Harvest: From Field to Fork – 17/09/23

Hybrid Service: ‘Harvest’ – Jane Blackall – 17/09/23

Musical Prelude: ‘Spirit of Life’ (played by Abby Lorimier and Andrew Robinson)

Opening Words: ‘For the Harvest’ by Cliff Reed (adapted)

For the harvest of the year, hard-won
from an earth at once bountiful
and grudging, we give thanks.

For all our cleverness, all our technology,
all our pride in our own achievements,
we are as dependent on our mother-planet
as were our forebears, remote in time,
who first scratched a living from its surface.

We are sojourners here.

With reverence and wisdom we must till the soil.
It is not ours to own and dispose of as we will.
‘The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’
And it is our children’s and our children’s children’s too.

For them it must be as fertile, as green,
and as rich in life as it has been for us.
We must do what we can to make it so,
as faithful stewards of this good earth.

So for the harvest of the year, let us give thanks:
the harvest of shared faith and shared work,
a shared spirit and a shared endeavour.

And may we each play our part in continuing the cycle,
planting seeds through our own loving action, so others too
may reap the harvest of this faithful, hopeful, loving community. (pause)

Words of Welcome and Introduction:

These opening words – by Cliff Reed – welcome all who have gathered this morning, for our Sunday service. Welcome to those of you who have gathered in-person at Essex Church and also to all who are joining us via Zoom from far and wide. I did suggest that you might bring your favourite fruit and veg to church today so I think I should say welcome to our plant-based visitors too. For anyone who doesn’t know me, my name is Jane Blackall, and I’m Minister with Kensington Unitarians. Whoever you are, however you are, wherever you are, you are welcome here this morning just as you are.

This morning’s service is our Harvest Festival – as you can probably tell by the colourful display of produce gathered on our table – I’ve given our service the sub-title ‘From Field to Fork’, as we’ll be reflecting on the complex network of interdependence that brings such delicious food to our plates, and taking time to give thanks for all the people and processes that help to deliver the harvest to us.

Let’s take a moment before we go any further to settle ourselves, arrive, and prepare for worship. We’ve each chosen to come here, join together in community, for a time of spiritual nourishment. We’ve set aside this time to be here, together, and attend to the life of the spirit. So let’s take a breath or two to catch up with ourselves and make sure we’re fully present, right here, right now. We make this hour sacred with our presence and intention. And it is good to be together again.

Chalice Lighting: ‘The Abundance of Our Lives Together’ by Katie Gelfand

Let’s light our chalice flame now, as we do each week. This simple ritual connects us in solidarity with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists the world over, and reminds us of the proud and historic progressive religious tradition of which we are a part.

(light chalice)

We light our chalice as a symbol of gratitude
as we celebrate the abundance of our lives together.

In this sanctuary we harvest bushels of strength for one another,
and offer our crop with the hands of compassion and generosity.

In the authentic and gentle manner of our connections,
we cultivate a simple sweetness to brighten our spirits.

May we be grateful for the ways we nourish and uplift each other,
For it is the sharing of this hallowed time together that sustains us.

Hymn 269 (green): ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’

Let’s sing together now. Our first hymn is number 269 in your green book – a really traditional hymn for harvest time – ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’. For those joining via Zoom the words will be up on your screen to sing along at home. If you have qualms about the old-fashioned language perhaps you might be comforted to think of your connection with generations of ancestors giving thanks for the harvest with these words. Feel free to stand or sit as you prefer as we sing.

We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand:
The snow is sent in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
All good gifts around us Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, For all his love.

God only is the maker of all things near and far,
Who paints the wayside flower and lights the evening star;
The winds and waves are governed, and still the birds are fed;
Much more to us, earth’s children, God gives our daily bread.
All good gifts around us Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, For all his love.

We thank thee then, Creator, for all things bright and good,
The seed-time and the harvest, our life, our health, our food.
Accept the gifts we offer for all thy love imparts,
And, what thou most desirest, our humble, thankful hearts.
All good gifts around us Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, For all his love.

