Yesterday afternoon, Corrie and I went on one of our occasional foraging expeditions. Many of you know that Corrie is a gourmet cook. What you may not know is that she is deeply involved in efforts at sustainability—the ideal of producing food for our tables in ways that are environmentally sound. This year we ordered a turkey from Broken Wing farm down near Ware Place. Bill, the farmer, raises heritage turkeys—turkeys your grandparents might have eaten, as well as traditional breeds of chickens and hogs. We chatted briefly after we bought the turkey. Our conversation, as conversations with farmers always do, quickly moved to the weather, the ongoing drought and the scorching high heat last summer. He lost 20% of his turkey flock to the high temperatures this summer.
We stopped at another farm yesterday, at Happy Cow Dairy. As we drove up, in the pasture next to the lane were several calves still wobbly on their feet. Two had been born that afternoon and we watched a few minutes as another cow started to give birth. Now, neither Corrie or I grew up on farms, but we were surrounded by them throughout our childhood. The rhythms of the agricultural seasons shaped our lives. Most of the members of my church when I was growing up were either farmers or worked in some related business. We always knew when the agricultural economy was going well or badly and we always knew how the weather was affecting crops and livelihoods.
As you know, we are in the midst of a severe drought here in the southeast, but for most of us, the fact that we are nearly 2 feet under our average annual rainfall has had no effect on us. We may have heard the news reports that Atlanta’s water supply may dry up completely by New Years’ Eve, but we’ve got plenty of water. We aren’t worried about our taps running dry and we certainly aren’t concerned that our food supply might begin to falter because of the drought.
In agricultural societies, of course, such things do matter. In most traditional agricultural societies, a poor crop means not just money troubles, but a good chance that one might go hungry. Tonight’s reading from Deuteronomy comes from just such a society. The Book of Deuteronomy purports to be the final speeches of Moses before his death and before the Hebrew people enter the promised land. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that it dates from several centuries later than that, during the monarchy and reflects an attempt at reform of Israelite religion.
What we have in this reading is a liturgy, the instructions for a thanksgiving service that the Israelites were to celebrate at the beginning of the harvest. They were to take some of the first fruits, the earliest and best harvest and present it to the priest at the temple. While it isn’t expressly stated that it is the tithe, the tenth portion of the crop; this may be intended because of other language in the text.
For us, to imagine that farmers might offer something of their produce to God is not all that surprising, but there are other aspects of the liturgy that might be. In the first place, it is done in the context of a recital of God’s mighty acts on behalf of the Israelites. One gives thanks because God delivered the Hebrew people out of oppression and slavery and brought them into the promised land.
But there is more. After making the offering, they are instructed to throw a party—to share the bounty of the land with those who do not possess it—the Levites (who were dedicated to the service of God) and to the alien. Thus Thanksgiving was not just about giving thanks. It was also about remembering the past and about sharing the bounty of the land with all. It reminds us of the deep commitment of the law of Moses to the weak and the outcast.
In the parallel chapter of Exodus that records this ritual, there are a series of other laws that make the values of God clear. The Israelites were instructed to till the land only for six years out of seven, to let the land lie fallow for the seventh year, so that it might be refreshed and so that the wild animals might eat. They were instructed to rest on the seventh day, not just because it was holy, but in order that their beasts of burden and their laborers might rest. But above all, they were not to oppress the widow, the orphan or the alien, because they had been strangers in Egypt. Their experience of oppression should shape their treatment of others.
Seen in this broader context, Thanksgiving is not just about food, family, football, and shopping. It is not just about giving thanks to God for all that we have. In fact, that’s a small part of it. For the biblical traditions, and for our Anglican tradition thanksgiving is about much more.
In a few minutes we will celebrate the Eucharist. The word itself announces the centrality of thanksgiving to our faith. For it means to give thanks in Greek and was used from the earliest days of Christianity to refer to the communion service. But even there we are not left off the hook. Thanksgiving is always tied to outreach. In the post-communion prayer, the thanksgiving after communion as it’s often called in our service bulletins, after giving thanks to God “for feeding us with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ” we also pray, “Send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you.”
What is the work God has given us to do? To love and serve him, certainly, but as we will be reminded when we reaffirm our baptismal vows, it is also to love our neighbors as ourselves, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace.
Most of us don’t know or want to know where or how our food is produced. All we care is that there’s lots of it, and that it is cheap. If you’re like me, usually the closest you get to a farm animal is if you get stuck behind one of the trucks delivering chickens to the Columbia Farms plant. If you’re like me, the sight is sickening. If you’re like me, you also probably try to avoid seeing the stream of workers walking back and forth from the plant.
Giving thanks to God is not just about our relationship with God. It is also about our relationship with the world and with all of humanity. We ought, we need to care. Indeed, in Deuteronomy God demands it of us as part of our act of giving thanks. As we sit down at our bountiful tables tomorrow, we ought to take time to reflect on where that food comes from, whether it at all reflects the biblical vision for agriculture, and how our thanksgiving might become about more than stuffing ourselves and might become about sharing God’s bounty with the world.