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Saint Ninian and Harvest Thanksgiving Sermon Perth Cathedral 2021

You might think that the double celebration of Harvest and St Ninian a bit strange – one celebrating and giving thanks for produce the earth offers, to sustain life, and the other, a man we barely know anything about with any certainty, but in whose name our cathedral and many churches in Scotland and beyond, are dedicated to God.

Many of you will remember that I’ve been involved over the years with a community known as Camphill. This is a worldwide community now, that embraces people with things like Autism, Downs Syndrome and other differences.

The Camphill movement, was founded in Scotland in 1939 by an Austrian Doctor, Karl König, along with a group of helpers. 

They were all refugees, who had escaped Austria, following the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany, and ended up in Aberdeen.  

König had significant experience in working with children with a learning disability, within a residential setting. These were the children targeted by the Nazi’s who wanted to experiment on them. 

The radical difference of this new venture in Scotland, was the emphasis on community, both in a social and in a spiritual sense. 

König had been inspired by something called anthroposophy, which is a spiritual philosophy, mainly developed by Rudolf Steiner. 

Anthroposophy then,  is a human-oriented Christian philosophy. The name is based on two Greek words which mean ‘wisdom of the human being’ and reflects and speaks to the basic questions of humanity and nature. 

König always said that he was a political refugee, outcast from his homeland of Austria, and said that children and adults with learning difficulties, were really social refugees, from their own communities, where they were not valued as human beings, with a difference.

A big part of this philosophy included how we approach nature, the natural world around us, and how we go about obtaining the sustenance we need from it. It was given the name biodynamics.Biodynamics is an holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food, and nutrition. It is about reverence for the land and for water, for food, animals, and each other.  

It goes beyond sustainability – it’s sometimes given the name regenerative agriculture. This type of farming uses no chemical fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides. Animals are treated with compassion and respect and given much freedom to lead happier lives.

The food produced and grown this way, is deeply nourishing and delicious. I can testify to that. They don’t believe in deep ploughing, as they say this destroys so much goodness in the soil and insect life,  but plant seeds by scarifying, laying seed on the top of the soil.

Camphill is mainly estate based, or farm based, and they make and sell all sorts of products. Yes, the yields are slightly lower, but they are not commercially based. They grow what they need to sustain their own lives and do share their excess with whomever. 

My point in telling you all this, is that recently, farmers all around us, are being encouraged to work in much the same way. 

It thrills me that biodynamic farming has been recognised, as a great way forward, and one of my neighbours, with a sizeable farm, has adopted this method. 

They have started to sew crops, not by ploughing, but by scratching the surface, scarifying and rolling seed on the top. 

Science has revealed that the real goodness in the earth, is in the top two or three inches of soil, and lo and behold, the yields are not that different, with no chemicals, no artificial fertilisers used at all, causing huge financial saving. Farmers like that!

My neighbours also have a good head of cattle, but no longer shut them in sheds for the winter, but have open byres, where the cattle can decide when to come in and go out.

And so, to St Ninian. In an age when we have twenty-four hour news, the Internet and digital broadcasting, and when almost everyone can read and write, it seems surprising that we know so little about Saint Ninian. 

But that’s the truth: he lived so long ago, when recording history wasn’t seen as so important. 

But we do know, that the person and teachings of Jesus, so touched Ninian, that the influence of his life became a beacon of light, that has shone through dark and turbulent centuries, a light constantly calling people like us, to follow the Lord. 

Today we have come to worship Jesus in a place, this cathedral, made holy, in a way, by Ninian.

We know that St Ninian must have been born into some form of wealth, as he was educated, not only here, but also in Rome. He also travelled huge distances, which would have needed much funding and support.

From the stories, the legends, from writers of later history and fiction, we find snippets of what Ninian’s life, was presumably like.

We know that he settled on an area called Galloway, what we know as Whithorn,  where he had a base and built a church which was known as candida casa, or white house. 

From this base he travelled with his companions to the areas we know as Ayrshire, the Lothians, the Borders, Nithsdale (I think that’s Kirkcudbrightshire), Annandale and beyond. It seems he travelled to Inverness and even somehow to Shetland. 

He seems not to have built churches, but to have built communities, and marked out sacred areas to be kept for worship and the sharing of sacraments.

The venerable Bede, writing in the 8th-century, wrote that St Ninian was believed to have begun his mission to the southern Picts in 397, making him the earliest known missionary and apostle to the Scots. 

And in his time, there would have been much distrust amongst the Scots. Much paganism. They were famous for fighting each other, so St Ninian must have had something special about him, that kept him safe. 

Some have said that Ninian was most concerned for the salvation of all people, no matter what their background, and concerned for their welfare, and openly showed his concrete concern for every person. He also shared God’s plan of salvation, which embraced all of humanity and all creation.

I like the tales that St Ninian blessed people’s cows and domestic animals. Why not? They would have been very important to the people of his time.  

And I think that, the connection between biodynamic farming practices and St Ninian, is a shared view of power. 

There can be no doubt, even though unintentionally,  that we have abused the power we have over nature, by the trouble we are finding ourselves in now. Think of the many species we’ve managed to eradicate in the last 100 years. 

Conventional methods of farming have done so much damage to nature. We’ve tried to bend nature to our will, to  produce, produce , produce, mainly for profit. And look at the consequences we’re living with today?

I think the same is true for those who are born or made differently from the majority, those we label as handicapped. 

Removing people like this from our society, was wrong. We have used our power over these people to disappear them from view, made them out to be worthless, when actually, given the right conditions, so many have so much to offer. 

If you have you ever experienced the love and trust and care of someone for example, with Downs Syndrome, you’ll realise, we have much to learn. 

And St Ninian’s way seems not to have tried to coerce, or to manipulate or to frighten people into faith, but slowly to have built up supportive Christian communities, blessing and loving and caring and including. 

That’s not to say that he wasn’t a tough old nut, because he must have been, to do what he did.

But at the end of the day, it’s not the power over that get results, but the creative power between, that allows us and our world to flourish. 

So, as we give thanks for our great Saint Ninian and for the earth that sustains all life, we are reminded that to truly love God, means not only loving each other in all our diversity and differences, but also loving nature, and a world that has evolved into a life sustaining planet, created for us, by God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.