Sunday, September 29, 2013

What's the point of celebrating Harvest?

The previous blog contains notes from our morning service for our Harvest weekend.  In the evening service we had a much more 'traditional' harvest service with lots of the old favourite harvest hymns!

We had a lovely tea with Hy-Way on Wednesday over in the Tewkesbury Park Hotel – first, June came up with the request for Fair waved the golden corn for Harvest … and then my passengers, Olga and Joyce made a request for the favourites and Olga said from Congregational Praise including Mr Moxley’s Oxfam hymn.

So I thought let’s have a rest from Acts and think about Harvest.  The very word itself is an Old English one and the custom of celebrating the harvest goes back to time immemorial.

That fount of wisdom Wikipedia describes 16th century customs including ‘reapers accompanying a fully laden cart, a tradition of shouting Hooky, Hooky, and one fo the foremost reapers dressing extravagantly, acting as ‘lord’ of the harvest and asking for money from the onlookers.

There’s a play by a contemporary of Shakespeare, Thomas Nash first performed in October 1592 ‘that describes several of these features’ called Summer’s Last Will and Testament.

Maybe we should get Alan to use his contacts and get Morris Men to join us.

From a church point of view it was well established among our forebears by the time they travelled on the Mayflower to America when in 1621 they celebrated their first harvest at Thanksgiving – a custom that has become a major festival in the States.

And over here, harvest festivals as many of us grew up with with their displays of produce, their baskets brought to church gogest back to 1843 when the Reverend Robert Hawker invited people to a special thanksgiving servie at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall.  That then produced some of those favourite Victorian harvest hymns – come ye thankful people come, Fair waved the golden corn and most of the others we are going to sing this evening.  Though the German We plough the fields and scatter is from the pevious century the translation we love is from this century.
But of course in celebrating Harvest we then put the roots back very much into the Bible where the whole rhythm of the Jewish year is built around a succession of harvests.  I like that idea … and it has always appealed to me.  Many of the Jewish harvests are ealier in our calendar year – this is the time when the Jewish people have just celebrated the start of their New Year.  I like to think of Harvest as in some ways the start of the year.  It’s the start of a new school year, a new session at church, and we mark something that celebrates the goodness of God in creation.  Then we come on at Christmas to celebrate the Incarnation, in Holy Week and Easter the death and resurrection and at Pentecost (itself a harvest festival) the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  It is a pattern that takes us to the very heart of God, Creator, Redeemer,  Sustainer, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Turn to one of the classic Jewish accounts of harvest and you will find many of the customs we have grown up with find their roots in the kind of passage we read from Deuteronomy 26.

Indeed, that chapter provides us with one of the classic readings we share on Harvest Sunday.

I can remember in the first Harvests Felicity and I shared with the folk in Yorkshire where the traditions were very strong  this was the pattern we followed – I grew up with it too.

26When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ 4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5you shall make this response before the Lord your God

It’s a lovely picture – that’s morphed from produce actually grown, to fruit and veg bought from the shops, to tined food we offer today.  But basically it’s the same idea.

The gift is accompanied by a wonderful statement of faith in this passage that is recited by everyone.  I guess we sing our faith in our tradition and the hymns we sing sum up the faith we share.  But it’s good to speak our faith.

This is one of the earliest statements of faith –

It’s an account of all that God has done for his people – all they have is His and so they return something of what is his and say a great big ‘Thank you’.

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, 7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8The 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; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’

Then comes a wonderful moment … the gift is presented to God and the indebtedness to God for all the people have is acknowledged.

You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11Then you, … shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

I think it is a wonderful thought.

Let’s just pause at those last words –

You shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

This is the point where if we are going to do a traditional Harvest Service we need to push on a little beyond the produce of the gardens.   We live far from the land – in our houses and flats and rooms.  Think of all the bounty in your house – is it something you take pride in – the fruit of a lifetime of labours.  You have earned it?  Harvest encourages us to think of all the bounty we have in our house and recognise it comes from God.  How indebted we are to God.

Did you notice I left some words out of that last sentence.  Deliberately.

This is what Deuteronomy 26 verse 11 actually says …

Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

This is one of those special moments in the Books of the Law when something remarkable is glimpsed.  It’s very easy to think of the occupation of the Promised land, that land flowing with milk and honey, resulting in a land peopled only by Jewish People.  Read more closely in the Torah and in the later books of Joshua, Judges … and you will find there is another strand.  One that is sometimes overlooked.   There are in the land foreigners – and the foreigners remain.  And the purposes of God is that Jewish people and foreigners live together sharing the land.  And sharing the produce of the land, the wonderful bounty the Lord your God has given you.

This catapults me back into our reading of Acts.  In Acts 10 and 11 and through to 15 we are at that moment when comes the realisation that the Good news of Jesus is all inclusive of Jew and Gentile – that all are included in the people of God.   This is not a denial of the Jewishness of Jesus and Peter but the fulfilment of a strand in the Old Testament that goes back to this kind of passage in Deuteronomy 26 which affirms the place of the foreigner in the midst.

But this also touches the focus of our Harvest this year when we are supporting Middle East concern – one of the big issues in the Middle East has to do with the capacity for different peoples to live together.  With the exception of the Crusades and of the last fifty years Jew, Christian and Muslim have lived side by side in the Middle East.   In Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Palestine, in Israel they have lived side by side.

There are moves to prise those peoples apart – throughout the Middle East – we see it in the scale of persecution of Christian people.  We’ve seen it in horrific ways in Pakistan last Sunday.  How important to pray for the people of those lands.  In amongst those prayers the prayer that people can live side by side with the foreigner in the midst.

There’s a danger of a backlash – here as well.  Maybe it’s because it’s Leicester and that’s where Felicity and I grew up, but I found it very moving hearing the Neurosurgeon in the hospital in Dublin describing his reaction to the arson attack on his Leicester home which resulted in the death of his wife and his three children.  He was a devout Muslim … but it was moving to hear the way he was so pleased there had been no violence in response to what had happened.

It’s very easy to slip from praying for persecuted Christians to an Islamophobia and a Xenophobia on our doorstep.  And that, it seems to me, this kind of passage is urging us to resist.  The alien in our midst is part of us.

What do you do with all that’s offered …

Well this passge sets the precedent that we have taken to following in our harvest festivals from as far back as I can remember – so well over 50 years!

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, 13then you shall say before the Lord your God: ‘I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me;

We have reaffirmed the importance of the tithe – planned giving of a proportion of your income, we say disposable income – we suggest a twentieth for Church on the assumption that another 20th will go to charitable giving making a tithe in all.

In this instance the giving is for the Levites, the aliens, the orphans and the widows, so that  they may eat their fill within your towns.

This is what underpins our support of CCP foodshare in our harvest today … and also what underpins our use of our Harvest collection that goes on a mission project in Highbury and this year for Middle East Concern in the support they give to Persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

It is an expression of solidarity.

The passage finishes with a renewed commitment to the covenant relationship the people have with their God.

I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments: 14I have not eaten of it while in mourning; I have not removed any of it while I was unclean; and I have not offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God, doing just as you commanded me. 15Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey.’

Concluding Exhortation

16 This very day the Lord your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul. 17Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. 18Today the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments; 19for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honour; and for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised.

Maybe our harvest should finish with a renewal of our commitment to follow in the ways of God in the living of our lives that all we do may be to his glory.

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