The poet John Keats called Autumn a time of “Season’s mists and mellow fruitfulness”. It is also a time when seeds are falling to the ground. Near our garage there are lots of conkers which have fallen from a very large tree. This year there seems to be a bumper harvest of them. If left on the ground some of them may find their way to germinate and sprout, if the squirrels don’t run off with them first and there is quite a bumper gathering of them too.
These seeds and the new trees are part of the pattern of life and this rich biodiversity sustains other life as well as being beautiful in its own right. One of the largest trees is the Cedar of Lebanon. Mentioned in the Bible as a symbol of strength and stability, some of them live for thousands of years. They have capped Lebanon’s mountaintops and been used to build ships, the resin bought by the ancient Egyptians to mummify the dead. But they now face their biggest challenge, Climate Change.
These mighty trees, until recently covered an area of around 1,900 square miles. That’s roughly the size of Trinidad and Tobago, or more locally 2.5 Cambridgeshires, double the size of Northamptonshire and it equates to 14 Peterboroughs. With that size in our heads, this has been decimated to just 7.7 square miles, which is a reduction to 0.5% of its former size. 7.7 square miles is roughly double the size of Oundle, or about the size of Lake Windermere – a fraction of what it was.
The reason is shorter winters. Less snow affects the ecosystem. The seedlings normally stay buried in the snow for about 2 or 3 months, but are now germinating in February rather than April. This makes them vulnerable to further cold snaps. The Cedar is a slow grower, not producing any cones until it’s about 40 or 50 years old. It’s only after 100 years that it develops its distinctive shape with branches stretching parallel to the ground. It is a beautiful, magnificent sight.
I was given a sapling the other day as a way of remembering the Lebanon, its challenges of climate, economy, civil war and of course the recent explosion which ripped through the city of Beirut. It was in aid of Embrace Middle East, a Christian relief charity working in Lebanon. It will be several generations before this tree is fully mature, so I won’t see it. Hopefully someone will, but it can stay in a pot for a bit yet. That makes it a sign of confidence in God’s future, which extends beyond us, and therefore of hope for a troubled place.
When we celebrate harvest we give thanks for the fruits of the earth which sustain us. We also reflect on the world in which we live and the forms of life with which we share it. We give thanks for God’s provision and renew our confidence in God’s future. In a time of pandemic fear the restoration of hope in our troubled place is welcome. It is engendered through our thanksgiving for God’s promises, that life is sacred and blessed.
The Environmental Emergency facing us has now been so well publicised that it would require wilful avoidance to not know about it, the blindness of those who will not see. A piece on Radio 4 a few weeks ago caught my attention, because rather than being the usual warning shout of devastation and gloom, it turned the message round to be a celebration of the earth.
Martin Palmer was being interviewed about ‘Celebration Earth’, a project to tell stories of what it is we celebrate about the earth. The simple premise is that if something is worth saving it is worth celebrating and if it is worth celebrating it is worth saving. No one, he says, is changed by a pie chart. It is stories that change us, stories of how we can be and are different. Those turn us around and get us moving in a different direction.
So the warnings are needed to tell us how urgent it all is. But on their own they can paralyse in fear and despondency. Celebrating, being thankful for the earth and all that creation is, inspires a different way to be. Harvest brings us that opportunity. It is an approach rooted in that fundamental Christian vision of living the Kingdom of God, where we aim to be the future we long for and act as if it were already here. The Greek word for that is prolepsis, which means to throw ahead or anticipate and it is a device used quite a lot in the gospel of John, among others.
Harvest Festival is a celebration of creation, of all that sustains our living and the astounding beauty of all the good gifts around us. As we celebrate so we are inspired to treasure and live in harmony with it for the wellbeing of the earth, our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of all.
No one is changed by a pie chart. What changes us is story, the story of how a seed becomes one of the mightiest trees. Celebrating the beauty and wonder of the story of creation inspires living in harmony with it to the glory of God.
Sermon for Harvest, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 27th September 2020.