Harvest Family Eucharist

Harvest Family Eucharist

A couple of weeks ago, some of us attended a medieval banquet or went to watch the jousting which were part of the Hurst Festival. It was part history, part codology and part nostalgia. I often think of those three characteristics when I sing: "We plough the fields and scatter" because, of course, most of us don't; and although this conjures up lovely images of honest toil in an age more attuned to nature than ours, we have to remember that the food production system today is complex and unscrupulous; just think of the political tugs-of-war over the Common Agricultural Policy, set-aside, wine lakes and tobacco subsidies and just imagine what will happen if Kraft, Nestle or Hershey manages to swallow up Cadbury's.

Now look at the tin or packet in your hand: It isn't just tuna in a tin or pasta in a packet; look at the list of ingredients that represent the good and the bad side of food processing: the good side is the wish to preserve the contents, the bad side is the wish to mask the blandness of the contents.

So when we think about ploughing and scattering, we need to do so in a contemporary context; nostalgia is no use in self understanding nor in social action; in many ways it acts as a block to these; and there is hardly an area where we are more prone to nostalgia than in thinking about farming, except, of course, and rather strangely, we are nostalgic about war, exemplified in Dame Vera Lynn being at the top of the pop album charts.

Of course, I would not want to parody what is going on at our harvest festival. Yes, there is an element of nostalgia but this is also an occasion for community generosity and solidarity: many of us have brought gifts of food to embellish the church before they are distributed to people less fortunate than ourselves; well, it's a bit of a cliché because I daresay that some of the gifts will have been given by people less fortunate than some of the recipients. And today many of us will sit down together to share a harvest meal as a token of our togetherness. But I wonder whether we could take our harvest thoughts a little further in two directions:

First, the food production industry is global and it rewards and oppresses people all over the globe. Never have we lived in an age of such complexity and diversity but never have we been able to find out so much about what we buy and eat. Many of us are committed to Fair Trade products but we need to go further than this, working out how we can buy products that benefit primary producers but also working out how we can buy things that least damage the planet. I know, this is getting really complicated because buying, say, flowers from Kenya might benefit local farmers while damaging the planet because of the air miles. But part of being a good citizen and a good Christian is thinking about complexity and weighing up different factors; and, to add to the problem, some food producer and retailers are rather clever in the kinds of claims they make about primary producer benefit. We have to get behind the slogans to some version of the truth that is borne out by the facts. And, on top of this, we are being called upon, quite rightly, to buy less so that we don't waste food; but the consequences of buying less might fall most heavily on the poorest producers. It is all so difficult but we need to work out a moral response.

Secondly, unless the celebrate the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker - and most parishes in the Church of England don't - this is the only opportunity we give ourselves to think of the nobility of labour. And, as this is our only chance, we should not really limit it to farmers. I know, we plough the fields and scatter sounds so much more noble than: we smelt the ore and mould it; or we fill a form and send it; or we stack the shelves and sell it

But we have to remind ourselves that we rely on millions of people to lead the kind of lives we live: people have to build roads and make cars so that we can undertake private journeys; people have to make deals to exchange goods for money; people have to put themselves in our place, in positions of trust, balancing our needs, their aims and the rights of shareholders. This is, perhaps, not an auspicious time to urge us to pray for bankers; but precisely because it is not an auspicious time, it is precisely the right time to pray for them.

Behind all the bonhomie of the jolly farmer there is, of course, a deeper truth. For many people in the world, work is rewarding; indeed some people define themselves almost exclusively according to what they do for a living; in some cases we bless this with the word "vocation" and in others we accuse them of being workaholics; but a much larger number of people in the world find their work unremitting, unforgiving, back-breaking and often life threatening. When we hold a tin or a packet in our hands, we need to think about the chain of people who have brought what we have from the seed to the tin and the packet: the peasants who toil, the truckers who drive through the African night; the sailors on merchant ships away from their families; the Dockers who unload containers; the food processors, chemists and technologists; the packaging designers; the distributors; the shelf stackers; and the check-out staff. In other words, we need to think about our food not as the simple product of a charmed, rural life, but as a symbol of our inter-dependence; and, as such, we need to recognise that, more often than not, that inter-dependence does not result in economic justice.

In this age of global communications, we are often overwhelmed by people urging us to do a multiplicity of things to save the planet. So I am not going to ask us to do anything that involves campaigning; all I ask is that we think and pray. I put these two things together because we can't pray for an end to an injustice but do nothing ourselves - God is not about to fix what he put us on earth to fix - so prayer and thought go together. Enjoy the harvest lunch and rejoice in the generosity of our gifts; and then, go home and think about it, and say a little prayer for a better world.