A reflection for the Plough Sunday service in Ripon Cathedral.
January 13th, 2019.
1 Corinthians 9.6-14
‘Field of dreams: heartbreak and heroics at the World Ploughing Championships.’ So declared a newspaper article published in November of last year.
(The Guardian, 23rd November, 2018).
When I was a bishop in New Zealand, the region in which I was bishop was host to the largest annual agricultural show in the Southern Hemisphere: ‘Fieldays’. While I attended largely for the purposes of networking and perhaps the odd freebie (an episcopal purple cattle-prod was my best take-away item one year! I don’t use it (of course), but were I in Westminster this week I might be tempted to wave it in the direction of our politicians), it was the tractor-pull competition that was usually the sell-out ticket event. So the popularity of the world ploughing competition did not surprise me one bit.
Rather helpfully, the article said this:
‘Competitive ploughing is unquestionably a sport, in that it’s an organised physical activity with a governing body and strict rules, but it’s fair to say that the physique of a world-class ploughman doesn’t immediately call to mind a Novak Djokovic (he’s a tennis player just in case you are wondering). Ploughing – after sufficient immersion – can quietly thrill in its display of precision and technique, but is it not a pastime that requires fitness or even a healthy BMI. One recent winner of the annual British Ploughing Championship was 82 years old.’
The article ended this way:
‘Most ploughmen (and I assume there might be some ploughwomen too?) can’t imagine not ploughing. Why would they stop doing something they had always done? Ploughing isn’t the habit of a lifetime as the habit of all time, embedded in our language, our constellations, our yoga positions (!), our hymns. Plough the fields and scatter. God speed the plough. Plough on. For many farmers, it is the natural, ancient way to work the earth, a very hard habit to break. As ploughman once said to me: ‘The plough’s been here for far too long for it not to be right.’
Ancient wisdom is earthed in the ground and manifested in the heavens – God’s blessings (we pray) borne out through our creativity as we work the land, care for it and tend to it. And that in a deep sense is expressed through our two Bible readings, both of which mention the art of ploughing; and I use that word quite intentionally. My father once told me the story of going into a field after it had been ploughed and looking at the furrows seeing them as if the earth were improvising with itself through the work of the farmer: the rows of tilled soil, and the back and forth pattern which is similar but not repetitive. A kind of ‘ploughing as jazz!’ you might even suggest. While this might seem like a world away from art, it is significant that themes of innovation and creativity were very much to the fore at the recent Oxford Farming Conference that I attended; a defiant and inspiring stand against the anxiety of our current political and national climate.
In this continued Christmas and Epiphany season of birth, joy and opportunity, I invite us to consider how the truth of God made manifest in Jesus Christ might be a source of inspiration and hope for us: n the midst of all the uncertainty of Brexit, and for all the vulnerability of those who work to supply our food and nurture the earth. May this blessing of the plough today be a sign of God’s continued work in our midst and most importantly of our roles as co-creators with God in all that we do.
God speed the plough! Amen.