Last Sunday, Robert and I were visiting his sister and her husband on their farm in south Shropshire, and we went with them to their church where they were celebrating Harvest Festival. Despite a dreadful year for farmers, with the floods and the foot-and-mouth, and more recently the blue tongue, they were still there giving thanks and celebrating the harvest, which has almost finished apart from the maize.
Like some of you, we both grew up in the country, and learnt the cycle of seed-time and harvest, watching the fields going from brown, to green, to gold and back to brown again. But those of my family who still live in the country often wonder why we, in the towns, celebrate Harvest Festival. After all, for us, food comes from Tesco or Sainsbury’s – we can buy strawberries or green beans all the year round, and aren’t really connected to the seasons and the countryside.
Well, I suppose they have a point. But there are three very good reasons to celebrate Harvest Festival, I think, no matter where you live. First, and most importantly, God told us to, as I think our first reading made clear. Secondly, we do need to remember the people who work so hard on our farms to bring us our food, whether in this country or overseas. And lastly, but not least, we need to remember those in the developing world where crop failure can so often mean starvation.
So the first important reason that we need to celebrate Harvest Festival is that God tells us to, in the Bible. Our first reading gave us some instructions as to how this was to be done. Harvest Festival is very ancient – it goes right back to when the Israelites first settled in the Promised Land.
You see, before that, they hadn’t ever been crop farmers – well, Abraham’s ancestors might have been, but Abraham, you may remember, was called to a nomadic existence, and could only take his flocks and herds with him. And the same was true of Isaac an Jacob, and after that, of course, the whole family moved to Egypt. And in Egypt, they were cast into slavery, and didn’t farm either. In the desert they were nomads again, and, when they settle down in the Promised Land, this is the first time that they have been able to be crop farmers. And, of course, they really don’t know how.
So the local inhabitants, the Canaanites, have to show them what to do. And if you were a Canaanite farmer, proper crop-farming included visiting the temple of Baal and performing the rituals to ensure a good crop, and the rituals to ensure that winter wouldn’t be permanent, but summer would return. Now the Israelites, of course, worshipped God, but it was far more difficult to worship God than it was to worship Baal. Baal, you see, didn’t actually require anything of you other than attendance at services. You didn’t have to behave in a certain way, or eat only certain foods, or try to be holy, as the Israelites did. Baal didn’t mind if you worshipped God as well, but God certainly minded if you worshipped Baal!
Quite apart from anything else, if you wandered off and worshipped Baal, you were pulling the tribe apart! Judaism has lasted all these years down to our own day partly because they have kept to their own rules and rituals, and kept people together. If, when they arrived in the Promised Land, they began to wander off and worship how they pleased, and not kept the rituals, this couldn’t have happened.
But if the children of Israel didn’t worship Baal, how were they going to pray for a good harvest, and render thanks for one when it happened? Their Canaanite neighbours taught them that it isn’t just a matter of planting seeds and hoping for the best; you do need an element of prayer as well. So the Israelite powers that were went away and thought about it and prayed about it, and eventually came up with the Jewish Harvest Festival celebration that we read about.
And we have continued the tradition until this day! Harvest Festival isn’t a fixed festival like Christmas and Easter, although many churches do celebrate it rather earlier than we do, around the time of the Harvest Moon in September. Others may have abandoned it altogether as irrelevant to modern life. But we do need, I think, to take time out to thank God for our food, and to remember those who work so hard to produce it for us.
Because it’s not been a great year for our farmers, has it? The floods that devastated Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire earlier this year did massive damage to growing crops. And the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Surrey has led to many farmers’ livelihoods being suspended, and all their stock destroyed. And with restrictions on stock movement because of foot-and-mouth, many animals haven’t been able to be taken to market at the right time, and so on.
Even in a good year, I shouldn’t care to have to work on the land! Agricultural labourers have traditionally worked long hours for low pay, and even when conditions got better for factory workers in the last century, this wasn’t true for agricultural workers. These days, of course, far fewer people do work on the land – and the likes of the government would really like to build houses all over what’s left, anyway. A century ago, harvest employed all the hands a farmer could get, and casual labour, too, and they celebrated with a big feast when it was all over. Today, though, the harvest is often gathered in by one worker, sitting alone on a huge, dirty, noisy and tiring combine harvester, getting hungry, thirsty and tired, with a head aching from the constant noise, despite ear protectors and perhaps an iPod. And those harvests that still require masses of human input are often done by illegal immigrants, trafficked in from places like Afghanistan or China – think of those Chinese slaves who died cockle-picking in Morecambe Bay a couple of years ago. Or else the crop itself is grown abroad, and flown to the UK so that we can pay for strawberries or French beans all the year round. But what sort of conditions are they grown in?
Much farm work can be tedious, repetitive and dangerous – I know people who have had horrendous injuries from farm equipment, one person was lucky to have lived, never mind kept his leg, after catching it in a muck-spreader. And things like chemical fertilisers and sheep-dip and so on aren’t exactly good for you if you inhale too much. The people who do farm work would simply hate to have to work indoors, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a pleasant job.
So we celebrate the harvest because God has told us to, and because we need to remember our farmers and those who work on the land. But we also need to remember those who are less fortunate than we are. In this country, a failed harvest means that bread will be more expensive this winter, perhaps up to £1 for a standard loaf, but we can still get it, we can still go to Tesco’s and stock up on food. Even our farmers can! In our part of the world, if we can’t grow it here, we can import it. But in some parts of the world, if you don’t grow it, you don’t eat it. And if most of your growing-space is taken up with mange-tout peas for the likes of us, a failure is even more disastrous. There have been massive floods in central Africa recently – what price the harvest there, this year? And where will they get their food from?
One of the main causes of failed harvests is war. Crops can’t grow when soldiers have been trampling all over the fields where they were planted, or if your water supplies have been disrupted so that irrigation can’t happen. And there is always war. Darfur springs to mind for us, but it’s not just so long ago that there was war in Europe as well as Africa, and the Middle East is always tricky.
So God calls on His people to celebrate the harvest. And when we do so, we remember farmers and farm labourers in this country and overseas, who work so hard to provide for us. And we remember our brothers and sisters in countries that are on a knife-edge of disaster, where, when the harvest fails, you starve.
But our hymns remind us of one more harvest, God’s harvest. They remind us that one day, we don’t know when and we don’t know how, one day God will gather us all together in heaven, and this world, which isn’t designed to be permanent, will come to an end. And then there will be no more pain, or sorrow, or hunger, or tears! But the scriptures do warn, and the hymns echo the warning, that there are people who will exclude themselves from being with God, by rejecting God’s offer of love and forgiveness and eternal life. I don’t think anybody here would do that, so you needn’t worry! For us, the thought of one day being part of God’s harvest is yet another reason to thank God this morning. So our next hymn reflects this, and continues the theme of praise and thanksgiving.
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