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.

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