Sermon for Harvest Thanksgiving [Lent 3 Year C] | DBHome | RCL Resources Index |

Thanksgiving for the bread of life

[Note: This sermon contains references which were included when in was first preached at the centenary celebrations of the Templestowe Congregation in a service which was held as part of a local community festival. Templestowe was a rural community of orchards and dairy farms until it was overtaken by the suburban development of Melbourne in the 1960s.]

Today we are recalling a tradition. The Harvest Thanksgiving or Harvest Festival was a special day of celebration for the families who lived on the land in this area during most of the last hundred years. It was so much a part of our tradition that these special services continued in many city and suburban churches until recent times. It was a great day in the little country church in Tasmania which was an important part of my childhood. As in most farming families, my mother was the gardener as my father worked in the paddocks. She used to encourage me to take responsibility for some part of the garden, and I well remember the extra large marrow that I had grown one year when I was still quite a small boy, and how it had pride of place in the centre of the display when local produce was set up on the church for the Harvest Thanksgiving. It was the custom to have a visiting preacher and I still have the letter he wrote to me asking about the big marrow. Now, I suppose I was bit proud of that and would have been inclined, in spite of the warning Moses gave to the Israelites, to think that I had made it grow; but I am sure my mother and the faith of the people who gave thanks that day would also have made it clear to me that it is a wonderful gift of God that things grow as they do.

The ancient blessing

The ancient people of Israel who had a special relationship with God, called the covenant, believed that God had blessed them with the bountiful gifts of a good land. As we read this morning:

That was after they had been wandering in the desert wilderness when they nearly starved and God fed them in a mysterious way with bread they called manna. Enjoyment, at last, of the produce of the promised land was part of the covenant God had made with their ancestor Abraham which we read about last week [Genesis 15:1-18]. God promised to make them a great nation and bring them to a good land; on their part, they would honour God in their worship and keep his commandments.

They were told that they should bless the Lord when they enjoyed the fruits of the good land. That is, they should remember that what they enjoyed were gifts freely given, and honour God thankfully. `To bless' in the their Hebrew language literally meant `to bend the knee'; its Greek equivalent, eulogein, means `to speak well of'. So they were to worship God for what they enjoyed and remember that what they enjoyed were gifts.

Keeping the old covenant in worship

To help them do what they should to keep their covenant, to preserve their relationship with God, they had certain rules to follow. Some of these rules were about how they should live in community. They had commandments about not stealing and not killing, and others were rules about worship. Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments. There were commandments about making an offering to God, to acknowledge him as the Lord, the source of their life, and the gifts they enjoyed. So as we read in the Old Testament lesson two weeks ago:

We had someone act out the offering during the reading, bringing forward a basket of tomatoes and beans. It was a reminder of a very ancient practice; bringing the first fruits to the Lord. It signified that we depend upon God, we honour him and put him first, offering the first and the best. It also reminds us that the offering of money we make every Sunday in our worship is part of our worship: it is more than a collection to gather the resources needed to maintain the work of the Church, it is intended to honour God and to acknowledge our dependence upon him. With the offering we say thank you, and what we offer should be a worthy expression of our thanks.

Christian tradition of thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth

Our tradition of the Harvest Thanksgiving services then follows a very ancient practice of worship, of offering the first fruits as a sign of our thankfulness. It was carried over from the Jews to Christian worship in various ways. It is there in the general idea that anything offered to God has to be of the very best quality so that it can be a genuine sacrifice of something of real value to the one who gave it.

During the Middle Ages in England there a tradition of having a loaf of bread made from the first of the wheat to be harvested brought to the church on the 1st of August each year to be dedicated in the mass. So 1 August was called Lammas Day, from the old English words for 'loaf' and 'mass'. This special loaf would then have been shared with the people in communion. It signified thanksgiving for the harvest, recalling the ancient practice of sacrificing the first fruits, and it was offered in the great thanksgiving of the eucharist, then called the sacrifice of the mass, giving thanks for the new covenant established by Christ. I will return to this shortly in reference to the New Testament reading about Jesus being the bread of heaven.