Candles of Joy and Concern:

Each week when we gather together, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve an opportunity now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle and say a few words about what it represents. This time we’re going to go to the people in the building first, and take all of those in one go, and then I’ll call on the people on Zoom to come forward.

So I invite some of you here in person to come and light a candle and then if you wish to tell us briefly who or what you light your candle for. Please do get up close to the microphone as that will help everyone hear (including the people at home). You can take the microphone out of the stand if it’s not at a good height and have it microphone pointing right at your mouth. And if you can’t get to the microphone give me a wave and I’ll bring it over to you. Thank you.

(in person candles)

And if that’s everyone in the room we’ll go over to the people on Zoom next – you might like to switch to gallery view at this stage – just unmute yourselves when you are ready and speak out – and we should be able to hear you and see you up on the big screen here in church.

(zoom candles)

And I’m going to light one more candle, as we often do, to represent all those joys and concerns that we hold in our hearts this day, but which we don’t feel able to speak out loud. (light candle)

Time of Prayer & Reflection: based on words by Simon John Barlow

And let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer now. This prayer is partly based on some words by Simon John Barlow. You might first want to adjust your position for comfort, close your eyes, or soften your gaze. There might be a posture that helps you feel more prayerful. Whatever works for you. Do whatever you need to do to get into the right state of body and mind for us to pray together – to be fully present here and now, in this sacred time and space – with ourselves, with each other, and with that which is both within us and beyond us. (pause)

Spirit of Life, God of All Love, in whom we live and move and have our being,
we turn our full attention to you, the light within and without,
as we tune in to the depths of this life, and the greater wisdom
to which – and through which – we are all intimately connected.
Be with us now as we allow ourselves to drop into the
silence and stillness at the very centre of our being. (pause)

Spirit of exuberant abundance; Source of All,
in our lives, we have reaped where we have sown
and so we celebrate the gift of life you gave us
and the strength and delight we possess:
to love and play; to plan and work; to grow and know.

We have also gathered fruits where others planted seeds
and so we give thanks for the lives and labours
of those we love and loved, for those who love us,
for all those dear souls who enrich our lives,
with whom we laugh and cry, talk and walk.

We hold in the light of compassion
those whose harvest is not yet ready;
those whose harvest has failed;
those whose harvest is bitter or painful;

Guide us, that we may treat All Your Creation with respect,
so that we use our gifts, talents and blessings
to bring a brighter harvest for all humanity.

Spirit of Life, God of All Love, help us to turn –
from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love,
from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment,
from carelessness to mindfulness, from fear to faith.
Help us revive our lives, as at a new beginning. (pause)

In our company this morning, and every time we gather in community,
there will be those among our number who are suffering, in body, mind, and spirit;
and we know too well that there is much struggle, hardship, and injustice the world over.
Let us spend a moment directing prayers of loving-kindness for those who suffer this day. (pause)

In our company this morning, and every time we gather in community,
there will be those among our number whose hearts are full and overflowing;
uplifted by family and friends, inspired by nature and culture, engaged in meaningful work.
Let us spend a moment directing prayers of gratitude for all that is still good in our lives. (pause)

In our company this morning, and every time we gather in community,
there will be those among our number who are just getting by as best they can:
stumbling through life’s endless ups and downs and seeking to discern the next step forward.
Let us spend a quiet moment asking for what we need to face all that life brings our way. (pause)

Spirit of Life – God of all Love – as this time of prayer comes to a close, we offer up
our joys and concerns, our hopes and fears, our beauty and brokenness,
and we call on you for insight, healing, and renewal.

As we look forward now to the coming week,
help us to live well each day and be our best selves;
using our unique gifts in the service of love, justice and peace. Amen

Hymn 156 (green): ‘The Harvest of Truth’

Let’s sing together now. Our next hymn is number 156 in your green hymn books, ‘The Harvest of Truth’. This broadens out the theme of harvest to consider all the harvests we reap in life. The words will be up on screen as usual. Feel free to stand or sit as you prefer.

