Good Things Happen in The Good Country

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 8th March 2020.  It was a combined service for Kaniva and Serviceton congregations at Serviceton for the celebration of our Harvest Sunday.  Kaniva and Serviceton are farming communities and there are primary producers in our congregations.

Deuteronomy 24:19-22; Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Ruth 1:22

The harvest stories told in the Bible are stories of God’s salvation. There are multiple harvests named in the Bible, which is probably no surprise to the farmers amongst us. Wheat was harvested first and according to Exodus 34:22 this was to be celebrated in Spring, when it happened. Seven weeks later is the harvest of barley and we are told in Ruth 1:22 that it was during this harvest festival that Naomi arrived in Bethlehem from Moab. In late summer, (September) came the fruit harvest which is also a cause for celebration according to Exodus 34:22, and it is this event which we read about in Deuteronomy 26:1-11. The loud message is that God is going to provide such an abundance in the Promised Land, from the Land itself, that God’s people had better get ready to say thank you a lot. To be an Israelite in the future (the future from Moses) is to be a recipient of God’s promise of care and the complete benefit of that providence. Never forget whose you are: you are The LORD’s own family.

More than masses of crop the harvest story told by Moses in Deuteronomy 26:1-11 is a story of salvation. It is true that God promises provision through the sweat of the brow and the tilling of the land by Hebrew farmers, but in the history of the people from Jacob to Moses and into the future we learn that this bounty will be for all, including aliens (outsiders) and Levites (while collar workers). The history of the Hebrew people is dated from the “wandering Aramean”, literally the vulnerable climate-refugee who was made destitute by famine: so when Israel’s people return to the land of Jacob they must remember the destitute they find there or who later come there as refugees from other places. As a nation saved by grace, actually fed and watered by The LORD’s own provision in Egypt, it will never be appropriate for Israel to withhold the same from anyone who comes into their land looking for help. Never forget whose you are: you are The LORD’s own ministers.

The commentary I used this week suggests that this passage was edited together late in Israel’s history, possibly around the time of the exile to Babylon or at the very least a time when invasion and occupation by a militarily stronger foe seemed immanent. In this case the return to the covenant and its specific stipulation on charity and compassion would have reminded Israel that they were indeed The LORD’s own people: that The LORD Godself had their back if they remained in covenant with The LORD and the mission of being God’s light to the nations. “Are you being faithful to the covenant?” The LORD asks in the background, “so, if I were to come down and take a look around I would not find poverty and destitution in your streets, yeah?” The land was given by The LORD as a demonstration of grace, and as a visible example for all the nations of what God desires (mercy) and how God blesses (shalom) when God’s ways are honoured. If Israel fails in generosity then God will withhold the abundance, thereby making the same point in a negative way. This is what Israel and Judah were facing as this history was written, what would they do to keep on the side of God? Would they close ranks and resist the Babylonians, or would they open their arms and welcome the asylum seekers and war-torn refugees with grace and food? And what about internally: would they ensure that no Israelite ever went hungry or sick or naked or alone, would they ensure that the women and men set aside by God as priests and worship leaders were fed and housed as well as the farmers and labourers who grew the food and built the houses? The tithe was not just a token payment, without the tithe there was no welfare for the destitute and no support for the priests and worship leaders: without the tithe there was increased poverty and decreased praise for The LORD. What sort of Holy Nation lets its priests starve because they are focused on national worship and can’t farm for themselves? Why would The LORD continue to bless that nation, why wouldn’t The LORD leave them to fall over as an example of the consequences of breaking covenant, while choosing a new nation to serve God’s purposes of demonstrating compassion in the world?

This is why in Ruth’s story and in Deuteronomy 24:19-22 we read that reaping right to the edge was forbidden. The LORD’s provision is for all who need to eat, so even if you grew it that doesn’t mean it’s all yours to eat or to sell. At the same time, if you didn’t grow it you still need to go and gather it yourself if you want to eat it: welfare for the whole community must discourage laziness as much as it condemns selfishness. The priests are fed because they work elsewhere at priesting; the poor are fed so that they can return to health and to work. This is why harvest festivals were to be big and loud community events, because they were community celebrations where everyone gets to eat because every kinsperson played a role in bringing it in. In celebrating the covenant between God and people every time the food was brought in to the storehouse the nation was reminded that in this covenant there is sufficiency for all, even for those whose work never sees them get dirt under their fingernails.

