They may have been celebrating the 950th anniversary of the defeat of the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, but we at Ripon Cathedral were celebrating the blessings of living in the Borough of Harrogate in the 21st century.
We were delighted that the Mayor of the Borough, Councillor Nick Brown, had asked if the Cathedral would be willing to hold the annual civic service. It was a privilege to do so.
The mayor, councillors, and guests joined an already large Cathedral congregation for the otherwise usual 10.30am Sung Eucharist.
This resulted in a packed Cathedral celebrating the life of the whole borough, but also being encouraged to remember those amongst us for whom life is more challenging.
The preacher was the one-time Bishop of Cyprus and Gulf, the Right Reverend Clive Handford. Now retired, Bishop Clive is a good friend of the Cathedral and also, for this year, the Chaplain to the Mayor. He was kind enough to point out that the choice of what might have been regarded as a challenging Bible reading for this particular civic occasion did not result from the Dean’s sense of humour. The set reading was being used in churches across the country and around the world.
Jesus told a story about an imagined rich man, Dives, who dressed in purple and fine linen and ate sumptuously every day. He didn’t seem to notice that at his gate sat a poor man who longed for the crumbs from his table.
The poor man, Lazarus, was covered in sores which dogs would lick. The contrast between the two men could not have been greater. That remained the same after they had both died, but the tables were turned.
Lazarus now enjoyed a life of peace and plenty in heaven while Dives found himself in torment in hell. He wanted a messenger to be sent to warn his brothers but was told that they were unlikely to listen, even if someone should rise from the dead. That should make us pause to think!
The message is clear: the sin of the rich man was to fail to notice the plight of the poor man. And the message is relevant not only for our mayor, councillors and civic authorities, but for all of us who are richly blessed.
It is difficult, surely, for most of us to think of life in this Borough without counting our blessings.
That was brought home to me again when, with my family on a day off, I visited the Masham Sheep Fair.
Like many fairs in the area, it rightly celebrates the skills of those involved in farming and the economy in this glorious part of the world. This included spinning and knitting. I noticed on the back of the parish church’s flower festival programme a knitting pattern for spiral socks.
These, it claimed, are ideal for “using up wool and make good gumboot or bed socks”.
Well, there is a thought – I should start thinking about Christmas presents!
It was good to see the Church playing its full part in the fair. Hopefully people already know that the Church rejoices in the human skills and dedication that sustain the rural economy. It also seeks to remind people that, like life itself, it is all a gift from God for which gratitude is appropriate.
That is the Message of Harvest Festival, being kept at this time of year in country, sub-urban and town parishes alike.
“All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above,” we shall be singing, “then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his love.”
This is a statement of truth as many of us believe it; a way of looking at the world that can enrich our lives and communities.
Dives, the rich man, not only failed to notice the poverty of Lazarus, he possibly also failed to recognise how fortunate he himself was.
Recognising the latter would have helped him to notice the former, and then to respond with compassion.
At the Cathedral this weekend we are holding our Harvest Thanksgiving. We will be doing our best to encourage each other and the wider community to count God’s blessings and show gratitude by responding to the needs of others. There will be a great service for people of all ages on Sunday morning at 10.30am – people are invited to bring gifts of harvest produce that we shall pass on to the local Salvation Army Food Bank.
Perhaps we could think that hunger should not be a reality in the fortunate Borough of Harrogate in the 21st century. Perhaps Jesus would have us campaign against such apparent injustice – we can’t ignore that.
But his story of Dives and Lazarus also suggests that when we see suffering in our midst, we should respond by counting our own blessings and showing compassion to those in need.