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ETHICAL EATING Deut 26:1-11 & John 6:25-35

Harvest Festival has only been going for about 170 years. I say “only” because we might have assumed this annual celebration to be original to the Church’s year, rather like Easter or Christmas. Actually it is relatively recent and is peculiarly British. It was the vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall who introduced the first harvest festival in 1843 and within 20 years it had grown so popular throughout the realm that the C of E introduced an official form of service. Traditionally the church is decorated with flowers, fruit, vegetables and sometimes even a harvest sheaf. There are favourite harvest hymns, and sometimes a harvest supper. Even in city congregations where few have seen wheat growing harvest became an essential landmark in the Church’s year. From 1928 the prayer books in several other countries included a special collect, epistle and gospel for the day. Although they do not have harvest festival as such in America, Thanksgiving, on the fourth Thursday in November began as a celebration of the first harvest for the Pilgrim Fathers in 1621.

Giving Thanks
We gather in church at Harvest time to thank God for giving growth to the crops which yield us our food. We acknowledge our total dependence on God’s mercy, without which we’d starve. Even those who aren’t yet certain whether or not they believe in God may turn up to harvest because they feel deep down that we’re not entirely self-reliant. Whether convinced Christian or not, the more thoughtful in society will ask hard questions when the harvest is poor, especially in other parts of the world. It is right to ask tough questions, for an unthinking faith is not worth having. The questions may be ones like, “Why is God not giving us this year what he gave us before?” or “Is he punishing us for something?” or “What about the people who are starving in Africa and Asia; is God less merciful to them than he is to us?” It is good to wrestle with such questions, but not to dismiss God just because our questions are nigh impossible to answer properly. Of course, part of the answer is that alongside God, we also are responsible for our part in the harvest and in what we do to our fragile planet earth. We cannot be irresponsible children putting the blame entirely on God our parent-in-the-sky!

Changing agriculture
170 years ago when Harvest festival became so popular, most of the population in Britain lived in the country. Now the agricultural labour force has shrunk to less than 1% of the population. Many in our cities have little idea how their food is grown. Machinery today is designed for prairies, so that more than 80% of Britain’s ancient hedgerows have been torn down. Hence most of the wild birds and flowers have been lost and the kind of people who live in the countryside are often city-dwellers who want a bit of peace and quiet. They don’t depend on the land for their livelihoods even though they might appreciate the qualities of the open countryside. Heavy machinery is labour-saving and perhaps more economical, but its weight compacts the soil, making it less fertile and more susceptible to flooding. In the developing world industrialisation of farming has impoverished many ordinary farmers. This happens because food prices are driven down so far that they can’t make a living. Mass production of meat such as battery hen farming also makes traditional livestock farming impossible for small farms.

Eating is an ethical issue
These problems have developed over the decades of the last century and we cannot simply try and put the clock back. Our world is now a global village and we are all interdependent. Natural disasters occur and their effects are often worse because of human activity. There is still a big debate about global warming and whether it has happened because of human activity. Whatever conclusion each of us might come to, as Christians we recognise that all we do has a moral side to it. Even eating food is a matter of morals and the choices we make about what to buy and how it has reached the shelves of shops are part of living in a Christian way. The choices we make as consumers influence what the producers and retailers make available. So as we come to celebrate harvest thanksgiving, we remember both our reliance on God and the responsibility we hold as human beings.

The children of Israel were to remember their reliance and responsibility at the festival of first fruits. The celebration they had included coming to worship and presenting food from their harvest. But it also included telling the story of how God had looked after them and sharing what they had with friend and stranger alike; with those who had a means of living and those who depended on the responsibility of others to share what God had given them. It was a picture of God being the owner of the earth and his people being like tenant farmers. More recently this idea of stewardship has caught on in the environmental movement which is much wider than the small religious world you and I often live in. Jesus tried to get his disciples to see that life was more than just coping from one meal to the next, from one week’s shopping expedition to the next. Whilst we depend on the goodness of God to feed us physically, there is also spiritual nourishment available from the same hand, if only we seek it. The children of Israel in the wilderness made this connection very closely when they received the special miracle manna each morning. We can be reminded of that in the eucharist which is both physical and spiritual food, and a sacrament of Jesus, the living bread from heaven.

So as we come and rejoice in the harvest, let us renew our sense both of reliance on God and responsibility before him with the way we feed ourselves and the world.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




God of glory,
touch our lips with the fire of your Spirit,
that we with all creation
may rejoice to sing your praise;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.