Written for BBC Radio Wales’ ‘Celebration’ 20th Sept – harvest thanksgiving
The earth is full of the things you have made. Grass for cattle, vegetables for the people. You make food grow from the earth. You give us bread that gives us strength. [Psalm 104:13-15 (adapted)]
Psalm 104 is a song of praise to God in Creation, and there is much to give thanks for. However, this harvest time we hear in the news that the wheat harvest has been poor. The price of flour, and then of course, bread will probably rise. As always those who can least afford this will be hit the hardest. With the pandemic continuing to change our lives there are difficult and worrying times ahead. However, we can still be ever thankful not least for those who gather or prepare food and especially for those who have delivered it and prepared it when we have been unable to go out ourselves.
Today I want to share with you an agricultural story. It’s a story of love, of loss. A story of courage and trust. A story of the land and of the hospitality of others. And I’ll reflect a little on my own harvest journey this year in our garden.
Our Bible readings today come from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Book of Ruth begins with famine and tragedy. A farming family travels to a foreign land for work. Naomi’s husband and sons die whilst they are away. She is left with her two daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth and prepares to return home as she has heard that the famine has come to an end.
Naomi set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. Naomi said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
What a story of trust and courage. Here is, we presume, the young girl Ruth with her older Mother-in-law Naomi in search of somewhere to live. For Naomi, there is no certainty in her returning home – she must trust that there will be someone to offer hospitality. For Ruth this is a new journey to a foreign land. She is prepared to risk everything in search of security, food and shelter. Many people, as we hear in the news, are making journeys away from persecution, hunger, and lands rendered uninhabitable, times haven’t changed have they. As we will see, Naomi and Ruth are lucky, there is someone who will offer them a home, but they also must gather enough food to live on. Ruth goes out into the fields and begins to gather leftover grain behind those who are harvesting. This old custom is called gleaning. The poor had the right to glean in the fields at harvest time and the owner of the field had a duty to leave a little of the harvest.
And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favour.” Naomi said to her, “Go, my daughter.” So Ruth went. Ruth came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. Ruth said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So Ruth came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”
We’ll return to the significance of gleaning for us in a few moments, meanwhile, Join me walking through our garden this harvest time. We take a simple harvest through the year of leaves, fruit, nuts and a few planted vegetables. We will never be self-sufficient though. Everything is allowed to grow naturally with little input from us. There is always something to gather – even in winter – though pickings may be slim and we often garden the weeds. At this time of year I walk amongst the trees and bushes taking a harvest for a green salad of vine leaves, mint, sage, marjoram, horseradish, raspberry, lime, sorrel, clover leaves and flowers; fallen apples and the occasional blackberry from the hedgerow It can be hard to see how there is so much hunger in the world with such abundance in nature all around us for which we do little and receive a great deal. This year our cherry plum didn’t give a single fruit and the damson and Victoria plum trees were sparsely covered. Some years a tree will take a break I’m told. When crops we depend on fail, people go hungry and we become dependant on our neighbours. In the story, Ruth and Naomi were dependent on the sanctuary of others. I wonder if we are ready as a nation to offer the same sanctuary, to share our harvest with those who come so that all have enough to eat.
It is clear though in our garden there always seems plenty left over that I cannot reach or that falls to the ground. These gleanings are readily gathered by the many birds and small animals that rely for their food on what grows naturally. We take what we need to supplement what we buy. Of course, if the apple or plum tree does not produce a harvest we can always go to a shop, thankful that the harvest somewhere else has been successful.
You’ll recall, in our readings, Ruth going out into the the fields to glean, to gather grain behind the harvesters. I wonder whether this story has something to teach us in these times? Especially at this time of our harvest thanksgiving. I’d like to suggest that when you next go to a supermarket you think of this story. We might think that gleaning is an old practice which either cannot or does not happen due to modern farming practices. But I wonder as I walk down the aisle in my local supermarket and see the shelf of reduced items. I noticed recently yellow tape marking out the area around this shelf, I presume to encourage people not to crowd in and maintain their social distancing – it is telling that this was the only area it was required. I wonder If these are not the modern equivalent of gleanings left out for those who cannot afford the full price. Perhaps, if we can afford to, we ought to leave these reduced temptations for those who need them. Sadly it seems, there are many in our society who do.
On a personal level I can add to my weekly shopping list ‘something for the foodbank’ and offer in that spirit of gleaning a little food for those who rely on the generosity of others. As a church we can offer a place for collections of food to be gathered for our local foodbank. As a society we should be asking how we can end this poverty and hunger so that there may truly be each year a harvest for the world.