O live each day and live it well –
All else is life but flung away:
Who lives a life of love can tell
Of true things truly done each day.

Be what thou seemest live thy creed;
Hold up to earth the torch divine;
Be what thou prayest to be made;
The thirst for righteousness be thine.

Fill up each hour with what will last;
Use well the moments as they go;
Into life’s soil thy seed is cast —
Thy deeds into a harvest grow.

Sow truth, if thou the true wouldst reap;
Who sows the false shall reap the vain;
Erect and sound thy conscience keep,
From hollow words and deeds refrain.

Sow love, and taste its fruitage pure;
Sow peace, and reap its harvest bright;
Sow sunbeams on the rock and moor,
And find a harvest-home of light.

In-Person Reading: ‘Woody’s Harvests’ by Vanessa Rush Southern (read by John Humphreys)

When I was little, I spent a couple of summers in Hobbs, New Mexico, with my grandfather Woody and my grandmother Marie. Late in life, Woody decided to raise racehorses. He bought thirty acres of land and planted alfalfa on half of it to help him feed those horses.

Woody had grown up on a farm, so farming was not new to him, but harvest is a pretty precious business no matter how long you’ve been at it. Moreover, alfalfa has particular challenges. To be made into hay it has to be left to dry in the fields before it is baled. If alfalfa is baled when it is wet, a mould can grow, one that is okay for cows but bad for horses.

Each summer, the alfalfa would grow lush and green, but eventually Woody would have to decide when it was time to harvest. This meant predicting the weather, and lining up folks to help, and a baler he could borrow or rent. If rain kept away, and the stars were aligned, and the folks turned up, and the equipment worked, within a week the field would be cut and the barn filled with the sweet smell of hay. However, a little harsh weather, or unexpected rain, or a machine that gave you trouble or even a day’s delay could mean that what was brought in might be almost useless.

When it worked, which it did most years, it was a great experience. When family and friends stood by the barn with rafter-high stacks of golden bales, an intense joy and exhausted, sweaty, satisfaction permeated the air. Being part of those days’ efforts gave us a feeling of pride, and gratitude and generosity came easy. What was brought in was more than one person made possible – part expertise, part grace. So, if you needed hay in the winter, there was some for the taking. And if others needed help in their fields, it was obvious that help was there for the asking.

Later on, when Woody retired, he ran a kind-of community agriculture project out of his backyard garden. He used to drive around the neighbourhood giving away bags of tomatoes and squash and whatever else he could grow. By then, harvest and generosity had become a way of life.

It wasn’t just that my grandfather and those he knew came from less, and had less, and so they knew in their bones the truth of the interdependent web of life, and how much they relied on it in order to survive. It wasn’t just that. Rather, it was this whole sense of connection to what it means to harvest, how close harvest often stands to hunger, and the humility and gratitude that the earth, and the precariousness of its bounty, keep fresh and alive in a person.

Something is lost in a supermarket of perpetual plenty. So how do you and I remember what Woody knew, and reconnect with that awareness, which harvest season makes so clear?

Meditation: ‘Chantenay’ by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

Thanks John. We’re moving into a time of meditation now. I’m going to share a short poem by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, it’s a reflection on the humble carrot, or perhaps I should say the slightly posh carrot, as the poem is titled ‘Chantenay’. It invites us to reflect on the long journey of the carrot to our plate – not just from field to fork – but telling a longer story that goes much further back in time – and, through the story of the humble carrot, the poem invites us to reflect on our own life’s journey as well, the imprint we will leave in the world. The poem will take us into about three minutes of silence which will end with the sound of a bell. Then we’ll hear some music from Abby and Andrew to continue the meditative mood. So let’s each do what we need to do to get comfortable – adjust your position if you need to – put your feet flat on the floor to ground yourself – close your eyes. As we always say, the words are an offering, feel free to use this time to meditate in your own way.

