(Acts 2,44-47; John 1,1-5 & 9-14)
When I was a primary school class teacher, there were certain types of children who drove me up the wall!
One of these was the child who was always doing something wrong – usually the same thing – and when found out and reprimanded, always said, “I’m really sorry, Mrs. P.”
One of these repeat offenders apologised so regularly, that I was once driven to say in reply, “You’re not really sorry. You say so, but you don’t mean it. If you were really sorry, you’d make an effort to change yourself, and not keep on doing the same thing wrong!”
I sometimes wonder if God feels like that about Harvest Thanksgiving!
I imagine the Almighty sitting up there, hearing “We plough the fields and scatter” sung for the millionth time, watching the baskets of fruit, the harvest loaves, the marrows, the tins (and even these days, the razors and the soap) pile up, and saying, “Yes, this is all O.K. but if you were really thankful, you’d make an effort to change things in the world, to make it a better place, and you wouldn’t keep repeating all the things you do wrong”.
Of course, part of our expression of thankfulness to God for the riches of creation, the work of human hands, our clothes and our food is to hold services such as this: to make the church beautiful, to sing God’s praises, and to offer samples of the harvest to God. The Old Testament shows us that in doing this we are part of a tradition that goes back to the time of Moses, and probably, long before that.
But many of the Old Testament accounts of harvest make the point that there is a second part to any meaningful thanksgiving, a point made also by the reading from Acts we heard this morning. That second part is to share our plenty with those in our local community who haven’t benefited so obviously from God’s bounty: the elderly and lonely, the homeless, the refugees, and those who because of debt or unemployment or low wages, don’t have enough food at the moment. When we bring our harvest gifts of food to donate to the Food Bank and the Catholic Worker Farm, we are acknowledging that second essential part.
And there is yet a third part, which has come more and more to the fore over recent years. That is to work for justice for those who provide much of our food, by campaigning for justice in trade, and for the relief of debt; by working for better care of the earth, through opposing the things that contribute to climate change, and destroy essential creatures, like bees; and by campaigning for improvements in the lives of those who don’t yet reap the benefits of improved living standards in other parts of the world.
There is sometimes a reluctance to emphasise this part of our thanksgiving. “Why can’t we just have a party?” people say. “Why do we have to make ourselves miserable thinking about politics and all those people in want?” But as Paul told the Corinthians, sharing with those in want is not an optional extra; it is an essential part of giving thanks to God, and it is to be done not reluctantly or out of duty, but with joy, as an expression of our genuine acknowledgement of God’s goodness to us.
Harvest Thanksgiving is a reminder to us that we are stewards of God’s earth, and that God expects us to be good stewards; which means we have to take decisions and act on God’s behalf in the world. There is no-one else to do that if we don’t. This linking of worship and action for social justice is a theme which runs through the Old Testament, especially in the words of the prophets, and in the book of Deuteronomy, and it is there in the New Testament too.
So, the offerings of food which we have brought today will be shared locally, but our cash contributions will be given to the Bishop’s Harvest Appeal, which this year is supporting a project in Egypt to improve literacy among women.
The project is run by a partner of Christian Aid, Coptic Orthodox Church Bless, which works with whole communities, setting up village development committees to bring people together to address the issues they are all facing. Women’s literacy is just one of these issues.
In Egypt, as many as 4 in 10 women cannot read. In traditional communities there, many girls are kept at home to care for younger siblings, and even those who go to school may marry young, and so don’t finish their schooling. Sabren Awad, one of the women featured in the appeal materials, describes how it limits female confidence, happiness and ability to cope with modern society; “I cried because I couldn’t help my children with their homework. I was annoyed with myself,” she said But after COC Bless started literacy classes for women in her village, and she learnt to read, she became happy and confident. Now she teaches other women these skills and says: “I feel my own standing in the community has increased”.
The United Nations, along with many other organisations, has highlighted how important women’s literacy is in combating poverty, improving access to education among both girls and boys, and improving child health. Literate women live longer, and they have smaller families: literate women start their families later, and have fewer, healthier children. Even a few years of female education results in a drop in infant mortality, and greater use of health clinics. The families of women with some education tend to have better education, housing, clothing, income and sanitation.
All these things are particularly important in Egypt, where more than 20 million people live below the poverty line, and the political upheaval after the Arab Spring in 2011 has left social instability in its wake. Many families have lost members, particularly the men, meaning that women need to be better educated to become the main breadwinners. Many villages now are without police support; one of the women featured in the appeal material, Soheer Azey, has been inspired to try to become a police officer to support and protect others like herself. Christian Aid and its partners like COC Bless, are working to support communities to find ways to rebuild their lives and livelihoods and have hope for a better future.
Many of our harvest hymns, like ‘Come Ye Thankful People Come’, are not actually about growing crops. They are about the harvest of lives and souls, produced by spreading the Gospel of Christ. One of the metaphors that the Scriptures use for Christ is ‘The Word’ which brings light and life to those who live in darkness, as we heard in the Gospel reading from John. Not a reading you would expect in a Harvest service, but one which is especially relevant to the Bishops’ Harvest Appeal project for this year.
We who follow ‘The Word’ are being asked to give the gift of words to women in a faraway place, a gift which will bright light into their lives and revolutionise their prospects. This work for social justice is as much a part of our Harvest Thanksgiving as the traditional displays of flowers, fruit and other produce.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that when we celebrate Harvest, God does sometimes say: “The offer of your gifts is useless… I cannot tolerate your new moons and your festivals; they have become a burden to me, and I can put up with them no longer……. Cease to do evil and learn to do right. Pursue justice and champion the oppressed, give the orphan his rights, plead the widow’s cause”.
That is what God demands of us in a real Harvest Thanksgiving.