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Thanksgiving for Life

“Come, you thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest-home! All is safely gathered in, safe before the storms begin.”

It’s Thanksgiving this week, in this part of the world anyway, and these words by Henry Alford are probably going to be sung a lot. They’re the opening lines of a chestnut of a hymn that’s been around since the mid 19th century. I guess it’s one of those “old time-y” traditions that are part of the warm, homestyle feeling of Thanksgiving.

I’ve always kind of liked the first two verses. They’re all about the harvest and how God provides for us and we grow and are nurtured just like the crops. Not such a big fan of the next two verses though. They’re more about the harvest of us and how we’re gathered home in the final harvest. It’s all good, I just prefer the relentlessly hopeful tone of “all is safely gathered in, safe before the storms begin.” Especially when winter arrives early and “all” isn’t safely gathered in.

But, again, olden days, right? Harvest festivals have been around since we were celebrating the mystery of how things grew and thanking “the spirits,” Mother Nature and God for all the great bounty we receive from the land. There’s another classic many will sing this week, “We plough the fields.” The chorus proclaims “all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; we thank you, God, O holy God, for all your love.”

Yes, “all your love.” So, for many people, Thanksgiving’s become less about thanks for harvest and more about thanks for things in general, like all of creation and family and home, big stuff like that, and turkey dinners and an extra day off and time to clean up in the yard or enjoy the fall colours, if there’s no snow.

Those are all great things, the list is endless, and yes, we should surely be thankful for them, absolutely. Every single day, we should be thankful for creation, family, home, food and rest. But, at this time of year, it’s most appropriate to remember the harvest, all “safely gathered in” or not, with a day set aside replete with its own festive trimmings. And so we thank God for all that great bounty of creation. Right: thank you God. Done.

And?

Of course we thank God for all the gifts of creation, but what about being thankful for those who bring those gifts into our lives with their labour? Jesus calls us to a life of living well with each other and creation, to using the gifts God gives us to share with others and care for others. I think a pretty solid example of doing the best we can with the gifts God gives us is a farmer.

With their own personal gifts, they work with others, with machines, with science and with nature – surely the toughest relationship of all – to feed us. Now, I know we pay farmers adequate compensation for their labour. (Brief pause to allow for laughter.) But paying them for their product does not thank them for providing the means for us to live. That is what they do. It’s not just about making a buck, it’s a vocation that feeds people. And it’s not the only one.

Jesus spoke about being “the bread of life,” the food that feeds our hearts and minds, not our stomachs. But Jesus coupled that with a command to care for the physical wellbeing of others, to feed the hungry and care for the poor really, not just as a metaphor. In a sense, we’re all called to be like farmers, aren’t we, to work with the world around us, to care for the world around us and to feed the world around us, to nurture and grow life? It’s both powerfully real and powerfully metaphorical.

Maybe we should sing these words every year, too, from a more recent hymn by Brian Wren: “Praise God for the harvest of orchard and field, praise God for the people who gather the yield, the long hours of labour, the skills of a team, the patience of science, the power of machine … Praise God for the harvest of mercy and love from leaders and peoples, who struggle and serve for fairness and kindness, that all may be led in freedom and safety, and all may be fed.”

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