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Harvest Thanksgiving Ecumenical Service, Old Leighlin Cathedral

Yesterday (Sunday 6 October) Bishop Denis preached the homily at the Harvest Thanksgiving Ecumenical Service in Old Leighlin Cathedral.

“I want to begin by acknowledging my appreciation and thanks for the invitation to deliver the Harvest Thanksgiving homily here in the splendid Old Leighlin Cathedral this Sunday afternoon. Thanks to Tom and your team for the invitation; thanks to our deacon Pat for ensuring this date got into my diary!

We gather two weeks after the record temperatures and record attendances at the Ploughing over in Fenagh; we gather as the plight of Direct Provision and Homelessness still casts its pale over our society and communities; we gather a few weeks before the imminent threat of a crash out Brexit. I hope to address all three this evening in the context of our harvest thanksgiving.

When Pat asked me to suggest a piece of scripture to base my reflection this evening on, I purposefully chose the Leviticus passage. Leviticus rests within the books we call the Pentateuch or Torah, amongst the Book of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It is the third book of the Old Testament. Its strong emphasis is around the law and what must be done if we are to earn salvation.

We associate a Levite as someone who would make uneasy fellowship at table, because ritual and law is their raison d’etre. Verses of Leviticus continue to be referenced in later Old and New Testament passages. So words written perhaps five centuries before Christ had huge relevance in Christ’s day and retain huge relevance I suggest twenty-one centuries later.

I am told the Anglo-Saxons called September “gerst-monath” (Barley Month). The Slavs called October “yellow month” from the fading of the leaf; the Anglo-Saxons called it “winter fylleth” because of the full moon, winter was seen as beginning. And the old mottoe:

By the first of March the crows begin to search,
by the first of April they are sitting still,
by the first of May they have flown away,
creeping greedy back again,
with October wind and rain[1].

The history of the harvest thanksgiving is centred on our saying thanks to the Lord of the harvest. But its much more, it’s giving some of that harvest to those less fortunate than ourselves. I was so struck by that line, twice in the Book of Leviticus: “you are not to gather the gleanings of the harvest. You are to leave them for the poor and the stranger[2].

The harvest is more than what comes into our barns, our sheds, our driers, our silos. It’s also whats left for the birds, for the insects, for the wild animals and as Leviticus reminds us “for the poor and the stranger[3]. My father always insisted on my brothers not cutting to the very edge of the field when harvesting, something must remain then and now.

The Ploughing Championships just concluded two weeks ago at Fenagh. For so long wellies and raincoats had been treated as necessary attire when visiting the Ploughing, but not this year’s ploughing! It was hard to fathom the destruction Storm Ali wrecked on the second day of the ploughing a year ago, to see temperatures soar into the mid-twenties this year. ‘The Ploughing’ is a national institution, attracting people from all walks of life, farming and non-farming.

It was so important that we as Church are present those days in Fenagh; reminding people God is present in the bits and pieces of everyday life. Where people are in record numbers, we as frontline church people should also be present. There is a harvest waiting to be reaped. And this evening we give thanks for the harvest our presence brings. Isn’t this the key message of St. Paul to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances[4]. Our presence at a ploughing event; at a local show, at a fete or jamboree is very much a presence to rejoice in, to be happy in. Joy attracts.

The plight of migrants and refugees. Last Sunday was World Day of Migrants and Refugees. Pope Francis unveiled a sculpture entitled ‘Angels Unawares’ in St. Peter’s Square, depicting a group of migrants and refugees from different cultural and racial backgrounds, and from diverse historic periods of time. It’s a story we in Ireland can well tell. We have been there and back. In issuing a few tweets on social media over last weekend, I was disturbed by the vitriolic commentary and intolerant language responding to those very simple social media postings. In an increasingly individualistic and polarised society, the needs of the other are too often seen as threats to our own levels of comfort and abundance. Isn’t our harvest something to share, not to pile up for our own rainy day? And isn’t this what Luke in his gospel also berates: “As Jesus entered one of the villages, ten lepers came to meet him. They stood some way off …[5]. We are the ones who are standing some way off from the migrants and refugees. Our Christian communities, our Christian parishes must be places where they feel welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated. Why not every parish in Ireland house one refugee family, and a migrant family once their refugee status has been cleared?

And to Brexit. It is widely accepted that Ireland as an EU member is most exposed to negative repercussions because of Brexit. Rural Ireland because of its higher dependence on British markets will suffer disproportionately and within rural Ireland our farm families are likely to be most seriously impacted. Irish farms have developed on a basis of producing food of the highest quality and traceability, approximately half of which is exported to what has been traditionally the best market in the world. Our farmers now face a four-sided attack on the viability of their farm enterprises.

Firstly, the CAP faces a cut of unprecedented magnitude with the loss of the British contribution. With so many farms depending on subsidies, up to 100% of income, particularly in the embattled beef sector, any cuts will directly impact on farm profitability.

Secondly the change in exchange rate with the Euro now consistently at 90 pence or above means that we are less competitive across all products that we export into the UK market.

The third threat is in higher trade costs with possible tariff and non-tariffs barriers.  Tariffs are paid by the importer consequently our goods (and all other EU goods) will not be economically attractive products for UK buyers. Tariffs mean lower UK demand for Irish agricultural products, with beef particularly affected due to its exposure in that market.

And fourthly, long term there is a real risk that as the UK opens its doors to trade agreements with non-EU countries, food imports from low cost, unregulated production systems could flood into Britain leaving our food produce uncompetitive.

More than one in seven workers are employed in the agri-food sector in the Border region, almost twice the national average of one in twelve. Here in the South-East, around one worker in every eight is employed in the sector. This makes agriculture a significant contributor to the Irish economy, especially in rural communities. From inside the farm gate through to processing and distribution there is no positive for agriculture or for wider rural Ireland. Let us earnestly pray this at this ecumenical harvest evening, that sense will prevail and to quote again St. Paul: “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this[6]. Let us earnestly call on Him this night that sense indeed pervails.

[1] Holden, Edith: ‘The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady’, 1977, pg. 132

[2] Lev. 23:22 / Lev. 19:9

[3] ibid

[4] 1 Thess. 5:16

[5] Lk. 17:12

[6] 1 Thess. 5:24