October 9, 2016 Harvest Thanksgiving
DEUTERONOMY 26:1-11; PSALM 100; PHILIPPIANS 4:4-9; JOHN 6:25-35
Think back to the most recent celebration of an regular event in your family’s life – say a birthday or Christmas. Now imagine that you were describing this event to someone outside the family. You might say something like “We got together at our home. Everyone was there – parents, grandparents, children. We had a great meal, time to visit, the kids got to play with their cousins” and so on. You might talk about what you ate and who won the board game you played. My guess is that somewhere during that description, your language would shift and you would begin to say things like “First we do this, then we do that” or “We always do this”. You would end up describing, not so much the most recent celebration, but how your family always observes that special occasion.
There’s a similar feeling in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy. Here we have instructions for the celebration of the harvest. There is a similar feeling of permanence, of things that don’t change. “First you put some of the harvest in a basket, then you go to the shrine and give the basket to the priest, and then you say these words.” So let’s explore the origins of this text.
The book of Deuteronomy – literally “second law” – contains Moses’ final teachings about how the people are to live in covenant with God, follow God’s ways, and so obtain the blessings that will be associated with the Promised Land. This passage comes near the end of a long section (chapters 12-26) that begins with the laws governing worship and various festivals, and then goes on to all kinds of case law dealing with a range of issues. At the end of the section, the text returns to the topic of worship and sacrifice, only this time instead of laws, we have liturgy. This is a liturgical text, giving the words the worshipper is to recite. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor...” is nothing less than a creed. It is on a parallel with “I believe in God” or “We are not alone; we live in God’s world.” In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul says, “I handed on to you what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). In the same letter, writing about the Lord’s Supper, he says, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the might when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread...” (1 Corinthians 11:23ff). What do all these have in common? They are statements of belief – that is, relationship to God – based in story, based in history, based in what God has done. Theology, liturgy, ethics and law are woven together to shape the people’s lives in response to God’s action.
Three things about this text stand out for me. The first is the language and how it changes in the course of the passage. The bulk of the teachings in Deuteronomy are given in the second person plural, in other words to the community. Here, though, the liturgical instructions are given in the second person singular. They are addressed to the individual worshipper. “When you (singular) come into the land...you (singular) shall take some of the first of the fruit...you (singular) shall go to the priest...you (singular) shall make this response before the Lord your God.” But then look at the shift in language: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt...when the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, we cried to the Lord...the Lord brought us out of Egypt; and he brought us into this place.” And then the shift back to the personal: “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the land which you, O Lord, have given me.” Even as each individual makes their way to worship, the journey and the experience are wrapped up in the story of the community, which in turn is enfolded in the constant presence and saving action of God.
The second thing that stands out for me in this passage is the centrality of the land. Look at how many times that word is mentioned. And along with the land comes the word gift, over and over again. Land and gift. They go together. As a people recently enslaved in a foreign land, and having spent a generation wandering as landless nomads in the wilderness, the Israelites receive not just their freedom, but a land. “When you have come into the land...” It is not just any land; it is the land that God is giving them as their inheritance. It is, moreover, a good land, a land “flowing with milk and honey”. Offerings of grain and fruit from that land confirm the promise made to Abraham: “Go to the land that I will show you...and I will bless you” (Genesis 12:1). The worshippers affirm God’s gift of the land: “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us...God brought us into this place and gave us this land...so now I bring the first fruits of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”
We city dwellers need the celebration of Harvest Thanksgiving to remind us of our rootedness in the land, the good earth of God’s creation. We need the prophets’ reminders that where there is no knowledge of God, where people turn away from God’s ways, the land itself suffers. When we forget God’s vision of Shalom, of people living in harmony with each other and their environment, then we begin to treat the earth and air and water as our possessions instead of the very things that sustain us and all life.
Harvest Thanksgiving recalls us to our original vocation as stewards. In the creation story, God made the human race to till and care for the garden of earth. Gardening is the original vocation of the human race. A steward is one who cares for what belongs to another. If “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” as the Psalmist says, then we are accountable for our stewardship of God’s great gift. To see our vocation in this way means that degradation and abuse of the environment is blasphemy against the Creator.