‘Chantenay’ by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

When, in ancient Persia, the farmers
began to selectively breed wild carrots
to make them sweeter and minimize the woody core,
they could not have imagined how,
over two thousand years later,
a woman on another continent
would harvest hundreds and hundreds of carrots
on a late October day and,
as she pulled the long orange roots
from the near-frozen earth,
she would thank those farmers for their work.

Such a miracle of sweetness, the carrot—
so brittle, so high in sugar,
such a shocking brilliant orange.
And yet not a miracle.

The story of the carrot is like so many stories—
it is a testament to many hands over centuries
shaped it into what it is today.

I look at these hands of mine as they tug the rosettes,
as they scrape the loose dirt, as they trim.
What will they sow? What will they select?
What legacy of change will they leave?

Period of Silence and Stillness (~3 minutes) – end with a bell

Musical Interlude: Sicilienne by Maria Von Paradis (played by Abby Lorimier and Andrew Robinson)

In-Person Reading: ‘Saving Grace’ by Kathleen McTigue (Sonya Leite to read)

Wise souls from every tradition teach that gratitude is at the heart of the spiritual life because it leads us to all the rest. Consider the simplest practice of gratitude, saying grace before we eat a meal. That little moment of attention is enough to wake us up to the world. Instead of chugging a glass of water down our thirsty throats, gratitude reminds us how lucky we are that clean water flows for us with the simple turn of the handle at a sink. Instead of shovelling down our food so we can get on to the next activity or eating so distractedly that we barely taste it, that moment of saying grace helps us look at the meal with a kind of reverence. We pause and remember not everyone gets to eat. Not even everyone in our own country, our own city, gets to eat.

Where did it all come from, this food, this water? None of it spontaneously generated there on the plate or in the glass. So we remember the rain and soil and sun on which everything depends. We remember the invisible makers of this meal, the people who bend over the fields for hours planting or harvesting, the ones in the barns or slaughterhouses, the ones who work in factories or who drive the trucks or ring up the cash registers. Even a fleeting prayer of thankfulness for our daily bread reminds of how fragile and dependent our bodies are, how everything hinges on everything else, and awakens us again to the fundamental grace of breath, water, and food.

And Kathleen McTigue concludes with a short grace prayer – these words are printed on the front of your order of service to take away and they’re also on the church website – perhaps you might like to try saying grace in this way, or in words of your own, as a blessing next time you sit down to eat.

Thank you for the earth, the sun and rain.
Thank you for the gladness of being together.
May they be blessed, all those whose hands planted,
nurtured, harvested, and helped to prepare our food.
May it make us strong for the work of our world. Amen.

Short Reflection: ‘Our Complicated Harvest’ by Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall

When we gather together each autumn for our little Harvest Festival here at church I get a sense of being part of a long line – a very very long line – of humans who have been doing something similar for many generations. It’s a tradition that transcends religious boundaries and national borders – after all, we all need to eat – and throughout history our ancestors will have been quite aware of the precariousness of their situation, and their dependence on a good harvest, in order to survive.

I don’t know about you, but for most of my life, I confess, I have somewhat taken it for granted that there would be food on the table. I’ve been very lucky to grow up in what felt, to me, like a time of plenty (living in one of the world’s richest countries and, until quite recently, in a time of relative political and economic stability, with a functioning social security system… and I’m not sure we can say that’s the case any more). Although my family were never rolling in it when I was growing up, not by any means, we were never in serious danger of going hungry either. I am used to a world where the supermarkets shelves are full of fresh produce, where an ever-increasing variety of new and unusual fruit and veg from around the world makes its way to our shores, where farmer’s markets and corner shops catering to all comers in our multicultural city have opened us up to new horizons. Which is, of course, all well and good if you can afford it. And, indeed, if the planet can afford it, in terms of the energy and pollution involved in the production and transport of produce.

