Sunday 27th October 2013
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Genesis 23
Psalm 90
John 11:17-44

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core

Those are the first lines of Keats' poem on Autumn which permeates our culture deeply for all it is little read these days. Ours is the Autumn of the harvest and the store, of contentment at a job well done, of settling to the Winter nights in the full knowledge that the food will not run out. And literary critics will point out the comfort we take at the references to thatched cottages, mossy orchard trees and the general air of plump rusticity; it might be a bygone, almost an innocent, age, but it is deeply embedded within us nonetheless. Autumn carries with it not only the sense of things well done and put in order but of gentle satisfaction. But can we say the same about our own Autumns? Are we spending the last years of life content with what we have stored?

I have been struck this month, even more than usual, as we move towards the twin Feast Days of All Saints and All Souls, by the numbers of people I have heard about who are suffering from terminal cancer: how are their Autumns? There is no point whatsoever - it's a kind of scientific cruelty - to say to those suffering from cancer that a century ago they wouldn't have lived long enough to suffer it; but it should cause us to ask how the endurance of pain and deteriorating functionality affect the view we take of our lives as a whole.

The passages taken from scripture are simple enough in their messages but not to be dismissed for all that. Chapter 23 of Genesis shows Abraham purchasing a burial ground so that all is done properly for his family and their descendants. Abraham has been a wanderer all his life and so he wants a final, fixed resting place where his family can recognise their roots and their inheritance, and it is that idea which prompted me to think of Keats. To what extent do we think of ourselves as part of an on-going human narrative? What have we done that needs to be handed on? Is there any room left for family wisdom or have we become so naively trusting of television documentaries that we think that pseudo-science is our best guide to worth?

To ask these questions is not to disregard the quite proper differences between generations: teenagers have always been troublesome; parents have never reared their children as their parents would advise; grandparents, spared of the daily anxiety of child rearing, are a comfort to their children and blessedly lenient to their grandchildren. These are the differences that we all recognise in the way we grow older but these patterns should reassure rather than worry; they tell us about who we are, and they point towards the kind of Autumn we would want for ourselves.

And there is a kind of irony in the image of Autumn which Keats summons, all brimming and bursting because, when Keats was writing, little was got without hard physical labour and, for all the nostalgia for the thatched cottage, we like our central heating and our telly.

What I am moving towards saying is that we have to see our Autumns in the light of where we are: we live in a complex world which we have deeply tarnished; but that is not to demean who we are and what we have done. If we are not careful, the terrible, poisonous trend towards pessimism and cynicism will lure us into under-valuing what we have done and who we are. I never cease to be amazed at what we learn about people at their funerals, as if their achievements and their wisdom should be kept secret, except from close family, until after their death.

Some older people begin to empty their houses, giving things away; and we might do the same thing spiritually, giving, not hectoring nor complaining, but just giving. It's terribly hard to be selfless without a little moralising sting in the tail, but just being selfless for its own sake is enough. To leave behind a record of quiet compassion and affirmation is a fitting testimony for God's creatures. We have a lot to pass on but it is in what we are, not what we say. Coming from a writer, that might sound somewhat hypocritical but, just as we were taught always to turn off the television when visitors arrived, so no amount of virtuous authorship will equal a kindly act.

And so, let the fruits speak for themselves. Keats wasn't writing an agricultural treatise; he wasn't telling the farmers how to farm; he simply rejoiced in what had been produced.

Which brings me to our Gospel reading where Jesus says he is the Resurrection and the Life. Again, in the context of suffering terrible, mortal illness, it is difficult for many to take in the full meaning of these words. I regret to say that many Christians have lost any sense of why we are here, for they have lost any belief in earthly bodies as simply shadows of what our eternal bodies will be. I often wonder whether people struggling with terrible illness retain any sense of this life as a precursor. Yes, there is that wonderful paradox of the devout Christian, exemplified in Saint Paul, who wanted to die; but not yet. Even those who affirm the resurrection of the body can't help, because of our genetic make-up, hanging on as long as we can.

And behind what Jesus said there is a truth from the Psalms which prompted me to choose Psalm 90, my favourite Psalm and slated for my own funeral. Here, to remind us, are just the first few lines:

Lord, thou hast been our refuge:
From one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made:
Thou art God from everlasting, and world without end.

We are part of a wondrous continuity within the compass of the Creator and although our human lives may wither like grass, there is limitlessly more to our createdness than that.

At the conclusion of his poem Keats chides us not to worry about the Spring but to revel in the Autumn for what it is. That is good advice, in terms of earthly conduct at least, for we are sadly dissatisfied with the present moment; but we should be sustained by our belief that, when we have passed on all our life's fruit in the Autumn of our years, whether we are blessed with a calm decline or suffer painful illness, that Spring awaits us.