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Harvest In a Time of Drought

Fields on a hill in the South Downs. Yellowing fields in the background with poppies growing in the foreground

Sermon for Harvest Festival, St Edward’s church, 2nd October 2023

Readings: John 6:25-35, Deuteronomy 26:1-11

I wonder if any of you have farming heritage? 

When I was younger I grew up next to a bee farm – not quite the same sort of harvest but I remember how hard the family next door worked when it was time to harvest the honey – or to be correct, to extract it from the hives. They would be off driving round Sussex to pick them all up, and then the comb would be put into huge extractors and spun at great speed to spin the honey out of it – the smell of raw honey pervading the air in our road for a week or so. If we were really lucky we would pop round at the right time and be given a bit of honey comb to chew on.

Harvest Festival or celebrating the harvest has been around for many years, perhaps with pagan roots, with in England, the word deriving from the Old English word ‘Haerfest’ meaning ‘Autumn’. In Jewish circles as we read in the Old Testament there was always importance placed on the first fruits and giving of these to God. And in later years the festival of Harvest was celebrated at the start of August and called ‘Lammas’, meaning loaf mass, with farmers making bread from the new wheat crop and gave them to their local church and used as communion bread. How we celebrate today is based on a tradition began in Victorian times by Rev Robert Hawker who invited his parishioners to a special harvest thanksgiving service at his church in Morwenstow, Cornwall in 1843.

In times gone by and in other parts of the world still – the harvest is a vital time of year, a successful harvest could literally mean life or death. A good harvest meaning food for a community through the winter months. A time when the community came together, even children, to bring in the harvest.

In our gospel Jesus said:

Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. 

John 6:27

Honestly I think those are hard words to read in this current climate. How would we hear them if we couldn’t afford to put food on our tables?  I mean, don’t worry about eating – Jesus is all you need to worry about.

And I have wrestled with this sermon because we find ourselves in a time when many in our community will find themselves wondering whether their food, their provision, will last them through the winter. Perhaps some of us here are in that boat? 

In August The Guardian reported research that said foodbanks were warning of a “completely unsustainable” surge in demand that will prevent them feeding the hungriest families this winter. Where numbers of clients are rising dramatically, 70% of foodbanks surveyed saying they may need to turn clients away, with almost three-quarters saying food donation levels had dropped since April, despite the spiralling demand.

And here we are ‘celebrating’ harvest – doesn’t feel like there is much to celebrate right now is there? I’ll be honest I think the policies coming out of this current government are morally reprehensible. It doesn’t really matter who you would choose to vote for, this is not about party politics it is about policies and their fall out, that are affecting the poorest and most vulnerable in our society while the rich get richer.

If I sound angry, I am. Here we are collecting produce for two local foodbanks which will not even scratch the surface of the needs of our community. We are in discussion with the council about providing a warm place for people to come to who can’t heat their homes, we don’t even know if we can pay our own heating bills – which, by the way, have gone up 300% we heard this week.

How can we say to people, oh don’t worry about all that, Jesus will feed you?

But, whilst I find this passage difficult, it does speak a bold truth. That Jesus, referred to as the bread of life, is the way, the truth, the life.

He says in vs 32 – after they had asked about the manna given in the wilderness;

…it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

John 6:32-33

Now we should note this people group had just eaten their fill at the feeding of the 5000, so not only have they eaten but they have eaten like at an all you can eat buffet, and still there was masses left over. So, on a full stomach they are listening to Jesus’ teaching and asking questions – Jesus is saying, look actual bread is not the point – yes I’ve fed you in quite a spectacular way – but there is so much more to life than this, let me tell you more about it, about me, about my Father.

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

John 6:34-35

Many of us here know this truth for ourselves, we know the love of God, we know that we are fed spiritually by this God, by following Jesus. Our whole vision as a church is about enabling others to know more of who Jesus is as the bread in their own lives.

But, we are harvesting in a drought.

How can we talk about this bread of life, this God who loves all, while people are suffering? Going hungry, cold, losing their homes?

In almost comedic fashion the start of this passage we hear Jesus saying: you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 

People often respond to actions better than words. And we should always be a people of action – who put God’s love into action.

In harvest times gone by the community pulled together, every single person, to bring in the harvest. We must do the same. We must bring Jesus to our community but in deed as much as in word.

Harvest in all its different forms has always been about being thankful, about sharing our produce, communities working together, and in Christian circles about thanking God.

What does that look like for us now, in this season? What do we have to offer? To share? How does our work, help our community?

We must ask ourselves what signs will we offer that might help people meet Jesus? Then, might we see a spiritual harvest of those coming to know the bread of life.


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