Harvest Thanksgiving

Donna Joy


Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 100, Philippians 4:4-9, John 6:25-35

This past week as I was standing in line at Vic’s Fruit Market, waiting to purchase a turkey and a couple of other items, I overheard a conversation between a couple of people who were in front of me in the line. They were discussing their upcoming Thanksgiving dinner, and one of them mentioned that Thanksgiving is her favourite dinner of the year . . . second, perhaps, only to Christmas. She said that what she loves most about it is that not only do you have the dinner itself to enjoy, but then you have all the leftovers to enjoy throughout the days that follow. She said, “Thanksgiving dinner is the meal that keeps on giving.”

As I listened to this conversation, and various other things I’ve observed over the past week I am left with the impression that (generally speaking) we, as a culture, have forgotten the original purpose of Harvest Thanksgiving. I think, at some level, we all kind of know the history: that is, the early settlers, after arriving in Canada, continued this tradition which they had experienced in Europe. Festivals of thanks and celebrations of harvest took place in Europe in the month of October, and those early settlers simply continued this tradition. This, of course, led to a decision in 1957 in which Canadian Parliament announced that on the 2nd Monday in October each year Thanksgiving would be “a day of general thanksgiving to almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.” And, of course, long before the European settlers arrived, carrying with them these traditions, the original inhabitants of this land had numerous rituals which offered thanks to the Creator for all the gifts of the land, and they also lived lives of gratitude expressed through the ways in which they loved, respected and cared for the land. So, at one level we know the history, but at another level have – in some ways - forgotten the deeper meaning of what this means.

In our psalm this morning we remembered the “The Lord himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise, give thanks to him and call upon his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures from age to age.” This psalm which very likely would have been sung by pilgrims as they approached their temple for worship is a profound reminder that we are here because God has made us and this same God is the source of all sustenance and blessing, and for this we must give thanks. Joyful thanks. And the faithfulness of this God endures from age to age.”

This mandate to acknowledge God, the creator of all sustenance, and to be thankful is also evident in our first reading this morning which is a passage from the Book of Deuteronomy offering instruction on a ritual for a harvest festival of thanksgiving. In an agriculturally based society, this sort of festival would have been a common practice even among all the inhabitants of the land. Such a ritual recognizes that human beings do not grow and harvest crops all by themselves; there are many factors beyond human control which affect the harvest which sustains human life. So, this thanksgiving for harvest is one important aspect of this ritual, but it goes even deeper than that.

This is also a ritual that is specific to the Israelite people, to their history, to their place in the world with an understanding of God as the source of all life and sustenance.This ritual includes a reminder of the salient points of their history, which is a way of reminding the people that God is the source of all life and sustenance. God called their ancestors and gave them a promise to enter into a new and Promised Land, a promise that took generations to fulfil. God was with their ancestors when they went to Egypt in order to be saved from famine. The Egyptians turned against them and imposed hard labour on them, they cried out to God and, through Moses, God delivered them and they became a mighty nation, through their desert wanderings. In God’s good time they entered the land of promise, a land promised generations before to Abraham and Sarah and now, says the ritual, they are bringing the first fruits of this particular harvest.

As this passage is presented, it is presented as future instruction. It is something like telling your child who is going off to a birthday party, “Remember to say thank you to Sammy’s mother.” So this is Moses’ instruction to the Israelite people as they anticipate entrance into the Promised Land. In effect he is saying to them, “Remember to say thank you to God for all that you are about to receive.” You will grow your crops and when you harvest them, you will bring them in thanksgiving. At this time you will also say out loud, which is a great way of forcing yourself to remember, the high points of our journey as a people of faith.

