04 October 2009

Harvest Thanksgiving, Donabate

Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate (Photograph: Bubla)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 4 October 2009: Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate, Co Dublin; 10 a.m.: Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist

Joel 2: 21-27; Psalm 126; I Timothy 2: 1-7; Matthew 6: 25-33.

May all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

It’s wonderful to be here in Donabate this morning for your Harvest Thanksgiving, and I’d like to thank you and Canon Robert Deane for this kind invitation. I’m often in this parish, but this is the first time I’ve ever been inside Saint Patrick’s Church. Yet I already feel I know you.

But, of course, I have many connections with this area. My grandparents, Stephen Comerford and Bridget Lynders, met while my grandfather was working in Portrane. Bridget was then living at the Quay House in Portrane, and they were married across the road, in the other Saint Patrick’s, on 7 February 1905.

It must have been very difficult after that wedding for my grandmother to move with my grandfather from a beautiful rural part of Ireland to suburban life in Dublin, first in Ranelagh, then in Rathmines, and later in Terenure.

But they both loved this area so much that their children and step-children spent much of their time in Portrane. And when my grandparents died, they were both brought back here to be buried, and are buried in the churchyard beside the ruins of Saint Catherine’s Church in Portrane.

It is peculiar how families in city parishes can cling onto the roots they have in rural parishes and to traditions like the Harvest Thanksgiving but forget why we celebrate it.

When families in cities like Dublin lose any sense of memory or belonging or identity with rural areas, or when places like Donabate change from being small villages to be being part of the suburbs, then it is important to remember the harvest. Not for romantic or sentimental reasons, but to be reminded how difficult it is for the farmers and gardeners, those who toil in the fields and on the sea, to produce the food on our tables.

There is a real danger in suburbs and cities of forgetting the problems farmers face after summers like this year’s when it comes to harvest time.

And yet, the economic problems we have all been facing during the past year or two probably mean we are all suffering together.

The poor summer weather has reduced the harvest this year. And with the economic meltdown we have all suffered, farmers in particular have borne an even greater share of the problems.

I suppose that as things become more difficult at home, as the harvest at home leaves us with fewer and fewer pickings, one of the easiest ways to make savings is to cut back on our support for projects supported by agencies like the Bishops’ Appeal Fund or the mission and development agencies.

It’s not that people are so cruel and lacking in compassion and understanding to say things such as charity ought to begin at home. But it is easier to cut back on projects and spending that won’t be seen at home.

And that’s what is happening to government funding too.

Who is going to notice a million here or a million there cut from the overseas aid budget? Few of us here, I’m sure. Politicians weighing up their options and looking only at the short-term consequences may say decisions like that are not going to lose them any votes. But it is going to lose lives.

I know only too well that farmers haven’t been getting their share of the harvest this year. When the Apostle Paul is writing to Timothy, in the Epistle reading we shared this morning, he talks about how we must share in suffering, and how the farmer who does the work ought to have the first share of the crops.

But for a few moments let me share some of the experiences of the harvest in Africa from the students and ordinands in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute where I teach and where my job entails being the chaplain.

The students arrived back in the theological institute over the last two weeks, and as you can imagine there has been a lively buzz about the place e has been abuzz, with everybody catching up on their summer holidays and their summer placements the length and breadth of this island.

But one student, the senior student, Paul Bogle, who was on placement in Donabate and Swords as a first year student two years ago, had a summer placement this year that was a very different from the usual summer placement in an Irish parish.

Instead, Paul decided to work his summer placement through USPG Ireland – the Irish section of the oldest Anglican mission agency – with an Anglican parish in Swaziland, with Andrew and Rosemary Symonds, who have been USPG mission companions in Swaziland since 2005.

Andrew is the training officer for the Diocese of Swaziland and is a parish priest or rector, while Rosemary facilitates key community projects.

Paul was inspired to go to Swaziland after the students – men and women – took part in a sponsored shave earlier this year on Shrove Tuesday – what they called Shave Tuesday – to support USPG’s work in Swaziland.

Children at Usuthu Mission Primary School in Swaziland (Photograph: Paul Bogle)

Now Swaziland is about as far away as one of our students could go on a parish placement. This small, land-locked country in southern Africa has a population of just one million people.

But Swaziland has possibly the highest level of HIV/AIDS in the world: 40 per cent of the people there are HIV+, many children are born HIV+, and 20,000 new HIV cases are reported or diagnosed each year.

But there are only 2,000 hospital beds in Swaziland. This means most of the people are left to die at home.

To compound these problems, 40 per cent of the people are unemployed, and 69 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. And Swaziland now has 80,000 to 90,000 orphans, mainly because of HIV/AIDS – it is impossible for us to imagine the scale of this problem; in Ireland, it would mean having half a million orphans.

But for many people the biggest problem is not HIV – it is the problem of what they are going to eat. For many mothers, the only way to feed themselves is to sell themselves.

And because of the high infection rate, the HIV virus is spreading more rapidly that in other countries.

Life expectancy is low, the mortality rate is high, and so 15 per cent of households are headed by a child. Now, how can you expect a child to feed children, to look after their education, health and clothing?

With the support of the Bishops’ Appeal, USPG Ireland is working with the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Swaziland to provide feeding programmes and to provide training in horticulture and market gardening so that the diet of people and the ability of families to be self-sufficient can be improved significantly – a true harvest thanksgiving project.

To help this work, it has been possible too to make use of previously under-used church lands.

All this is set in the context of the local church’s anti-HIV programme and the need to give people confidence that there can be a sustainable future for their communities, that Swaziland is not going to implode.

The market in Manzini, Swaziland (Photograph: Paul Bogle)

Hope is so important for people in Swaziland. But then, isn’t hope central to living out the Gospel?

Hope is at the heart of our Gospel reading this morning, which comes from the middle of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. As a lecturer in theology I sometimes think of the Sermon on the Mount as an ideal model for a lecture or seminar on discipleship, and on practising piety:

In the chapter in which we find this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus has already spoken about giving alms in humility; about prayer, including praying simply and praying in the words of the Lord’s Prayer; about fasting without being dismal, but fasting joyfully; about refusing to hoard and keep things all for myself; about looking at things in the best possible light; and about putting God before our wealth.

In the section we shared this morning, verses 25 to 33, Christ hopes the disciples will realise that life is about more than our personal comforts. There’s more, in the following chapter, but there’s enough there for us and our harvest thought in the few verses we read this morning, I think.

It is very difficult if you are a 12 or 14-year-old girl looking after your younger sisters and brothers to continue to have hope if the younger ones are asking you last thing every night and first thing every morning “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” (Matthew 6: 31).

And the only way we take away those worries, give them hope, is to support projects such as USPG’s work in Swaziland, by encouraging other students to follow in Paul’s footsteps, or directly supporting the work of mission agencies like USPG.

The harvest has been very poor in Ireland this year. And as the recession bites, those who have lost their jobs, those who have suffered pay cuts, farmers who are going to find this a very bleak autumn and winter indeed must be taken to heart.

But if we fret for ourselves and not for the children of Swaziland, can we say that we are striving first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness? For as Jesus tells us this morning; “… your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6: 32-33).

And now may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist at 10 a.m. in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate, Co Dublin, on Sunday 4 October 2009

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