God of all goodness,
as we celebrate this season of harvest,
We give thanks for the blessings of food, provision and nourishment.
Grow within us a harvest for the world.
Come sow a seed of hope within our souls,
that we might yield goodness, patience and kindness in abundance.
Sow a seed of peace in our lives,
that we might bear the fruits of forgiveness, compassion and righteousness.
Come sow a seed of love in our hearts Lord,
that others would reap the blessings of family, friendship and community.
May each seed of hope, peace and love grow within us into a harvest that can be feasted on by all. Amen.
Last week we began a new preaching series looking at the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:1-12. As part of the introduction, we examined the first two verses. Today we explore the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”.
You might be wondering what on earth “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” has to do with Harvest Sunday. I am hoping that by the end of this sermon we might see that one of the meanings of being Poor in Spirit is “to be grateful” to be grateful for the vast network of life and people on whom we depend. And so one of the possible interpretations of “Blessed are the poor in spirit” could be “Blessed are the grateful for they have found heaven in their hearts”. And on a day like today we indeed come most especially to express our gratitude for the blessings of the earth and for all we have received from the hand of God and the hard work of others.
Like each of the verses that follows, verse 3 begins with the Greek Markarioi, which can be translated a Happy, Rich, Blessed and Enviable.
I imagine that today, even though Harvest is still celebrated as a significant day of celebration, as modern people we have probably lost touch with how important Harvest was to our forebears. For our forebears who did not have the luxury of being able to import food from other parts of the world if they had a poor harvest, to reap a successful harvest was something to celebrate indeed. To have a poor harvest was not just a slight dent to one’s bank account. To have a poor harvest could have extremely serious consequences for the year ahead before the next harvest. To have a poor harvest could mean a period of extremely difficult months ahead where people would have to live on rations. But in extremely bad circumstances it could even lead to death, as the great potato famine of Ireland showed in the years 1845-1852. A poor harvest, especially if it happened a few years in a row would have been a matter of life and death.
And so to have a good harvest would have been to be happy, rich and blessed indeed, even if only for the 12 months that lay ahead.
And so the Greek word Makarioi invites us to recognize our own blessings at harvest.
Now in Luke 6 we find a different version of the beatitudes. Whereas Matthew 5 has 8 Blessings, Luke’s version has only four blessings, but followed by four woes.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
And then it is followed by four woes:
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Now some have suggested that Luke’s version and Matthew’s versions of the beatitudes would have been two different teaching occasions for two different audiences. But anyone who has read Luke’s Gospel in more detail will see that it is more complex than that. One of the themes that runs through the whole of Luke’s Gospel, as a thread woven across its pages or like a refrain that echoes and repeats across the whole story line, is the sense that a great turn-around of fortunes is coming. A time is coming suggests Luke’s Gospel when those who are poor now, will be rich in the Kingdom that is to come. And those who are rich now, and failed to share their wealth with others in this life, will find themselves demoted and dispossessed in the Kingdom that is to come. This was clearly a theme that was in the mind understanding of the writer of Luke’s Gospel. It was how he had come to understand and interpret the ministry and teachings of Jesus. He saw and interpreted the ministry of Jesus through the lense and the divide between those who were rich and poor. And Luke interpreted those terms in fairly stark economic terms. In Luke’s mind, Jesus revealed what some have called God’s preferential option for the poor, that God was most especially on the side of the poor. To have great wealth and not to share it according to Luke’s Gospel was to have chosen not to side with Jesus.
But in Matthew’s Gospel, while issues of economic wealth and poverty are clearly to be found, in Matthew’s version and interpretation of the Jesus story, he does not interpret the Jesus story or the teachings of Jesus in quite the same stark terms as Luke does.
Whereas Luke says: Blessed are the poor, Matthew says: Blessed are the poor in spirit.
What might it mean to be poor in spirit?
The Greek word translated as poor, quite literally is means one who crouches and cowers, like a beggar who relies totally on the gifts, goodwill and charity of others. It thus translates as poor but it’s truest meaning is to be destitute and as helpless as a beggar.
But Matthew’s version of the beatitudes is not referring to an economic poverty, rather Matthew’s version, unlike Luke’s version is referring to the poor in spirit.
Matthew’s version seems to be pointing to a quality of the heart, to those persons who are humble and devout. And what makes them humble and devout is that they recognize that they rely and depend on others. The poor in spirit in Matthew’s Gospel stand in contrast to those who think they are self-made men and women in the world, so successful that they think they do not need others any-more.
But the truth is, there is no self-made man or women in this world. We are all a lot more dependent than we realise. The CEOs of Tesco or Sainsbury or BP (British Petroleum) are only successful because they depend on a supply chain of 100s of 1000s of others. What the last few weeks here in the UK have begun to reveal is that without 500 to 600 000 truck drivers, the CEOs of Tesco or Sainsbury or BP are no longer quite as successful as they thought they were. They are no longer as financially independent as they thought they were. The truth is they are just as dependent as the rest of us, they have just lived under the illusion of being independent.
It is one of the truths of our human existence in this world. We are all part of a complex network of relationships and dependencies that in economic terms are normally spoken of as supply chains.
To be poor in spirit, is to recognise the truth of our existence. It is to recognise that no matter who we are, whether we are the street sweeper or the head of the Bank of England, we are all by nature dependent upon others. It is to recognize without others on whom we depend we would all be destitute beggars barely able to survive on our own.
To truly recognize that we are all dependent on others gives rise to gratitude. Thank you to the truck drivers. Without you we would have no stock on our shelves. We would have no food in our fridges, We would have no petrol in our cars. Thank you. May you who do all this for us, not have to work 60 hour weeks. May we not enjoy fully stocked shops at your expense, working longer hours than you should, with poor overnight facilities.
Thank you to the harvesters of our fruit and vegetables, those who come from other countries to do work that we don’t wish to do for ourselves. Thank you for your hard labour. May you who do these things for us that we can enjoy the luxury of eating strawberries and blueberries and all sorts of other fruit and vegetables, may you not be taken advantage of with low wages.
To be poor in spirit is to recognize the truth of our dependence on others. It is to recognise that no-one in this world is truly independent. And in response, it is to put our hands together in gratitude. It is to bow before others upon whom we rely and depend and express our gratitude. Thank you.
Even those who have chosen to move away from mainstream society and live by themselves on a small plot of land, being completely off the grid, even such people would not be able to live for more than a few months to realise that they too are in their own way completely at the mercy of the weather conditions to enable their little garden patches to grow.
To be poor in spirit is to realise that without others we would be completely destitute. Without people buying products on Amazon, without factories producing those things, truckers transporting those things, workers packing those things, Jeff Bezos would be destitute. He may not realise it, but he is just as dependent as the rest of us.
And so on Harvest Sunday, we come to put our palms together to express our gratitude. We come to recognize that we are all dependent on others. And that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take responsibility for ourselves as best we can. But it does mean that without others, none of us would be alive today. Without a mother and a father we wouldn’t have survived even a few hours, let alone weeks or months or years. Without the world’s supply chain and without the lowest paid workers within that supply chain, we would have no food on our tables. Without a stable climate and good soil, sunshine and rain in which plants can grow and food can be produced we could not live or survive.
And so for one Sunday in the year, we are reminded on Harvest, whether we realise it or not, we are all utterly dependent upon others as a destitute beggar… But only those who realise it are truly grateful, and only those who are truly grateful realise how truly blessed they are.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who live lives of true and humble gratitude, they have found the kingdom of heaven in their hearts. In discovering their own true nature as dependent beings, they have discovered just how truly lucky and how wondrously blessed they really are... how wonderously blessed we really are.