All of us depend on agriculture for our sustenance, even as fewer and fewer of us obtain our food directly from our own labours. What, then, might be the first fruits that we offer in recognition that everything that promotes life, health and peace has been given to us by God? Melissa Martin, in her column in yesterday’s Free Press, says, “Gratitude ought not to be mere incantation, but a compact that binds us to action. To be truly thankful, it seems, is a revelation that bestows obligations: to the territories that enable our survival, and all of their mysteries and all of their people” (Winnipeg Free Press, October 8, 2016).
And so the third thing that stands out for me in this text is concern for the vulnerable. This is not a Thanksgiving dinner for the family only. Even after the Israelites have settled in their new home, they are called to remember times when they were vulnerable, living as aliens in foreign lands. The summary of their history is a story of journeys undertaken in crisis. The “wandering Aramean” is Jacob, who fled his brother Esau’s wrath to live with relatives in Aram and who later moved to Egypt to survive a famine. Their history includes the escape from Egypt and subsequent wanderings in the wilderness, a challenging and dangerous time. We might think in our own time about those who have undertaken a perilous journey to come to a new place where they can live in peace and share in prosperity.
The recitation of their story focuses not so much of the dangers and perils of the journey, but on God’s responsiveness to the Israelites’ cries for help and protection, on God’s amazing power to deliver them from oppression and lead them into a future filled with hope and abundance. The One who delivered them out of Egypt “with a mighty arm” is the same as the One who brought them safely into the Land of Promise. Thanksgiving for the fruits of the land is never separated from the remembrance of deliverance.
Because of God’s action on behalf of the vulnerable Israelites, they are enjoined to remember those among them who are vulnerable now. The offering of the first fruits ensures that the whole community can share in the abundance of the land. The worshippers are commanded to share their bounty with “the Levites and the aliens who reside among you”, in other words those who have no other place and no other community in which to celebrate.
The promise made to Abraham was a promise of blessing “so that you will be a blessing”. If you read further in Deuteronomy 26, you will see again the connection between care for the weak and prosperity for the land: the worshipper says, “I have removed the sacred portion” (that is, the tithe) “and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment...look own from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us” (26:13-15).
Contained within these verses is the prophetic tension and balance between ritual and justice, between liturgy and concern for the vulnerable. Both are important; both are necessary. The 26th chapter of Deuteronomy is after all a set of liturgical instructions, but if ever there is a question as to which matters more, the witness of the prophets is clear. “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). God does not need our worship, as though God were lacking something. God requires justice and mercy. We need to worship. We need liturgy and ritual in order to become people who practice justice and mercy. If ever our worship takes the place of practicing justice, then we have got it wrong and lost our way.
Jesus presents himself as bread of life for a hungry world, the remedy for the need which drove the people to come looking for him. The bread of God, says Jesus, is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. Whoever comes to him will never be hungry again. The invitation is open to all, not restricted to a chosen few. Jesus goes on to say, “Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.” His flesh is given for the life of the whole world.
“Bread of life” can be interpreted in many ways, but surely it must start with the physical. To pray for our daily bread and then not share it with others again amounts to blasphemy against the Giver of all life. Our stewardship calls us to account for our dealings with the weak and vulnerable whom God has given into our care.
Gratitude is rarely confined only to the present moment, but is the culmination of a multitude of experiences of blessing. The fruitfulness of the present is rooted in the faithfulness of God all along. As we read this text, we are asked to have the same mindset. We celebrate the richness of the present while recalling that we are part of a long and rich story of God’s faithfulness and generosity. And it is a shared story. Individual expressions of thanksgiving are only understood when rooted in the life of the community. And gratitude only reaches its full expression when it shows itself in generous action.
Harvest Thanksgiving, then, is both a celebration of God’s goodness and a renewal of our ministry of service to the earth, to one another, and especially to those in need. It is indeed right that we should praise God – for the gift of life itself, for the beauty of this earth, for all that fills and enriches our lives. God’s inclusive generosity embraces us all, as together we share bread and wine, food, and everything else that supports and enhances life.