If I were to call upon you to say grace before our Harvest Supper later this evening what would you come up with? If I had given you enough notice you might go online or turn to any number of books nowadays which contain ‘graces’ appropriate for all occasions: ‘Bless this bunch as we munch’ is one of the simplest. The Selkirk grace is also known: Some hae meat an canna eat, And some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can eat, And sae the Lord be thankit’. Back home we used to use this wooden die with the children sat at table: roll the dice and pick a grace… I confess TV dinners nowadays are less conducive to offering thanks.
But perhaps the most well known is the grace you maybe said at school; ‘For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful’.
When you think about it this is a rather odd prayer. For a start, it assumes you have no idea what is going to be placed in front of you and that it might come as something of a surprise when it emerges from the kitchen. It then seems to think that it might be quite hard to be thankful…or that thanks might be difficult to come by. It also assumes that it is God’s business to make us thankful because, of ourselves, we might be fairly sparing in our gratitude. There, at least, it could be right.
Saying thankyou, gratitude is one of the lessons we might take from the story we heard from Luke’s gospel where, out of the ten lepers healed by Jesus, only one returned to offer him thanks. It presumably appears in the list of suggested readings for harvest precisely because Harvest Festival is a time when we consciously remember to give thanks. I wonder why being grateful is so hard?
Back in the day, long before the weekly shop at Morrisons, people knew full well where their food came from and what was needed to get it to the table. Harvest festival in this country only took off in the early 1800s when a local vicar brought the normal harvest festivities of his village into the church. These involved everyone who had been engaged in bringing in the harvest joining in a Harvest supper presided over by the Lord of the Harvest. For pre-industrial communities, Harvest time was a time for a community to pull together to ensure that there was enough food in store to last the community through the year. So Harvest could be a time of great relief that all was safely gathered in…or of great anxiety should the crops in any one year have failed and plans for when the food ran out needing to be made. Either way, everyone knew its importance. Now however, it takes a drought in northern Africa for us to remember that the salad we expect to find on the shelves has come from southern Spain or Algeria: the shortage of peppers that frustrated shoppers had its origin hundred of miles away from home. The blocking of the Suez canal the other year showed us just how interconnected our trade routes are as containers from Asia couldn’t reach port to unload their goods and then load up to take goods from these shores. The knock-on left logistics firms struggling to get lorries to the right place and at the right time.
At harvest time we’re reminded that the food we eat has mostly been brought to us as the result of a whole load of hard work. Early mornings on the farm, day in day out, looking after stock, tending the land. Long journeys in a lorry as goods are moved. Regulation and guidance to ensure food is safe. Scientific know-how and application to enable stock to develop, yields to increase and food to be processed and packed. And then the commercial nous to promote and sell and negotiate and agree a fair price for goods delivered and received as they reach our shelves and are brought home in our shopping bags. Harvest is about food but also about so much more. Effort, persistence, ingenuity, commitment, care, creativity, skill. Harvest is about food…and people…and community …and society.
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told a story about saying grace. He and his wife had been invited to No 10 by John Major to meet the visiting President of Israel: the meeting would take place over lunch. The staff at No 10 informed the Rabbi that the whole meal would be Kosher: he was touched by their consideration. They then asked if he would say grace before the meal and he agreed, indeed he would be honoured to do so. When the moment came, and the guests were ushered into the dining room all eyes were on the Rabbi. But he could not say grace. Whereas we might give thanks (in hope) for ‘what we are about to receive’ Jewish tradition says you can only give thanks for what you actually have…and as yet, no food had been served. ‘Save’ said the Rabbi ‘a bunch of grapes that had been placed over an ornament to decorate the table’. All was well. ‘Saved by a grape’ grace could be said. The lesson is helpful: don’t fret too much over what you don’t have. Give thanks for what you do have. You’ll be surprised at just how much more you have already received than you thought.
And isn‘t ‘being thankful’ truly a spiritual grace, something that so many people seek as they practice mindfulness or meditation. We are aware that life overwhelms us at times. We also know that we need to slow down to connect with one another and the world around us, to recognize the deep- down goodness of things. As we do so, we become more truly alive because we are connecting with the source of all life behind and through His creation. Again, look around you – at the people in this place, the stories they hold, the gifts that they offer. Look at the produce we are offering to sell. Notice the charity for which we will sell it and work it does with mothers and children in Tanzania and in combatting violence against women and girls in India. See the tables laid out in the village hall and the people pouring the tea or stood at the washing up bowl. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above – we have received much- so thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all his love.
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