5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 6 The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.
7 ‘Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? 9 Do you thank the servant for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are servants and of no account; we have done only what we were required to do!” ’ Luke 17.5-10
The reading we’ve just heard may seem a slightly strange reading for a harvest festival service; it is in fact the set Gospel reading for this Sunday in the church year. And as I sat in a rather grumbly mood looking out at the rain last Monday morning, it occurred to me that the theme of duty that is in that reading is in fact a harvest theme (and of course the servant in the story would have spent his day ploughing or shepherding – so that’s all right too).
I was grumbling because I don’t like it when my planned schedule gets disrupted, by rain or anything else. There were lots of things I could have been doing, and they all required a dry morning. I’ve a shed needs painting before the winter, my lawn needed a mow – and plenty more besides. I had my day nicely planned out, but instead I was sat there watching the rain. People wandered past on the street outside; they all looked grumpy too. But rain’s a good thing really; without rain, our bit of the world would be a desert – water is the basic essential of life, very special stuff indeed. So I shouldn’t moan when it rains. I still did, though.
And plans and schedules are important to me; I’m not sure how I’d get through the week without my diary. If I don’t look at my diary, or if it’s gone walkabout as I’m sure it does, all by itself – I’ll miss things and forget things, and things won’t get done and completed as they need to be. And given my great ability to put things off or else lose interest and not complete things, my diary has also a very useful and important role as a means of self-discipline.
In our reading today the disciples ask Jesus for more faith. Jesus responds by chiding them for the smallness of the faith they have, and then goes on to talk to them about duty. You’re not performers on some stage expecting to be applauded at the end of the show, he tells them; you’re servants with tasks to complete, and all you’ve done at the end of the day when those tasks are complete, is your duty. And as I know very well from my diary, when one task is complete, there’s always something else to do – even on a rainy day.
We don’t earn our way into heaven; salvation is God’s gracious act, and however small our faith, we can trust in God’s love, as real, personal, special to each one of us, and the source of our life. Now the Greek word doulos that in the reading I used is translated as servant, could also means slave. Servants in those days would be literally owned by their master. Think of yourselves as servants, as slaves in God’s service, says Jesus. Why should you get some special reward just for doing something good? Or why should you feel you can take time off just because you’ve completed one task? For a servant, there’s always something more to do.
Well, we know that’s true. On the farm or in the garden, finish one task and there’s always something else to get on with. For the Christian disciple as for the household slave, this is true: that you’re never off duty.
That’s not to say we should feel guilty about getting the wellies off and sitting in front of the fire after a hard day’s work. We need our rest, and the world’s there for us to enjoy as well as to work in. But maybe today’s reading reminds us that as stewards of God’s creation and labourers on God’s farm we’re never off duty. And the work we do is work for him, as well as for ourselves.
In Old Testament times, the people of Israel – when they first settled the land God had given them – understood that the land they held and farmed was not only their land, it was also and remained God’s land. The way they used it, the way they used and shared the produce of the land, needed to be a way that did honour to the Lord. For that reason, at harvest time they would take the very first fruits to present at the altar to God – and that not to say “Thank you, Lord, that’s your bit, now we can do what we like with the rest,” but as a sign that all the harvest was his, and that all would be used in a way that honoured him.
That tradition is part of what lies behind the modern harvest festival; but we no longer bring the first fruits, for our harvest is also the harvest home, the celebration of having got everything done, of having completed the task. “All is safely gathered in,” as we sing in one of the harvest hymns.
All may be safely gathered in, but that’s no reason to put our feet up. The work goes on. These days fields are prepared for the next season, and the seed is sown, almost as soon as the harvest has been taken. Harvest festival is thanksgiving and celebration, but also a time for committing ourselves to a task that is ongoing. The harvest and the land are both ours and God’s; and under God we have a continuing duty of care: for one another around the world, for the environment and for the myriad forms of life with which we share it.
So one harvest is complete, but the work continues. We rejoice but we also recommit ourselves. “The earth is the Lord’s, and all the fullness thereof; the round world, and all who dwell therein.” Thus we read in one of the psalms, and at harvest we recognize our interdependence, the way in which we both serve one another and are served, the way in which the fruitfulness of the land requires care and balance and vigilance. And we know that while we have a harvest, others do not – and our thanksgiving includes a recognition of our duty to our neighbour, wherever and whoever he or she may be.
Not as an optional extra, but a duty. Not as something we may or may not choose to do, but as part of the programme in our diary, if we’re serious about saying and believing that “the earth is the Lord’s”. We pray in one of the harvest prayers that we may use the harvest we have “to the glory of God, for the relief of those in need, and for our own wellbeing.” All three of those: thanksgiving is expressed not only in what we say, the hymns we sing, but in the direction of our lives, the things we do. In saying, “What is mine, Lord, is also yours.” In seeing harvest as opportunity, opportunity to serve.
For we ourselves are also harvest. Jesus told the parable of the sower, and you’ll remember the seed that didn’t grow, or didn’t grow well, or got choked by the weeds that grew around it. But some, said Jesus, grew and yielded fruit – and that should be us, fruitful in God’s service, and glad to serve the greatest of all masters, the one in whom we find life, the King of Love.
It was still raining as I finished writing these words, but I didn’t feel quite so grumbly. And water is the greatest of the Biblical symbols of life, nothing else would work without it. So I’ve revised my schedule, and all I need to do will still get done, so long as I’m serious about doing it.