Blessing of the Plough
Preacher: The Rt Revd Graham Cray, Rural Bishop for the South East
13 January 2008, 15:15 (The Baptism of Christ)
1 Corinthians 9:6-14
Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk?
Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law also say the same? For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever ploughs should plough in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? 12If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more?
Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is sacrificed on the altar? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
Celebrating the start of a new year of work, and, in particular, the farming and agricultural community of Kent.
I want to begin with some comments from our New Testament reading.
1. Appropriate to read from a letter to Corinth. Great cosmopolitan city where the East and West of the Roman Empire met.
A huge city on a narrow isthmus. Too great a population to be sustained by the isthmus. So dependent on farmers elsewhere! Famine not unknown. Memorials to those who dug deep to buy food to feed the poor.
President of the NFU
The world’s food supply is balanced on a knife edge between sufficiency and shortage. According to the latest “Crop Prospects” report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the 2007 world harvest produced a record 2.1 billion tonnes of cereals. Yet despite that, wheat stocks have fallen again, to just 65 days’ supply, the lowest level since 1983. If you couple that with the impact of climate change on harvests around the world, and a remorseless increase in demand, you have a situation in which supplies are less secure, and market prices more volatile, than probably ever before.
No country can afford to neglect the productivity of its own farming sector against that daunting background; least of all a country like the UK, which has allowed its self-sufficiency in indigenous foods to fall by 15 per cent in the last ten years.
Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk?
Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law also say the same? For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever ploughs should plough in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop.
3. The environment.
Not overtly in our passage, but Paul assumed, as the OT teaches that the land is God’s. There are only tenant farmers from a theological perspective!
In the environmental context, the option of taking large areas of land out of production to provide greater biodiversity is fast disappearing. The challenge now is to step up production and provide a rich and diverse countryside.
Climate change is also a key issue for farming, not just in coping with the meteorological fall-out, in terms of storms, droughts and floods, but in making the maximum contribution of which we are capable to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the development of renewable, low carbon alternatives to fossil fuels.
We have the clearest possible aim in this context, which is to make farming part of the solution to climate change, not part of the problem.
And if there is one thing that everyone can do to reduce their carbon footprint, it is to make a point of buying local food whenever possible.
The provision of food for the hungry.
A proper return for labour as a matter of justice. The care of the environment
All of these are matters of common sense and enlightened self interest.
They are ‘common sense’ and don’t especially need a religious justification.
(Although most of what we now consider ‘common sense’ only seems so because of centuries of Christian teaching.)
But there are, for Christians, bigger reasons for our commitment beyond common sense and enlightened self interest.
Paul speaks of a higher priority.
‘We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.’
For Paul the gospel frames the whole of life. It is not just a matter of individual salvation. (Although that remains critical.)
It provides the deeper reasons why we should be committed to these things.
It is the story of God’s purposes for the universe, from creation to new creation.
If this world is God’s creation, and does not belong to us: then the way we treat it is both a spiritual matter, and a matter of ultimate accountability to God.
If the Son of God, through whom everything was created has become a flesh and blood human being, not just as a temporary measure, but - through death, resurrection and ascension - for eternity: then human life is bestowed the most extreme dignity.
Our treatment of one another – whether in response to hunger or in the provision of a just return for our labour – is both a spiritual matter, and a matter of ultimate accountability to God.
If, at the climax of time, God will make all things new, transforming, not replacing the heavens and the earth. Then we are to treat the creation today in the light of its glorious future. The care of the whole created order, human, animal and the planet itself is both a spiritual matter, and a matter of ultimate accountability to God.
If the Son of God died on the cross to restore us to God, and to our proper stewardship of the earth: then Christian conversion through repentance and faith in Christ is not a matter of personal piety, but a turning from even enlightened self interest and the entry gate to a life as a restored steward of the earth.
And Christ’s self sacrifice for us makes possible a life in which the needs of others and of our planet, take preference over even our own rights. (Paul did not exercise his rights to support for such a reason.)
As we return to work, at the close of the Christmas season, we commit ourselves again to the God who gave himself to restore what his fallen stewards had marred.
May this year in Kent, in agriculture and farming, as in every other area of labour, be a joyful stewardship in partnership with the maker and redeemer of the earth. Amen.