Sunday, January 11, 2009

Plough Sunday

As Owain, my rector, said this morning I managed to "bring the house down" with my sermon - mostly in the sense that part of the roof fell off during the service! It did make it all rather exciting.

I also had positive comments about my sermon which people enjoyed. The basic idea was to give each person a craft pipe-cleaner and focus on the bible passage of turning swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. During the first part of the sermon they crafted something that symbolised farming (even with the young farmers in we managed a collection of models that would offend no-one's grandma!) and then I asked them to turn that model into something that symbolised them, their skills, talents, their future. So we had pigs cows, rakes and spades turning into laptops, basketballs, icecream tubs and telephones!

Here's the text of the sermon - I didn't stick to it entirely and I elaborated in places too but this is MOSTLY what people got:

I've just recently come back from a conference of youth ministers from around the world and we shared a lot about what we do in our own countries. I told them I was preaching this Sunday on Plough Sunday and their reaction was worth seeing! The Australians, South Africans, Norwegians and Americans all seemed amused or bemused at the whole idea. To be honest when Iw as asked to preach this morning I felt a little daunted as I don't know much at all about farming except that which I learnt from some farmers like Mr Bennet here at the Three Counties Show or on a TV programme I saw last night about people trying to use Victorian farming equipment.

To help you get an idea of how something can feel a little strange I’ve given you each a pipe-cleaner. Yours to fiddle with during the sermon but you will need it later. If you like you can form it into the shape of a plough or something else related to farming.

Of course the importance of agricultural life was not something strange to the people we hear about in the Bible. Familiar parable of the sower which we heard this morning and so many other Biblical references. God wants humanity to be involved with the land. As we heard in our first reading from Genesis

Now ploughing isn’t something I had particularly paid attention to in the Bible and was surprised just how many I found particularly in the Old Testament which in some ways is the part of the Bible when the ploughing took place, when the earth was prepared for Jesus’ coming:

Elijah’s call of Elisha - he’s ploughing when Elijah comes to wrap his cloak around him and calls him to follow.

Hosea advocates ploughing as something worthy of doing
“Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the LORD, until he comes and showers righteousness on you.”
Hosea 10:12
There’s even some simple yet I’m sure useful advice in Deuteronomy
“Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.” Deuteronomy 22:10
When psalmists want to demonstrate someone is toiling very hard, they mention ploughing:
Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long.
Psalm 129:3

Ploughing is also a symbol therefore of making an effort:
The books of Job and Proverbs warn against laziness and malice:
As I have observed, those who plough evil and those who sow trouble reap it.
Job 4:8
A sluggard does not plow in season; so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing.
Proverbs 20:4
The apostle Paul uses ploughing as part of a description of there being different roles for people in life:

“Surely he says this for us, doesn't he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.”
1 Corinthians 9:10

Now I can’t pretend that I know a great deal about farming. I’ve not grown up here. Real solid ploughs haven’t featured much in my experience. However, when I was at university, I studied the Life of Richard of Chichester (born near here in Droitwich) and he began life ploughing his parents' farm before training to be first a lawyer and later a priest and bishop in which role he was renowned for his particular care for his people, visiting them on foot and ensuring everyone received services from clergy for free.

Richard is a real example of someone whose early beginnings were so rooted and grounded in the land that they later influenced the way he continued his life. Devoting regular time to the care of his people as he gave care to the land of his yeoman father’s farm. So if you've started life in agriculture, be warned - you could end up being a bishop!

Many clergy and ministers today still have the plough at the heart of their ministry. Even if they don’t know it. Because there is a verse in the bible, which features often in the daily morning office of the church, which clergy the world over say every day.

It’s a passage which features not just in one book of the bible but in three; a passage I want us to focus on.
The books of Isaiah, Micah and Joel all use this marvellous phrase which honours farming and ploughing as a good and honourable occupation in contrast with the negative course of action in violence.

It was probably first used by the prophet Isaiah writing during the Israelites exile in Babylon as a statement of looking towards a hopeful future with God as Lord:
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Isaiah 2:4

This passage is repeated again in the book of Micah, again at a time when people hoped for a better future
Micah 4:3
He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
It holds ploughing up as a symbol of a community which is faithful and has hope. A community which works at preparing the ground in expectation of the future.

Then the third time this idea appears, the prophet Joel takes up the same words but he turns it around instead of a prediction of the future he turns it into a command an exhortation to the people to turn from their passive nature to aggresion
Joel 3:10
Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say, "I am strong!"

This idea of beating swords into ploughshares, of putting away war and violence and turning to engaging with God’s creation is a fantastic image for me.

Unfortunately I also know that many people involved in the countryside are no longer able to use their ploughshares (or their modern equivalent). It’s not war that drives you to beat your ploughshares into something new as in the Book of Joel but economic viability. For some of you, the idea of fighting against modern economics, like the NFU does like in November last year when it attacked the Supermarkets for their hard nosed tactics

NFU president Peter Kendall accused the big supermarkets of "beating up" their suppliers (Guardian 14th November 2008)
Of course nowadays we don’t turn our ploughshares into swords to fight the big supermarkets. (Much as we sometimes might feel angry enough to do so) People from the rural communities sometimes, like Richard of Chichester, have to turn their skills and abilities away from the farm towards the courts, the board room or parliament. Others might have to turn away completely from agriculture and take up other paths.

So what are you beating your plough share into?

I’d like you now to take your pipe-cleaner and shape it into something that symbolises something you’re very good at, or the career path you want to follow or something about your future.

If you are still working with the land it might be you’re doing so in a different way. How have things changed? How might they change in the future?

While you do that I want to take all that ploughing we have done through the Old Testament and find ourselves with the ground prepared for the New Testament. For Jesus. He too uses these images from farming often:

Firstly he urges people to consider that they are precious to God not because of anything they do but because they are part of his Creation
Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Luke 12:24
And he uses the specific reference to the plough, much like in the old testament as something which symbolises faithful working
Jesus encourages people to plough and not look back.
"No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God." Luke 9.62
Jesus is urging those who are willing to hear that they need to find their path and to follow it as faithfully as someone endeavouring to push a plough in a straight line to get a straight furrow.
Personally I find it hard to keep a straight furrow in my work.
I only manage it by focussing on God
How is it for you I wonder?

What work is it that you’re doing for your living?
What work is it that you’re doing for your community and the world?
What work is it that you’re doing for God?

The apostle Paul takes this up as we heard before:
“when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.”
1 Corinthians 9:10
When we work for our livings and for God we do so as part of a great community. We plough the land for those who will come after us in this community and in this world.

What kind of world are you ploughing?

A prayer of Richard of Chichester
Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which you have given us,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.

UPDATE: An honourable mention from my rural colleague - he even has pictures!

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