Like I said, I have been lucky to live in such times, and in relatively privileged circumstances, to be able to take pleasure in food, rather than having to worry too much about where the next meal is coming from. I know a lot of people all over the world, and all likelihood including people in our gathering today, have not been (and are not) so fortunate. Of course, in living memory here in Britain, we had food rationing through World War Two, continuing into the 1950s. I remember my parents and grandparents talking about their experience of wartime food shortages – in fact I am sure my mum said that they grew veg on top of their Anderson bomb shelter and kept chickens when she was a kid in Poplar – whatever they could do to supplement their very skimpy rations of the bare essentials. The experience of scarcity shaped the attitudes of a generation, who could never take it for granted that food would be plentiful, and were assiduous about avoiding food waste for the rest of their days.

I’ve given today’s service the subtitle ‘From Field to Fork’ – which makes it sound simple, doesn’t it? – and I suppose in some ways it still is. For those of us who are lucky enough to have access to a garden or an allotment – and the time, energy, and physical capacity it takes to work our little patch of land – the journey from field to fork can be short. A few of us brought in our home-grown produce to show off on the central table: Juliet’s potatoes, and my tomatoes, grown in our respective gardens. A splendid pumpkin from Pat and John’s allotment (and some of Jack’s allotment goodies too). It’s wonderful to be able to grow your own food (though I don’t think any of us are self-sufficient yet…)

And, in reality, none of us are ever going to be self-sufficient, are we? We are deeply interdependent. Most of us, most of the time, are currently reliant on a complex global network for our food. And over the last few years we’ve become increasingly aware of the fragility of the supply chain, haven’t we? – empty shelves and shortages of stock have become much more common sights of late – for a multitude of interconnected reasons. Climate change has destabilised growing conditions for many, alternately bringing droughts then floods to many regions that have traditionally fed the world. Geopolitical instability has pushed up energy prices and interrupted food production in many factories. Knock-on effects from Brexit have led to difficulties and delays at our borders, worker shortages, and reportedly caused some producers to give up on importing and exporting to Britain altogether. Bird flu has disrupted egg and poultry production. All of these factors – and more that I’ve not touched on, including corporate greed, I have no doubt – these factors have pushed up food prices for all. We know that many people have been pushed to the brink; food banks are desperately oversubscribed.

I know none of this is news to you. But on the day of our harvest festival it seems really important – especially for us as city-dwellers – that we get real about the complicated journey from field to fork. Our systems of food production clearly illustrate the deep interdependence of all life on this planet. So let us be mindful of our responsibility to each other, and to the environment, on which we depend. Let us keep in our awareness those who go hungry, and let us work towards a more just world, one in which resources are more fairly shared, such that all beings get what they need to survive and thrive. Let us be aware of the fragility, the precarity, of our harvest – let’s not take the harvest for granted – let us give thanks for our daily bread (and our daily tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins and all the rest…)

And, in that spirit, I invite you to join in a responsive prayer of harvest thanksgiving. I haven’t printed out all the words for you but there is a simple refrain, which is printed in your order of service: ‘Spirit of Life, God of All Love, we give thanks for life’s blessings’. And all the words will be on screen.

Responsive Prayer of Harvest Thanksgiving:

Let us give thanks, this harvest-time,
for all the colours and forms of creation
that populate this precious earth,
and for our place within it;
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings.

For our daily food, and for
those whose work and skill
bring your good gifts to us;
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings.

For the gifts and graces inspired in human minds and hearts;
for insight and imagination, and the skills of research
which bring healing and fulfilment to the lives of many;
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings.

For the light and shades of the changing seasons,
and their variety and their dependability;
for new life and growth out of barrenness and decay;
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings.

For new hope and strength in our communities,
especially in this church congregation, and
among all you call to serve the Good,
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings.

For all in whose lives we see goodness,
kindness, gentleness, patience and humility,
those souls who embody all the fruits of the Spirit,
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings.

