Perhaps it was growing up as a city boy. Or perhaps it was not growing up in a mainstream Christian denomination. Whatever the reason, until recently I had never experienced a Harvest Festival. In Britain the celebration is part of the church’s liturgical calendar, as well as a more secular festival remembered in schools. For the Christian, it’s an opportunity to thank God for the season’s bountiful supply of produce.
Off to the Pub
Home is an experimental Christian community here in Oxford. When I was invited to their Harvest Festival service at the nearby Isis Farmhouse pub, I decided to head along for the experience. Around 50 folks and kids packed into a little barn out the back of the pub, the adults all with beers in hand. A table at the front of the room held an offering of tomatoes, zucchinis, broad beans, apples and other fruit and vegetables brought by members of the community.
The service began with a folk band cranking up and leading us in songs like All Things Bright and Beautiful, Morning Has Broken and Bringing in the Sheaves. Such songs would normally cause shudders to ripple through my body, but they worked. Prayers were offered, thanking God for the harvest. Home made bread was passed around from which we all ate. At the back of the room were piles of rice portioned to represent the numbers of people around the world lacking the basic staples of life. The food brought to the service was later donated to a local food bank.
A jug of beer was on hand to refill empty cups and the ‘sermon’ of sorts was offered by Joe, a member of Home and an avid home-brewer. ‘If the beer is talking, what’s it saying?’ Joe asked us rhetorically. He’s given me permission to publish his talk below.
In an age of tinned, washed, vacuum-packed and hygienically-sealed food production where the majority of us know shopping aisles but not farm dust, I came away from the festival simply but powerfully reminded that we are dependant on God for everything we eat, and responsible for sharing with those who are hungry. It was an earthy celebration of texture, smell and taste. A spirituality of food, if you will.
The night ended with raised glasses and a hearty ‘Cheers!’
Here’s Joe’s brief sermon, based on Jesus’ Galilee breakfast with his disciples.
‘If the beer is talking, what’s it saying?’
By Joe. Isis Farmhouse, September 18, 2011
Benjamin Franklin is reported as saying, ‘Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.’ Here are a couple of beers that I made earlier. This is one that I made in my kitchen, assisted by one of my fellow brewers from our little church community. And this one was dreamt up by a bunch of Dads from south Oxford. I’m excited that the silhouette on the label is actually me; it’s just a shame that you can tell that it’s me from the saggy chin! We call ourselves Father’s Folly, and our friend Mattias of Compass Brewery brewed it. Compass brews are available at the bar. I’m probably required to say that other micro-brews are available too. But I wouldn’t resort to product placement. [Pours a glass of Compass Isis Pale Ale]
When we make and drink beer, we celebrate the grain and fine English fruit of the field. And then there is the miracle of the hops which give our beers their distinctive flavour, as well as stopping the brew turning bad. Finally there is the little bit of magic that is yeast. The first beers just brewed up from yeast in the air. Now we keep the magic going by cultivating yeast from the best brews. There is much to celebrate in the ingredients for our brews.
St Arnauld is the patron saint of brewing. He saved many lives through encouraging people to drink beer (made from boiled water), and it is said that his coffin miraculous overflowed with beer as he was carried to his resting place. He said that ‘through man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world.’
We have a part to play. Some iPad enthusiasts may think that Steve Jobs is a god. But God is no Steve Jobs. He doesn’t just decide what we should want and lock it down so that we are nothing but an end user/consumer. God invites us to share in his creativity, to collaborate with him to make something new. Oxford is full of creative people; actually we’re all made to be creative and share in making God’s creation in many different ways. I love to create beer and enjoy the creativity of others. Sometimes quite enthusiastically…
Often the human participation in God’s creation is wonderful; sometimes it isn’t, and alcohol can cause great harm. But God takes the risk of sharing creation with us.
It’s a risk that he took with his friends, the people that we call his disciples. In the story we heard earlier, he provides a great bounty of fish, but it is the disciples who catch it and have to drag in the nets.
The story of Jesus, risen from the dead, who chooses to meet his friends for breakfast on the beach, shows me a little piece of heaven. I can feel the warmth of the fire in the cold of the early morning, and can smell the grilling fish after a hungry night’s work. Above all, the reunion of friends has its own powerful warmth, as they gratefully share the unexpected catch together.
Beer too is best when it’s shared. I would rather drink a pint with a friend in the pub at three-times the price than drink it by myself. And strangers you meet over a beer can restore your faith in our shared humanity, providing the beer is good enough. I love brewing with friends, and I love sharing the beer that I brew with friends and family. From the earliest traditions, brewing and the ale house were a communal resource, enjoyed together.
So if the beer is talking, what’s it saying? I hear three things:
- celebrate the fruits of creation that God gives us
- collaborate with God to make something new
- share the creation with others
Cheers to you all this harvest!
Q: Experienced a harvest festival before? In practice, how thankful are we for each mouthful of food we eat?