Sermon for Mattins for Harvest Festival at St Mary’s on 21st September 2014
Deut.8:1-10, 1 Cor. 15:35-44

Apparently many children today are not quite sure where sausages or chicken nuggets or hamburgers come from. They even have the same sort of difficulty with beans, especially baked beans. They think that perhaps they come from a special chicken nugget or baked bean factory! There is often consternation when the truth comes out, and they realise that they are eating what was once a bird, a chicken, or a cow – and that the delicious tomatoey baked beans were actually rather boring white things when they were harvested.

Some children even think that food somehow miraculously materialises from the supermarket, that Waitrose or Sainsbury’s is where chicken nuggets and the other favourites come from: and they don’t really look behind that.

Harvest Festival is a time for some gentle correctives to these thoughts. There are a few prize marrows and other large, improbable vegetables which people have grown in their gardens and which they bring to church in celebration of the fertility of their garden.

But the children’s greatest source of food, the supermarket, also provides a lot of the food which we bring to church at Harvest Festival, in tins, in packets, in bags: and leaving aside for the moment the question where the food came from, we can say that another important thing about Harvest Festival is where the food is going to go: that we intend to give the food to people who don’t have enough to eat. That’s fine.

But I sometimes wonder whether it’s not just children who, in a way, think that food just comes, just comes from the supermarket, and don’t look behind it to piece together the full creation story.

It’s rather tempting, even for us, not to worry where the food comes from, if the food just comes. Most of us are fortunate enough to have enough money to be able to go into Waitrose or Sainsbury’s, or to the fish van, to the Patisserie or to Conisbee’s or to the Surrey Hills butcher in Oxshott – and just pick up the food that we need, that our families need.

Because we’re grown-ups, we know that the meat and the fish don’t just come from steak trees or salmon bushes, and we know that peas and beans have to be grown and harvested. We’re pleased when the beans come from a farm in Surrey or Sussex. We sort of don’t mind when the beans come from Kenya, because we feel we’re helping to support the economy of a poorer country by buying their beans – and they are very good beans.

Some people say, in the light of this, that there’s not much point in worrying about the question of creation. They look at the creation stories in Genesis – God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh – and they dismiss it all as being just picturesque stories with no scientific basis in fact.

They go further than that because they say that just because the Creation story in Genesis is clearly just a story, and we now know better about how things are created, as a result of Darwin’s work, for example: that things just evolve, and through the principle of the survival of the fittest, they get better, more apt for their purposes, as each generation comes forward; because of that, there’s no need to think about a creator or a sustainer of life.

The stuff just gets made, it just grows, it turns up at Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, we buy it and we eat it. There’s no need really to think about a creator any more. Things just work anyway. That’s what people say.

But imagine that you could in fact construct all the physical bits that go to make up a living thing, say, a seed for potatoes. Supposing your seed had all the right biological makeup so that it was just like a naturally occurring seed. And if you planted your synthetic seed in the ground alongside a naturally occurring one, what would happen? I’m pretty sure that in the current state of knowledge at least, our synthetic seed would not grow. There is no spark of life in it, whereas a naturally occurring seed, which has been grown in a nursery, Tozers for example at Pyports, will, if you plant it and water it, have a very good chance of growing into a plant and having life.

St Paul makes the distinction in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, chapter 3: ‘I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.’ It does seem to be still true that God gives life. We can infer our way back to the presence of God precisely because we can’t ultimately create life.

We can create all the things which may give rise to life: we can mess about with genetics so as to create cloned sheep like Dolly; we can certainly interfere with genetics by selective breeding; but what we can’t do is to provide that spark of life.

For many people who feel there’s no need to look behind the supermarket, that might tempt them into becoming atheists. No need to bother with a creator. No need to think about how that creator might regard us, if you think there is no need to be concerned about how and why our supermarket basket can be filled with such wonderful things. I’m afraid that accounts for quite a lot of people today.

But supposing you turn the thing on its head, and you say clearly that, although we know it grows, we don’t know what starts it growing, what that spark of life is, that makes a real seed, a naturally occurring seed, grow, whereas the synthetic seed, which we have made up from artificial materials, stays inert. If we accept that it is God the creator at work, then all of a sudden the idea that all you need to bother about is how you get hold of things, from the supermarket or wherever, not where they ultimately come from – all of a sudden, that idea becomes very inadequate.

Because if there is a creator, if we accept that there is a creator, that our seed will not grow unless God gives the increase, then it’s very difficult to ignore the presence of the creator. Moreover, because creation, and what we would now call sustainability in creation, clearly does happen, because seeds do grow, we can see the tracks of God. We can see God at work.

The harvest shows us that God is sustaining our world. It’s another dimension, a spiritual aspect, to what we see and enjoy. Hence the various places in the Bible which suggest that the physical things, which we use or which nourish us physically, are not the only things we need. ‘Man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’ comes in Deuteronomy, in our first lesson this morning, and Jesus quotes it when he is being tempted by the Devil in the wilderness [Matt.4:4].

And then – you see – it all goes much further. St Paul realises that the power he sees at work in creation, what makes the seed, just a bare seed, grow into something quite different, is the key to understanding – well, maybe not fully understanding, but believing in, the resurrection of the dead at the end. The key is how God’s creative power transforms and grows things. ‘Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed’ (1 Cor. 15:51).

Now, what price your scientific scoffing, the sort of thing Richard Dawkins says here? If you can just ignore creation, and get the wherewithal for your life just from the supermarket, is that enough? Would you really want to pass up the possibility that there is so much more, that you can have so much more?

I say that we should see harvest, by all means the harvest here at Harvest Festival, and the harvest we can get any time from Waitrose, as signs of something altogether greater. It’s not just what you pay at the checkout. There is an eternal checkout to consider too. ‘It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: … It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.’ So remember –

We plough the fields and scatter
The good seed on the land.
But it is fed and watered
By God’s almighty hand. M.Claudius, tr. Jane M. Campbell