For the life we have been given,
and for all those whom
you have given us to share it,
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings. Amen.

Hymn 271 (green): ‘Give Thanks for the Corn’

Time for our last hymn, another traditional harvest song, it’s number 271, ‘Give Thanks for the Corn’. Again, stand or sit as you prefer, for hymn number 271.

Give thanks for the corn
and the wheat that are reaped,
For labour well done
and the barns that are heaped.
For the sun and the dew
and the sweet honeycomb,
For the rose and the song
and the harvest brought home.

Give thanks for the commerce
and wealth of our land,
For cunning and strength
of the hard-working hand,
For the beauty our artists
and poets have wrought,
For the hope and affection
our friendships have brought.

Give thanks for the homes
that with kindness are blessed,
For the seasons of plenty
and well-deserved rest,
For our country extending
from sea unto sea,
For the ways that have made it
a land for the free.

Sharing of News, Announcements, Introductions

Thanks to Ramona for tech-hosting and Shari for co-hosting. Thanks to John and ?Sonya for reading. Thanks to Abby and Andrew. Thanks Patricia for doing coffee and David for greeting. For those of you who are in-person, please do stay for a cuppa and some coffee and walnut cake after the service – it’s served in the hall next door. If you’re joining online hang on after for a chat with Shari.

We have various small group activities during the week. Heart and Soul, our contemplative spiritual gathering, takes place twice a week online. It’s a great way to get to know people more deeply. Send me an email if you want to sign up for Sunday or Rita for Friday. The theme is ‘Making Plans’.

This Wednesday evening the poetry group will be meeting here at church – do come along and share a favourite poem with others – have a word with Brian if you’d like to get involved.

Next Sunday Sarah will be here for a service to mark the Autumn Equinox. And Margaret will be here to offer her ‘Finding Your Voice’ class after the service – that’s for free – do plan to stay for that.

And – stop press! – a last-minute addition to the programme. This autumn we’re going to be starting up a regular Community Singing group on Wednesday evenings, twice a month, it’s a collaboration with a local musician who’s been running a singing-for-fun group in the area for over twenty years and who has very kindly offered to branch out and start a spin-off group with us. Everyone is welcome and you don’t need to read music or anything; the repertoire is mostly classic pop songs I believe. The first session is going to be on Wednesday 11th October, that’s at 7pm, free (donations welcome). It’d be really good if we had a decent turnout of congregation members for this as it’s a great opportunity for us to make connections in the local area – and I think it’s going to be fun too – so do come along.

I’m about to go on my autumn break! So this will be the last you’ll see of me for a few weeks. I hope to see most of you at the Induction Service which will be taking place on Saturday 14th October at 3pm – this marks the official commencement of the new ministry, even though I’ve been here a while – it’s an excuse for tea, cake, and bunting and for friends from all over the place to join in celebration. But more than that it’s a chance to express our hopes and intentions for this ministry and to pledge our commitment to the future of this congregation and its mission. Ministry is all we do together. So I really hope to see you there (and, members, keep an eye out for some email requests for help, both from me regarding crowdsourcing of some words for the service, and from Patricia re logistics).

Details of all our various activities are printed on the back of the order of service, for you to take away, and also in the Friday email. Please do sign up for the mailing list if you haven’t already. The congregation very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings; we encourage you to keep in touch, look out for each other, and do what you can to nurture supportive connections.

I think that’s everything. Just time for our closing words and closing music now.

Benediction: based on words by Marta M. Flanagan

May we be inspired with gratitude for the wondrous gifts that are ours
And be filled with the resolve to share them with all who are in need.

May we hold precious one another, and the world
which provides us with sustenance and beauty.

And as our time together ends, may a joyful song of
thanksgiving be on our lips, for all life’s harvests,
as we go out to meet the days to come. Amen.

Closing Music: Scherzo by Weber (played by Abby Lorimier and Andrew Robinson)

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall

17th September 2023