Sunday, November 13, 2011

Homily: Harvest Sunday/The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost [November 13, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

Last weekend Kathy and I had houseguests and took them, among other places, to the Franklin Cider Mill. I had not been there since the days, in the early 1980s, when I would make regular runs to get cider and donuts for the Marquis Club teenagers. In the intervening years, I had forgotten about the majesty of the cider press there. Last Saturday I must have spent a half hour simply watching that enormous machine bear down on the apples and produce an unimaginable amount of fruity liquid in the process.

Watching a real cider press in action caused me to remember a line from John Keats’s great ode, “To Autumn”. The poem personifies the season, picturing her presiding over the abundance of the harvest. It’s full of beautiful images of fullness, ripeness, and plenitude. As I stood there watching the Franklin Mill cider press do its work, the lines that dimly came to mind were the ones that show Autumn sitting by a cider press “with patient look,” watching “the last oozing hours by hours”.

Naturally the day, the scene, the remembered lines from Keats, and my general lack of sales resistance meant that I went home with a couple of bags of honeycrisp apples and a several gallons of cider. If you’re an English teacher, or a former English teacher, there is no greater pleasure than enjoying a beverage celebrated in a poem you love in the comfort of your own home. Luckily for all of us, it’s good that the poem I remembered that day wasn’t “The Face on the Barroom Floor”.

Watching the Franklin Mill cider press set me to thinking about the season of harvest and how—even though most of us are disconnected from the rhythms of agriculture—it might still have something powerfully true to tell us about our lives. When John Keats pictures Autumn sitting with patient look by the cider press watching “the last oozing hours by hours”, he is suggesting that the processes of harvest might be symbolic; they might stand for themselves and for something else. Making cider is a human activity. But like all human activities, it is grounded in something beyond itself. Human beings make cider, but we make it from apples; and we don’t make or control the apples. The apples come from someplace else. Cider is a human production, but its manufacture is dependent on a divine gift. If you don’t have apples, you can’t make cider.

So cider is a human artifact made from a divine gift. The poet Wallace Stevens, a more knowledgeable Keats fan than I, once said, “The real is only the base. But it is the base.” [Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumus, p. 160] Like Keats, Stevens was a poet who celebrated the power of the imagination. Like all great artists, Stevens believed that art creates its own world. But, he knew that, like the cider in the cider press, the products of the human imagination have to start with the real stuff of life. You can’t have cider without apples. You can’t have art without life.

Today we are joining many churches in the Anglican tradition that are returning to a way of observing the final Sundays of the church year—a time we used to call “Rogationtide”. Today and next Sunday we are celebrating the season of Creation, a time newly set apart in the spirit of Rogation Days to give thanks for the created world and to think reflectively about how we meet God in that created world and how we can be more faithful stewards of it. Today we celebrate the harvest. Next Sunday we celebrate the earth itself. Taken together, we hope, these Sundays will help ground us in our relationships to the world, our fellow creatures, and the source of our being. And they will help us claim our identity as God’s partners in the care of all creation.

So, remembering that “the real is only the base, but it is the base”, let’s think together about harvest time and what it says to us about who we are and who we are called to be. Our first reading today, from the Book of Deuteronomy [26: 1-11], recounts the way ancient Israelites observed their annual harvest festival. For the first generation of Israelites living in the Promised Land, the harvest festival celebrated both the particular harvest at hand and the larger history of God’s saving acts in delivering Israel from Egyptian slavery into Palestinian freedom. As he brought a symbolic harvest basket to the priest, this is part of what each householder said:

The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me. [Deuteronomy 26]

In this harvest act of thanksgiving, the Israelites recited the story of what God had done for them as a prelude to offering a portion of those gifts symbolically for the altar. This is not unlike the way Native Americans thank the buffalo, the deer, the fish itself for the gift of the life they will consume. The ancient Israelites understood that, as much as hard human labor had contributed to the success of their harvest, its very abundance was due primarily to God for the original gift of the land and the mysterious processes of nature.

