What do you want to say thank you for? What does giving thanks look like? What difference would it make?
Harvest festivals are about giving thanks, which is why we call it harvest thanksgiving. So, what else do you want to say thank you for? Your family? Friends? The football result? For something in particular that happened this week?
And what about those things that you have been given? But, perhaps to say thank you for what we’ve been given we need to think a bit more about what exactly that is. So, what have you been given? I’m sure that most of us, me included, when we hear that sort of question, think of particular items that we have been given, gifts and presents over the years. But, what else have we been given? Time. Care. Attention. By friends, family, neighbours, professionals. What else have we been given? Love. By friends, family, God. And we have been given talents and skills, opportunities and challenges, chances to do something that we didn’t realise we could do, or would enjoy.
Because harvest is a great chance to reflect on what we have been given and to say thank you to God for it. It’s a great chance to say thank you and to think about how we can live out that thank you.
And that’s reinforced by both the readings that we heard, which are the readings set for harvest this year. But, as you’ll hopefully have noticed, neither of them is actually about an actual harvest of crops from the land.
The second reading we heard was from the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church. And in the part of the letter we heard, Paul is in the middle of trying to sort out a collection of money to help the poor persecuted Christians in Jerusalem. It’s a significant problem, not least as he doesn’t really have any particularly rich churches to ask who have a lot of money in the first place. And Paul spends a lot of time organising this collection, raising money for the collection, telling people about why it’s important, and working out how he’s going to get the money there once he’s raised it!
All of which might be an encouragement for those of us deeply involved in issues such as building projects; Paul too spent a lot of his time talking about and raising money for his projects!
And Paul wants to give the bigger picture for the Corinthian Christians. He wants to give the reasons why giving money is such an important part of their, of our, Christian life. Because it’s about our attitude. Which is why it’s entirely appropriate for a harvest festival. It’s about an attitude of giving thanks, of being grateful for what we’ve been given, and for who has given it. So, he starts the previous chapter, chapter 8, by talking about the Christians in Macedonia, who are also giving to this collection. And he says: “their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.”
Their joy in God’s love meant that they could give generously, even when they had very little. It’s about the importance of what we give and how we give as part of our worship. It’s about giving thanks to God, and giving thanks practically through our actions, through our giving. Which is why it’s great that we’ve been able to donate food to the foodbank, to help those who are struggling at the moment.
And Paul says, our practical giving thanks leads others to give thanks as well. To give thanks to God for the generosity that his people have been able to show. But it does two more things as well.
It enriches those who have given. The act of giving flows three ways. It flows to the people who receive the gift and so people praise God. It flows to God, through that praise and through his delight in seeing giving. And it flows back to the givers, who are blessed by God, who are honoured by God, and who are given more things by God, so that they can continue to give. Love and praise and blessing flow and continue to flow because of the act of giving.
And Paul also more-or-less quotes the prophet Isaiah. It’s not a direct quote, so it doesn’t appear in the footnotes, but it’s close enough that Paul clearly expects at least some of his hearers to spot the reference. He says, in verse 10: “ Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food”, while Isaiah talks about “it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater”. Paul’s using the phrase perhaps because he’s thinking about the promises in Isaiah round that verse, or perhaps because he’s also expecting some of those listening to recognise it as well. Because that part of Isaiah, chapter 55, is where the prophet is talking about the vision that God has shown him of how things are going to be once God has sorted out the messes that his people have got themselves into.
God, says Isaiah, is calling out to his people. God calls
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
That in itself is a great encouragement for giving, a great reason for a harvest thanksgiving. We are welcomed by God to come and eat with him. But there’s more:
Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David.
This isn’t just about eating and drinking, about good things that we are given. This is about God’s everlasting love, a love that includes us, that we can celebrate and continue to celebrate. A love that invites us in, and invites us to see that things can be better than they are. In our own lives, in the life of our nation and our world. Why is there hunger and suffering and poverty and climate change? Because we all have failed to live out God’s generosity, and have failed to encourage our leaders to act out God’s generosity.
But, says Isaiah:
Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
And over the next few chapters, Isaiah talks about how God will bless and transform the world. This is a great vision of hope for the future, a great encouragement that the way things are isn’t the way God intended them to be, or will leave them as. So, the need to raise money because the Jerusalem Christians are poor and persecuted will pass. The need to collect food and keep on collecting food because hundreds of people in Swad are going hungry will pass. The need to raise money for Christian Aid because millions of people around the world are in poverty will pass.
And that’s where the passage from the gospel of Matthew comes in. Because we hear about how Jesus is bringing about the promise of Isaiah. He proclaims the good news and heals people. He tells people about God’s love and shows people God’s love in action. And then he says to his followers “The harvest is great but the workers are few”. There’s lots to do, get involved! Jesus was talking to his followers then, and is talking to his followers now.
We’re called to work for the kingdom of God, the promise that we’re given in Isaiah 55 of how the world should look and is going to be. The harvest is great and the workers are few. There’s not many of us, and there’s a lot to do. Well, that’s the case now and has always been the case. It’s not a reason to fill discouraged or worried. It’s a reason to know that we are in good company, it’s a reason to know that God is working through the few faithful workers he has. And it’s also a reason not to think ‘well I’ve done my turn, it’s someone else’s turn’. The harvest is great and the workers are few. Whilst we are here we have a part to play, a job to do. And God will be with us as we do so.
Because the act of giving enriches us and leads us deeper into God’s love. The act of giving encourages us to look at those who need our help, need to be shown God’s love and generosity, and encourages us to do something about it. Not least because Jesus’ giving of his life and his raising from the dead show us how great God’s self-giving love is and how powerful that love is as well. That’s the same love and power that we’re invited to experience, to get involved with. To show in our words and actions. Words and actions that, in the power of God’s love, bless those around us, show God’s love, and enrich us.
So, what difference would it make if we lived our lives in a spirit of thankfulness? What difference would it make if we lived our lives through God’s Spirit? Let’s pray: