‘Not Forgetting the Whale’: Sermon Luke 12: 15-21; Erntedank / Thanksgiving for the Harvest – October 4th, 2020


I just finished reading a book, and it was one of the best books I’ve read in a while. This book isn’t just entertaining and a page turner, no, it made me think, it surprised me, it even made me cry a little – but mostly, it gave me hope. This book it called ‘Not Forgetting the Whale’ by John Ironmonger, a British writer. By the way, this book hasn’t been published in the U.S., but you can find used paperback versions or a Kindle version on Amazon.

The story, published in 2015, is about an apocalyptic pandemic – now, how timely is that?  And at its center is Joe Haak, a mathematician and computer programmer who works at a large bank in London and who lives the high life. He has developed a computer algorithm that, pretty accurately, can predict the immediate economic future – which is very helpful in the investment business. When one of his predictions seems to cost his bank billions, he panics, jumps in his fancy car and ends up in a remote fishing village in Cornwall with 307 residents. Due to some twists and turns of events – you gotta read the story yourself if you want to find out what happens – Joe is welcomed by this tight-knit community, where everyone has their place, from the school teacher to the innkeeper, the fishermen, farmers, and some rather odd, but lovable characters. Oh, and a whale also plays an important role in this book.

Joe is convinced that the authorities are after him because he thinks he caused the crash of the British economy, possibly the world economy. But days pass, and nothing happens. Apparently the consequences of his false predictions are not as bad as he expected. And he becomes curious – he borrows a laptop, finds the only WiFi spot in town, and checks into the computer program he developed. But as he does, he is distracted – he realizes that the program predicts something much more catastrophic: an imminent pandemic that will take many lives and definitely crash the worldwide economy.

Joe expects the worst. He has worked long enough in the banking business to know that, in the end, it’s all about self-interest – and the survival of the fittest. Everyone is out to make as much money as possible, even if it means seeing companies tank and fail, even if it means extorting workers and the environment. The laws of economy are brutal. Joe thinks people will become thieving and murdering beings once they are deprived of food, fuel, electricity, and water supplies – that they will lose any civility in an apocalyptic scenario. And isn’t that what most apocalyptic Hollywood movies show us?

Joe starts on what he thinks is a secret mission. He wants to be prepared. He wants the little village that welcomed him to be prepared. He rents space in the defunct village church bell tower and starts buying food and other supplies by the pallets, hauling them little by little in his fancy car to the village and storing them in said bell tower. And Joe intends to spend all the money he has in the bank on this project, roughly $50,000. But, of course, in a village of 307 where everyone knows everyone else, his actions raise the curiosity of the people. Joe reluctantly shares with them that he thinks a disaster of apocalyptic proportions is immanent, and soon the village organizes to help Joe in his mission to stock up on supplies.

And then the predictions come true. A horrible virus, which, by the way, is much deadlier than Corona, emerges and quickly spreads around the world – and also reaches England. And, indeed, supply chains of things we consume each and every day collapse – most importantly, the supply chains for fuel and food. There is no electricity, and water isn’t pumped into the village anymore.

Is this the end? Are people going to turn on each other as resources run out?

Joe quickly realizes that he was too pessimistic about human nature. Yes, there are a couple of raids on the local grocery store and life stock by gangs from outside the village. But the villagers pull together in this time of crisis. It’s not only the tons of non-perishable food that Joe has stored up, and not just for himself, that keeps the village going – it’s the ingenuity of people, it’s their willingness to chip in whatever they can, their joint efforts to provide food for the communal table, sourced from land and sea. People look out and care for each other.

The book’s climax is a feast of gargantuan proportions, a joyous party with music and dance on Christmas Day, to which the people of a neighboring town are invited as well. And, as we learn, for generations to come the village would tell the story of the pandemic, which becomes more and more mystic with time, and reenact events during the annual ‘Festival of the Whale’. So there is a happy ending, not only for the village, but for the entire world. Or maybe better, a hopeful ending. And our protagonist, Joe, the prophet of doom, unbeknownst to him, plays an important role in that. But I won’t give away why that is. I don’t want to spoil everything.

Now though Christmas plays a big role in this book, I think this is a very fitting story for Erntedank, the Thanksgiving for the Harvest. Harvest festivals in Germany, harvest festivals around the world for that matter historically always involved the entire community – feasting, coming together, laughing, dancing. Sharing.

I love the English word of ThanksGIVING – being thankful involves the giving, the sharing. With the community, but of course we should not forget God in all that. Many ancient religions throughout the world had this element or still have this element of making sacrifices, of sharing of the bounty of the harvest with the deities. The people of Israel sacrificed of their harvest to God. And today’s lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy admonishes the people who is about to enter the Promised Land to never forget who is the generous force behind the harvest and prosperity – and to thank God for the blessings of the land. It is a reminder for us as well; we may not toil the land like our ancestors, but we ought to remember that our prosperity, among other things, is a gift from God – and something to be shared.

Today’s gospel about the rich fool spells out what happens when giving thanks, thanks GIVING doesn’t happen – when greed consumes us. Beware of greed, Jesus says, because it destroys relationships – the relationship with God and neighbor, the relationship as community. And he tells the story of the rich landowner who has an extraordinary harvest. It doesn’t fit in the barns he already has. The harvest is way bigger than what he needed in the past to survive and thrive.

Instead of sharing his overabundance, he tears down his existing barns and builds new ones, bigger ones. And we don’t get the sense that this rich landowner thanks God for this lavish gift. On the contrary: we hear him talking to himself, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ Or, to paraphrase it, ‘Well done, old fellow, look at what YOU have accomplished; it’s all yours. Enjoy it!’

However, God has other plans for this man. ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

The landowner dies. Alone, we can presume. He isn’t given the opportunity to enjoy the bounty of the harvest. And he misses out on the joy of sharing the bounty with the community, of feasting, of laughing, of coming together, of dancing – of sharing.

For Jesus Christ, the community is at the heart and center of a life in God. Love thy neighbor. Know thy neighbor. Don’t isolate. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can make it on your own. You can’t. We all depend on each other. On the supermarket clerk. On the truck or delivery driver. On the immigrant worker in the field or the food processing factory.

We depend on each other – we’ve become painfully aware of that as we can’t come together, we have to keep our distance, and we have to be creative in coming up with ways to connect.

For me, this co-dependency was also at the heart and center of the book, ‘Not forgetting the Whale’. It is much easier to share when people are connected, have relationships, know each other and each other’s stories. Joe, though he’s only been in the village for a short time, can’t but relate to its people. And starts caring about them. People care about each other and pull together. Even in a major crisis.

This is Christ’s vision of the kingdom of heaven. This is our hope. This is our only chance of survival – as communities, as societies, and consequently as individuals. We have to pull together, we have to make sacrifices for each other. Wear a mask, keep your distance. And we are called to share what we are given with one another. Christ is our example – as he shared his life with us and with all.



This post is also available in: German