The recurring theme, of course, is that God’s hand was guiding them and it was to God they owed thanks, not just for the harvest that season, but their entire lives. It placed the life of each individual child of Israel, it placed the lives of each family and each generation in the context of the wider story: the story of God’s constant and faithful presence from one generation to the next, and to the next, and to the next… Past, present and future. Indeed, “…the Lord is good, his mercy is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

It is interesting to note that the passage later goes on to say that every 3rd year, a tithe (10%) of the harvest is to be given to the Levites and to the poor. Israel is to remember that obedience, generosity and blessing go together. Responsibility to God is fulfilled through practical care for others in need.

So, today (this weekend) as members of this household of God, we are called to say thank you.

We are called to take time to acknowledge ways in which we have been blessed and ways in which we are currently blessed. We are called to recognize that God is the one True Source of all blessings, and we are called to be thankful. Here, in this place of worship, we acknowledge God as the source of all life and sustenance and we say thank you.

At the end of our service, we leave with the words of the dismissal: Go in peace to love and serve God. As so we depart, with a renewed commitment to embody that gratitude - a renewed commitment to say thank you through acts of generosity and love. Every time we share generously with others, we are saying thank you to God for the blessings we have received. So what does sharing generously look like? Well, it has many faces.

Sharing generously involves sharing an intentional portion of our income with the church and other non-profit organizations that are committed to freeing the captives, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, curing illnesses that all-too-often prematurely take the lives of too many… If everyone in the world who had a little bit or a lot more than enough shared generously with others, poverty and hunger would not exist. Generosity also includes caring about the structures that oppress those who are vulnerable.

This weekend, if we happen to find ourselves sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends, we must look at the food on our plates and examine where it came from and how it got there. Whose pockets did we fill with the purchase of our meat/poultry, vegetables, etc.? Through these purchases have we supported multi-national corporations whose very existence displaces those who work the land for the very love of it and for the very love of feeding people with fresh and healthy food? In other words, every time we make steps toward supporting local farmers, we are saying thank you to God for their commitment to loving and working the land against all odds.

Are we thoughtful about paying attention to other governmental decisions that are made? Are we paying attention to the ways in which government budgets are caring for the poor and welcoming refugees? Every time we pay attention to these important details and do what we can to act on our observations we are saying thank you to God for the blessings we have received. We are saying thank you by attempting to create better policies for God’s children who do not yet know such blessings.

“Go forth into the world to love and serve the Lord, and if necessary, use words.” I think these words are attributed to St. Frances of Assisi. Here in this place we say thank you to God in worship. As we leave this place we say thank you to God through the way in which we live our lives.

And finally, we need to recognize how the message of Jesus further informs this mandate to be thankful. It is interesting to note that as we may be immersing ourselves this weekend into the world of food – and in particular, Thanksgiving dinner (the meal that keeps on giving), the passage just prior to this morning’s gospel reading is (at one level) all about food. I am referring here to Jesus taking a few loaves of bread and two fish and multiplying them in order to feed five thousand people. (One of John’s ‘signs’ that God has blessed the world with Jesus in a new and generous way.) But the people who were on the receiving end of this generosity follow him and want more. They say, “Sir, give us this bread always.” In other words, we want the meal that keeps on giving. To which Jesus responds, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” So, as satisfying as a great Thanksgiving meal may be (and we all know that it is) the deeper sense of satisfaction is found in the food we receive from Jesus.

The word Eucharist means ‘thanksgiving’ – each week here at St. Peter’s we gather together to give thanks for all God’s blessings – culminating in the gift of Jesus. And as we receive the gift of this sacramental meal we are empowered to go into the world to be channels through which Jesus’ love and generosity is made known to others. God loves us so much that, knowing we could never manage this tall order on our own, he sent Jesus in order to empower us to truly live lives of gratitude.

Henry Nouwen talks about receiving the Eucharist so that we may live Eucharistic lives. Indeed, the true meal that keeps on giving is Jesus, the very bread of life itself. Let us share this Eucharistic meal and may it empower us to express our gratitude through acts of love and generosity, so that through us this may further become the meal that keeps on giving.