As we were driving back along the A1 last Sunday, I saw a huge plume of dust drifting across the carriageway. It was so thick that it was like driving through dense fog.
And if I’d have been able to stop, I would have done. (I didn’t think it was too wise, given that I was in the outside lane at the time!)
The dust plume was caused by a combine harvester working in the field, bringing in the last of the harvest.
The aroma of freshly-cut corn (or, more likely, wheat) took me right back to my childhood.
When my village was entirely surrounded by farmland and such a smell was the epitome of harvest time.
(So, I seem to recall, was the acrid stench of the stubble being burned shortly afterwards, but let’s quietly airbrush that from our minds!)
So there I was, just for a moment, harking back to my childhood, when harvest was harvest. When we had such a strong connection with the local countryside.
And – at least in my romantic recollections of the era! – all our food came straight from the ground onto our plates without going via some huge processing factory.
Of course, it hasn’t been like that for years. The food industry has a very bad reputation, but what it manages to do is to ensure that the food we do produce keeps longer and gives us more variety in what we are able to eat.
You only need to go into a supermarket or look at the donations we’ve received towards the Foodbank to marvel at the work of the home economists who devise all these sumptuous recipes, giving us an endless array of instantly available and easy to cook food.
But before I go off on another spell of reminiscing about the past, I think it’s only right to spend a moment or two thinking of such abundance.
Our supermarkets are stacked with tens of thousands of different items, many of them similar. You might have seen the coverage of the new Tesco offshoot, Jack’s, being launched this week.
Jack’s will have a product range of about 2500 items, under a tenth of the number carried in a typical superstore. Even in Jack’s, we’d be hard pressed to buy one of every item over a decade.
It’s not just our supermarkets that are packed to the gunnels. Our homes are, too. One of the real growth industries over the last few years has been the rise of self-storage units.
There are now almost 1500 of these in the UK, double the number there were 10 years ago, offering a staggering 42.2 million square feet of storage throughout the land.
There’s inevitably an industry-wide association, hosting the Excellence in Self-Storage Awards – some 50 in total every year, ranging from “pricing transparency” to “social media presence”.
And what do we all put in these facilities? Things we’ve spent precious money accumulating in the past, but can’t bear to get rid of.
Let’s put that another way. We spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need.
And then we pay even more money we don’t have to put them in storage as we haven’t got the heart to throw them away or resell them – or, better still, give them away.
The social commentator, Oliver James, makes the observation about the growth in this industry that “We are confusing who we are with what we have…”
But wasn’t it ever thus? If we turn to our Gospel reading today [Luke 12.11-21], we’ll note that it’s entitled The Parable of the Rich Fool.
Here was a man who had reaped a bumper harvest. His barns – much like the supermarkets, much like my bookshelves, much like many other storage receptacles in our house – were full to the brim.
So what’s his instinctive reaction? “I’ll tear down those barns,” he says, and build some even bigger ones!
Because he wants to store up all his grain and goods – he doesn’t need to share it with anyone. He can live off his possessions forever, he thinks.
But of course, he won’t live forever. He’s confused who he is with what he has.
God tells him that “this very night, your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
All of the rich fool’s life has been spent in the pursuit of acquiring possessions. But when he rocks up at the pearly gates, he’ll have nothing with him but his soul. All that life spent accumulating stuff has ultimately led to nothing.
You see, this is a parable not about wealth per se. It’s about how we use that wealth.
It’s about how generous we are with what we’ve been given.
It’s about giving back to God – or not giving back to God as the case may be – what has been entrusted to us.
It’s ultimately about whether our life is determined by what we have, or who we are.
And that’s a message picked up by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians.
Paul makes it quite clear there is an expectation that the people of Corinth develop a generosity of wealth, as well as a generosity of spirit.
“The one who sows sparingly will reap sparingly,” he chillingly reminds us.
But this isn’t about the medieval approach of tithing the first fruits of the harvest. That was a methodical, mandatory way of ensuring that the tithe barns were filled.
Often, it must be said, so that the Lord of the Manor could have ever more sumptuous feasts whilst the villagers starved. No, this is about voluntarily giving.
As the passage goes on to say, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Actually, that phrase “cheerful giver” is somewhat an understatement. A better translation is “one who gives with hilarity.”
Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard outbreaks of spontaneous laughter in any of the churches I’ve been in when the collection plate has been passed round!
But what Paul was desperately trying to encourage in these new Christians in Corinth was to see everything as coming from God, so everything should be going back to God.
And, like the giving of any gift, we have to do this not because we have to, but because we want to.
“All things come from you, and of your own do we give you,” says King David in the Old Testament.
All things come from you, O God… David got it. Paul got it. The Rich Fool didn’t get it. Have we got it?
Have we got the notion that, when we give at Harvest, or any other time of the year for that matter, we are just returning what God has given us?
Have we got it that we are simply stewards of God’s creation and that bringing the harvest home requires us to share that produce with those who need it more than we do?
Have we got it that our lives are not determined by what we have, but by who we are?
You know, I think we have got it. I see an enormous amount of generosity in this community, with people giving sacrificially in so many ways.
Not just of their money, but of their time, their talents and their love.
There are so many people for whom giving back to God – as we do every harvest, and throughout the rest of the year – is an integral part of their lives.
And this community is eternally grateful for such people.
When we give at Harvest, we are symbolising the generosity that comes from God. And we are enriching the lives of others beyond measure.
We had a Foodbank steering group meeting this week. Adrian, the Baptist Minister, told those of us at the meeting of how the Foodbank helped some 50 people over the holiday period.
That’s 50 lives touched by the presence of God through those who have given so generously throughout the year, not just at harvest.
That’s 50 people shown the love of Christ through the work of the servers, the deliverers, the stackers and the team leaders.
That’s 50 people for whom life, in all its complexity, has been made just that little bit easier as they won’t have to think about whether the last bit of money they have should go on feeding the kids or buying them new school shoes.
God loves a cheerful giver. And I want to thank you for being so generous.
Not just today, but throughout the rest of the year, in how you give back to God.
In how you recognise that, unlike the Rich Fool, true happiness can never be attained by simply building bigger and bigger barns.
And in how you refuse to be determined by what you have, but would rather be known for who you are.
Thanks be to God for every one of your generous hearts this harvest time and throughout the year. Amen