Address for Harvest Thanksgiving Sunday 4th October 2020

Address given by Robin Phillips for Harvest Thanksgiving Service, 4th October 2020.

Good Morning and thank you Father John for inviting me to share some thoughts about Harvest.

I must admit I have a soft spot for Harvest Festival. 

Partly, it’s nostalgia: it takes me back to my childhood, when we Sunday School children would process up the aisle to present baskets of fruit, vegetables and flowers which, later, would be distributed to people and organisations in the local community, or auctioned off to raise funds at the harvest supper and sale which always took place the following evening. 

I can still picture the scene: long trestle tables covered in pristine white cloths, stretched the width of the church; sheaves of corn stood in front; rich displays of colourful dahlias and chrysanthemums; all manner of vegetables from garden and allotment; polished apples between all the organ pipes and the specially-made harvest loaf at the centre.

There were a few other things in the display as well – the less colourful, but still essential fruits of the earth, such as a lump of coal; a glass of water; and a plate of soil and there was the ground breaking year when someone added a can of oil.

Then there were the rousing ‘Harvest’ hymns with glorious uplifting tunes and words, heralding from Victorian times. when the concept of harvest Festival was instigated by a Cornish Vicar the Rev David Hawker.

Now he was an interesting person -one of life’s true eccentrics. Not for him the monochrome clerical attire – he wandered his parish wearing a long purple cloak; a bright blue fisherman’s jersey and red trousers stuffed into huge waterproof boots. In bad weather he added a bright yellow poncho made from horsehair. He had a penchant for wide brimmed hats or a more flamboyant pink fez.
He also kept a menagerie of animals including nine cats who all attended church on Sunday morning except the one he publicly excommunicated for catching a mouse on the Sabbath. His other pets included a ‘highly intelligent’ pig called Gyp and a stag called Robin which Hawker insisted was tame even though it was in the habit of attacking visitors to the vicarage and pinning them to the ground.

Perhaps you have similar memories which resonate with our collective past, when people appeared to live in closer harmony with the natural cycle of the seasons and daily life was reliant upon sun and rain, light and darkness.  In the old Log books at William Gilpin School there were many references to poor attendance due to parents needing the children to help with the harvest

In the 21st century, though, you might logically question why we sing (when we are allowed to) about ploughing fields and scattering seeds at all, when most of us have no real connections to the agricultural world - harvest is not the life-and-death issue it once was – at least not for us in our green and pleasant land. 

Not so of course in some countries. We are all aware of the problems some African countries have had with a total lack of rain. Here the seed hasn’t even managed to germinate, let alone get anywhere near ripening. In countries such as these, there is little chance of a shortfall being made up for by imported produce

But for us, even if the weather were to ruin things and the British harvest were to fail completely, the shops would no doubt still be full of produce brought in from all around the world.  It’s just that things would cost us more, and our carbon footprint would be even bigger than it is now.

There are positive aspects to this change. Globalisation has opened up new markets for smaller countries to export the crops that they can grow and we can’t. But it does mean that the whole reason of an autumn Harvest Festival really doesn’t mean as much as perhaps it did.

Not so many years ago everything had its season, and one could look forward with eager anticipation to the first strawberries of summer, or the arrival of the cauliflower, cucumber or tomatoes. As you walk round a supermarket today you can all too easily assume that ‘harvest’ is now a year-long, rather than a seasonal event 

The traditional harvest can, therefore, seem little more than a distant, quaint memory.   We are now the hunter-gatherers of the supermarket – just as tenacious as our ancestors, but more attuned to shopping hours than to light and darkness, or sun and rain. 

So if there is no really defined time in late September when we can breathe a long sigh and say that the harvest is safely gathered in, why do we still continue to have Autumn Harvest Festivals?

It serves as a reminder of, and allows us to focus on, our dependence upon the earth and its produce, and those who labour to bring it to our shops and homes. We not only come to give thanks for flowers, fruit and vegetables, but for all life’s blessings. 

Celebrating our ‘first fruits’ reminds us about gratitude and celebration for things we take for granted and about generosity for those in need.

Also, this Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi reminds us that our gratitude cannot ignore the animals, birds, fish and all aspects of the environment which are such a vital part of the intricate and interdependent network of life on planet earth.

I’m sure in schools all over the country several willing volunteers have struggled to reorder the letters of the word harvest into key words such as Share and Starve. In the past months we have witnessed the worst of human selfishness – panic buying – must have – can’t manage without – but also the best of human generosity in keeping the food banks supplied which have never been more important for so many, even on our own comfortable affluent doorstep.

Also in the past months saying a public thankyou suddenly became new and special instead of an everyday occurrence As the mediaeval mystic, Meister Eckhart, once said, ‘If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you’, it will be enough’.  It’s the shortest and simplest prayer imaginable, but one we perhaps too often forget. 

So an autumn Harvest Festival, or perhaps more appropriately Harvest Thanksgiving still has a great significance. It acts like a full stop in our week in week out routines and reminds us that, to quote one of the hymns we sang in school, we mustn’t forget, no we mustn’t forget, to say a great big thankyou we mustn’t forget.

Which brings me to my tin of soup

This tin of soup contains everything that we need to celebrate and thank God for not only this morning but every morning

It is a nutritious meal, something in itself we should give thanks for.

It’s full of vegetables, carrots, onions, and peas, tomatoes and pasta, herbs and flour.
Farmers have planted the seeds and harvested the crops.
Chefs have mixed all the ingredients and using God’s gift of water it has all been cooked to perfection to become soup.

But the soup is not the only harvest in this tin.

The tin itself is a celebration of the earth and the minerals and ores that it gives us.
It reminds us to give thanks for industry and all the men and women who work in industry.

Even the label is a cause for celebration

The paper label reminds us that we should thank God for the beauty and usefulness of trees and the bright colours can remind us just how beautiful is the world around us

Even the list of ingredients and cooking instructions on the back can remind us to thank God for the gift of language and the wonder of modern communications.

The barcode can remind us to thank God for the gift of technology and science in our world and the creativity of the human brain.

And finally when we sit down to enjoy the soup itself… We can give thanks to God not only for all our senses. But we can thank him for the gift of life itself.
All this in one small can of soup that contains everything it says on the label …. And a whole lot more!

Is a truly wonderful celebration of our Harvest and serves to remind us that giving thanks should be more than a once-a-year celebration--giving thanks to God sharing and caring is never out of season.
In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, let us thank God today and every day for the goodness and loving kindness shown towards us, and bless God for our creation, preservation and all the benefits of this life.