“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear…”
Don’t worry! This is a bold message from Jesus in our gospel reading this morning. And yet, it is easier said than done. In my experience, when someone tells me not to worry I immediately conclude that there is something to worry about.
There seems to be a good deal to worry about in the world today. It hardly needs the preacher to inform members of the wonderful Yorkshire Agricultural Society that this region is not spared anxiety. We only have to mention the ‘B’ word (Brexit) to remind people that those engaged in agriculture, like everyone else in this nation, are living with uncertainly about how the future will look. And quite apart from that, there are persistent threatening challenges for rural communities: issues of isolation, rural transport and general connectivity, affordable housing, the sustainability of small communities, the viability of some schools even in medium size villages. Some of you could list more and expound at length.
Today, Jesus says “Don’t worry.” And immediately we think about the worries of the world that go well beyond Yorkshire and the UK: Syria, the Middle East, North Korea, the threat of terrorism in Europe, famine-ridden parts of Africa, the poor people of the Caribbean and southern states of America following recent storms. Are these people singing, “All is safely gathered in.”? And none of this is to mention any personal anxieties we have.
“Don’t worry!” we hear. Surely, it is hard not to do so. The world has problems and the future is always uncertain, as the man building bigger barns was to learn.
But then, isn’t this the point? It has always been natural to worry – for good reason. This is why the most frequently repeated command in the Bible is “Fear Not. Don’t worry.” In other words, trust in God’s providence, despite everything.
We come today to celebrate the harvest. A good harvest seems to provide evidence that God can be trusted, at least by some. He hears their prayers, blesses their efforts and delivers the harvest. But what if God seems impartial. If he seems to listen to the prayers of some more than others?
The century-old verse grapples humorously with this mystery,
The Duke of Rutland urged The Times to pray
For rain: the rain came down the following day.
The pious marvelled, the sceptics murmured ‘fluke’;
And farmers late with hay said, “Confound that Duke!”
How do we make some sense of this?
In our Old Testament lesson, we hear from the Book of Deuteronomy. The people Israel were on the brink of crossing the Jordon into the Promised Land. Moses was about to die on Mount Nebo, from where he could view the land that he would never enter. Moses knew already that it was a rich and fertile land, a land flowing with milk and honey. It sounds just like Yorkshire, don’t you think. We probably even have people growing pomegranates and olive trees in these parts. When I had a parish on the north bank of the Tees, I used to joke with my parishioners that I felt like Moses – looking over the river to the Promised Land.
We find Moses counselling the people. They were not to think that their good fortune in entering such a rich and fertile land was down to their own goodness or rights. They needed to get a proper perspective by taking the longer view. They were to remember how much God had done for them in the past, bringing them to freedom and sustaining them through the problems and uncertainties of the wilderness. Now they would eat and have their fill, they would be rich; but only by being faithful to God, by keeping his commandments and working with him. “It is God who gives you power to get wealth.” Moses asserted.
And later in Deuteronomy, in Chapter 26, Moses told Israel that once they were living in the Land, they should bring the first part of their harvest as a gift to God – an expression of gratitude and an acknowledgement that it was indeed a gift from God and a product of their working in partnership with him.
What was true on the eve of Israel’s entry into the promised land is still true in Yorkshire, the UK, the world today. This Harvest celebration thereby prompts us to thank God and to put our trust in him.
Knowing the wider concerns of the world and, in these especially uncertain times, accepting that we cannot take our blessings and privileges for granted, only leads us to be even more grateful to God and open to supporting those who, though in need, are no less precious to God than we are. Is it that God has heard our prayers more than theirs? Is it that we are more deserving than they? Surely not.
There is a lesson. Trusting in God, not being overcome by fear, doesn’t let us off working in partnership with God. Christ isn’t saying, don’t worry – and don’t bother doing anything, I will simply provide. Moses is assuming that Israel will work in partnership with God to produce the harvest – for everyone’s benefit, including the less fortunate and the foreigner living with them.
As with the teaching of Jesus and Moses, the harvest encourages us to trust God in a way that frees us to work in a fruitful partnership with him. Yes, the world has problems, it always has had. Yes, life is uncertain, it always will be. But, we are not to be paralysed by fear and anxiety, rather released for work and uniting our efforts by trust and hope.
In this celebration, then, we also thank those who have used their God-given skills to produce and distribute the harvest. And we thank God for them.
And we celebrate and thank God for the efforts of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society – working in partnership with God, we would say, to face up to the sort of problems and issues that could so easily lead to destructive, paralysing worry.
Going beyond the Great Yorkshire Show, for which it is famous, the Yorkshire Agricultural Society is clear about its objectives:
– To support and promote agricultural, rural and allied industries throughout the North of England;
– To advance and encourage agricultural research and greater understanding and empathy with farming and the countryside;
– To advance and encourage the protection and sustainability of the environment.
So, a huge amount is done in the area of education. There are important food and farming networks. There is the coordination of statutory and charitable agencies through the Yorkshire Rural Support Network; this offers practical, financial, medical, and emotional support. There are efforts to counter the threat of isolation.
As with the harvest, the fruits of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s efforts are to be celebrated. Those using their skills and industry within YAS are to be thanked. And God, who makes it all possible, is to be praised.