I think I`ve developed somewhat mixed feelings about Harvest Thanksgiving. You might know that the form in which we celebrate it today has its origins in the early nineteenth century. In those days it focussed on the practice of bringing home grown produce to church and in some parts of the country it began as a social diversion to temper somewhat the customary drunken revelry that was typical of the end of the agricultural Harvest.
In more recent times there has been a tendency to focus – with good cause – on environmentalism and the needs of the developing world; and this of course has great merit. What I struggle with I think are two things.
Firstly, if we`re not careful there`s an underlying tendency to somewhat `romanticise` the country and the rural way of life And secondly I think we`re prone to a certain `forgetfulness` (if that`s the correct word) of what for me is a singularly important point….. that every Sunday has an element of `Harvest` about it.
This particular point was brought home to me quite forcibly many years ago. I was living in a city in which no-one could honestly remember what it might be like to `plough a field or scatter the good seed on the land…..`and so I suggested that on Harvest Thanksgiving people might like to bring to church some symbols of what actually represented their daily bread… or the fruit of their daily activity.
Living in a community which produced pottery and steel and coal… I was optimistic of a good response; this seemed to me a wholly appropriate and good thing to do but the idea didn`t take off… It seemed that some folk preferred to continue with what we might only call a `bygone` understanding of Harvest – An understanding which, in all candour was largely divorced from life as they actually experienced it.
But my point is this. We can, if we wish go on celebrating the rural life, praying- as we should- for the farming community; reminding ourselves of the importance of the environment and giving generously to needy charities across the world ….. All that`s fine. As long as we remember that each Sunday the REAL harvest is placed before us…. The Harvest of OUR lives in the here and now…… and merely that of our ancestors.
Each Sunday we`re asked to make a direct connection between the God who gives…. and all that we receive.
This moment is called the `Offertory`. In practical terms, it`s when the sidesmen come around with a collection plate… (bread and wine are brought forward) and to coin the phrase `we lay our gifts on the altar`. And what we offer is meant to express and symbolise gratitude and offering and commitment. Gratitude, offering and commitment…. As we hold before God the gifts that we have received. We`re led to think about these things by our readings this morning. Each of them set the scene as it were, for this act of offering and thanksgiving.
Of course, life has changed- few of us have brought sheep or sheaves of corn to church this morning but the challenge is to see how this worship, at the very least puts a wholly different perspective on what Harold Wilson once referred to as `the pound in your pocket`. So, firstly, Deuteronomy gives us a warning:
We`re told: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today” (Deut. 8.17-18). In other words, everything we have and are is not our own doing ….. but a reflection of God`s blessing…. This is a simple but incredibly radical point- and not very easy for capitalist cultures to accept…. But this is why we, who are among the wealthiest people on the planet are immersed in an atmosphere which often seems devoid of gratitude.
And secondly, in our Gospel reading Christ goes a little further in stressing the utter `giftedness` of things… That whole passage brings home our complete and total dependence on the goodness and providence of God…. And how setting our heart on the gift rather than the giver is the real cause of why we live such anxious lives.…. (Luke 12.16-30).
Now, it`s common these days to talk of Churches having `financial difficulties`- not least because we have, over generations created some of the most beautiful places of worship, which require a great deal of time, energy and money. But the REAL financial problem the church faces is not physical or material at all …. It`s spiritual. Our REAL financial problem is our inability to grasp the teaching set before us in the readings we`ve just heard this morning. `Gratitude and Dependence`
I mean, we solemnly declare after each passage- “This is the Word of the Lord …. Thanks be to God”….. But I can`t help thinking that our hearing is tinged with a certain scepticism…. It`s as if we`re wondering what the life of early Israel has to do with us… our Mortgages and Pensions? Oh yes, and there`s Jesus being all fanciful and idealistic again…… talking about the lilies of the field…..! And the way we `do` the Offertory doesn’t seem to help either. You see I get the sense that when it comes to the Offertory -rather than reflecting or praying over issues of Gratitude and Dependence it`s easier to go along with what I can only call the `Subscription` model of giving.
I`m offering a bit of a parody but let`s be clear; we don`t operate a `Pay-as-you-pray` policy in Church. The Offertory is not a subscription or payment for services rendered. For what it`s worth; if we did then the seats we occupy would probably cost about twenty to twenty-five pounds a week… Through Fees for Weddings and Funerals and living off our savings we manage to bring the cost down a bit…. But that`s what it actually costs.
But just mentioning that takes us into the other area we need to avoid. I mean, just as Christian giving isn`t about payment it`s certainly not about compulsion or guilt….. No, Christian giving is a means of expressing both `gratitude` and `belonging`. Gratitude, as I say, to the God who gives… and who gives us responsibility for the wise use of those gifts… and Belonging to the body of Christ…. It`s a gift to the common fund… that we may engage in mission. The amount we should give is never specified… though a tenth or tithe as it`s called is often suggested as a starter… And we don`t give comparing ourselves with anyone else… as if to say “I`ll only give if THEY give”. Christian giving is always according to our means but the key first principle is that we pray about our participation in the Offertory….
What this means is that we give this moment (this weekly Harvest) a sense of priority and a significant amount of attention…. As someone has said, “We offer what is RIGHT not what`s left over”.
Now, speaking about giving always reminds me of the distinct sense of discomfort I noticed on the face of my Biology Teacher on the day he had to talk to us spotty teenagers about the `Birds and the Bees`! We don`t want to witter on too much about these things because maybe like me you grew up in the shadow of that sense that the church is always banging on about Money. And besides, I know full well how very generous many people can be and have been during my time here… But someone asked me the other day about these things… about `Christian` giving and I fought shy of suggesting that they pray with their purse or bank statement on their lap… but actually that kind of thing might bring it all home.
And beyond that a couple of words came to mind… `Regular` and `Sacrificial`. Because `Regularity` reinforces this sense that giving is a Christian pattern or discipline…. It`s a reminder that I do actually live out of a sense of gratitude…. That`s why EVERY Sunday is, as I say a mini Harvest.
And `Sacrificial` because the `Giving up` or foregoing of something in order to give highlights its real significance and importance. You might not have been taught these things before but to use the accounting term; this is the `Bottom line` when it comes to Christian giving.
Let me say again; the only financial problem the Church really has is our inability and unwillingness to take Christ and the scriptures seriously…. Our inability or unwillingness to see the financial and other resources we`ve been given in a totally different way.
The Offertory…. That little moment each Sunday is something far more than a mini financial transaction… It is a mini-Harvest; a celebration of God the giver. To that end it`s a weekly reminder that we who so often resemble that foolish man who tried to accumulate his stuff into bigger barns- often focus far too much on the gift and forget the giver. And so – as our Scriptures teach us – we are asked to really take to heart the utter given-ness of everything and to respond prayerfully; regularly and sacrificially to the God of the Harvest.