Harvest Festival for an Urban Church

24th September 2016
Pete Nicholas

Why we need to celebrate Harvest Festival - and why at Inspire we have probably been making a mistake in not doing so!

Depending on exactly how you count it, either last Sunday or this coming Sunday is Harvest Festival, yet the last time I celebrated it I was about seven years old and took a tin of ravioli into primary school and we sang: “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand”.

I grew up in a farming family (my grandfather was the last in a line of farmers) in rural Rutland and so now living in London perhaps it is no surprise that harvest festival is a distant memory. But there is a danger that living in an urban context we miss the vital part that the land and harvest still play in modern life.

In 2012 a survey found that fewer than half of all UK adults know butter comes from a dairy cow and a third do not know eggs come from hens. This might be embarrassing but why does it matter?

In Martin Luther’s Large Catechism when he unpacks the request in the Lord’s prayer for God to “Give us our daily bread”, he wrote,

“When you pray for ‘daily bread’ you are praying for everything that contributes to your having and enjoying your daily bread… You must open up and expand your thinking, so that it reaches not only as far as the flour bin and baking oven but also out over the broad fields, the farmlands, and the entire country that produces, processes, and conveys to us our daily bread and all kinds of nourishment.”

This is important because God feeds “every living thing" (Psalm 145:16) through the farmer, the manufacturer, the retailer, the website worker, the delivery driver, all of whom contribute in the process of harvesting, and then making the food and bringing it to our home. Luther wrote, “God could easily give you grain and fruit without your ploughing and planting, but he does not want to do so.”

Luther’s point is that the whole productive process is a work of God’s grace by which God blesses us with the gifts of this creation. The various people and endeavours involved at each stage are ways God mediates these blessings to us. But God is no less involved than if he had transported the food straight into our stomachs!

And here lies the problem with not celebrating the harvest festival. The many steps from grain to table that exist in a post-industrialisation society can mask God’s grace rather than causing us to marvel at it. Ask an urbanite (even a Christian one) where food comes from and they are more likely to say “from the delivery van” than “from God’s gracious provision”.

Israel celebrated the harvest at the Feast of Booths rejoicing in God’s redemption as well as in God’s harvest provision through the great symbols of bread, water, and light. Perhaps today we need to remind ourselves that just as in salvation we are not self-sufficient and must rely on God, so in the provision of our “daily bread” we are also totally dependent on him. Perhaps that is why we should bring harvest festival Sunday back to church in an urban setting - especially in an urban setting - to remind ourselves that though God may give us our daily bread through a Tesco delivery van, he is still the Giver and it is right to give him thanks and praise.