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/ 8 October 2019

Harvest and Climate Change

Location: St Andrew Roxbourne, Harrow
Date: 06/10/2019

Brian Cuthbertson, our Head of Environment and Sustainability, was the visiting speaker at St Andrew Roxbourne, Harrow, on Sunday 6 October 2019.

St Andrew’s wanted to hear about how its Harvest Festival Sunday related to concerns about the environment and climate change. Brian spoke as follows:

Harvest and Climate Change

‘Today is your Harvest Festival Sunday. This is the season when we celebrate the gathering in of the produce which we rely on for our sustenance.

We thank God that this blessing continues year by year.

Just because our food is in the Supermarket when we go to buy it, we should not take that for granted.  Others are less fortunate, as we are right to remind each other. In our own society, those who are forced to rely on food banks. In other countries, where economies are too weak to support a continuing surplus over and above what has to be sold as a cash crop; or where climate change is making farming communities vulnerable to sudden shifts in the patterns of rainfall and sunshine.

In this morning’s Epistle reading, St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians wrote:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.  For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.  If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”

So we should treat the blessings and the comforts which we enjoy as laying on us an obligation in turn to pass them on to others.

Similarly there may be times when we suffer from many or various causes, including economic hardships. Those times when it is necessary to live one day at a time. It is then that we can look to others, under God, to show us comfort and compassion.

Paul wrote from his own experience:

 “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.  But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.  He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers.  Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Harvest Festival is a relatively recent tradition in the Church of England. I don’t mean a 21st century one, but from the early 19th c. Apparently it began with the Rev Robert Hawker in Cornwall in 1843.  Of course, there were earlier traditions such as Lammas Tide. There’s a great article on all this in Wikipedia.

To delve further into ancient history, some experts have suggested that the shift to agriculture from hunter gathering and pastoralism was actually humanity’s biggest mistake.  It tied us to the ground and to regular crop cycles, it demanded of peasants that they must supply their masters. Tithes had to be paid to the church, before anyone feeding themselves.  According to that account, farming is an unending treadmill of drudgery!  Many farm workers today might still agree.

Although, since the green revolution of the 20th century, agricultural yields have exploded in the West.  They were always much higher in rice-growing societies for example. But the labour in a rice paddy is by no means any less.

Let me continue this digression a little further. Arguably much of this is reflected in the story of Adam and Eve. They are thrown out of the garden, where they were able just to pick the fruit from the trees, and instead consigned to a lifetime of back-breaking ploughing and weed control.

Perhaps the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which Adam and Eve ate from actually symbolises the beginnings of agriculture!  At least, that might be one of multiple meanings.  The Garden of Eden seems very like an orchard.  At any rate, it was Adam and Eve’s own choice to eat the fruit.  I could go on – this is an interesting topic to explore.

However that may be, by the time of Noah and his Ark, God is endorsing our need to be supplied with farm produce. He promises that “While the Earth remains, seed time and harvest … shall not fail”.

We need to hold onto that promise quite firmly nowadays.  It is looking increasingly shaky due to the consequences of global warming and climate change, which are playing havoc with the seasons and with farming, all round the globe.

Abiding in Christ the Vine

So how can God’s promise to Noah still hold good?

To return to our Gospel reading, I find it interesting and very telling how in John’s Gospel and elsewhere, the fruits of the earth and of the trees are treated as symbolic of the fruits of the Spirit in our lives, the virtues which our faith inspires us to cultivate.

St John wrote, quoting the words of Jesus:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.  If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

The ability to bear fruit is inseparable from our relationship with Christ. Jesus speaks specifically of the vine, comparing himself to the vine, and us to its branches. We must ‘abide in him’, or else we are severed from the source of life itself.

I’m no viticulturalist myself, but grape-growing does seem to be a relatively trouble-free method of gaining an attractive and wholesome product.

The vine needs fertilising and pruning, no doubt. But given that, if it gets the right balance of rain and sunshine it should deliver the goods.

One of our neighbours has a vine draped over a wooden frame under which his car sits on the driveway. Every year he gives us some grapes which are too much for his family to eat.  My wife and I struggle to find ways to reciprocate adequately.

It’s like that with God’s blessings, and with the good fruit that should naturally grow in our lives under the influence of His Spirit. It isn’t supposed to be a slog, but it isn’t a complete freebie either.  A degree of effort is needed on our part.  At least to uproot any weeds or ivy that may spring up to get in the way.  To correct and restrain our harmful impulses.

Peril, hope and love

May I conclude with a thought about what this implies for our current efforts to deal with climate change, and the wider environmental crisis?  We are in great peril from climate change.  Greta Thunberg isn’t exaggerating at all, I’m sorry to say.

If you haven’t listed to her speech to the UN the other day, it’s well worth doing that.  It’s an earful, she let rip.   You can find this on our environmental landing page.

So where is the answer?  Is there a magic key to unlock the door to hope? Well yes and no, or No and Yes.  No, in the sense that climate change, and the threat to biodiversity, and the plastic accumulating in the oceans – with all that implies – do seem to be insoluble problems.

But that doesn’t let us off doing all we can to tackle them!  By that I don’t just mean demonstrating and protesting.  I mean making really substantial changes in our own lives and our own communities.  Nor does it negate God’s promise to Noah to safeguard His creation and our place in it, in the end – however that may be brought about.

So what is the golden key? Surely it is love: love for God, for His creation, for each other.  Jesus said “This is my command: Love one another.”

Jesus’s words were again reported by St John:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.  If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 

 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”

So, we are to practise empathy, compassion, self-giving.  We are to love each other as God in Christ first loved us.

That is no comfortable panacea.  We may have to endure very hard times.

Let us do so together, hand in hand.  We may have to give so others can survive. Let us do so without stint.  I do not know the extent of what that may mean, and I say this in all humility.

For I am advocating – or rather, Jesus in the Bible is commanding – a degree of commitment which may prove very hard to deliver on, for me as for anyone.

But surely, God who is the source of all love, and in Him Jesus the vine will supply to us, his branches, the resources and courage we need to play our part in delivering on His promises to us all and to the world.

Therefore I truly believe, love is the only way.’


About Brian Cuthbertson

Brian is the Head of Environment and Sustainability at the Diocese of London.

Read more from Brian Cuthbertson

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