I must confess that when I first got involved with the Church of Ireland one of the most things I found most difficult to get my head around was the concept of the Harvest Thanksgiving Service. The parishes I was first involved with were both firmly anchored in an urban environment. I found the whole business of decorating the church with apples from Israel, potatoes from Poland, oranges from Seville, bananas from Africa, etcetera, etcetera, all bought from the local supermarket, with the occasional cabbage or stick of rhubarb from some one's garden, and the even more occasional few turnips that someone managed to acquire from a country cousin a bit of a puzzle. And who could ever forget the ritual of bringing out the few small, dried sheaves of wheat each year, which were carefully stored in the vestry!
But of course, I got used to it! In a way, it rather reminded me of my childhood. I was born in the US, where as you all know Thanksgiving is an important national holiday. It was different, of course, as Thanksgiving is largely a secular holiday, and Harvest Thanksgiving is a Church one, but they have their roots in a common idea, and what is being celebrated is much the same.
Which brings us to the idea of what are we celebrating this year? After all, it has been one of the wettest summers on record. The harvest has hardly been spectacular. You could say that they only thing to grow this summer is the rector's beard … and mores the pity the rector's wife might say! As I've gone round the parish I've seen vegetables rotting in the ground; I've heard the sorrowful tales of how difficult it is, if not impossible, to get the silage or hay in. There hasn't been much sun for ripening grain. The livelihoods of those who rely on the land are under severe pressure; and all of us face rising food costs … because on a global scale it has been a bad year and a poor harvest means rising costs everywhere.
Our Gospel reading tells us not to worry … but sometimes it is hard not to worry … where are threshing floors full of grain and the vats overflowing with wine and oil that the prophet Joel promises?
But maybe that last bit is the key … the Old Testament is always talking about Israel as being a land flowing with milk and honey … and there are numerous others places where they give thanks for all the bounty that God supplies them with … but the truth is, Israel isn't all that fertile a place … it's a dry & dusty land … it is pretty much a desert in some places … it is a hard place to scratch out a living from … that's true today with all the benefits of modern technology and the ability to pipe water to irrigate crops … and it was even more so back in the day when the texts of the Bible were being written … these people are eking out a precarious living in a tough environment and yet they are singing God's praises … because they have enough to live …
That's pretty much the same background story to the US Thanksgiving holiday … there are many versions as to how the holiday began … one of the more common ones is that the early settlers were of Puritan English stock … and not long after they had started their colony they realised they were in trouble … they were struggling … they didn't know the land … they didn't know how to work it … and they didn't know how to find the food that occurred naturally in their new homeland … hardly surprising … they were strangers … but their were potentially deadly consequences to their ignorance … if they couldn't change things they were going to run out of food … the truth was that a lot of people were going to starve to death … unless something changed ...
And something did change … the 'locals,' the native Americans, saw the trouble they were in, and they helped them. They taught them what crops would grow, and gave them seeds, and taught them how to hunt the local wildlife and to fish … and so when the autumn came, the time for harvest, they were in better shape … not, I stress, in 'barns bursting so they had to tear them down and build new ones' kind of shape … but 'we're not going to starve during the course of the winter' kind of shape … they had enough food so that they and their children wouldn't die … and they were grateful … and these Puritans had a tradition of having a festival of thanksgiving any time anything good happened in their lives … so that's what they did … they gave thanks for the harvest … not a harvest that would make them rich … probably not even a harvest that would make them fat … but a harvest that would keep them alive … a harvest that would see them through the winter for the chance to start again next spring …
and maybe we can learn something from those Hebrews of along ago who gave thanks for their meagre harvest … and those old Puritans who gave thanks for a harvest sufficient to keep them alive through the winter … yes we have had a rotten summer followed by less-than-average harvest … yes food prices will go up and put pressure on our already tight budgets … but we have enough to survive … more than enough … no one will starve in our community … no one will go hungry … and I seriously doubt if too many of us will be nothing but skin and bones come the spring!
We have enough … which means we have much to be thankful for … which is why we gather for this harvest thanksgiving service … to give thanks to God for all that he has given us … perhaps more in some years than in others … but always enough … and so we give humble thanks to God: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon notes 29 September 2012 (Harvest Thanksgiving)