Harvest Thanksgiving 1st October 2023
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Now that we have worked our way through the stories of the Patriarchs and the Passover and the Exodus, we have the benefit of context for this morning’s Old Testament lesson. Here Moses is giving instructions to the Israelites, who are still in the wilderness, on how they are to conduct themselves once they enter the Promised Land. And the particular instructions given in today’s Old Testament lesson concern an ancient version of the harvest festival that we celebrate today. In the formula that the Israelites are commanded to recite before the priest as they present their harvest offerings, they remind themselves of the story that has made them a nation.
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor” – this refers to the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Abraham having come out of the land of Aram. “He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous”. This is a reference to the story of Jacob and his sons, who join Joseph in Egypt. It continues: “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey”. Here we have the story of the Exodus in a nutshell. “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me”. The final sentence presents the offering of the first fruits as a response to God’s loving-kindness to the Israelites.
There is little doubt that the ritual described in today’s Old Testament lesson, the ancient Jewish precursor to our Harvest Thanksgiving, was itself preceded by similar rituals in the various pagan religions that existed before the faith of the ancient Israelites. And in fact this instinct of making an offering of thanksgiving to God or gods, however understood, seems to be an almost universal human practice. So the offerings of our flower-ladies that we all admire this morning stand in a very ancient tradition indeed.
And so too our offerings in support of the NOMAD food bank. Social justice is implicit in this morning’s Old Testament lesson – the reference to slavery in Egypt is a reminder of the oppression that the Israelites once endured, encouraging them to treat kindly the foreigners residing in their land – but elsewhere in the book of Deuteronomy social justice is made explicit, and there are various commands and exhortations concerning the provision of food to widows and other vulnerable people. Generosity arises very naturally out of gratitude.
Sadly contemporary western society has become rather detached from all of this. The ancient rhythms of agricultural life, and the associated religious patterns of prayer and fasting at Rogationtide, and thanksgiving and feasting at Harvest, are remote from our urbanized and technologically-driven lives. To my mind it is this disconnection from God and from nature that lies behind our environmental and social crises. Where God is written out of our story, and where we lose our sense of dependence on nature, thanksgiving and generosity are squeezed out by entitlement, exploitation and anxiety.
Our gospel reading this morning takes the themes of thanksgiving and offering to an altogether deeper level. For Christians, all our offerings, whether it be the flowers for harvest festival, or the gifts we bring for NOMAD, or the time and money we give over to the Church, for Christians all these offerings are ultimately connected with Jesus’ perfect self-offering made once for all upon the Cross. All our offerings are made through His self-offering. It’s not as if God needs anything from us; Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice acceptable to the Father, and we dare to make our own modest offerings in the hope that they are accepted through Him.
All this is played out supremely in the liturgical drama of the Communion service, itself a kind of harvest festival in miniature, in which gifts of grain and grape are offered through the great prayer of thanksgiving, and are returned to us as true bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.
So today as we come before the Lord with our harvest offerings, let us also offer ourselves anew to His service, committing ourselves to lives of gratitude and generosity, and seeking also to be more attuned to the rhythms of this good earth that the Lord has made. This is first and foremost an act of religious devotion, but it is also an act of moral resistance, a fightback against the cold forces of secularization and disconnection that are unpicking the fabric of human society and even nature itself. And it is also fundamentally joyful, because we recognize in the goodness of the produce that the earth brings forth a sign of the goodness of the God who creates and sustains and redeems us, to whom, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.