Sunday, 2 October 2016

‘You crown the year with your goodness
and give us the fruits of the earth in their season’

Harvest fields in Pollerton, Co Carlow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

2 October 2016,

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity,

Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist,


11.30 a.m.: Saint Brigid’s Church, Stillorgan, Co Dublin.

Readings: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11; Psalm 100; Philippians 4: 4-9; John 6: 25-35.

In the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I am grateful to your Rector, the Revd Ian Gallagher, for inviting to preach at your Harvest Thanksgiving Service here in Stillorgan this morning.

We were both in Christ Church Cathedral last Sunday for the ordination of the Revd Kevin Conroy, who spent his two years as a deacon in this parish. Kevin was one the students whose dissertation I supervised, and I know how much he appreciated his time in this parish.

It involved commuting through rural Co Wicklow to be in suburban Dublin, and I was often reminded of how living in a city separates us from rural life in so many ways: from the times and seasons, from rural isolation, from the problems created by the closure of village pubs and village post offices, from springtime and harvest.

And no number of successive attendances at ‘Electric Picnic’ is going to count up for one day at ‘The Ploughing.’

I spent a lot of the important growing-up times in my childhood on my grandmother’s farm in West Waterford. Perhaps that alone helps explain why I often need to get out of cities and go for walks, long walks, in the countryside.

But sometimes I worry that in idealising the countryside, we often forget that in cities and suburbs we too have the harvests of our gardens and the harvests of our hearts and of our faith.

The green and gold of the harvest fields in Comberford, Staffordshire, a few weeks ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In recent weeks, I have had long walks in the countryside, in rural Ireland and in rural England. One summer Sunday afternoon, I walked through the fields in a part of rural Staffordshire that I knew intimately.

The harvest was just beginning, and the fields were that beautiful mixture of green and gold that are so much a part of summer on these islands.

So often, clergy feel guilty about doing nothing. We have to be on the go, filling empty time with planning our next sermon, our next study group, our next vestry or committee meeting.

But on that Sunday afternoon, thinking of how Christ emptied himself, I emptied myself, and allowed my mind and my body to wander aimlessly, enjoying God’s blessing of allowing me to be in a place I like being in so much. I had a busy week ahead of me, and in those few hours of almost absent-minded bless, I enjoyed being in God’s company in God’s creation.

Like Saint Paul in our epistle reading this morning, I could call out that afternoon, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ (Philippians 4: 4).

In the few weeks that have passed since then, the countryside has changed in its colours. The blackberries have ripened on the brambles in the lanes, most of the harvest is now complete, and the stubble gives the countryside different shades and balances of green and gold beneath the blue skies and white clouds.

A golden harvest stubble near Tolleshunt Knights in Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Just a month ago, while I was on a one-day retreat in a monastery in the countryside in Essex, I heard a story of a monk from Cyprus who was the gardener in his monastery. He was happy at his work, growing vegetables, tending the vines and orchards, bringing the flowers to bloom, and looking after the soil, in season and out of season.

He enjoyed his work, and never sought to do anything more in the monastery.

One day, the Abbot called him aside and told him he wanted this monk to be ordained a priest.

The monk was perplexed. He was from a simple farming background, he was a brother among the monks, and he had never thought about being ordained a priest.

But Father Abbot, he protested, I do not know how to serve the liturgy.

But the garden is your liturgy, the Abbot insisted. And the garden shall continue to be your liturgy.

Despite this monk’s protests, he was ordained a priest.

He continued to work in the garden. The flowers bloomed and the vegetable grew in such vast quantities that the monks had to give them away freely to the local villagers.

Often, while the other monks were praying the offices or hours in the monastery chapel, Father John was still out on his tractor, looking after the garden, the flowers, the vegetables, the vines and the orchards. They needed constant attention, Father John understood nature, and there he prayed with them.

There are three degrees in Orthodox monasticism:

When the novice becomes a monk, he is clothed in monk’s clothing and receives the tonsure.

Some years later, when the abbot feels the monk has reached an appropriate level of discipline, dedication, and humility, he moves on to the second degree known as the Little Schema.

Many monks remain at this level. But sometimes, monks whose abbots feel they have reached a high level of spiritual excellence reach the final stage, known as the Great Schema.

In his dying days, Father John received the Great Schema from his Abbot. He died a few days later, but his gardens continue to bloom and to blossom, and both he and his generosity are still remembered by the villagers many years later.

The fruit and the flowers, the vine and vegetables, may have been Father John’s liturgy. But the people he blessed with the produce of the fields and the gardens are themselves the harvest of the monastery.

Shortly after hearing this story that day, I found myself face to face with a fresco in one of the monastery chapels depicting the Resurrection scene where Mary Magdalene is in the garden and mistakes the Risen Christ for the gardener.

It seemed to me that day that there is something spiritually beautiful and appropriate about the monk-gardener becoming a priest, and that the Risen Christ might at first sight be confused with the gardener.

It was the Gospel reading at last Sunday’s ordination of priests in Christ Church Cathedral.

How do we best celebrate the harvest do we have to offer today?

There is a harvest lunch here after this service. But like the people who follow Christ to the other side of the lake in our Gospel reading, are we there because we are being fed (see John 6: 26), or because of who Christ is for us?

What harvest do we have to offer as individuals, as a parish, as a diocese, as the Church of Ireland?

What did we mean when we prayed those words in this morning’s Collect that say: ‘Grant that we may use them to your glory, for the relief of those in need’?

I am just back from a meeting in London of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG at which we heard harrowing accounts of the suffering of Syrian refugees who are fleeing places like Aleppo and Damascus and fleeing to Greece, only to find themselves treated with uncivilised inhumanity in holding facilities on the islands, in Athens and on the borders.

When Saint Paul tells us this morning to ‘keep on doing the things we have learned and received and heard and seen,’ then it must be in loving God and loving our neighbour. And it must involve too remembering, as our Old Testament reading reminds us, that we must ‘celebrate … all the bounty that the Lord God given us’ (Deuteronomy 26: 11) in the harvest ‘with the aliens who reside among us.’

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

Collect:

Eternal God,
you crown the year with your goodness
and give us the fruits of the earth in their season:
Grant that we may use them to your glory,
for the relief of those in need
and for our own well-being;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord of the harvest, with joy we have offered thanksgiving for your love in creation
and have shared in the bread and wine of the kingdom.
By your grace plant within us such reverence
for all that you give us
that will make us wise stewards of the good things we enjoy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist in Saint Brigid’s Church, Stillorgan, Co Dublin, on 2 October 2016.

Harvest time in Alvecote near Tamworth (Photograph: Ken Robinson, 2016)

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