Sermon on Plough Sunday: Sunday 20th January 2019

The Revd Canon Prof John Rodwell, Hon Associate Priest. Lancaster Priory

Early of a morning, before he clocked on for a day shift at the local colliery, our next-door neighbour Reg could be seen watering his sweet peas with the contents of the previous night’s chamber pot – suitably diluted.  Taking against the people who bought our house when we moved away, Reg arranged for the delivery of half a ton of fresh horse manure, dumped in the street, to coincide with the arrival of the removal van and all their furniture.  Hot on soil fertility was Reg, but better at talking to parsnips than to people.

As Christians concerned for the care of Creation, which we try to pursue here at the Priory through our commitment to the EcoChurch scheme, we could take a lesson or two from Reg – lessons about looking after the earth, recycling our organic waste, about the sustainability of how we grow things.  And these lessons apply not just to the ground we might have for ourselves as keen gardeners or allotment holders, but to the farmland far and wide on which our food is cultivated.  Soil is dirty, it sticks to our shoes, it muckies our hands, but it is the essential fabric in which crops are rooted, through which they get their nourishment, on which they grow to yield a harvest. Soil also sustains that tapestry of habitats wherein the richness of wildlife prowls and roosts.

And soil is a gift from God, no less than the cereals and the vegetables we eat from it; the grass on which animals graze; the trees which give us timber that are rooted there; the flowers which delight us in gardens and countryside.  All these creatures need soil and they need our good care of it.  Like all God’s gifts, we have to think on it, remember it, cherish it, so that like the people of whom Isaiah speaks in this morning’s Old Testament lesson (Isa 28, 23-26), we are well instructed about our care of the soil, for it is God who teaches us.

In fact, for ‘soil’, we should say ‘soils’ for there is a rich tapestry of soils gifted from God, reflective of the diversity of the rocks that lie beneath, from which they form.  Each of these soils is worthy of our wonder – a frame of minerals and humus, among which lives a zoo of animals and a wealth of microbes, many millions in a trowel full of soil, working away, breaking things down, turning things over, releasing a new generation of nutrients. Of more fertile soils, deep and rich, kept moist by soft weather, we have an abundance in our country, and it is these which get ploughed each year for the sowing of the crops we eat, ploughed springtime and autumn, which work we now commend to God for his blessing on this Plough Sunday.  Likewise in our garden and allotment plots, we turn the soil, breaking clods down, letting in air, making a good tilth for the annual miracle of growth. Here, too, today, we ask for his blessing on our tools and our work.

What can we show God by way of our care of this precious earth, in gratitude for his generosity? Away from our vegetable plots where the scale is small, and we dig as much for pleasure as for nourishment, farming has become industrialised, driven by our demand, mine and yours, for more and cheaper food and by the greed of corporations able and willing to meet this need and make money at the expense of God’s earth. It’s a fact that, in Britain, many soils are ramshackled by being worked too hard, by too much chemical fertiliser used to stimulate growth, too much compaction by heavy ploughs and harvesters. In wet weather, rain runs off instead of trickling in, causing floods. In dry weather, wind blows the dusty soil away. All this damage is exacerbated by climate change.

And, if we raise our eyes to look further afield, from which places many of our crops now come and where people plough to satisfy our needs, we see soils damaged and eroding, destroyed by flood and drought, washed away where forests have been stripped for the rearing of palm oil and beef. In such situations, too, native cultures, which have ploughed their own land in their own way, in harmony with the earth for generations, are dislodged from their rightful home for our satisfaction.  All this is a cause for repentance. Soils cannot speak out to protest at the harm that is done to them. The earth has no voice of its own to call for mercy. That task is ours and the responsibility of changing how things might be. God will not bless what we do not ourselves try to put right.

Two things are clear from Scripture.  First, that it is God’s desire that this world of ours which we inhabit and so readily and thoughtlessly damage, should be ‘a common home’ as Pope Francis has put it.  That is what God wills, that the world should be a common home for all that he has made, for us, our fellow creatures and the fabric of earth, sky, soils and weather which we together share.  We are all of us interdependent, we on Creation for our sustenance and delight; it on us for its well-being, for its survival.  On this recognition of mutuality, of belonging together, our shared future depends.  Again this year, we bless the plough and turn the soil and behold the ground of our being. And on this rich earth of God’s goodness, living in amity, we may grow.

So you have some seeds to take and sow yourselves – an egg box with some sprinkling of soil or compost will do, a little water to moisten  – some seeds to sow and to witness something seemingly dry, looking dead, spring to life.  Shortly, we will bless them, that they may be to us a sign of the new life he offers to us over and again. He is a God who, seemingly dead, springs to life in Jesus Christ, a God who from the smallest of seeds can grow a kingdom, as it says in this morning’s Gospel (Matthew 13, 24-32). Sow the seeds, see them grow and taste how good the Lord is.

The harvest must be shared, that is the second lesson from Scripture. All people deserve a taste of the richness of God’s creation, to have food sufficient to survive and grow, deserve a place on his earth, feet on their share of his soil, where they may look around in freedom, without fear, feeling welcome and so able to delight in the company of their fellow creatures. ‘Whoever ploughs …’,  it says in this morning’s Epistle (I Cor 9, 6-14), ‘Whoever ploughs, should plough in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop’. The seed you have to sow is mustard seed and Mustard Seed is the activity here in the Priory where we share the gifts of God’s creation each week in a meal for those who have at the moment no bit of God’s earth to call, for good, their own.  We make a common home with them for a while, a common home with them and with the gifts of Creation in the food we serve, a harvest from the earth, from the furrows of God’s love.