And who's to say where the harvest shall stop?


The 1934 Disney short cartoon illustrating Aesop's fable The Ant and the Grasshopper embedded below was one of the "readings" in the service so it will help to watch this at the outset. However, aside from it's immediate relevance to this address, it is remains a delight in and of itself. Go on, treat yourself! 


Luke 12:13-21 (NRSV)


Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

*****

Marcus Tullius Cicero - "The Sword of Damocles" from the Tuscan Dialogues trans. C. D. Yonge

[Dionysius] showed himself how happy he really was; for once, when Damocles, one of his flatterers, was dilating in conversation on his forces, his wealth, the greatness of his power, the plenty he enjoyed, the grandeur of his royal palaces, and maintaining that no one was ever happier, "Have you an inclination," said he, "Damocles, as this kind of life pleases you, to have a taste of it yourself, and to make a trial of the good fortune that attends me?” And when he said that he should like it extremely, Dionysius ordered him to be laid on a bed of gold with the most beautiful covering, embroidered and wrought with the most exquisite work, and he dressed out a great many sideboards with silver and embossed gold. He then ordered some youths, distinguished for their handsome persons, to wait at his table, and to observe his nod, in order to serve him with what he wanted. There were ointments and garlands; perfumes were burned; tables provided with the most exquisite meats. Damocles thought himself very happy. In the midst of this apparatus, Dionysius ordered a bright sword to be let down from the ceiling, suspended by a single horse-hair, so as to hang over the head of that happy man. After which he neither cast his eye on those handsome waiters, nor on the well-wrought plate; nor touched any of the provisions: presently the garlands fell to pieces. At last he entreated the tyrant to give him leave to go, for that now he had no desire to be happy. Does not Dionysius, then, seem to have declared there can be no happiness for one who is under constant apprehensions? But it was not now in his power to return to justice, and restore his citizens their rights and privileges; for, by the indiscretion of youth, he had engaged in so many wrong steps and committed such extravagances, that, had he attempted to have returned to a right way of thinking, he must have endangered his life.

*****

"Gathering Leaves"
by Robert Frost

Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.


I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
Running away.


But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.


I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?


Next to nothing for weight;
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.


Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who's to say where
The harvest shall stop?


*****

It seems to be an unalloyed good whenever a harvest provides us with a crop whose abundance is such that we are able to gather a little extra into our barns for later use. Experience of countless generations teaches us that the harvest next year may not be so good and, if so, we may need this extra bounty. Or possibly a neighbour's crop will fail and then our own stores can be used to tide them over - a goodwill gesture which, over the centuries, developed into the remarkable, practical and wonderful idea of insurance. But, in addition to these common-sense practices, we have inherited a sense that there is something important to be said for offering up with thanksgiving the "first fruits" of our harvests (cf. Leviticus 23:10). Connected with this, even as one gives up the "first fruits" freely to God this same God insists that: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien" (Leviticus 23:22).

Yet, for all this, the obvious goods of the harvest also provide opportunities for the development of selfish and lazy lifestyles and of hubris resulting in a wildly distorted overestimation of both human power and human purpose. Jesus points us to both in his parable. As a culture, we have not heeded this warning and have slowly delivered up to ourselves a global system that cannot work without a belief in infinite growth and profit. To believe that this is either realistic or sustainable is clearly to have descend into an hubristic madness, a madness which now threatens, not only the health and well-being of the single greedy rich man in Jesus' parable, but our whole planet.

I realise that this is not a happy thought to have at harvest time but if, today, we are going to have a genuinely joyous harvest celebration that is not merely a sentimental whistling in the wind, we have to begin by acknowledging this.

Indeed, as I reread Jesus' parable this year I was strongly minded of the story about Damocles. A story which eloquently reminds us that whenever we inhabit the world in such a hubristic way a sword will always be hanging over our heads by the thinnest of threads. As Cicero put it in his "Tusculan Disputations": "Does not Dionysius seem to have made it sufficiently clear that there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms?" Does not this looming fear nag us all as whenever we see the misuse of our culture's many abundant harvests?

But Harvest should *not* be a time of looming fear and anxiety but, instead, one of joy and thanksgiving and, even though we should rightly remain concerned about whether the harvest will be abundant, this day needs to become again for us a time when we experience not a fearful sword hung above us born of human-kind's desire to rule and lord it *over* the world, but a day of gratitude for our intimate comminglement *in* this extraordinary world.

It is this gratitude for the harvest and an associated sense of joyful and trusting comminglement in the world that I want to make visible in the hope that today we may experience just a tiny taste of the grace of God's giving.

It is clear that for there to be a harvest of the kind Jesus thought was desirable it must have a certain kind of depth to it. I take it that he means even as we gather an obvious harvest and "store up treasures for ourselves" we must simultaneously be gathering another by "being rich toward God". It is this second harvest that has the power to pull us away from the ends chosen by either the rich man or our present culture.

One way to reconnect with this other necessary harvest is by deliberately gathering something obvious that is of far less importance for our immediate survival than, say, wheat, rice or potatoes. By collecting such a "secondary" crop we can more easily see whether we are, in fact, "being rich toward God."

I know of no better such "secondary" crop than autumn leaves, a crop which leads me as a necessity requires to Robert Frost's 1923 poem "Gathering Leaves":

Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.


I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
Running away.


But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.


I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?


Next to nothing for weight;
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.


Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who's to say where
The harvest shall stop?


Frost presents us with an activity that under normal harvest circumstances would be deeply frustrating. One's tools aren't really up to the harvest task and the bags one eventually fills remain worryingly light. All that seems to happen is one makes of a lot of noise and a proper grasping hold of the crop (that is to say the gathering of the crop) remains utterly illusive. Even when the crop is gathered it's lack of weight remains disturbing and the one obvious fruit of the harvest - the wonderful colours of the leaves - is disappearing even as one is gathering them. It is a crop, as he says, "next to nothing for use". If all these things were the case with our gathering of wheat, rice or potatoes we would be left distraught and, of course, rightly so. But remember, that this is a poem written to help us see that "secondary" crop.

We begin to see this because the images Frost uses to present this frustrating harvest are, by contrast, beautiful, joyous, fun and even comic. Our spades are big spoons and our bags balloons. The noise we make is like that made by the beautiful rabbit and deer and our failure to grasp is transfigured into the delightful experience of leaves tumbling over us - a delight we can all remember experiencing as children. Indeed I cannot but think that this poem is an illustration of Jesus' teaching that only those who become as little children will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18). But we are children no longer and so Frost moves us seamlessly from the childish joy of the opening stanzas to some of the worries that adulthood brings, about weight, colour and use. However, Frost does not allow us to stop there but, with the momentum of the childish joy he has just evoked in us behind him he pushes us on to see that "a crop *is* a crop" and that what counts as a harvest does not merely stop at weight, colour and use.

It's the kind of harvest which helps us see, like the grasshopper in the Disney short, not that "the world owes us a living"  but that we owe "the world our living"; a harvest whose fruit becomes the kind love and compassion which lets the ants and the Ant Queen forgive and draw the foolish grasshopper into their fold and which, in turn, frees the grasshopper to repent and mend his ways. They discover they need each other - the ants learn the joy of singing and dancing and the grasshopper learns to live more appropriately in the world - both their lives together produce yet another fruit. It's the kind of harvest that shows we are indeed 'being rich toward God' which, as Jesus taught, is also to be rich toward our neighbour.

It is only through the shared fruits of both harvests that we can hope to remove from above our head (in our imaginations and in reality) the sword of fear and to approach the common table, appropriately and with joyous thanksgiving together, with God and our neighbour, to eat, drink and be merry.
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