Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Sunday 28th August 2005
Year A, The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Matthew 16:21-28

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;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Those words from Keats' AUTUMN, more than any others in our language, condition our inner sense of Autumn, even more so those who live in cities and have a picture of what happens in the countryside which is a mixture of poetry, COUNTRY LIFE, The SECRET SEVEN and the pictures on factory made pots of yoghurt and packets of butter.

We who live in what is left of the Southern countryside know better. We know that the plough has bitten chalk in the name of the Common Agricultural Policy, that hedges have disappeared, that new roads carve their febrile way through areas of natural beauty. And because we buy parsnips from Western Australia in Summer, apples in Spring and strawberries all year round so that the excitement has gone out of the native crop of late June, we know that we will never feel that same excitement of produce that only appears for a brief period each year. In this world of air transport, food additives and refrigeration, we have lost the physical and psychological shape of the seasons.

What Keats does not mention in his poem is the sleepy village church with its typical easy-going parson, so familiar in Jane Austen, caring for his fruit trees, collecting butterflies and aspiring to dinner invitations from the local Squire, hatching, matching and despatching, careful to offend no-one, the great advocate of the maxim that in polite society and the pub you should steer well clear of religion and politics.

That church has almost gone, along with ancient controversies thrown up by the Reformation and so, even in these country parts, we are having to adjust to a new world which has found us even here in this gentle spot at the foot of the South Downs. As members of the fourth largest economy in the world we cannot pretend that poverty is a catastrophic accident beyond our competence but, much more crucially as we turn towards Autumn and the re-engagement in politics, we cannot separate our religious commitment from our public - note, that, not our private but our public - obligation to affirm what we mean by love of neighbour.

There was a time, you see, when the meaning of today's Gospel was relatively simple. When Jesus told Christians down the ages that they must "Take up their Cross" if they were to follow Him, they had a rough idea of what was required. There was always personal suffering, the high rate of infant mortality, the scourge of epidemic and plague, the ravage of war, the imminence of famine; there was a secure and honourable place for Christian stoicism. But what does it mean today to carry the Cross with Jesus, in an age of increasing life expectancy, mass vaccination, professional armies and social security?

What it means is living in a state of spiritual and moral integrity in this strange, unpatterned universe. I do not want to talk today about spiritual integrity, important though it is, but I do want to talk about moral integrity as we in the Church of Christ on Earth struggle to carry His Cross. For the first time in history we are not being asked how we think other Christians - Catholics, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists or Quakers - fit into God's plan of redemption, we are being asked to consider what our approach should be to our Moslem brothers and sisters who now live amongst us. They might not live amongst us physically in this village except in serving up tasty meals in the Nupur Restaurant; but they work in the London Underground system, care for us in hospital, produce food in processing plants, manage our businesses, play in the Premier League and represent our country in the Olympic Games. What are we to say when we are asked for our opinions on new laws which attempt to curb extremist violence?

I ask the question in this pointed way because we have become too comfortable with the Cross, it is our Christian emblem but it is too easy to take for granted, it is part of our aesthetic landscape rather than our spiritual turmoil. But as we come into Autumn we really do need to think about this. Are we confident enough in our mission to proclaim the Lord Jesus that we will accord not only tolerance but genuine love to those who seek God through the route of Islam? Or are we so lacking in confidence that we think that our Christian faith is under siege from one of the other two Abramic religions? Do we think that carrying the Cross as Jesus commanded us to do is an antagonistic enterprise, the modern equivalent of the Mediaeval Crusades, or do we think that our best hope or earthly survival and spiritual redemption is through unconditional love?

And here I revert to my opening theme. Love in a warm climate, in a safe, enclosed environment has its hazards but it is relatively easy compared with this love that is now required in this multi cultural country which is part of a global economy with a global information flow. Just as the parsnips arrive in August from Perth, just as the strawberries arrive in the middle of Winter from Madeira, so the intemperate outbursts of Christians and people of other faiths explode across the internet and are picked up and magnified in our newspapers and on television. To carry the cross for some may continue to be a matter of good works, but for many of us carrying the Cross will mean exercising self restraint, using the intellectual gifts which God gave us to understand the confusing world in which we now live. to carry the Cross of Jesus may mean being friendly but firm with some of our friends and colleagues whose fear leads them to be intemperate.

When Parliament reassembles we will all be put to the test; and what we must remember when we think about our Christian duty is that our duty does not lie in saying nothing in the face of injustice or intemperateness; to carry the Cross of Jesus is to perform a public, corporate act; through us - and He has nobody else - Jesus must be seen to stand up for the oppressed and the misunderstood, the alienated and the desperate. We must never stop praying publicly and fervently for the bitter and the violent, not to save our own skins but to save their souls.

And, finally, when we think about what Jesus meant in today's Gospel we have to be clear that it was a Gospel that will live as long as God's human creatures inhabit God's created earth. We must carry the Cross in the world in which God has placed us, not hankering for a different time or place; but we must also never forget that the honour of carrying the Cross of Jesus is a real and present honour' our faith must not be a nostalgic tribute to a bygone age but must live in the maelstrom of contemporary life. Jesus did not live in a rural idyll, he lived in an occupied land in an age of globalisation. As he foresaw, before the Gospels were written that world had been shattered. Jesus knows our confusing, he knows our pain; but we must live in the world of today and know His pain too. He died that all people might be free; that is how we must live.

So when we say that the London bombings will not change our way of life we must mean it. We must not resort to draconian new laws but, in a deeper sense, it must change our way of life. We must work harder for tolerance in a multi-cultural world than we had to work for it in a culturally homogenous society. The world we live in now is much closer than the world of Jane Austen to the Jesus of Matthew's gospel.