Sun, Feb 11, 2018

Celebrating Harvest Thanksgiving

Sermon for Harvest Thanksgiving

Why do we celebrate ‘Harvest Thanksgiving’?


The origins of this festival lie…

of course…

in earlier, more primitive, agrarian times…

when the majority of people grew crops to feed their families…

and they believed that God was the direct cause of everything that happened:

God made the sun to shine and the rains to fall;

God intervened, directly, to provide the right climactic conditions for growth;

or, God withheld them, if people had erred, or sinned, or gone astray.

Understanding their relationship with God in a contractual sense…

they thanked God for their harvest…

and offered the ‘first-fruits’ as a gift…

to ensure that, in return, God would gift them with a good crop the following year.

Of course, none of us believe that today.

We know that the world doesn’t work like that;

the climate and the seasons don’t work like that;

and God isn’t like that.

Furthermore, none of us live or work on the land.

None of us depend for our livelihood upon agricultural production.


So, why do we celebrate ‘Harvest Thanksgiving’?

The church where I ministered in suburban Melbourne celebrated Harvest Thanksgiving.

That tradition began, for them, because one of the church leaders ran the local greengrocer’s shop.

His livelihood depended on produce.

It made sense.

But that’s not the case here.

So, why do we celebrate ‘Harvest Thanksgiving’?


Is it because we’re making time to ponder from where our food comes;

to remember those whose toil and sweat is responsible for producing it?

I can’t say that I have ever had that sense.


Is “Harvest Thanksgiving”, for us, a bit like the American celebration of “Thanksgiving”––

a time when we pause to be thankful for “all of our blessings”;

a time simply to be thankful––

in some generic, non-specific, diffuse sort of way?

Not to be crass about it, is it about reminding ourselves how fortunate…

and, indeed how lucky we are––

in the truest sense of that word––

to have been born into one of the most stable, affluent countries on the planet;

and, generally, to have been born into good families with good prospects…

so that we have never really had to worry about where we were going to sleep at night…

or if there would be enough to fill our bellies?

Perhaps there’s a little of that.

But it’s certainly not the whole––

or even the major part––

of the story.

That doesn’t explain this significant display of produce.

That doesn’t explain why so many of you have gone to the supermarket…

or the greengrocers…

and bought goods specifically to bring for this occasion.

Indeed, I know that many of you have gone out of your way to do so…

because, when we’re done here this morning…

all of this goes to help the homeless and needy.

And, I think, that’s getting closer to the heart of what Harvest Thanksgiving means for us.

Knowing how fortunate we are––

in the lottery of life––

we want to do something to help those less fortunate.

And I don’t mean to imply by that…

that it’s motivated by a sense of guilt.

Rather, generosity and grace are at the very heart…

the very core…

of the Christian faith.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are an incarnated parable of gift and grace.

But I think there’s more to it than that.

So much of our life­––

as people of faith––

is focussed on our personal spiritual development.

We come to church, largely, to satisfy our spiritual hungers;

to find nourishment to sustain our daily living;

to find peace, when we are perplexed and perturbed;

to find consolation, when we are grieving;

to find encouragement, when we are disheartened;

to find challenge, when we are complacent.

On the other hand, Harvest Thanksgiving offers us a chance to be religiously self-transcendent;

to look beyond our own needs and our own desire for fulfilment…

and to focus on ‘the other’––

specifically, on the other who is in need.

If so much of our religious life is, in one sense, spiritually egocentric…

then Harvest Thanksgiving encourages us to be altruistic.


In our reading this morning from Mark’s Gospel…

Jesus and the disciples are walking through a grain field on the Sabbath.

The disciples pick some of the grain they have trampled…

de-husk it…

and eat it…

thereby incurring the wrath of the Pharisees.

It’s a contrived story––

given their religious predilections, the Pharisees would not be following them so closely on such an occasion––

but it’s intended to make a significant point for the author’s community.

In countering the Pharisees’ complaint, Jesus appeals to a story about David…

to justify what they were doing.

And yet, the point that the author has Jesus make is not found in the original story.

Nowhere does it say that David did what he did because his followers were hungry.

But the author construes it thus…

because he wants to make the point that feeding the hungry––

helping the needy––

is a higher religious requirement than Sabbath observance.

Indeed, in his dictum––

“The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath”––

the author is suggesting that human need takes precedence over all of our religious norms, traditions, and rites.

Helping the needy is, in a sense, the litmus test of religious faith.

And yet, that wasn’t a particularly novel idea.

It’s one that we find throughout the Hebrew scriptures:

for example, from the book of Proverbs…

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice”;

from Amos…

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”;

and from Hosea…

I desire mercy and not sacrifice”.

In other words…

there’s this whole tradition that suggests that doing justice––

helping the needy––

is not just the litmus test of our faith, it is…

in fact…

our highest form of worship.

And yet…

in many respects…

even that doesn’t go far enough.

In this story, Mark’s Jesus isn’t asking for charity.

He’s demanding a changed outlook or worldview––

one that would lead to significant structural change.

It’s hard to maintain rampant social inequality––

and the social structures that reinforce it––

if helping the needy is your dominant religious perspective.


While we do reach our limits––

what some commentators call “compassion fatigue”––

those of us from the middle classes are pretty good at giving to charity.

We don’t mind giving a handout to the needy.

But we don’t, as a whole, think beyond that.

Martin Luther King jr once noted:

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring”.

On the whole, we don’t mind giving to charity or providing welfare…

but we’re not so comfortable about asking the harder questions…

or taking actions that seek to address the structural injustices––

the causes, rather than the symptoms.

Perhaps, then, when we come to celebrate Harvest Thanksgiving…

it would be good if we pondered…

not ‘what produce might be useful for the needy’…

but ‘what can we do to affect real change?’ 

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