Harvest Reflection

Given by David Teall
26th September 2010
Genesis 1

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.

Pentecost 2010

Given by David Teall
23rd May 2010
Genesis 11

The story of the Tower of Babel is an intriguing one that comes early in the Book of Genesis.  In the preceding chapters of this gripping, fast-moving adventure story full of sex and violence we have heard about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their fall from grace through disobedience of God.  And about Cain and Abel and their descendants and how they formed a society so full of wickedness that God decided to wipe mankind from the face of the earth.  Fortunately though, as usually happens in the early chapters of an adventure story, there was a good kid on the block – a man named Noah – so mankind survived.  Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, and their wives survived the flood and through them the world was re‑populated.  It was their descendents who built the Tower of Babel.

In attempting to build their tower “with its top in the heavens” the descendants of Noah were attempting to put themselves on a level with or above God, just like Adam and Eve did when they ate the forbidden fruit.  What I find most interesting though, is the method God used to deal with their arrogance.  He “confused their language so that they would not understand one another’s speech.”

God knew that the ability to communicate with one another gave Noah’s descendents great power, and like all such gifts, that power could be used both for good and evil.  That is still the case today.  The rapidly-growing power of the Internet and the increasing use of English as an International language is taking us back to the position of Noah’s descendents in the land of Shinar when the whole population of the world were able to communicate with one another.  Will we use that power wisely for the glory of God, or will we use it to attempt to build another Tower of Babel and set ourselves above God?  Intriguing though that question is, I will leave it for you to ponder as I would like to focus our thoughts on some of the problems of understanding even our own language.

What have you been thinking as I have been talking about the stories in Genesis?  It’s all a load of rubbish?  We weren’t created in the Garden of Eden: we evolved from apes.  How could Noah possibly have built an ark big enough for a pair of all the animals on earth?  How did he stop the lions eating the antelope?  What about the dinosaurs?

You will not be surprised to hear that I have spent much of my time during my three-year course to train as a Reader studying the Bible.  One of the most interesting and liberating things I have learnt about is the many different styles and genres found in this best-selling book of all time.  Our Bible contains 39 books in the Old Testament, 27 books in the New Testament and up to 16 or even more books in the Apocrypha depending upon which have been included in the version you buy.  These 80 or more books were written by at least 40 different authors over a period of time spanning at least 1600 years.  Some are History, some are Law.  Some are Prophecy, some are Poetry.  Some are Letters, some are Biography.  Each book was written with a particular audience in mind and, in modern parlance, given a particular ‘spin’ to make the content relevant to them.

The authors of these books used many different literary devices to get their message over including, where appropriate, metaphor and myth.  Today we think of a myth as a legend or fairy-tale, but its proper meaning is to describe the actions of God in terms of this world.  That’s an impossible task, of course, but writers over the ages have felt compelled to try, as have painters, musicians and artists of all kinds.

If we read the Bible, as unfortunately some do, as if it was all written in the style of a 21st century history book we will fail to understand the truth that it contains.  The Book of Genesis is a whole collection of stories, many of which are Myth – an attempt to describe the actions of God in terms of this world.  Once we accept it as such we can dismiss the misguided criticisms of Richard Dawkins and his followers with the sadness they engender and see through to the real truth that it contains and understand its relevance to us today.  That is how the myth of the Tower of Babel can give us an insight into the development of the Internet.

The story of the coming of the Holy Spirit in our Pentecost Reading from the Acts of the Apostles is another Myth.  Not a legend; not a fairy-tale, but an attempt to describe the actions of God in terms of this world.

The use of both wind and fire in the description is an example of writing for a specific audience in a specific time and place.  Wind and fire are both used in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, to describe God’s self-revelation and the words for wind, both in Hebrew and Greek, are closely associated with spirit.

Relieved of the impossible task of trying to understand the story of Pentecost in literal terms we can begin to understand its true meaning:  The Spirit of God is for all people regardless of race, colour or creed.

I find that the concept of the Holy Spirit is actually easier to understand than to describe.  For me, it is strongly linked with the concept of the soul which I visualise as that part of a human being in which the Spirit of God resides if we will but let him in.  When we do allow the spirit in we are inspired, a word that literally means breathed on, by God.  When we are inspired in this way, our actions can be recognised as the work of God by people throughout the world, regardless of their faith or what language they speak.  The word of God needs no translation.

We witnessed a dramatic example of the action of the Holy Spirit on Boxing Day 2004 when we heard the dreadful news of the Asian Tsunami.  People throughout the world were moved to help in whatever way they could.  The voice of the Holy Spirit calling us to help was heard by people throughout the world, each in our own language.  It recognised no boundaries and accepted no limitations. 

Mercifully, events on the scale of the Boxing Day Tsunami are rare, but the power of the Holy Spirit is not just for emergencies: it is for today and every day.  If we will but let him in to our lives he can and will help us in everything that we do.  Look again at the prayer we said together at the beginning of this service:

As we wait in silence,
fill us with your Spirit.

As we listen to your word,
fill us with your Spirit.

and last of all:

As we long for your empowering,
fill us with your Spirit.

Fill us with your spirit.  That is our prayer for today, and every day.

Now have a look forward if you would at the back page of your Order of Service at the section entitled the Commission.  Here, at the end of the service, I shall ask you to go out into the world empowered by the Holy Spirit.  As you speak the words of the Creed in a few moments, and as we offer our prayers to God, open your hearts to him and ask him to fill you with his Holy Spirit so that, during the Commission you can answer boldly: 

By the power of the Spirit, we will.