You and I live in an age that is less mystical about nature and its processes, and that’s a good thing. Science has helped us understand and improve our methods of farming, and the result has been a dramatic increase in the productivity of agriculture around the world. But that understanding has come with a price, and the spiritual cost has been high. We attribute our successes to our own cleverness rather than to the originating gift that makes those successes possible. We would no more think of thanking a buffalo, a deer, a fish for its life than we would slaughter a bull upon this altar. With our realism has come a functional disconnection from the source of our being, the source of life’s abundance, the fullness of the earth itself.

So the first thing to say about harvest is that, like cider from a cider press, the fruit of all our labors is the result in part but not entirely of our own effort. A good part—perhaps the bigger part—of the credit for that fruit belongs to God. Like Native Americans, the Israelites understood that the idea of a “level playing field”(a notion much abroad in our culture) is a fantasy. The world and its processes are originating gifts that we must always factor in to any accounting of how we do with what we have. We each and all should take our cue from Moses this morning and acknowledge that we’ve been given a leg up. As Emerson knew, there is no way to separate one’s own merit from the fullness of the originating gift. In his words, “The benefit overran the merit the first day, and has overran the merit ever since.” [Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience”]

It is important to remember that bread and wine, the two symbolic elements of the Christian Eucharistic meal, are both signs of divine abundance and products of human work. Jesus could have given us a meal of fruit and water, the raw materials of our diet, but instead he asked us to remember him with food and drink crafted by human labor from divine gifts. Like cider in its relation to apples, the symbolic elements of bread and wine say something to us about how God and we interact. You can’t have grapes, wheat, and water without God. You can’t have bread and wine without us. Who we are, what we do, matters not only to us but to God. Human work, human activity, human creativity, human compassion and love-- these human agencies are an important part of God’s redemptive processes. You can’t have creation without God. You can’t have a harvest without us.

And that brings us to today’s Gospel reading from Matthew [25: 14-30]. This is the familiar parable of the talents. In Jesus’s telling, the master departs giving the first man five talents, the second man two, and the third man one. Upon the master’s return, the first man brings in five more talents, the second man two more, and the third man fearfully returns the single talent he was given in the first place. There are a million different ways to read this parable. Some see it as a lesson in economics. Others see it as a story about the right use of our natural gifts. But I want us to think of it this morning as posing each of us a fairly simple question about our own participation in the fulfilling of God’s purposes.

The action in this story starts when the master, going on a journey, endows each person with some resources. The “talent” in this story is a Greek word originally meaning a sum of money. Our English meaning of the word—natural ability, inclination—comes from the figurative way this very parable was interpreted in Medieval Christian preaching. So in its origins this is a parable about the way each of us starts life’s race. Some of us start with five, some with two, some with only one. And one deep point of the parable, I think, is the way it says what the cider press and the bread and wine of communion are saying. Everything we have starts with God’s originating gift. But that gift cannot be perfected, completed; it cannot realize its own potential, without human labor and compassion and love.

As we gather around God’s table this morning, we do so trying to live into the fullness of the parable of the talents. Let us each come forward to be fed carrying the symbolic gifts that our readings from Matthew and Deuteronomy provide us. We can offer the produce of the season, the fruit of our works only because we collaborate with God in the perfection of God’s originating gifts. God has brought us to this place, delivered us from other lesser stories, into a new narrative of love and justice and abundant generosity and compassion for all. There can be no creation without God. There can be no harvest without us. The good news this morning is this: you cannot be you without God, and God cannot fully be God without you. That is the truth about God and us. God needs us, and we need God. Together we are about the work of perfecting ourselves and the world. The meal we eat and drink is a sign and symbol of the depth and blessing of that good news. Creation and harvest are two sides of one divine/human coin. We are grateful. And we matter. And the knowledge of that truth is, abundantly and wonderfully, enough. Amen.

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