A sermon preached online at St Mary’s Iffley by Jim Lumsden on 4 October 2020.
Harvest Sunday can sometimes feel like a festival disconnected from our modern era. Its trappings are oddly clinical: as we construct piles of tinned food and plastic-wrapped dried goods in school halls, churches and community centres. It’s a world away from the raw, wild joy of the psalmist, as they sing of the bounty of the earth and God’s blessing of harvest “crowning the year”. For them, this is a special season of plenty and feasting. They praise and thank God because they know the hunger which the winter will soon bring: that their current abundance of food is a gift they’ll not always have.
Contrast that with our lives today. Unless you’re trying to buy toilet paper at the start of a pandemic, it’s unusual to go to a supermarket and find the shelves empty: to head home with only the bare minimum. Our modern lives overflow with food choice and sheer volume all year round. Thanks to the global supply chain, we can eat asparagus all year round, flown 6000 miles from Peru in refrigerated planes. If apples aren’t in season in the UK, fear not. We can ship them across the planet from New Zealand, South Africa, and California…
But this isn’t going to be a sermon about the impact of international trade on the climate. I think you know about that. I think Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg and many others have hammered that point home better than I can. Instead, I want to focus on the idea that the food we eat, and the land which produces it, is a gift from God. And that by reconnecting with food production, we might enrich our connection with God.
Nowhere is an agricultural connection to God more evident than in today’s old testament readings. Both passages are overflowing not only with awe and joy at nature, but also its resilience: proclaiming the promise of renewal in the face of locusts and famine. Let’s imagine you had watched wheat ripen in your local fields all summer long, watching for drought with trepidation. Imagine the gladness you would feel as you reap your reward… as you bake bread with it… as you break that bread with your friends and family. It is not surprising that these ancient farmers felt such joy and thankfulness about food production
These pastoral themes are woven throughout the bible: think of the figs, the grain, the seeds, yeast, the vines, etc. that Jesus uses in his parables. The stories on which our faith is founded were passed on by people who lived close to the land. They keenly understood the food they ate and its origins, because it was grown by themselves and their neighbours!
I first explored eating as locally as possible several years back. I began getting a weekly veg box from a farm in Oxfordshire, gorgeous aubergines in the summer, sweetcorn and pumpkins in September, Jerusalem artichokes through the winter.
I would be lying if I said it hadn’t substantially altered my diet, but there’s a certain simple pleasure to the constraints that the seasons bring. You’re forced to hunt through recipe books, searching for new ways to cook hunger-gap kale, to serve swede, to use-up globe artichoke. And when seasons change and the land provides us new gift, that constraint becomes delight.
Personally, I spend most of the year looking forward to the precious 8 weeks that form British Asparagus season. April and May are my season of joy, but outside of those months my lack of asparagus reminds me that abundance is not a normal way of life. That we shouldn’t worry about not having everything we desire.
Today’s gospel reading talks about anxiety. Note the contrast between the glowing adoration and awe of the old testament readings, and the quiet, inward anxiety of those whom Jesus is reassuring. These people are filled with uncertainty, but Jesus shows, using rich imagery, that they should not worry, nor plan, nor toil to control their futures. He explains how various elements of the natural world are provided for, by God, through the ecosystem. And that if they too wish to be satisfied, they must relinquish their desire for control, and place their faith in the Father.
Jesus assures us also, that God knows our needs and that the food we have will be sufficient. In times of scarcity and in times of plenty, we can trust that God will provide through the land he has given us. With that in mind, do we really need to store up endless choice in sprawling supermarkets?
I do appreciate that the international food supply chain arose as the earthly answer to the anxiety Jesus is addressing. And I am not arguing that food shortages and food poverty aren’t real issues in this country (indeed, we may feel them in January). But for those of us who do have the luxury to spend a little more on how we eat, I challenge you to eat locally and eat seasonally.
Food is more nutritious and less processed when it’s in season, and though local produce can sometimes cost more, if we ‘vote with our wallets’ as it were, and show demand, then we might hope to shift the market and make local food cheaper, and available to more people. We can spearhead a reconnection with the way we eat, the land that grew it, and the God that gave it. So I challenge you to relish the limits that seasonality brings, and reject the endless choice of food with airmiles attached.
And maybe, when the season of your favourite vegetable finally rolls around; when your fig tree and vine give their full fruit, you too might share in the delight of the biblical harvesters.