Monday, 28 September 2015

All in the End is Harvest: a farewell sermon

‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost’ says Jesus to his disciples after he has fed the crowd. That seems like an apt theme as my time in Durham draws to an end, indeed, as I venture into the pulpit one last time after forty years of public ministry. ‘Five barley loaves and two fish – but what are they among so many?’ Ordained ministry can feel like that at times. Yet out of such meagre resources is shaped this demonstration of God’s generosity and goodness. The fragments scattered on the hillside are its memory. And because this is God’s doing, nothing must be lost. In one of her poems Edith Sitwell concludes: ‘Nothing is lost, and all in the end is harvest’.

Perhaps in St John, the gathered fragments in the fields are meant to echo harvest-time. We know from the next chapter that this was the season of one of the three great Jewish pilgrim feasts, Sukkot: Booths or Tabernacles. It marks the end of summer, the gathering-in of the harvest, the celebration of the year’s abundance. Tonight there is a big harvest moon, and a total eclipse to go with it. Tomorrow the Jewish community from which I come will keep the first day of their harvest festival and today they are preparing for it. We heard the Torah’s instructions in the first reading. The people are to make booths out of branches of willow and palm and live in them out in the open for a week. Here, exposed to the elements, to the creation, to one another and to themselves, they are to ‘rejoice before the Lord your God’.

There is a rich symbolism here: touching the earth and living close to the soil that has yielded this harvest; putting aside the securities human beings surround themselves with and learning a deeper dependence on God; and as the text says, reliving the memory of the past ‘so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt’. For the Hebrews had themselves been a pilgrim people, a migrant community looking for a home. Therefore, as so many passages in the Torah tell us, Israel must never forget the homeless, the migrants, the displaced, to whom they must be as compassionate and merciful as God himself.

I see this theme of going out, leaving our securities behind as a metaphor of saying farewell today. I don’t simply mean leaving this Cathedral where we have been so happy for a dozen years. I am also recalling the places that have shaped these forty years of ministry: St Andrew’s Headington in Oxford where I was ordained deacon, and Balliol College where I was ordained priest, Sarum College and the Cathedral at Salisbury, the parish of Alnwick, Coventry Cathedral, Sheffield Cathedral and Durham. These communities have welcomed us, made us feel at home, offered friendship and forgiveness, cared for us, taught me everything I know about the art and the craft of ordained ministry. They have yielded a harvest for which I want to give thanks. In the passion Jesus says: ‘of those whom you have given me I have lost not one’. All these places have been given us to treasure and keep safe in the memory. ‘Gather the fragments so that nothing is lost.’

The themes of harvest, this time of Booths, can help us see what life should mean for us as people of faith. Thankfulness to God because to praise Almighty God, to practise gratitude, eucharistia, is the first principle of religion and the foundation of all it means to be human. Dependence on God because it is as we turn back to him and acknowledge his reign over us that we understand how he made us for himself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in him. Living close to the earth because reverence for life, treating the world with courtesy and charity is to discover our true place in God’s creation. Remembering where we came from because the story of the great acts of God is the foundation of all Christian life, mission and the pursuit of truth and justice. And solidarity with the poor and needy such as the desperate and voiceless, the refugees and asylum-seekers, because as the sanctuary knocker on the Cathedral door announces, God’s household is a place of refuge, safety and care.

For twelve years, St Cuthbert has been a travelling companion. I was installed as dean on his day in 2003. I have often pondered that mighty stone slab in the shrine that has his name etched into it and been moved. The letters are rough and crude, in contrast to the finely wrought architecture of this cathedral where he would be amazed to find himself lying more than thirteen centuries later. When you are dean a cathedral that is loved all over the world, it could go to your head. You could become grand, think of yourself as Someone, whereas Jesus teaches us that his kingdom is for the nobodies of this world, the poor in spirit, the mourners and the meek, all who know their brokenness, their frailty, their need for mercy.

Cuthbert has recalled me to the essential simplicity of Christian ministry, helped me get my values back into perspective. Thankfulness, dependence on God, living close to the earth, remembering where we come from, solidarity with the poor: these were the qualities that were remembered in him. Perhaps the memory of the saints here in North East England is a particular gift to us who seek holiness and look for models to inspire us on the path of discipleship, for Cuthbert was only one of many in his fierce love of God and burning desire to serve the human family. Aidan, Oswald, Hild, Bede and many others: you find these visionary yet humane qualities in them all. We are all called to emulate them, live not out of the risk-free securities we crave but out on the dangerous edge of things where trust and faith in God are everything, as if indeed we were going out into the open air to live a perpetual feast of Booths.  

This is how Jesus himself was and is for us. In his cross and resurrection the broken pieces of our lives are gathered up. ‘Nothing is lost and all in the end is harvest.’ In these fragments, like the bread scattered on the hillside are the abiding traces of God’s generosity in which the seeds of promised glory are enfolded. I mean nothing less than the transformation we call the kingdom of God whose coming we long for, his great project of love that is always moving out to all creation. I have tried for 40 years to give an answer for the hope that is within us, our reason for being alive. In such ways, for all their flaws and brokenness, we bear witness to the story that is both God’s and ours: the tender mercy out of which God reaches out to the world in Christ, finds us and gathers us in as the harvest of his love.

So trusting in that hope, we cast our bread upon the waters and wait to see what God will do. We cannot know what lies ahead for us, what fragments will be for us or others to gather up. But our hope in God is enough to sustain us in the days that are to come. ‘All in the end is harvest’. ‘Gather the fragments, so that nothing is lost.’  

Durham Cathedral, 27 September 2015
(Leviticus 23.39-end, John 6.1-15)

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