Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Trinity 9
August 5, 2012, 6:34 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday August 5th, at Evensong.

Ps 88; Job 28; Heb 11.17-21

“Surely there is a mine for silver, and for gold which they refine…”

Last Tuesday Marilyn and I visited the island of Sark, part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey. The day started dull and drizzly, and the crossing was choppy. However, soon after we landed and took the tractor-drawn carriage from the harbour to the village, the sun came out and shone on us for the rest of the day. There are no motor vehicles apart from tractors on the island, there are some horse-drawn carriages for tourists, and many people hire bicycles to get around the island. We walked.

Our aim was to have lunch at the Sablonnerie hotel on Little Sark. Although Sark is a single island, it falls into two parts, Great and Little Sark, connected by a very narrow causeway, La Coupee, only wide enough for a single tractor, and with a sheer drop of 260 feet on either side to the sea. It was strengthened in the 1940s by German PoWs, under the guidance of the Royal Engineers. After lunch in the beautiful gardens we had first visited forty years before on our honeymoon, we walked on towards what is called the “Venus Pool”- but finding that to reach it would involve a quite stiff descent (an inevitably stiff ascent to get back), we stopped near some derelict industrial buildings, the remains of the silver mines constructed in the mid-nineteenth century.

The story is that in 1836 a chance find during a rabbit hunt led to the discovery of lead-silver ore, a find that was to become Sark’s Hope Mine. By 1839 ore was being exported, approximately 250 Cornishmen had been imported (doubling the population), a small gauge railway and steam pumps installed and a rich vein of silver exploited. A silver tea and coffee service was on display in St Peter Port to encourage investment and day trips were organised.

Alas, leaner times were soon to come: as the vein narrowed, the ore became poorer and the mining depth increased. One of the main casualties, financially speaking, was the Seigneur of Sark, the feudal ruler of the island under the Crown. Ernest le Pellay mortgaged the fiefdom to a Guernseyman, an ex-British privateer and freelance pirate. When the mine failed (having returned only £4000 for a total investment of £34,000), The Seigneur was bankrupt, the mortgage was foreclosed, and the pirate’s daughter became Seigneur!

“Surely there is a mine for silver, and for gold which they refine…”

There is still a gold and silversmith on Guernsey, but I do not think he does much work with local gold or silver. The beautiful passage in Job, recalling the mining techniques of ancient days, and the human ingenuity that finds ways to penetrate the dark earth and bring to light its wonders, leads up to the question, “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” Ah, says Job, that is a very different thing. With all his cleverness, man is not necessarily wise. True Wisdom dwells only with God, and comes to us only as his gift to those who will listen to him. Seigneur le Pellay, in pursuit of earthly gain, mortgaged all he had, and lost it. He was not truly wise.

The Book of Job contains some of the most beautiful passages in the Old Testament. We do not know exactly when it was written, but the central character was one of the proverbial sages of the ancient East, and though his alleged tomb is shown to tourists in southern Arabia, we have no idea who the historical Job was, or whether he even existed. His role in the book named after him is to be the quintessential “Just Man”, God-fearing, “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil”, as we are told in the very first verse. Unless we understand that, we shall not understand what the author of the book is trying to say.

Job is just, yet Job suffers the most atrocious disasters. His children die, he himself is struck with a loathsome disease. Despite all this, he trusts God: yet he wants to understand why all this has happened to him. His friends- the proverbial “Job’s comforters”- gather round, and the gist of their comfort is that, since God is just, Job himself must be at fault. He must repent and ask pardon. This is where we are in danger of misunderstanding the book. Surely, we say, no real human being is perfect! We all fall short. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Of course that is true. But what the sacred author is grappling with is the sheer disproportion between human guilt and human suffering. The Gospel makes the same point. Just as God sends his rain on good and bad alike, so misfortune strikes seemingly at random. “Those men on whom the tower fell,” our Lord says at one point, “Were they worse sinners than anyone else? No.” The author of Job has created a literary figure, who, by definition, is blameless, yet still he suffers. Why?

In the course of the rather rambling discussion between Job and his friends, we have the lovely passage we have heard. Job, as spokesman for the author, says, in effect, that we simply cannot fathom the ways of God. It is more deeply hidden than silver in the mine, than jewels in the depth of the sea. Later in the book, God himself cross-questions Job: “Were you there when I created the stars in the sky? When I made the world and all the wonders it contains?” The implication is that there are mysteries that we must simply accept, among them the paradox that the almighty and just God does allow the innocent to suffer.

The Letter to the Hebrews, in the second Lesson, speaks of the faith of Abraham, when he surrendered his only and beloved son in obedience to God, and as it were received him back from the dead. Isaac, like Job, was an innocent victim (in the most literal sense: a “victim” meant, originally, an animal offered to God in sacrifice). Abraham, again like Job, had to trust God in the most harrowing and difficult circumstances. Both Job and Abraham are paradigms of the “just man”, the friend of God who is put through the mill, and must trust in the wisdom and love of the Creator.

These Biblical stories are foreshadowings, images if you like, of what was fulfilled in the crucifixion of our Lord. He is the real Job, the innocent sufferer. He is the true Isaac, offered to God in sacrifice. He is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” whose utter trust in his heavenly Father opened the way for us to follow in his footsteps, trusting God come what may.

To trust God is, by implication, to declare that he is trustworthy: we have faith, because God is faithful. He is the Rock on which we stand, the firm foundation on which we build. “All my hope on God is founded; he doth still my trust renew. Me through change and chance he guideth, only good and only true.” Robert Bridges hymn goes on: “God’s great goodness ay endureth, deep his wisdom, passing thought.” The wisdom of God is deep, shown forth in the folly of the Cross, his almighty power is displayed in the helplessness of the crucified. “I am counted as one of them that go down to the pit: and I have been even as a man that hath no strength.” This evening’s Psalm 88 expresses the same theme. “Shall thy wondrous works be known in the dark: and thy righteousness in the land where all things are forgotten?”

“Surely there is a mine for silver, and for gold which they refine…”

I started on Sark, and I will finish there. On another rocky headland there is memorial to a London businessman, Jeremiah Pilcher, who with a few companions was drowned in the seas below when the boat he was in was struck by a sudden squall just as darkness fell, at 5pm on the 19th October, 1868. His family put up the monument, with a most moving inscription. After a brief account of the tragedy, Psalm 42.9 is quoted: “Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.” Then it says: “To the praise of Almighty God, who tempereth his judgement with mercy, and in humble submission to his holy will, this stone of remembrance is erected by the widow and children of the late Jeremiah Giles Pilcher, to mark their tender love for so good and excellent a husband and father and their deep and bitter sorrow for his loss. Also to urge upon others through the grace and mercy of our Saviour, caution and warning: Thy way is in the sea and thy path in the great waters: and thy footsteps are not known.” (Psalm 77.19)

Mrs Pilcher and her children must have been devastated at the loss; and yet they wished to give praise to God who tempers judgement with mercy, and to submit to his mysterious yet holy will. That is the faith of Abraham and Job:  Where is wisdom? “God understands the way to it, and he knows its place… when he gave to the wind its weight, and meted out the waters by measure.”

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