Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Revering the earth. A talk for Plough Sunday

This was originally given as a talk for children as well as adults so hence the greater interactions with the congregation than is perhaps usual. You will need a plant pot, a bag of compost and a crocus bulb for everyone present


From Wendell Berry (1969) The Long Legged House, Counterpoint.

"The most exemplary nature is that of topsoil. It is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter in it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. Death is the bridge or the tunnel by which its past enters its future”

Isaiah 28: 23-29

[23] Give ear, and hear my voice; hearken, and hear my speech.

[24] Does he who plows for sowing plow continually? does he continually open and harrow his ground?

[25] When he has leveled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cummin, and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and spelt as the border?

[26] For he is instructed aright; his God teaches him.

[27] Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge, nor is a cart wheel rolled over cummin; but dill is beaten out with a stick, and cummin with a rod.

[28] Does one crush bread grain? No, he does not thresh it for ever; when he drives his cart wheel over it with his horses, he does not crush it.

[29] This also comes from the LORD of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom.

John 12: 24-25

[24] Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

[25] He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

I’ve recently got interested in earth. It’s is amazing stuff and deserves to be thought about more, and treated with more reverence, than we generally do. People used to think that everything came from four elements: air, light, water but also earth and there is still truth in this idea. The Bible has a lot to say about where things come from which we need to take head of. Today we are celebrating Plough Sunday. It used to be celebrated by bringing in a plough to church for a blessing. Ploughs are used to till the earth. I couldn’t find a plough to bring to church today so instead I have brought some earth/compost for you to take away with you. Today I want to think more about earth and in particular what it symbolises.

So can you tell me what earth is made of?

Dead plants and animals; rock (ground up finely); living bacteria, earthworms

And why do we need earth or soil?

To grow things for food

So today I would like to give you a pot of earth.

First would you like to smell it? What does it smell like?

Second would you like to feel it? What does it feel like?

So why have I brought some earth along for you? Well today, as I said, we are celebrating Plough Sunday. It’s one of the Church’s services that are designed to celebrate the farming year which begins with ploughing, continues through sowing then growing and ends with harvesting. We, in the Church, still celebrate Harvest, but generally forget the other things that famers must do to produce food for us to eat.

Back in Victorian times Plough Sunday was observed on the First Sunday after Epiphany, on the 6th January. But its roots lie in a much older tradition associated with the first working day after the twelve days of Christmas, known as ‘Plough Monday’. In days when food was scarce in winter, the observance looked forward to the time of sowing with the promise of a harvest to come

Plough Sunday is celebrated in the middle of winter. But we’ve now past the longest night and we can look forward to spring. With spring comes new growth – in particular the new growth of crops: vegetable and fruit bearing plants, wheat and other plants producing grains for bread, etc. But also in spring there begins to be enough food around so that the farm animals can give birth to their young and we can have milk, eggs and of course meat to eat again.

After the Christmas break the farmers must get back to work again and their work begins with ploughing. Ploughs are one of the first tools than humans invented in the early days of agriculture – to get more food out of the earth than it would do otherwise. Ploughing is not unproblematic – like all human activity – it needs to be done carefully and sparingly otherwise the farmer risks damaging the earth as our reading from Isaiah reminds us. Isaiah, in the reading we just heard, warns us in parable like the ones Jesus told, that we need to respect the earth.

The Bible recognises the importance of earth and compost in many of its stories. Can you think of any stories in the Bible about earth?

The parable of the sower

What was the name of the first human being?


Adam is a Hebrew word. Do you know what for?

Yes ‘earth’ or better still ‘compost;. And I don’t think this is just a coincidence. Names in the bible are always meaningful and God’s choice of Compost as the name of the first human is full of significance.

Furthermore Compost’s first task, his first job, in the Garden of Eden was to till it and keep it, i.e. prepare the ground for the plants in the garden to grow and bring forth fruit. Compost/Adam was, in other words a gardener, and his job was to prepare the soil for the plants but also look after the soil and care for it.

Gardens turn up a lot in the Bible – starting with the Garden of Eden. Then there’s the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus is handed over to the Roman authorities, then there is the Garden where Jesus is laid in a tomb after his crucifixion and where Mary mistakes Jesus for the Gardener after his resurrection and finally the gardens within the new city promised in the Book of Revelation.

So earth and gardens feature in the garden quite a lot but earth, together with sunlight, air and water is required for the growth of seeds. Again there is lots in the Bible about seeds. Can you think of any stories in the Bible about seeds – particularly stories – parables - Jesus told?

The parable of the sower, the mustard seed [Mark 4: 30-32], the wheat and tares, the growing seed [Mark 4: 26-34]

Today I would like just to mention one but very important mini parable Jesus told. He said, according to John, ‘I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many’ [John 12: 24].

Now why does Jesus tell this story? Is a seed really dead? I have got some seeds here. Well they are crocus bulbs – a sort of seed. Do they look dead to you? They are all brown and have got a dry sort of skin. But if you were to break one of them open you would find a bit of green life. I won’t do this because it would kill the bulb.

And similarly with a grain of wheat. If you were to break that open you would find a bit of life inside – a tiny root and shoot – which will become bigger if and when the seed grows into a plant. So is it true that the seed must die if it is to grow into a plant? Well sort of. It is actually the adult plant – and not the seed that must die and become compost for the plant’s life to continue beyond the year.

A lot of people would like to point out that earth, despite appearances it is very much alive, with lots of good bacteria breaking down organic manner to be recycled for the benefit of plants, lots of earthworms, etc. to aerate the soil and contribute to this recycling. But what the bacteria are breaking down, and the worms helping to recycle, is dead stuff, dead plants and animals. This dead material is necessary so that other plants, and the animals that eat those plants, may live. Jesus is using this truth about seeds, the death of plants and earth to emphasise that he, and possibly we, must die so that others might live.

