Given by David Teall
26th September 2010
Alongside the large pool where boats turn around at the bottom of Foxton Locks near Market Harborough is a large area of unused land trapped between the canal and the farmland beyond. It is an impenetrable mass of nettles, thistles and brambles making it a complete no-go zone for all but the smallest animals which can sneak in at ground level. Every time I pass it I am reminded of the old story about a young priest who, having been brought up in a city, was sent to serve his curacy in a small village. Walking through the village one morning he stopped to talk to a farmer who was digging potatoes on his smallholding. “Isn’t it wonderful” he said to the farmer, “what God can produce from such a small piece of land?” The farmer scratched his head, looked around his field and replied: “He didn’t do so well when he had it to himself!”
What the young Curate had failed to express is that farming, like all successful human endeavours, is a partnership between man and God. When we come together each year for our Harvest Festival it is to thank both sides of that partnership for what they have given to us. We thank God for the animals and plants that feed us and for the land upon which they live and grow and we thank the farmers for their skill and labour in looking after the land, caring for the livestock and growing the crops and all those involved in bringing their produce to our table.
Our reading from Genesis this evening took us back to the very beginning of the partnership between God and man. The story, of course, is not a factual account of the mechanism of creation but a myth – a story that attempts to explain something of the nature of God in terms that we human beings can understand. As such it contains some essential truths that are as relevant today as when they were written including the nature of the partnership between God and man.
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
It is that word dominion that is the key to the partnership, but it is all too often quoted out of context. Other translations of the bible use either the word rule or reign, which are words that we are more familiar with, but to understand their meaning we have to look at the whole sentence. It begins: ‘Let us make humankind in our image.’ This is not talking about physical appearance but the very nature of God whom we know to be loving, caring and compassionate. It was only after He had given us the capacity to exercise these qualities that He went on to give us the responsibility of reigning over the rest of His creation. That is the essence of our continuing partnership with God: to have dominion over His world and to exercise that dominion with the same love, care and compassion that He shows to us.
Our New Testament reading, which is, in fact, a quotation from Jeremiah, looks forward to the day when the whole of mankind is working in perfect partnership with God.
They shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful towards their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.
The world has not reached that day yet, but the partnership between God and man has led to some huge advances in Agriculture, even over the very short period of my lifetime. When I was a young boy growing up in Nassington the corn was still cut with a reaper/binder and the sheaves placed in stooks in the field to dry before being carted back to the farm and stacked. The harvest, which involved every willing hand from the village, started in August and continued well into September or even October in a wet year. When the stacks were broken open later in the year to be threshed the average yield of wheat was around a ton per acre. Today the same fields are harvested by a team of three contractors in just a couple of weeks with average yields of over 3 tons per acre – a three-fold increase.
To the countless millions who have died of famine over the ages the prospect of a three-fold increase in food production would have seemed like the answer to all their prayers. Unfortunately, it has not turned out to be as simple as that. During the same period the world population has also increased three-fold, from
2 to 6 billion and the countries with the greatest population growth have not been those which have seen the greatest increases in yield. The world as a whole has more food, but there are more mouths to feed and an increasing need for those who have to help those who have not. This too is part of the deal – part of the covenant – part of our partnership with God.
And what of the future? The Human population of the earth is still growing rapidly and is expected to reach between 9 and 10 billion by the middle of this century – five times the population that I was born into. How are we, as Christians, going to respond to the huge challenges that this will bring to the world of agriculture and to our partnership with God as we exercise dominion over His world? There are going to be some very difficult decisions to be made.
The dramatic increase in crop yields over the last 60 years has been brought about largely by a combination of the increased use of artificial fertilisers and plant breeding. Many of the fertilisers are manufactured from raw materials such as natural gas, a commodity that is rapidly being consumed, mainly for energy by the affluent west. How are we to balance these competing demands on limited resources?
Increases in yield from the use of traditional plant breeding techniques appear to have reached a plateau. Scientists tell us that further advances will need the more refined techniques known collectively as Genetic Modification or GM. These techniques offer the prospect of crops that are resistant to disease and pests and so don’t need expensive, polluting sprays to control them; crops that will grow in less fertile soil; crops that will grow in much drier conditions. Are we to view the use of these techniques as mankind interfering in God’s realm – that of creation – or are they an example of the partnership between God and man working effectively to provide daily bread to more of His children?
We are privileged to live in one of the most beautiful and most productive parts of God’s earth and we enjoy the luxury of knowing that we have a bountiful supply of bread for our tables. This evening we offer thanks to both sides of the partnership that provide it for us. We thank God for His mercy, for His generosity, for His love, for His compassion. We thank the farmers and all those who work in the production line between field and table for their labour and for their faithfulness. We thank those who work in plant and animal breeding programmes and those who work in the agro-chemical industry for their valuable contributions towards increased yields. Finally, we pray for wisdom to discern a path through the difficult decisions that face us that will keep faith with and honour our partnership with God. Amen.