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The Good Earth

By gdvallance - Posted on 05 September 2009

9 August 2009 - 10:00am
Rev. Elaine Bardwell


We continue our summer series ‘The four Elements’ with a second week on the Earth or Land. Last week we thought about the land of our birth and the land we live in both what we like and appreciate and also how we have spoilt it and what might be done about it.
Today I want to take up a thread we started last week: the crops produced by the earth and the earth itself.
So let’s get down and dirty! As all good produce farmers know the secret of success in growing food is to look after the soil. Healthy soil produces healthy plants. Healthy plants are far less likely to succumb to pests or diseases even without any human intervention. This is why before too long anyone having a go at growing even just a few carrots or tomatoes start to get lured into the mysterious territory of compost and not much further down the line it’s all about crop rotation, green manures and comfrey mixture. What all this boils down to though is taking good care of the soil, ensuring it is productive so that it has the best chance of doing its thing – germinating and growing stuff. Unfortunately soil can’t tell the difference between the seeds I put in and want it to grow and weeds but then again lots of weeds means fertility – soil without any growth is ominous – it is desert: on the increase in some parts of the world and this is a serious problem. It is not caused purely by too much sun and decreasing rainfall. Deserts are also caused by over farming the land: taking too much out and not putting enough back in.
So, the Kenneth Williams character in ‘Around the Horne’ was in fact right:
            The answer lies in the soil
What is true at this mundane, practical horticultural level is true at deeper more metaphorical levels.
According to Genesis, when God created humanity, Adam and Eve were set in a garden called Eden. Our first element, the essential one from which all life flows, namely WATER, was provided by the 4 rivers to make the land, our second element, fruitful. According to Professor Tim Gorringe at the Food and Faith conference in Oxford last year, the name Adam can mean ‘Compost’. Well we can check this out with Alison Salvesen but I rather like the idea – Adam is made out of the earth and then returns to it, feeding the earth or soil. Adam, Humanity is an integral part of the biological cycle. So whatever the vocation God then gives Adam and Eve as stewards of Creation is about it is not God placing extra terrestrial supernatural beings into the Garden. Adam and Eve, we are of the soil, made of soil, going back to the soil. Compost! If plants are to thrive, if the land is to be fruitful it must be looked after – and we can’t sit back and pretend it’s nothing to do with us. Here’s a thought then: can we raise clean hands before God if there’s no dirt under our finger nails?
Well before we get embroiled in that one a bit more Biblical reflection. Just as we largely ignore the ground under our feet most of the time, even covering it up with paving, concrete, wall to wall buildings and the like,, so we also fail to notice the many references to the land and its produce found throughout the Scriptures. Well yes we trot some favourite passages out at Harvest time but have we really noticed the myriads of occasions when produce and land come up in our reading of Scripture?
Many happy hours can be spent tracing these images through the Bible. And from Eden onwards it is soon clear that land and produce are seen as God’s blessing on humankind. For example, the expression ‘corn, wine and oil’ became a concise way of referring to God’s generosity and a symbol for a peaceful and fulfilled existence which is lived as God intends. With this image goes not just a fat belly and a stupor created by overindulgence in the wine department but also a sense of peace and justice.
In today’s first reading the prophet Amos, who is generally pretty pessimistic in his outlook, comes up with a promise of God’s blessing and salvation couched in agricultural terms. Notice the rather fine references to the mountains dripping sweet wine and the promise ‘they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. And what is more God says ‘I will plant them upon their land’ so people are like plants which God has placed and in this prophecy the promise is that no enemy will come along to chase them away before the harvest comes, before they can enjoy the fruits of their labour. So this is a promise of peace and in trying to capture what Shalom means as an expression of well being Adam in his garden is one of the best pictures we have. Rather like the chap in this lovely late medieval wood cut seeing to his plants with the brook and fountain, lush growth, tasty fruit and the bees beyond providing sweet honey.
This is a picture of the Good Life – as God intended.
But there is a problem too about the land. We could read the end of the Amos 9 passage we heard today as simply meaning Israel has nothing more to fear from her enemies. But think of many other ‘land’ references in the Scriptures which are all about God promising the land of Canaan to the Israelites. How God drives out the different civilized tribes like the sophisticated Amorites, Jebusites, Philistines etc. so the Israelites, a scruffy bunch of wandering refugees can take over and have this Promised Land for ever. If we wish to see how taking these passages at face value literally has led we have only to look at the traumas of Jewish history and the current plight of the Palestinians. Is the God who calls for justice, who endlessly calls on the people to look after the widow, orphan and sojourner capable of establishing such injustice? Something has gone terribly wrong here. Maybe the way the idea of God giving us this land has not been interpreted very well?
At this point I should make clear that I am not here dismissing claims by Jews to a homeland and I do not believe modern Jews to be the villains and Palestinians the good guys in some simplistic tug of war over the land of Israel-Palestine. There are rights and wrongs on both sides of this conflict , involving more than just these two nations. If what I said at the beginning of this sermon about land is right then land is also life and somehow we must find a way to give life to the Jew and the Palestinian. How this might be achieved is really another whole series of sermons but an important starting point is to realize that the concept of ‘the land’ in Biblical terms is more than just a fixed quantity of acres in a given geographical location. The Bible itself recognizes a tension in Israel’s history and identity. On the one hand they have been placed by God in ‘the land’ on the other hand they have been closest to God, and most sure of their identity as the people of God away from the land: in the Wilderness and in Exile. They are God’s people then wherever they are because their identity is based on a covenant with the living God who is universal and not confined to a single bush or stone or territory or even the Temple in Jerusalem. This is why you find synagogues and churches all over the world and God is worshipped in many homes, Jewish and Christian on every continent. Because all creation belongs to God and so God’s people can be anywhere and the profound concept of the land is that God gives us life: physical and spiritual. The land is a way of expressing God as creator, saviour and sanctifier: the land is the stuff of creation, the means by which God gives us life in the abundance of the produce of the land and through which God blesses us generously with fullness of life, full to overflowing.
So, when Jesus wants to compare the Kingdom of God to something, in Mark’s Gospel, he uses the image of a seed sprouting then growing as if by some magic. Out of the earth, comes a stalk, then a head and then the full grain in the head – the earth produces all this seemingly ‘of itself’.
Jesus’s second image of the Kingdom of God here in Mark 4 is the mustard seed: a tiny seed which produces a plant way beyond itself in terms of size to become big enough for birds to nest in. This begins only when this tiny seed is sown upon the ground.
So, gardening is a holy activity – in the miracle of sowing and growing is also to be discerned the Kingdom of God. So, then maybe we should consider our own ‘patch’: at home enjoy caring for your bit of the ‘land’ and enjoy its produce – that’s what I hope our Produce Show in September is going to celebrate – and let this lead us on to even bigger things – care for our locality, nation, planet, universe. God is there in it all, God created it and loves it and we, being part of this creation, are loved by God too. Care for the environment then is not an extra ‘good cause’ it is our holy calling as God’s people. After all we are fed and watered with the bread and wine of the Eucharist each week – the basic stuff of creation which we bring to the altar and which is given back to us to sustain us: God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people. From such tiny gifts or should I say seeds the Kingdom of God will and does grow, here in Marston and everywhere. Thanks be to God.



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