Andover URC Harvest Festival, 9th September 2018, 10.30
by Revd David Read
You may remember two hurricanes last year: hurricane Harvey killed at least 39 people in Houston and across Texas; hurricane Irma crashed through the Caribbean before smashing into Florida. It was a terrible time for thousands of people – homes and businesses destroyed, people injured, lives lost. Also shocked, but for a different reason, were a couple who found that their names were attached to such devastation. They are Harvey and Irma Schluter, who live in Washington DC. They were shocked that successive hurricanes carrying their names had caused such havoc. “I don’t know how they’ve done that, to have a Harvey and an Irma,” said Mrs. Schluter. “I don’t know how that worked out.”
A year has passed and no doubt the hard work of clearing up and re-establishing lives in those places still goes on. Meanwhile, our attention has moved to Kerala in Southern India, where over 400 people have lost their lives in unprecedented flooding caused by the worst rains in more than 100 years. According to Christian Aid, Kerala’s floods and landslides have left ruin so terrible that around 200,000 people will be unable to return home for at least six months. Even among houses that were not completely destroyed, many are now filled with mud, vegetation and rubbish, with collapsed roofs and walls. Many people have lost everything they had.
For as long as we can remember we have celebrated Harvest Festival, singing ‘All is safely gathered in’ – you know: ‘God’s in his heaven – all’s well with the world.’ And then, suddenly, like Harvey and Irma at home in Washington, we are shocked by the devastation caused in our name – in the name, it would seem, of the God we worship. God, we now learn, is not after all the benign heavenly father who sends the rain in winter and the pleasant summer sun. No – he sends devastation, homelessness, and even death.
Welcome to harvest festival 2018. The earth is no longer our playground, gently providing all we need and asking no questions. The earth is restless, always on the move, ready to shock us out of our complacency and make us think again. Come to think of it – it’s just like the shock which has hit the people who will receive our gifts as they visit the Food Bank or make a temporary home in the Crisis Centre. Their lives have been brought to a sudden and devastating halt. We may have walked out of Lidl or Waitrose just a day or two ago satisfied with our shopping and carrying the items we planned to bring to church today, our only complaints being the extra pennies or pounds we had to spend, or that the item we wanted wasn’t on the shelves this week. But when we got home we found we couldn’t avoid the news of people’s lives being changed by hurricanes and floods beyond what we could imagine. Suddenly life isn’t as simple or as pleasant as we thought.
Checking the Christian Aid website, I find that they continue to work in South Asia where more than 40 million people have been affected by relentless flooding. Some 1,200 people have lost their lives, and the homes and livelihoods of those who have survived have been destroyed. India, Nepal and Bangladesh were hit by two months of persistent monsoon rains causing widespread flooding. Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from the worst hit areas and are still living in temporary shelters.
So we sang a familiar hymn for harvest time:
I sing the almighty power of God,
that made the mountains rise,
that spread the flowing seas abroad,
and built the lofty skies.
Like me, you may have sung that a thousand times and seen only scenes of amazing mountains, beautiful and bountiful oceans, and clear blue skies. And I rather think that, when Isaac Watts wrote that hymn, he must have been sitting in his garden in a comfy deck chair after enjoying a good meal admiring the beauty and wonder of nature. He doesn’t seem to realise (do we?) that the mountains rose over millions of years of mighty collisions of tectonic plates which caused massive earth-quakes and forced the land into the sky. My daughter lives in Newfoundland, where – on the coast – my wife and I have walked on rocks which have on their surface some of the most amazing fossils on earth. ‘These fossils,’ said our guide, ‘started life 565 million years ago at the bottom of the sea in what is now South America.’ As I sat there in the sunshine I wondered what amazing forces of nature (the almighty power of God) had moved those rocks thousands of miles to the north and thrust them thousands of feet up into the daylight. What devastation was surely caused by the energy expended in sending them on their journey!
We read from Genesis that God promised that ‘as long as the earth lasts seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, they will never cease.’ I wonder how God lives with that promise, knowing that it is in the very nature of the world he has made to be dynamic, always on the move, ever-changing, threatening and dangerous. Not after all predictable but always moving, the unexpected just waiting to happen.
We also read that God would never ‘again put the earth under a curse because of mankind, however evil their inclination.’ It’s easy to read that as a promise that there never again will be a flood like the one which caused such devastation and which Noah survived. However bad the human race may be. Yet floods there have been, are even now, and surely will continue to be into the future. Is this because of mankind’s ‘evil inclination’?
Not necessarily; but it depends how you define ‘evil’. St Paul says: ‘do not think too highly of yourself’ or, in another translation, ‘don’t go about with high and mighty ideas of your own importance.’ We might say: ‘Don’t think you can live on this planet and do just whatever you like, live any way you want, take complete control, and think there will be no repercussions.’ God has made a world which is tough and full of wonderful resources to sustain life; but the planet has to be treated with respect and understanding. If we don’t, then maybe we do have an ‘evil inclination’.
