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A Sermon Reflecting on Seamus Heaney

Date: September 17, 2013

The Vicar’s sermon on Sunday 15th September seemed to strike a note amongst many members of the congregation.  Here is the text in full:

Trinity 16 – 15th September 2013

Luke 15:1-10

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

This poem is the Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking which was published in 1966 as part of his first major collection of poems, Death of a Naturalist.  Heaney, one of the great Irish poets and Nobel Prize winner in 1995, died just over two weeks ago.  It is a very sad loss to the world of literature.   Hearing that he had died brought me back to his poetry.  I went straight to my bookshelf and took out my copy of his Selected Poems.  And Blackberry Picking was the poem I went to first of all.  I studied Heaney for my English Literature ‘A’ Level.  Whereas a reasonable portion of what we studied has been lost in the midst of time, I’ve always retained a bit of a soft spot for Heaney and this poem in particular – it remains one of favourites.  It remains one of my favourites because this was one of the first poems that I really ‘got’.  This poem made me think back to my earlier childhood – precisely what Heaney is doing – picking blackberries with my parents in Lancashire country lanes.  It was never something I particularly enjoyed – I always found picking fruit rather tedious.  But it still chimed with me.  It’s stayed with me for all these years and I now go picking blackberries with my children.

Going into a slight mode of literary criticism, there are some key themes that we might draw out of this poem.  It divides into two very clear sections.  The first is about remembering the freedom of childhood and the act of picking blackberries.  It’s all about newness and excitement.   It’s full of a rich language of ripeness, fecundity and abundance.  Fill all the pots that you can get your hands on before it’s too late.  The second part is the mature adult reflecting on this time.  It’s full of a language of decay.  The immense abundance, richness and innocence of childhood have spilt over into words of decay and destruction.  The language all too well brings us to imagine the feel and look of the rapidly spreading fungus and the putrid stink of fermenting juice.  It’s extremely evocative. If you’ve ever left a bowl of blackberries out on the side for a few days, you’ll know precisely what Heaney means.  The hope, expectation and excitement of those freshly picked berries have all collapsed into a sticky, rotting mess.

What a good metaphor this is.  I wonder how many times that we’ve felt something not entirely dissimilar: the hope and expectations of new relationships and falling in love – only to find that all is not quite as we imagine; the excitement of starting a new job, of turning a new page of moving forward – only to find out that the new job is just more of the same, slightly reconfigured.  Somehow it doesn’t take all that much at all for that rat-grey fungus to begin to grow.  Disappointment, decay and struggle are never far away.  Heaney’s poem serves as a reality check.  We cannot, any of us, live all the time in the innocent world of the freshly-picked can of blackberries.  If we want to keep that taste of autumn, those blackberries need work.  They need washing.  They need freezing.  They need preserving.  Our relationships can’t survive if we constantly hanker after that feeling of first being in love.  Our jobs are so often hard graft, placing demands on us and leading us to doing things we don’t always enjoy.

And this is where faith comes in – this is not just a criticism of a very good poem by an excellent poet.  There are a lot of Christian people out there who, to me at least, seem to think that having faith means living in the state of the freshly-picked pot of blackberries.  This is a faith in which Jesus is nothing other than wonderful and beautiful and perfect and we can share those attributes if we simply believe in him.  This is a faith in which God explicitly answers our prayers and if those prayers aren’t answered then we are not praying hard enough.  This is a faith in which worship should be constantly verging on the ecstatic, a place where pure joy overflows in the supposed encounter with God.  This is a faith in which people often appear to relate to Jesus as if they are in some form of personal relationship with him.  This is a faith in which the rat-grey fungus is allowed no place in our lives – belief in Jesus indemnifies us from its growth.

And this concerns me greatly.  It concerns me because faith has to have a way of allowing us not to be perfect – because we are most definitely not perfect.  If people talk about, if people inhabit a faith in which everything is expected to be wonderful as a consequence of their belief in Jesus, what happens when inevitably there is a times when it is not?  What happens when things go wrong?  Which of course, they so often do.  The obvious answer here is that the fault must lie with us.  This is where faith can spread layer upon layer of extraordinarily destructive guilt upon us.  This is nonsense.  It is an immature faith built on insecure foundations.  Our faith needs to be there in bad times as well as the good.

Faith, then, is not to be found amongst the freshly-picked blackberries.  Faith is more likely to be found in the middle of the bath that is filled with fur.  Where does Jesus find faith?  Not with the scribes and the Pharisees.  Not with the rich and the powerful.  Not at all.  Here is someone who welcomes sinners and eats with them.  Here is someone who seeks out the lost – those whose lives are in the gutter – down to the very last one.  And this is precisely the point.  If things go wrong for us, if life feels bleak, it is not because God has deserted us.  It is not because we haven’t prayed enough.  It is not because we’re not good enough.  It’s simply because we’re human.  Our lives, our emotions, our minds, our bodies are fragile.  We are fragile, we are like those freshly-picked blackberries thrown together into the bath.  But God will be there for us.  God will seek us out when we are lost.  God will feel our pain alongside us.  All we need to do is reach out.