Lent 3: Land and Plants – Identity, Place and Blessing

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Throughout Lent we are working our way through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book by Ruth Valerio, “Saying Yes to Life”. This is based on the first creation story in the Book of Genesis. I am using my sermons to reflect a little on the theme for the week so that whether we are part of one of the Lent groups or not we can all join in. On Ash Wednesday I spoke about God as creator; the creation being the action of his will and purpose. It is not random, but willed and wanted, made from and for love. On the first Sunday of Lent we looked at Day 1, at light, and seeing this as showing God’s purpose and active presence. Last week we moved on to Day 2, where space is made for this purpose to get to work, the space made by separating the chaos waters. Today brings Day 3, where the land produces vegetation – trees and plants, seeds and fruit trees (Genesis 1:9-13). The seas are also made, but we have to wait a few days yet for the swarms of sea creatures to emerge.

Land is foundational in the Bible. It is territory and security, space to exist and there is a deep link between it and who we are. The topography shapes people. Fen is different to hillside, rolling hills to moor and mountain, coastal to landlocked and forest to open field. And of course rural is different to urban, suburban and town. The land affects the people too; there is a difference between those who live in the flatlands and those who lives in the hills, rural dwellers and citizens of the city. When I am back in the Warwickshire rolling countryside there is something that connects deeply with me. For others it is the ditches of the fens or other landmarks of their native landscape. When we lived in Leeds, there was something about the Pennines in the distance and the coastal expanses of sand in north Norfolk is distinctive and evocative.

For the Hebrew people the land was who they were, written into their title deeds in the promise to Abraham, the promise to Moses, the hope of return from exile. And the land has been a bit of an issue down the centuries with competing claims on it and walls being erected separating and excluding. In our gospel reading, Jesus has gone beyond boundaries to enter a Samaritan village and we were reminded “Jews did not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:5-42). So God making the land fruitful on  Day 3 of creation brings more than a hint of what is to come. The Old Testament is a story of a people of promise, a chosen people, and the land which is the sign of this promise and chosen status. In the New Testament that promise is for all, so one person’s blessing should bless others otherwise it becomes a curse. These are challenges for the Israeli-Palestine divisions and land disputes in Northern Ireland. If the land is to bless then it should bless all, not just some.

Land and identity is a very contemporary divide between us. One sociologist has split us up into the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’. The ‘somewheres’ are those who are rooted in their place, they belong to an area and they know it.  They live where they belong, and they belong where they live. Their roots go deeply into the soil. With mobility, some moving from place to place, a new group of the ‘anywheres’ has been created. This is those who have moved into new areas, possibility only for a time, and so their identity is not so strongly linked with a particular place. Sociologically they are the ‘anywheres’. This has implications for community and a city like Peterborough is one which has a high proportion of ‘anywheres’ over the ‘somewheres’, in fact the ‘somewheres’ can feel a little outnumbered. I am an ‘anywhere’ rather than a ‘somewhere’, and most clergy are, though through our ministry we become deeply rooted in the communities in which we live, become a sort of adopted ‘somewhere’, though those who are deeply rooted in the place will spot the incomer. A lot of us in this city have moved here, some settled, some with a longing for a lost land – struggling to sing the Lord’s song in this strange land, and some nesting for a season. The land brings location and dislocation. Where do you belong?

For Celtic Christians, there was a deep understanding that here we have no abiding city, and so being prepared to go to where they don’t know, to unfamiliar places was a sign of letting go of all attachment that might hold them back. This was an ‘anywhere’ identity with a purpose, not just being dislocated, but being all embracing. And when I read this quite a few years ago in a book about Celtic spirituality and the willingness of monks like Aidan to go to a new land, it struck me as an important concept to hold to in my own moving and settling and moving. Going where we don’t know and never being the same, is John Bells wonderful phrase in his hymn ‘Will you come and follow me’. It takes the land as a place where the pilgrimage of faith and mission is set, with no boundaries and no limits, but recognising that each place changes us and reforms us as the wind and rain shape and form the land.

Having created the land, vegetation, fruitfulness and regeneration is brought forth. Forna and flora in their multiplicity and multicoloured paintbox bring spring freshness, and the air is refreshed and oxygenated. The trees and plants are the lungs of the earth, enabling breathing. Without them we would not be. And if we endanger them we will not be too. So there is a natural balance that has to be respected. It is so startling that commercial interests are threatening the very air we breathe with deforestation.

In the emerging plant life the conditions to support life were prepared long before we came along, or even our predecessors in the evolving species. It is not surprising that trees have been seen as sacred in myths and legends across the world, in sacred poles and holy trees. In the Garden of Eden a Tree of Life stood at its heart. By the oaks of Mamre Abraham greeted three visitors, which is often taken as a prefiguring of the Trinity and an encounter with God. Judges sat judging and Jesus sees Nathanial long before  he approaches, when he was sat under the fig tree, whatever that allusion actually means. A tree of shame becomes a tree of victory as the cross it seen as the tree on which Jesus dies and saves. Two of the magi’s gifts comes from the resin of trees – Frankincense and myrrh. Trees bring life, encounter and signs of hope. 

Vegetation is the gift and flourish of life and fruitfulness. Day 3 of the creation story brings the land with its topographical diversity, plants in their glorious shades and colours. The stage is set long before we come along and it is good without us, it is good for its own sake. We belong to the earth and are shaped by it. Those of us who are nomadic disperse our rooting, but still know there is a place that resonates for us in a way nowhere else quite does. The ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’ have a fundamental difference in their relationship to where they are. For the Hebrew people the land was closely bound up with their covenant of promise and their sense of being. In the New Testament this Covenant is for all and so the land must bless all or it is as curse for all. Celtic Christians, letting go of attachment, turned this land into the setting of a pilgrimage in grace, where boundaries disappear and with the deep understanding that here we have no abiding city, we embrace the unfamiliar and receive the blessing of new lands.

On Day 3 we celebrate the earth and its gifts, our responsibilities and challenges; its goodness irrespective of our presence or absence. In the funeral service we acknowledge that we are made of the earth, from dust, and we return to it. There is something foundational about this day of Creation. It sets not just the stage on which we move but the essence from which we come and on which our life depends. In Christ the land  moves from defining a narrow identity to become the setting for a pilgrimage which is blessed and blesses.

Sermon for Lent 3, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 15th March 2020

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare's Church - Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus', was published by Sacristy Press in 2017. There is a hymn based on this 'Christ the Saviour'. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his posts and on social media.
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