Harvest (Nehemiah #4)

Sunday October 2nd, St Michael’s – Harvest

Readings – Nehemiah 5:1-13; Luke 16:19-30

How many of us grow our own food? Looking around there are a few of us who can go out into our garden and pick an apple, or pull some rhubarb, but many of us don’t even have that link with the seasons, other than to notice when the leaves begin to fall from the trees, or that it’s cold enough to turn on our heating! So why do we celebrate harvest, in an age when strawberries are available all year round, and tomatoes come from thousands of miles away, when the reduction in the price of seasonal vegetables is called a ‘special offer’ as if the supermarkets were being generous?

Of course, there is a traditional link to the harvests of the past, and it’s good to give thanks to God for his provision of our needs the whole year round. And we all enjoy singing a traditional harvest hymn. But this year we’re going to focus on those for whom harvest is very much part of the rhythm of their year, and the success of the harvest essential to their survival.

Let’s begin with our readings this morning … Jesus had a lot to say about caring for the poor; the story he tells in our reading from Luke today is an illustration of one of his most famous sayings, Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (you can find it in Matthew 5 or Luke 6). This concern for the poor is found throughout the scriptures: in fact, it is a major element of the laws given by God to his people from their earliest days.

It is also major part of Jesus’ description of his own ministry … The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. (Luke 4:18) What is the good news that the poor need to hear? That they are not forgotten, that through Jesus they can find forgiveness and new life, indeed, that the kingdom of heaven belongs to them and people like them …

Inbuilt into the law of God as revealed in the OT, is not only provision for the poor through alms giving and support, but also inclusion and security … they were to be considered part of the people of God, treated fairly, not taken advantage of, they were to be made welcome, and they were to play a full part in the life of the temple and it’s worship. That’s why, in our OT reading, Nehemiah is so upset to realise that many of the people were making money from someone else’s need … charging interest on loans of money and produce, taking their land in payment and so depriving them of the means to improve their poor situation.

So care for the poor, financial and social justice and equality, are all marks of the faithful people of God … then and now.

But in our day and age, when we are so removed from the source of our food and clothing and other provisions we need, how do we ensure that we are playing fair when we purchase goods? How can we be certain that we are not taking advantage of someone who works hard to provide for us but who can’t make an adequate living by it?

We hear talk of sweatshops and cheap clothes, or small farmers being disadvantaged by large producers taking over their land and their markets, or the middle men making excess profit and perpetuating poverty for their suppliers.

One way we can make a difference is by considering not only price when we shop, but the origin of the things we buy … in terms of food, this has become easier for us in recent years by the growth of the fair trade movement. In fact, I’m certain you will have bought fairly traded goods without even realising – let me show you what I mean:

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Shopping bag with Fairtrade goods …

These are all items with the Fairtrade Foundation logo, which is the mostly widely available. The Fairtrade Foundation is only one of many organisations seeking to bring justice to the food chain, but it is considered by many to be the most effective attempt to promote the ideals of ethical consumption to a mainstream audience.

Fair trade for all these organisations is based on a number of principles:

  • Justice – a fair wage for a day’s work.
  • Care for the poor – focussing our efforts on those who need it most.
  • Accountability – ensuring we know how our food is produced, and who benefits … all the way along the supply chain.
  • Shared wealth – using our money to provide for others even as we buy what we need ourselves.
  • Sustainability– the ability to improve and extend the harvest year after year.
  • Care of the environment – ensuring that agriculture benefits, not harms, the land.
  • Equality – not only for women but also for all those from a disadvantaged background.
  • Education – to provide all age groups with the means of improving their situation and communities.

Which all add up to security … having an income, somewhere to live and to learn, a future.

Fair trade is not a gimmick or a marketing ploy … fair trade makes a difference. The Fairtrade Foundation – which is the logo you are most likely to recognise – has been going for over 20 years, starting with just three products in 1994 …

While there are other organisations seeking to supply fairly traded goods, only the Fairtrade Foundation commits to paying a fixed price at or above market value. In addition, as we heard in the video, the Fairtrade Foundation pays a premium. Over and above the Fairtrade price, the Fairtrade Premium is an additional sum of money which goes into a communal fund for workers and farmers to use – as they see fit – to improve their social, economic and environmental conditions. The Fairtrade Foundation is the only organisation to do this … and the farmers themselves determine what is most important to them and how to spend the money; whether on education or healthcare for their children, maternity services, or building vital infrastructure such as a water supply or roads and bridges for their community.

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It was lovely to welcome our visitors from Thika earlier in the year, and we took the opportunity to ask them about fair trade and the benefits to their local community. They were very honest with us, telling us that because of the structure of their local tea and coffee industry, they themselves don’t qualify to be part of the Fairtrade Foundation, but they asked us to buy fairly traded goods whenever possible … not only for the benefit of the farmers, but also to support the work of the local churches … they told us that when their members are in work as part of a Fairtrade project, they give, generously, and as a result the church has been able to run classes and clinics and other outreach projects.

So what can we do?

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As individuals, we can choose to shop fair trade – and it’s easier than ever before … all these makes and shops support fair trade and use the Fairtrade logo where appropriate …

We can also come together as a church and commit to buying fairly traded goods wherever we can.

As part of a diocesan scheme, St Barnabas has already become a Fairtrade Church, one of 7,500 in the UK. The scheme requires the church to make a threefold commitment:

  • to use Fairtrade tea and coffee after services and in all meetings organised by the church
  • to work towards using other Fairtrade products such as sugar, biscuits and fruit
  • to support Fairtrade fortnight – usually in March each year

At our next PCC meeting, St Michael’s PCC will discuss making the same commitment. I’m sure there will be questions about cost and quality, but in practice we’ve been using Fairtrade products for some time, and our monthly coffee mornings have been using Fairtrade tea, coffee and sugar (and hot chocolate!) for months.

Ultimately, the commitment to Fairtrade isn’t a matter of preference and price, but of faithful obedience and principle:

He has shown you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

So please, enjoy your hot drinks after the service … shop Fairtrade whenever you can, and let a PCC member know what you think about St Michael’s becoming a Fairtrade church!

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