This sermon was preached during a Harvest Eucharist at St Andrew’s Church, South Lopham on the 15th of September 2019 – it was the first of three sermons delivered on this day.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is a joy to be with you today as we celebrate the harvests which have been happening over the last few weeks and will continue for a while yet. I’ve always had a particular fondness for the Norfolk harvest because I grew up in a very rural part of north Devon. Our house was a good quarter of a mile or so outside the village and was literally surrounded by fields, with a great view down into a small valley. Many of my friends were the children of farmers, but unlike here the most farms were dairy or wool farms. The field which surrounded our house was home in turn to both cows and sheep.
I remember that once Dad preached a slightly controversial sermon and while everyone had seemed fine with it at the end of the service, the following week nobody came. Nor the week after. Oh dear, had it really been that controversial?! The following week a couple of people did come and it transpired that none of them had been offended. It was just that the lambing season had started and they were all off looking after their sheep! The lambing season is generally from around February until April, though I do remember seeing new born lambs in the field on Christmas day one year!
As such, while harvest was important to our churches it never properly resonated with me until living in Norfolk. Our House in Necton was more in the village, and next door to the Church. But there’s a big field right next door to it which has been used for a variety of crops. Instead of watching lambs and calves growing and frolicing about, I was able to live with and observe the rhythm of ploughing, planting, growing and harvesting. (Even if I often only noticed how much taller the crops were when going to retrieve balls kicked over the hedge into the field!).
Celebrating harvest when there’s an assortment of fields filled with tall grain and fields of stubble or bales somehow seems more appropriate. What we’re celebrating in here, is what we can see going on outside. Indeed, for some of you this is a season of hard work, hoping that despite the dries of last year that the yield will be good enough. Fortunately the rain in May seems to have helped the winter barley which was harvested early, again, in July and shall feed local pigs through the coming winter. There’s also promising signs that the sugar beet harvest, which is just about to get underway, will produce yields above last year’s average of 69t/ha.
We may be celebrating harvest today, but the idea of Harvest cannot easily be pinned down to a single day. It’s a progressive culmination of work and patience which unfolds at the right time for each crop. Determining when to harvest is not a matter of looking at the calendar, but of careful examination at the reality in the field with a healthy dose of hope in fortuitous weather – while I was staying at a franciscan friary on placement I helped with harvesting the wild flower meadow, which had a window of only a couple of days between one spell of rain, and another.
I think that this sense of ‘harvesting at the right time’ is a helpful one for us when reflecting on our Gospel passage today.
It comes shortly after the feeding of the 5000, and the Crowd who had been fed are looking for Jesus. They want to know more about this man and what he was teaching. Upon finding Jesus on the far side of the lake, Jesus tells them that they have not come to find him because of his teachings but because he fed them with loaves of bread. There is here a disconnect between what they’re looking for, and what he’s offering. More than this, there’s a lack of understanding as to the significance of what happened when he fed them.
Essentially, he’s telling them: “you still haven’t got it yet, so pay attention and let’s see if you’ll understand what’s happening”.
He tells them that he has fed them with real food. They know this for they ate it and were satisfied. However, the Son of Man offers a better food; a food which doesn’t keep you alive for another day, until your next meal, but a food that endures for eternal life. If you feed on this food, you will endure into eternal life.
They don’t quite understand what he’s on about. It’s as if they want to know the magical secret: “What must we do to perform the works of God?”
Jesus responds: This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.
This is an often overlooked gem of a comment.
It can be read in two ways:
The Work which God wants you to do is to believe in him whom he has sent. This is our task, our responsibility. By believing, we perform the works of God in our lives and for others to see.
The second; The work which God does is that you believe in him whom he has sent. That is, that it is God himself who will change our hearts towards him, who will feed and sustain our faith and enable us to believe in Jesus.
These two ways of understanding this comment are both true. We are to believe in Jesus and live out our lives in the life of that faith, and this happens by the presence of God at work in our hearts and enabling us to live in faith.
Still, though, the crowd isn’t sure they’ve understood what Jesus was saying. “Well, how are you going to prove it, then?”
They themselves make a comparison with the israelites being fed in the wilderness. They remembered that the bread which came from heaven for them to eat was a bread which didn’t keep and indeed perished – the Israelites at that time had to depend on God day by day to feed them. If Jesus is going to compare himself to Moses by his actions of feeding the five thousand, then how can he claim to offer a better bread?
Jesus’ response undercuts the issue at hand; it was not Moses, nor Jesus, who fed them; but his Father in Heaven who gives them the true bread which gives life to the world.
The Crowd mulls on this and seem to grasp towards the right response. “Sir, give us this bread always”, they said.
They want to believe.
Jesus responds: I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
The work of God, which is both ours to do and that which God does in us, is to believe in the one whom he sends; that is, to believe in Jesus who is the bread of Life which will never perish but shall sustain us into eternal life.
Believing in Jesus is sometimes a lightbulb moment. Suddenly one’s perspective changes and everything is different.
However, believing in Jesus is sometimes a progressive culmination of work and patience. Seeds of faith which have been planted can take time to be nurtured. Sometimes they go through dry seasons and we might wonder if they’ll ever grow into an abundant crop of faith.
There’s no date in the calendar on which we become ready for faith. We have to reflect and assess the situation in person, with a healthy dose of hope. I’ve said that the joy of a norfolk harvest is that what we’re celebrating in here, is what’s going on out there. Today our prayers of preparation before the sacrament capture this harvest theme perfectly:
Blessed are you God and Father of all creation, through your goodness we have bread and wine to set before you, fruit of the earth and work of human hands. They will become for us the bread of life and cup of salvation.
And so, as with our harvest we feed the nation and bring our gifts before God, let us also bring ourselves before God and believe in the one whom he has sent; Jesus Christ his Son, our Lord, who says to each of us: Come, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and who ever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Feeding on him we shall, by the presence of God at work within our hearts, endure into eternal life.