2 Corinthians 9.6-15. Luke 12.22-30
Over the last few days, our friends in the Jewish community have celebrated the Feast of Sukkot. Often described as the Feast of Tabernacles or the Feast of Shelters, it is one of the Feasts which features in the story of Jesus in the gospels. The Hebrew word sukkot is the plural of sukkah, a booth or a temporary dwelling, in which farmers would live during harvest. It is perhaps for this reason that in the Book of Exodus this feast is referred to as the Festival of Ingathering, the harvest festival. Today Jews celebrate this feast by building their own temporary dwellings outside covered in natural materials. These are often fragile structures which are open to the elements. For the duration of the Feast, Jewish families build these shabby structures out of elements previously thought to be surplus to requirements. They observe the feast by eating meals there, sometimes sleeping there as well.
This experience is intended as a reminder of the agricultural year, and also of that experience of the fragility and precariousness of human existence in the story of the Exodus and the nomadic travels of the Israelites in the wilderness. It speaks of a sense of connection with the land, a sense of connection with the forces of nature. Last week at St Mary’s, given the torrential downpours over the weekend, we had our own experience of living in a fragile structure, surrounded by buckets to catch the leaks in the roof of the nave.
But it is interesting to reflect for a moment on that sense of connection with the land, particularly for a people who have spent many centuries living in diaspora. Recollecting the experience of harvest in the land of Israel must have been a strange experience in the midst of the nineteenth century, strange for a people who were defined by a memory rather than a particular patch of land, strange for a people who were effectively landless, a people for whom the experience of exile shaped their identity, their very soul.
This disjunction between memory and experience is something that I recognize in our own Christian tradition. Today we celebrate our own Harvest Festival, and it is worth reflecting on the fact that Harvest Festivals in Britain only really began to take hold in the public imagination in after the industrial revolution. Even though the academic year is still structured around the assumption that people must be available over the summer to gather the harvest, most of us have very little direct experience of the agricultural cycle at all.
We are used to singing hymns like ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ to mark this festival. Today, of course we cannot sing this hymn but the truth is that very few of us have ever ploughed a field in our lives. For many of us, our sense of connection with the agricultural year is remote. Some of us may grow our own food in an allotment or tend a few herbs in a plant pot, but our subsistence rests largely on the labours of others. Supermarket shelves are packed with all sort of produce from across the world. We can order it online. It just appears at the front door. We rarely give much thought to the mechanization of modern agriculture, the working conditions of agricultural labourers - particularly those from Eastern Europe – living a nomadic existence, picking fruit in the summer or sorting salad leaves in industrial scale sheds. We hardly give a moment’s thought to those who stack the shelves.
One of the curious consequences of Covid is that perhaps we have a sharper sense of these issues now than we have had for some time. Think of those bare shelves many of us encountered earlier in the year, flour, yeast, eggs, tinned tomatoes, pasta. Those earnest conversations about where to find basic commodities following the panic buying of that first lockdown. But more importantly, this experience has alerted us to the real and profound inequalities around food in our culture. Over the summer, I read a rather long and detailed study by Professor Tim Lang, entitled Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them. A Professor of Food Policy, he has been concerned for some time that today Britain has a very fragile just-in-time supply chain which could easily collapse. We grow very little of the food that we actually eat as a nation (around 50%), leaving us at the mercy of international markets. The quality of our food is directly related to questions of health, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. And of course the prevalence of food banks alerts us to the fact that there are people in our country who are hungry. More than 14 million people in the UK live below the poverty line.
As we celebrate our Harvest Festival, we need to be wary of cultivating a disjunction between memory and experience. We can so easily be seduced by a rather romantic view of the past, a careless nostalgia about an idyllic agricultural past which stands in contrast with our lives in post-industrial Britain. That just becomes a distraction from wrestling with the reality that our food security is increasingly fragile, and that people today in Britain are hungry.
But here’s the thing. While you might expect a reflection on the precariousness and fragility of our lives to evoke a sense of anxiety or worry, the gospel reading today appears to subvert all that. We should not read these words as a rather sentimental comment about the beauty of creation, ‘Consider the lilies of the field….’ These words are not meant to distract us from that real and profound reflection on the precariousness of our lives. Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.’
So does he mean that we should be unconcerned about food banks or people who are hungry or living at the very edge of human subsistence? Of course not. One of the great commentators on this passage, Cyril of Alexandria, observed that when Jesus says ‘do not worry’, ‘do not be concerned’ there is a difference between undue concern and justified, active concern. Jesus is talking about those things which distract us from the quest for God, our pursuit of wealth, our all too human desire to create our own security. And he is saying that our security rests not in accumulating more and more wealth and riches because these things hold us captive. We are captivated by anxiety and worry about what the future will bring. And yet think of those Jewish families celebrating Sukkoth, the Feast of Booths, eating and drinking in those precarious agricultural huts, remembering those forty years when they stepped out into the wilderness in order to seek freedom from slavery in Egypt.
If we remember that our security rests ultimately in God’s grace, we may discover a new freedom, a freedom from obsessive self-concern, a freedom that might enable us to see the needs of others before our own needs. For when we attend to one another, when we recognize not only our own fragility but the fragility of one another, when we acknowledge that the life of every single one of us is precious and precarious, then we may begin to find in our hearts the courage and the faith to be agents of the hospitality of God, that same hospitality which we receive here in the eucharist, as bread is broken and wine is poured out. As we become honoured guests at Christ’s table, perhaps we may discover in the depths of this mysterious and wonderful sacrament the resources and the strength to embrace a life of self-giving love.