Harvest Thanksgiving - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Harvest Thanksgiving

Harvest Thanksgiving
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I do love the English language - particularly the fact that the words that we use on a regular basis, without even thinking about it, can sometimes reveal fascinating truths about our history and culture. 

One of the best known examples of this is that we use the good old Anglo-Saxon word 'cow' when describing that particular animal grazing in a field.  But as soon as that same creature is served up on a plate covered in gravy, suddenly it becomes 'beef', which is Norman French.  In other words, the very language we use reveals that it was Anglo-Saxon peasants who were rearing the animals, but Norman French barons who were eating them - a fascinating linguistic reflection of the social and cultural divide that existed between those who produced the food, and those who consumed it.  Which also leave us in no doubt about who got the better deal.

The gulf between those who produce food, and those who actually get to eat it, has a very long history - but of course, it has never been more marked than it is in today's global economy - a theme to which I shall be returning shortly.

Earlier in this service we inducted some new members and Chaplains to the Guild of Saint Bride.  As many of you will be aware the original Guild of St Bride was confirmed by the writ of Edward III in the year 1375.  Which was less than thirty years after the Black Death had ravaged this country, wiping out approximately 2 million people -between 30 to 40% of its total inhabitants.  The population of London was around 70,000 people, and 30,000 of them perished.  The impact of death on that kind of scale is difficult to comprehend.  And I strongly suspect that the founding of our Guild was not wholly unconnected with it. 

The mediaeval parish guilds were a kind of cross between a friendly society and a social club linked with the church, the ultimate purpose of which was to ensure that proper funeral rites were held for their members, and masses said for their souls after death; they would also buy candles and vestments for use in the church at funerals.  And one can understand what a pressing concern this was in the wake of an epidemic that had wiped out 45% of the clergy, and which inevitably saw many of the dead dispatched without proper burial rites.  (Today, of course, the Guild has a rather different focus: that of supporting and enhancing the work and worship of St Bride's; because the needs and concerns of our own age are, of course, very different.)

The statistics I gave you a moment ago, relating to the impact of the Black Death, are startling.  But for me, and of particular relevance to our service today, is a rather different kind of statistic that pre-dates the Black Death, but which is, in its own way, just as startling.  And it is this: before the outbreak of the Black Death in 1348, this country was home to around 6 million people - and (this is the scary bit) it was over-populated.  In other words, this land mass of ours, in the pre-industrial era, struggled to feed and sustain a population of between 5 and 6 million.  Prior to the Black Death, hunger and starvation were often a fact of life, simply because this land couldn't produce enough food to feed its people.

Today, the population of the UK is not 6 million, but 65 million; we are home to far, far more people than this country could even begin to feed, even with all the advantages of modern farming methods.  Which reminds us of how utterly dependent we are as a nation upon imported food, and just how vulnerable we would be were those imports to cease for any reason.

But such is the division between the production and the consumption of food in our culture, that I suspect that this is not a reality than many of us ever think about.   Walk down Fleet Street, and just about every third retail outlet is either a mini-supermarket or a food outlet.  We are surrounded by food, and overwhelmed by choice.  And the nature of the global market is such that growing seasons have now merged into one another: we can obtain pretty well any kind of food we desire whenever we want it - with only the mild inconvenience of paying slightly more for our raspberries when we purchase them in December.  And this is worrying.  Because the minute we become accustomed to taking anything for granted, we are also in danger of losing sight of its true value.  And when we fail to recognise the true value of God's precious gifts, we are inclined to squander them.

Back in 2009, Tristram Stuart published a very shocking and disturbing book entitled simply Waste, which reported the following alarming facts: UK retailers were wasting an average of 1.6 million metric tonnes of food each year.  UK manufacturers were wasting 4.6 million tonnes, and UK consumers (that's you and me, folks), were wasting a further 4.1 million tonnes of food.  And note that what he was referring to was perfectly edible food that was going straight into the bin as a result of overcautious sell-by dates, lack of shelf space in supermarkets, bad planning by retailers and manufacturers, or indifference to the implications of these kinds of commercial decisions.  Between 25% and 40% of all British fruit and vegetables were being wasted, often simply because they were the wrong shape or size.  Stuart demonstrated that the amount of food wasted in this way could feed the world's starving poor many, many times over.

In terms of their struggle for sheer survival, the majority of the world's inhabitants today live lives that are much closer to those of our mediaeval forbears than to ours: because they live in subsistence economies.  But the uncomfortable truth is that the harsh reality of food poverty is also much closer to home than we might think: the Hackney Food Bank, which we have been supporting as part of our Harvest offering this year, is doing essential work in feeding families who are struggling to survive within our own city today.

The gulf between producer and consumer; between over-indulgence, waste and starvation, has never been more stark or more scandalous.  So, how should we respond?

The starting point is for us to remember always to be thankful for God's good gifts in Creation; to remember that the food that we enjoy is not a right, but rather a privilege; and never to forget that the food that we so easily take for granted as we casually pick it up from a supermarket shelf, is sometimes the product of the back-breaking labour of a human being who may have received scant financial reward for what he or she does.

The second thing is to be mindful of our own use, and sometimes misuse of resources; how much do we waste and squander what we have, simply because we are accustomed to having it there whenever we happen to want it? 

And thirdly, how generous are we in sharing what we have with those who have little?; how ready are we to speak out against the kinds of injustices that keep human beings in poverty and near-starvation, in a world divided between those who waste and those who starve?

I learned a very important lesson about my own careless wastefulness when we moved to Birmingham back in 1990.  There was a last-minute delay in our house purchase, which meant that we had to live in temporary accommodation for a month.  And we ended up lodging with a delightful but rather wacky Polish family, who used to let out rooms to University lecturers.  The wife of the couple whose home it was, had been a little girl during the Second World War, and she and the rest of her family had been forcibly deported by the Soviets from Poland, and taken in cattle trucks to Uzbekistan. There, they were simply deposited in a field and abandoned, with no shelter and no food.  Their hunger was such that they were reduced to eating grass and leaves.  And when I moved into her house, she alerted me to the fact that there was really only one strict rule in the house: 'Please don't ever let me see you throw away bread', she said.  Her words hit home.  And to this day, that is something I never ever do lightly.

Jesus reminds us in our gospel reading today, that there is more to life than food; that the food that he provides is not merely food for the body, but for the soul.  But we need to remember that he says this after he has fed the 5,000 with loaves and fishes.  You cannot expect people to begin a spiritual journey, while they still lack the basic means of survival.

Today is above all a day to celebrate; to rejoice; to be glad'; and to give thanks to God for the wonderful gifts of his Creation.  But we need to do so with our eyes wide open, in a world in which we have so much, and so many have so very little.


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