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Sunday, 23 September 2012

Sermon Trinity 16: The Great British Bake Off, Gardeners' World and Dr Who

Having been away at a conference half this week, and on top of the start of term I haven't done a non-readings post for a while, so, although I don't normally do this here's my sermon for today:

Sermon 23 September 2012
All Saints, Blackheath

Trinity 16
Proper 20 - OT 25th Sunday - Year C

Fr Richard Peers SCP

As part of their induction to a new school the Year 7s at Trinity, where I work, had to interview a number of teachers recently. Since I seemed to be on everyone’s list I had this encounter 120 times. 

“What are your five favourite television programmes?” 
Me: “I don’t watch five programmes.”
“But we’ve got to fill in five spaces.”
Me: “Well, how about putting some of my programmes twice?”
Either, “But that’s not allowed,” or “Oh yes.”
Which tells me something about the child I am now getting to know.

Well my only, and therefore favourite, three programmes are:

  • The Great British Bake Off
  • Gardener’s World
  • Doctor Who.

Which no doubt tells you something about me.
I’ll come to Dr Who a little later, but I think there is something essentially similar about the Great British Bake Off and Gardener’s World. Gardening and baking are primitive activities, they take us back to who we human beings are, they involve physical work and first hand contact - real touch and physicality with the raw materials of life.  And they are both slow activities. Despite what the make-over programmes suggest you can’t create a great garden quickly; although you might be able to do horrific things with concrete slabs and winter pansies.

Today’s three readings and even the psalm are about Wisdom; the first reading is, of course, from the book Wisdom and it’s test “Let us see if his words are true.” are a caution to any preacher. Saint James in the epistle asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” In the Gospel Jesus suggests that true wisdom is found not in seeking high position or honour but in welcoming little ones. In the psalm we are called to make “an offering of a free heart”.

Jesus’ call to welcome little children comes after the disciples have been talking about which of them is the greatest, a conversation which he has presumably overheard. Most of us, of course, are too subtle and sophisticated to enter into such conversations, aren’t we?
I’ve spent the last three days at a conference for headteachers and I can tell you that a good proportion of the conversations were really about who was the greatest. Who is head of the biggest school; the school with the best exam results; the most challenging circumstances; the worst buildings or the best buildings; the most children with English as an additional language or children receiving free school meals. The most children with special needs or the school that has raised most for charity.
Well, it was all done very subtly of course, but I expect whatever your job or role in life you could duplicate those conversations. 

I am a great believer in the biblical account of the Fall of Adam and Eve and I think all of us carry that same seed of falleness. Like Adam, like Eve, we are not content to be simply ourselves; we want more; like Cain and Abel we constantly compare ourselves - is my grain offering better or worse than his offering of young livestock. Is my salary higher or lower than hers; are my children politer, better looking, cleverer, better at sport, good conversationalists. 

Last night we took the Thames Clipper back from Pimlico to Greenwich and passed the latest fairground type ride on the South Bank - called, apparently the Starflyer - a great spinning top in which the passengers whirl around as they also move up and down a 230 foot tower. That’s what our lives are like if we allow ourselves to constantly compare, to decide that this is pleasurable, that is not; this is what we want, this is what we don’t want. Most of us are like passengers spinning on the Starflyer and never touching the ground.

And that’s what Jesus, that’s what the Bible in its Wisdom offers us, a place to stand on solid ground.  And coming to land, coming to ground, returning to the earth is to return home. Once more in Genesis: in Hebrew adam simply means earth-creature; from the Hebrew word for dust or soil, adamah. We are creatures of the earth and we belong to the earth. I used to think that I wanted to be cremated but now I would like to be buried in the earth, not in a coffin but exposed to the very stuff which I come from. Dust to dust is not a depressing thought, it means ‘welcome home’.

Now I am neither a great gardener nor a great baker; but I know there is something homely about fresh bread and the smell of soil; something  deeply pleasing about the well ploughed fields, and the red soil of Staffordshire I saw yesterday.  The Latin word for soil is humus. That great source of wisdom Wikipedia describes humus like this:

“Any organic matter that has reached a point of stability, where it will break down no further and might, if conditions do not change, remain as it is for centuries, if not millennia. Humus significantly improves the structure of soil and contributes to moisture and nutrient retention.”

The question for us is how we can reach a point of stability; how we can find that eternal life that Jesus promises in the here and now; how we can significantly improve the structure of our world and contribute goodness to it. 

When the author of  The Morville Hours described her garden at Morville Hall in Shropshire to James and I as we visited earlier this year, she said  the garden had not, really, been “designed” at all. Instead, an inevitability had taken hold. The process, so beautifully described in her book, had felt “more like patiently waiting for the garden to reveal itself than any active pursuit”. It had been a matter of asking the right questions, or, as Alexander Pope would have it, consulting “the Genius of the place”. It “enables us to picture how a garden will look in ten, twenty, a hundred years’ time, and yet still relish the time in between; to enjoy not knowing, too, or half-knowing”.

Two weeks ago when I preached we spent three minutes together in silence and I was overwhelmed afterwards by the number of people who told me how much they had appreciated it. Now, there may, of course, have been as many of you who hated it, in which case I apologise. But I would like to do that again. Just for three minutes lets get off the Starflyer, get out of the tardis travelling to the future in our fantasies or the past in our memories and really enjoy the present moment.

Silence, three minutes - with posture and breathing instructions.

We are humus, we are adams, earth creatures, from dust we came, to dust we shall return.

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