, you’re going to become more content and joyful.
And speaking of that, God always blesses us beyond what we deserve. So let us give thanks, as we bow our heads in prayer.