You could be forgiven for not realising that we are now in the middle of Harvest Festival season. In Ceredigion at least there remains a strong tradition of attending harvest services not only in our own place of worship but also in neighbouring chapels and churches and listening to guest preachers. Everyone wants to hear the 'new kid on the block' and in the first few years after my ordination I preached at up to fifteen services within the space of a few weeks! This year I have one such service in the only church that we have been able to re-open.
While this year's celebration will be very different I am sure that many people will be glad to be able to come together to give thanks to God for the harvest. While the Harvest Festival is a Victorian invention the 'harvest' is an important theme and image in the Holy Bible. In the Old Testament especially the harvest is frequently employed as a reflection of the moral behaviour and religious life of the Jews. The harvest is seen as a response to Israel's obedience or disobedience to God's commands. If they are obedient the harvest is abundant, if they are disobedient the harvest fails and famine and suffering ensues.
Given that the harvest was absolutely essential to the lives of the ancient Jews, it's no surprise that liberal use is made of harvest imagery throughout the Old Testament. In the New Testament Jesus develops this theme and presents the harvest in two main ways: firstly to illustrate the opportunities and obligations in the present time, and secondly as a symbol of the last days and his second coming at the end of this age.
In John's Gospel for example, Jesus explains that with the harvest of the fields there is an interval, a period of time, between the sowing and the reaping - four months according to the Palestinian agricultural practice.
This is not so with the harvest of heaven. Jesus' birth began the final spiritual harvest, and so now in our day the sowing and the harvesting coincide, and are happening at the same time. I'm sure that the farmers and gardeners would be delighted if the same were true of the harvest of the fields!
Jesus does however acknowledge the importance and value of the labours of his predecessors - especially John the Baptist, and also all the writers and prophets of the Old Testament, but the chief sower for Christians is Jesus himself. Even with the spiritual harvest you cannot have harvesting without sowing, and this is the inheritance of all followers of Jesus, the fields into which they are sent to labour.
This is the difference between the earthly harvest and the spiritual harvest. With the spiritual harvest the sower labours as he sows, and at the same time earns his wages by harvesting the fruits of the labours of others. The wage he receives is life everlasting which is available to all who believe.
We can easily understand the natural pattern of the harvest of the field, but the harvest of heaven is more difficult to fathom, which is why Jesus speaks of it in relation to our earthly harvest. It is a timely reminder that each one of us has been blessed with God given talents, and that those talents are entrusted to us to make the most of, to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbours and ourselves. These talents are as varied as we are, and each one is equally important as another. Quiet care and service, as important as public leadership and oversight.
I'm sure that not many of us think of our lives in terms of reaping and sowing and yet it is our responsibility to use the gifts which God has given to us as we work in his harvest. We are set an ideal example to aspire to, but we know that we will fail to achieve that perfection. That does not however prevent us from trying our best, and only our best is good enough.
As Freemasons perhaps we are better equipped to understand the notion of the spiritual harvest, albeit that we express it in different terms and illustrate it with other symbols and imagery. In our fraternity we are part of an inheritance, and we benefit from the fruits of the labours of our forebears, as we ourselves encourage new bretheren and aspiring members. We are part of a continuum handed on brother to brother over the generations.
We have the wonderful and glorious example of so many, the late much loved and lamented VW Bro Brian Hilling being foremost in our thoughts at this time. We trust that he has now passed from his labours to his reward. We both benefit from their wisdom, what we have learnt from them, and we are encouraged by their example, what they have achieved.
The ritual tells us what is expected of us in this life, the manner in which we are to live, and that one day we will have to give an account of our actions, and none us knows when that will be. There will be a day of reckoning when our labours will be scrutinised, the fruits of our labours placed in the balance, and our reward determined - each one according to his individual talents and the work set before him.
For now, as we sow and reap, we lift up your eyes and look, what sort of fields do we see around us, what sort of harvest do we expect to find at our feet? The harvest is ready, our labours before us. Let us not be idle or reluctant, but let us trust in God and be about our business, his business.
Let us go out to fulfil God's work prepared for us - to sow and to reap, to live and to work as faithful and committed craftsmen, encouraged by the example of those who have gone before, and enabled by the God of the harvest.
"I offer the prayer of General Thanksgiving which gives thanks to God for all his good gifts and commends ourselves to his service"
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
We thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men; We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end.