The harvest story told about Ruth is another story of God’s salvation. It is a story of the resilience of women (of faith) working in solidarity, and how God blesses the faithful and upright. In Tanakh Ruth follows Proverbs, she is perhaps the living example of eshet chayil, the Proverbs 31 woman of noble character, virtuous and industrious. Once more God is shown as concerned about the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, even widows who are not Israelite. God is actively involved in directing the play and the accidents of right place at the right time. God drives the women’s movement from emptiness to fullness: God is both guide and provider.

In practical terms the stories of redemption in Ruth are stories of restoration. By keeping Naomi close to her Ruth is able to restore to her mother-in-law all that is legally hers which was lost in Moab with the death of her husband and sons, and the ensuing famine. Boaz is the man of the moment, the man who has the covenant responsibility through family to care for Naomi, and like God with Israel he is faithful and complete in his care for the destitute and depressed widow. What Boaz does is contractual and familial, it’s the moral and legal thing to do and there’s nothing specifically religious in it beyond the underlying culture of Israel. However in using this as an example of the right and holy way to live as Israelites the point is made that God also acts as family to us and as a covenant partner. What God does is moral and legal because God is Father, God has chosen to obligate Godself here: how we shall respond as the redeemed sons and daughters is one question posed by the story. At this harvest we are like Naomi, our redemption is brought about by someone else’s grace and not by our own deserving: again, how shall we respond?

In modern Jewish tradition, by modern I mean since about the year 150AD, Ruth is read at Shavuot which is the Festival of Weeks held at the traditional time of Israel’s barley harvest. (That’s Pentecost in the Christian calendar.) The book is interpreted with two key themes; loyalty, and the movement from emptiness to fullness. Ruth begins with a famine in Judah, then the desolation of Naomi’s family in Moab and her vulnerability as she returns to Bethlehem…which is now in full harvest mode and topped off by the provision of Boaz the magnificent young man. Naomi is loyal, Ruth is loyal, Boaz is loyal, The God of Israel is loyal; and the tale which begins in famine and widowing at Ruth 1:5 culminates in a post-wedding pregnancy in Ruth 4:17. A story which begins with death ends with birth, passing through the desperate times where Naomi says in Ruth 1:21 that she went away full, but The LORD has brought me back empty. God’s promise to us in this harvest season is that our story will never end at 1:21, because just like Naomi even when we return empty we return to a land bursting with grain. Indeed, the name Bethlehem means “House of Bread”.

In the Jesus traditions and Christian traditions harvest is used as a metaphor for divine action. Jesus speaks in Matthew 9:37-38 of a great harvest where the fields are ripe but the labourers are absent. In Revelation 14:15-16 weeding is going on, but there is reaping in James 3:18. God is still at work in the world, still honouring the covenant made to Abraham and repeated to Moses, still displaying all grace within God’s glory and the fullness of welcome to any who will answer the invitation to participate. I’m not going to touch on those metaphorical stories at all, partly because I’ve just hit the top of page five in this sermon, but also because I want to focus today on the reality of harvest and the actual events of bringing the crop into storage and then to distribution as food. The metaphors are good, packed with extra meaning in a place like the Tatiara, The Good Country, but they’re for another time.

The real story of the real harvest, more than the gleaning along the fence-line but the full heads from the middle of the fields, is that God provides because God has promised to provide. What we have is God’s own because whose we are is God’s own. Children are a harvest, and actual harvest, (just ask Job) and we are the reaping of what God planted in creation as well as metaphor. You are the abundance of God, and in delivering God’s promises to the Holy Nation you, God’s royal priesthood, are also the recipients of the bounty. This is fact, this is true, this is the theology of harvest. Now comes the application: the doing stuff, the questions for challenge.

1. How will you celebrate the harvest that is you and that has been delivered to you? What will your harvest festival look like, in your life, beyond today’s act of worship and the extortionate rates charged at auction in half an hour’s time?

2. How will you spend the harvest that is yours and that has been delivered to you? What effect will the abundance have in your life, beyond today’s act of worship and the extravagance of our festival today. You have an armful of blessing from God today, will you build a bigger barn, or will you set a longer table?

Amen.

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