Jesus tells the story of the dying seed in conjunction with one of his sayings which are recorded in all four gospels “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal” according to John [John 12: 25]. Matthew’s version is, ’For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.’ [Matthew 16: 25]. Here he is saying that we must die if we are to find life for ourselves. This is a difficult saying, with lots of different layers of meaning to it. I have explained what I think it means in a previous sermon. But it’s one of Jesus’ most important sayings and one that we need to understand and take on board if we are to understand the good news of the Gospel.

It’s obviously not just about physical death but about letting go of our selfish desires. One of those desires is to dominate creation and this is where we come back to Isaiah and respect for earth. God wants us to have a right relationship, not only with him and our neighbour (loving them as ourselves), but also with creation as a whole. Only if we love creation can we cherish it and look after it properly. And w need to start with that seemingly unlovely substance earth.

I have got some bulbs for you to plant in your pots of earth – but I don’t want you to plant them until you get home. I want you to think about the earth for a bit longer.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Losing yourself

St Matthew's Church,  Oxford, 18th November 2012

Today I want to talk briefly about one of Jesus’ sayings that can be found in all four Gospels. Indeed two of the Gospel writers – Matthew and Luke – repeat it, as if to underline it. Here are four different versions of the saying.

Matthew 16:25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.

Mark 8:35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Luke 17:33 Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.

John 12:25 The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

I want to talk about this saying because in the 10.30 services at the moment we are thinking about change and loss. I said two weeks ago – in my sermon at the 10.30 service on the question: ‘Does God Change?’ - that life inevitably involves change and loss. I talked about the way God changes and loses things. One of the biggest things we can lose is our life. And God himself loses his life on the cross, to regain it at his resurrection. And at some point we must all lose our life – in the sense that we will all must die.

So at a basic level all four versions of this saying contain a comforting truth: that death is not the end – there is life after death. ‘Whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’ says Jesus according to Mark.

But, of course, the saying says more than that because it contrasts trying to hold onto your life, implying that that is not a good thing, with not trying to hold onto it, suggesting that that is a good thing. And this is surely paradoxical. Having life is surely a good thing so why should loosing it also be a good thing.

Note that Luke and John seem to be trying – not entirely successfully - to make the saying more rational, less paradoxical than its version in Matthew and Mark.

The saying is always given, as if a maxim, a matter of fact, rather than say an instruction, and in the context of Jesus explaining what it means to follow him. Note the ‘For’ at the beginning of the Matthew and Mark versions’ ‘FOR whoever wants to save his life will lose it, etc. and in the Luke version I quoted Jesus has just been talking about his coming again and ‘For’ is definitely implied.

In Matthew and Mark, and on another occasion in Luke, the saying is given, in the context of Jesus having just talked about the need for the disciple to ‘take up his cross’ when following him. But whilst the saying is given in that context it is separate from the instruction. In none of the gospels does Jesus doesn’t give any explanation for why it is necessary to lose your life in order to find it.

A way round the paradox is to presuppose that the ‘life’ that to be lost in the first half of the maxim means life here on earth and the life to be gained in the second means life after death, life in heaven. In other words you have to lose A to gain B. But listen again to the version from Matthew

‘For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.’

Here it is not so clear that the life that Jesus is talking about is two different things. He seems to be saying that you have to lose A to gain A. And the crucial words here are ‘for me’. If you lose your life for me you will gain it: whether that life is life here on earth or life in heaven.

Another question about this saying is what does Jesus mean by lose? Does he literally mean you have to die to live? Is the loss that he is speaking of here just physical loss, i.e. death, or is it more than just physical life? Now life is surely not just breathing and having a pulse. Jesus is not just talking about the physical functioning of our lungs and heart or even our brain but our life in all its dimensions, life in all its fullness (cf. John 10: 10).

Our life is our identity, what we think of as our self – what we are good at and what we are not so good at, what we like about our self but also what we are ashamed of. When Jesus talks to Nicodemus about the necessity of being born again as a condition of entry to the kingdom of God he is surely re-phrasing the saying we have been thinking of and emphasising, in another way, the necessity of loosing ourselves – to start a new life. So the saying we are thinking of could be reformulated as:

‘For whoever wants to save his self will lose it, but whoever loses his self for me will find it.’

But our life is not just our identity it is our relationships - with our family and friends. And when we think about life in that sense then the saying becomes even harder surely. So when Jesus says, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14: 26) it’s even harder to accept. But Jesus here is surely not saying that it’s good to hate people, and in particular those who love us, but is connecting with the idea that we must loose ourselves to find ourselves.

There is even a sense which it is necessary to lose God – our conception of God at the very least – in order to find him.

Here is Simone Weil on the subject.

‘He [God] emptied himself of his divinity. We should empty ourselves of the false divinity with which we were born. Once we have understood we are nothing, the object of all our efforts is to become nothing. It is for this we suffer with resignation, it for this that we act, it is for this that we pray. May God grant me to become nothing. In so far as I become nothing, God loves himself though me.’

This idea that giving up this life is a necessary precondition for following Jesus, for finding God is a pervasive theme in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament. Here is just one example of Paul on the subject – from his letter to the Philppians (3. 8) ‘For his [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.’

This is such a big issue that it is difficult to do it justice in a short sermon. It connects up with other big gospel themes such as sacrifice being part and parcel of love. It’s also hard to summarise. Perhaps all that can be done is let the words speak for themselves.