The unbelievably rapid growth of Houston Texas, which was hit last year by hurricane Harvey, has hardly been regulated. Result: affordable housing for working people. But there’s a downside: Greater Houston has always been a precarious place for a boomtown. It sprawls across a flat coastal plain, crisscrossed by slow-moving bodies of water, with clay soils that do not easily absorb water. There used to be some wetlands and prairies that served as natural sponges for rainfall, but these have been built on so that there is now just not enough open land to take in floodwaters. ‘It been known for years how to build safely,’ said one expert, ‘it just costs the developers more money to do it that way – so they don’t.’
The irony is that Houston’s biggest industry is the extraction of oil. Burning oil, most scientists have demonstrated, causes the planet to warm; as the oceans warm, hurricanes suck ever more moisture into the atmosphere, ready to drop it on – Houston.
Do the people of Houston have an ‘evil inclination’? Has anyone ever been there? [if so – ‘did they strike you as evil?’] [if not – I guess if we did go and meet them, we’d find them delightful]. But they are guilty of thinking too highly of themselves – just like almost every person alive who thinks we can just go on and on and on living on this planet just the way we want without considering the consequences. Every person, including, I suppose, all of us.
In the Bible there are no natural disasters. Whatever happens happens because God wills it to happen, and for good reason – in the case of Noah’s flood, because of the sin of humanity. We tend to dismiss this belief as old-fashioned and indeed Jesus seemed to do so. But perhaps it is time to take it more seriously. Perhaps we should recognise the sin of plundering the planet for all it has to offer and giving nothing back; the sin of developing towns and cities on flood plains without allowing for open space to absorb water; the sin of erecting buildings in earthquake zones without ensuring they can withstand being shaken. We fail to do these things and then wonder why God has allowed disaster to happen. If we listened to those with the wisdom to explain such things, we would see that we have to tread gently on this planet, love it as much as it loves us, and treat it with respect.
The passage we read from Matthew’s gospel is typical of Jesus: ‘Don’t worry about what you will have to eat, drink, wear,’ he says, ‘your heavenly father knows you need all these things.’ And we are lulled into contentment – no need to worry about a thing. But then, as always with Jesus, there is a sting in the tail: ‘All this will come to you – so long as you first of all set your mind on God’s kingdom and God’s justice.’ Get the world the way God wants it – and then you will have all you need. Care for this good earth – look after every person who lives upon it – know that the human race is one family whether living on the low-lying flood plains of Houston or of the Somerset levels or in the coastal regions of India or Bangladesh. Whether we live in places where hurricanes or earthquakes strike or do not live in such places, we belong together. One people under God, sharing all we have. That’s why it’s right for those who live in the richer safer parts of the world to share our wealth with those who live in more dangerous places. That’s why it’s right that we give away our harvest gifts to people who are wondering where their next meal will come from. When we do that we shall receive God’s gracious gifts from his bounty rather than stealing them from those who have less than we have.
So here we are, surrounded by a wonderful display of God’s goodness – and how right it is to give thanks at least once a year that the harvest of this good earth fills our larders and our stomachs; and we still have some to share. God’s goodness surrounds us and provides for us every day of our lives. It’s good to be reminded at least once a year that we can and should be grateful. But I wonder: do we often selfishly just take what we want without ever thinking that God’s hand is in all the good gifts that are around us – that God is present in every disaster and in every human failure?
In a few minutes we’re going to sing one of the many thought-provoking hymns by John Bell and Graham Maule. In this one they invite us to reflect on how we see on our televisions all the horrors of this world without thinking that God is deeply involved in all of them. We look on as if God were not there. Just as the people who watched Jesus die did not realise that God was right there in front of them. Then in the last verse the hymn proclaims that the resurrection tells the world that God is not dead, not absent, but that God’s love is here with us and so much bigger than any disaster. That God’s love can master strife and pain.
And we can join in.
As you know very well, if we drink coffee or tea or buy chocolate, we can buy fairtrade. And of course, there are lots of other fairly traded items that we can buy in most supermarkets. By buying fairtrade we are helping to support producers in the developing world who are struggling with the effects of climate change on their traditional crops.
We can join in.
We can choose to use a green energy supplier for our electricity, as you have done in this church and I am sure many of you have already done in your homes. Or what about a car powered by electricity? If you pop into the car park after the service, you can have a look at the electric car (zero emissions) which brought me here and will take me home. I’ll even give you a ride in it if you like. Using green energy means that we are not dependent on the fossil fuels which are causing the climate to change.
We can join in.
We can give thanks that, when Donald Trump signalled that he would withdraw America from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the rest of the world and many American cities did not selfishly say ‘O well, we can take advantage of that and withdraw ourselves as well.’ No – they have stuck with it.
We can join in.
We can test every decision and every purchase we make against the test: ‘Will my decision do good or harm to God’s creation?’
We can join in in our daily prayers, allowing God to guide us in our decisions and in our daily lives.
Because God has not given up on this earth – and nor should we.
Revd David Read is a Retired Methodist Minister