Like many people I do, obviously, like to eat. And when there is time, I also like to cook, well enough, I hope, that others may also enjoy eating. After 20 plus years of careful observation, I’ve seen clear and convincing evidence that other members of this church also love to eat, as do, I think, Lutherans generally. A member of this church, describing its attractions to a friend, mentioned that we have fellowship meals or snacks following the late service, to which the friend said, “Of course, you do, you’re Lutheran.” So, it is no surprise that, although few of us these days make our meals from the products of our own fields, Harvest Home is still a day we can treasure.
It is meet, right and salutary, as the liturgy of old says, meaning holy and beneficial, to treasure the goodness of God as it rolls off the fields around us, promising good things for us. We are rightly grateful, indeed, deeply thankful, for the glorious bounty not only of the fields around us but also of the lakes, the seas, and even the air. From the days when Adam and Eve plucked the fruits of the trees God allowed them, to the dropping of manna on the rock hard soil of the wilderness, to this very day when green and orange and red tractors pull corn from stalks and grain from the fields, we accept our dependence on the continued fruitfulness of creation and the God whose generosity has blessed us with the harvest.
Gratitude comes easily to a people who see the hand of the Lord in the fullness of the harvest, the steadfast turn of the seasons, the rolling over of the generations. Gratitude comes easily, for we know that the world could be different for us. For we are also a people who know that harvests can fail, a miniscule wobble in the earth’s orbit might obliterate the seasons of growth, and the degradation of the bonds between families can mean an end to family altogether. So, knowing that even creation is imperfect, we thank and glorify the God who provides our daily bread for us with glad adoration for His steadfast loyalty to what He has brought into being.
In the explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in his Small Catechism, Martin Luther taught families that, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.” Here Luther makes note of the gratitude that fills believers’ hearts when they receive their daily bread, which includes not only bread, “but everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” Can you think of anything Luther left out? Luther has hit pretty much every daily need with the possible exception of books and golf clubs.
Our gratitude is great then, a sea of thanksgiving and not a pond, for we understand that our daily bread entails everything that gives us sustenance, and not only for the belly, but also for the heart and soul. There was a day when this was better understood; when humanity looked to the sky to give thanks because, though death was always close, life persisted. Humanity saw its greatest good not as whatever was on the dinner plate of an evening but in God Himself, and His willingness to sustain us in this life and preserve us in the next.
The greatest gift we receive and celebrate with thanksgiving this time of year is not so much the generosity of the harvest but faith. We may love Harvest Home, and the sight of the fields and the harvest this time of year. But we whose connection with the land is lighter than was that of our ancestors must be careful to keep our eyes on the ultimate harvest, the harvest of faith. Otherwise, we risk Harvest Home and Thanksgiving Day and any other expression of gratitude becoming nothing more than a trip down memory lane, a nostalgic revisiting of quaint, ancestral customs and mores.
We are at risk for this not only because we get our food from Kenny’s or Saubels or Walmart, and not directly from the fields, and not only because we have the means, whether private or governmental, to whether a bad harvest or two or three. Or a lockdown, like we all recently experienced. We’re at risk for losing the faith behind Harvest Home because, weirdly enough, we give not of our first fruits but of our last.
If we look at the passage from Deuteronomy that describes perhaps the earliest “Harvest Home” type observance, we see that the Lord commands His people to offer to His altar not the remnants of the last of the harvest but the tender first fruits of the harvest. “So, what?” you might think. To get the difference, let’s put ourselves in the day, the best we can. Imagine, then, that over the course of the winter, we ate all we kept in store from the last harvest except the seed for the next year’s planting. That we carefully guarded, as we had to, because winter is long and we are hungry. We feed our children and ourselves from what was scrapped from the bottoms of baskets and sacks and we wait with cramping stomachs for the harvest so we might again, finally, eat our fill.
But rather than feed ourselves and our families with those first tender fruits of the fields we gather them up and we take them to the neighborhood holy place and we make our offering to God, beginning with these words, “A wandering Aramean was my father.” We begin with those words because what follows them is the history of Israel, recounting God’s faithful provision through the generations preceding us of all He had promised Abraham when he left Aram at God’s command. We, like that wandering Aramean’s descendants, give the first fruits to God, not the last, in faith that the harvest will be good and we will be fed and there will be enough seed for the next year’s planting. So, to summarize, the gifts of Harvest Home are not a celebration of our or even God’s generosity, but an exercise of faith in a steadfastly loyal God Who will see us through not only to the harvest of the fields but also to the harvest of the spirit.
Here is where the young man who had asked Jesus to teach him how to earn eternal life failed. Though he kept the commandments, he could not bring himself to give all his many possessions to the poor and follow Jesus. He did not trust God to do for him what God had done for that wandering Aramean, for Abraham, to keep him in all his ways as he followed the Lord God.
And here, also, is where we fail. We do not think of ourselves as wealthy, but in the ways that matter many of us are. We are not, like most the people of history, worried about where our daily bread will be found. We do not lack for warmth or for drink, and so that connection between God’s generous providence and our lives is lost, and with it more than a bit of our faith. The entire history of Scripture is this, that God saves us, materially, in the giving of what we need day by day, and spiritually, in the forgiveness and salvation offered us through Jesus Christ. Blessed be the Lord God, Maker of heaven and earth, and His Son Jesus Christ, Who, through the Holy Spirit, has given us, and will give us, all that we need for life and life everlasting.