The Medieval tradition does not appear to have had much significance in later centuries, and the harvest thanksgiving as we have known it is a relatively modern practice. It can be dated quite precisely to 1843 in the village of Morwenstowe in Cornwall when the Lammas Day custom was revived by the Rev. R. S. Hawker. By the middle of the last century, at about the time when the first settlers were reaping their first harvests in Templestowe, the parish celebration of the a harvest thanksgiving was being practised widely. It replaced the old Harvest Home which was not a church ceremony in itself although it too undoubtedly once had a religious element. There is a quaint description of a village ceremony at harvest time in the novel Lorna Doon by R. D. Blackmore, supposedly set about 1685, and also in Cornwall and Somerset. On the day the harvest was to begin, the old village parson preceded the reapers into the field and with a few strong strokes of the sickle cut wheat for the first sheaf, obviously recalling the ancient offerings honouring God with the first fruits. In about the same period Thanksgiving Day became established as a major holiday and family celebration in America.

So across the centuries many generations have had reason in their different ways to honour God in thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth. In this centenary year we too give thanks. As we offer our prayers of thanksgiving in a few minutes with the aid of Bruce Prewer's poem 'Good to be Alive!' we will think of more than the produce and farms, orchards and gardens. We will celebrate our enjoyment of life in the whole of God's creation. It is good to enjoy the gifts of life. It is right for Christians to say 'It is good to be alive!' Our relationship to God is not intended to be one of guilt, gloom and fear. After all Jesus did say

The key sentiment of the Christian life in intended to be one of thanksgiving, just as the Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship. The thanks we give extends to all the various ways in which we are blessed, including our relationships with people and life in community which are gifts he intends us to enjoy.

When things go wrong

You might say, `What about the bad things that have happened to me. It has not all been good.' And it is quite true that we live in an imperfect world, one of natural disasters and uncertainties, and one in which evil influences are at work. As we were thinking last week about being citizens of heaven, this is not our true and permanent homeland. Just the same even if things that are bad, it is part of Christian experience that God can bring good out of evil. Indeed it is the message of the Gospel. I have known people who have been marvellously enriched and liberated in their recovery from personal and family disasters. Not that the old hurts completely disappear. They are still there, but healing takes place and we are then better able to serve God in a broken world; so there are benefits even in what has gone wrong. Indeed one of the greatest causes for thanksgiving is the making of a new beginning.

We have so much for which to be thankful even when our own effort contributes to their production. Yet so many people live as if there is no God, acting as if all they enjoy is due to themselves alone. It is a common disease today, in fact it is the very essence of modernity and belief in progress for people to put themselves at the centre and to imagine that their whole lives are under their control; or, if they cannot make things work out the way they think they should, then they feel they have been cheated and that they ought to have complete control. The idea that we depend upon ourselves, either as individuals or in society, and not upon God, is the great illusion. Self-sufficiency, self-reliance and self-fulfilment are often thought to be modern and progressive, but there is nothing new in such attitudes. People have always been tempted to put themselves in the place of God. So the ancient Israelites were told:

It is a matter of being in the right relationship with the Creator. In the long run human society works best and people live better when they know the one whose creation it is and when they enjoy it way he intends it to be. When we are out of harmony with his intentions for us things will not work as they should. When we do work in harmony with God we have much for which to be thankful.

Thanksgiving for the new relationship with God in Christ

Even when things go wrong, God has provided a way for us to be put into a right relationship with him. It is the way of Jesus Christ. When the people of the old covenant, the old relationship with God, became separated from him, he reached out to them through his Son the restore them again to the family. He made a new covenant: so it was that Jesus at the Last Supper took the cup and called it the cup of the new covenant, and that is a new relationship for which we give special thanks in the great thanksgiving, the Eucharist, when we recall the thanks he gave:

The central act of Christian worship is to recall and re-enact that blessing and the offering of himself which it represents. So when Jesus recalled the gifts of God to the people of Israel he put himself in the place of the bread they received as a gift when they were starving, the manna which fell from heaven to feed the people in the wilderness before they reached the promised land. Before they eventually enjoyed the riches of the good land they had learned of their dependence on God through their experience in the desert. So in later years people learned again of how, when they were restored to him, he would feed them with the bread of life. Jesus said,

So our harvest thanksgiving is repeated every time we come to offer the great thanksgiving at the Lord's table. Then we have communion with the very source of the life for which we are thankful; the bread which is the fruit of our co-operation with God in creation is transformed and given back to us in communion, and so we praise him who gives us the food of our pilgrimage for eternal life. All praise and thanksgiving to God our Father through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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