Feed the Poor First

Sunday 1st October 2017
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Harvest
Deuteronomy 8.7-18
2 Corinthians 9.6-13

One of my previous incumbents referred to Harvest as the Feast of Saint Pumpkin and All Marrows. As a new entrant into the Church of England in a semi-rural parish, I could see what he meant: the church full of the aforesaid pumpkins and marrows, sheaves of wheat, plaited bread and tinned and packeted goods for the poor of the Parish. Coming from a Roman Catholic Parish in a Northern Mill town it all looked ever so slightly histrionic; the ecclesiastical version of a pantomime with no baddies.

Now I'm not knocking entertainment in Church - there's far too little of it - but if we look behind the bucolic nostalgia back to our First Reading we will find ourselves in an age when a failed harvest spelt disaster and in many parts of the world it still does. Even in the 19th Century English agriculture was subject to crop failure and, later on, to economic depression but for all the ritualistic grumbling of the agriculture sector today, the industry - and it now is an industry - is underpinned by subsidy.

If we go back to the time of Deuteronomy we will recognise that agriculture then was even less secure than it is in India or Africa now and yet there were strict laws both on leaving the corners of the harvested field for the poor and laws on gleaning. No matter how pinched were the circumstances of the harvesters, they still had to remember those who had nothing. That was at a time when there was no central taxation except for the Temple and the levy of any occupying dictator and what strikes the careful Biblical reader is that the imperative of compassion and social justice in the Book of Deuteronomy exceeds anything known in Britain until the end of the 19th Century when serious discussion began about unemployment benefit, health insurance and pensions.

There is an easy point to make here that our celebration of Harvest should really be opened out to be both a celebration of all work but also a reminder to us to be better stewards of the planet. These are very good points in their way: in the case of work, many rich people have become work addicts and many poor people slaves, neither having anything to celebrate; in the case of stewardship, the observation that the climate models of 2005 have proved to be inaccurate does not mean that the overall picture is not bad, it simply means that it is becoming bad more slowly, giving us more time to make a corrective.

But in spite of the merits of these two topics, I believe that the important message of Harvest is that in a world of work where we all depend on each other for everything from pumpkins to porta cabins, from marrows to motorways, the necessity of mutually observed rules to govern our frequently unruly individuality is obvious; left to ourselves we can soon get out of control, only checked by the fear of consequences; but societies based on fear rapidly deteriorate into mutual mistrust and then into anarchy.

At this point I may be getting into an area of controversy but it's unavoidable. From the end of the 17th Century this country was known for its respect for the rule of law and, in a more common sense expression, for "Playing the game" but whichever side of the EU argument we are on it is indisputable that many people resent mutually agreed rules and want the benefits of the club without obeying the rules or paying the fees. A more recent case is the resentment against mutually agreed rules on what constitutes development assistance where the Government wants to change the rules to fund its hurricane relief to Caribbean tax havens from the development budget. Then there is the current Parliamentary Bill to repatriate all EU law into the UK with powers of amendment by Ministers without reference to Parliament.

Nothing but disaster will stem from allowing the powerful to tear up rule books for their own advantage and, related to that, and equally serious - going back to the Old Testament rules on gleaning - the cutting of taxes for the rich and the cutting of the benefits for the poor will be catastrophic. All the fragile, civilising infrastructure of rules, mutual dependence and fairness is in danger of being destroyed in the name of liberty; but when liberty is ranked higher than democracy or fairness it is a philosophical cover for ranking the personal over the collective. And this has spilled over into regarding the payment of taxation not as a privilege but as an unpleasant imposition at best and as an evil in itself at worst. But when the Harvest was celebrated - and when we celebrate it in our rather modern, shallow way - the joy is not at the profits of an individual farmer, it is a collective joy concerned with the viability and health of society.

In our Second Reading from Saint Paul again there is an easy point in saying that we have made wealth an idol but that, I think, masks a much greater problem which is that we have made ourselves idols; we worship ourselves. It is quite bad enough to worship silver and gold but it is much worse to worship ourselves because pride is much more harmful than greed.

At the lowest level, there are many people who respect mutuality in a defensive way, figuring out that if we steal we sanction other people stealing from us; at a higher level, some people accept Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, enshrined in human rights legislation, that to behave well is rational; at a higher level still, some people believe that to be altruistic is a moral imperative whether or not it is of mutual benefit; but helpful though these things are, what sets us apart as Christians is that God in Jesus has told his followers that they must rank pursuing his mission of social and economic justice with worshipping God. Harvest reminds us that we, as followers of an earthly Jesus, are not to operate in the realms of wispy mysticism but must get stuck in to the life of the earth, of ploughing and sowing, weeding and hoeing and, if we're lucky, reaping; and if we are lucky enough to reap then we must feed the poor first.

Kevin Carey

1st October 2017