Potting-sheds and perambulators: the revolutionary implications of the Gospel - A Harvest Meditation

Potting-sheds and a perambulator
on my friends' allotment
Readings: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

From Book One of LucretiusDe Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) translated by C. H. Sisson.

There is one simple point we have to start from:
The gods never made a single thing out of nothing.
Because, if one thing frightens people, it is 
That so much happens, on earth and out in space, 
The reasons for which seem somehow to escape them,
And they fill in the gap by putting it down to the gods. 
That is why, once we know that nothing can come from 
We are on the right track already and likely to see
How everything starts and goes in in ordered sequence
And nothing at all is merely the work of the gods.

Consider: if things could be made from nothing,
There would be no such thing as the cycle of generation,
You could breed men from the sea, and the land would 
All kinds of fishes and birds, and out of the sky
Herds of cattle come tumbling; wild animals would 
Turn up in deserts or farmyards without any reason;
You could not count on an apple-tree giving you apples,
But any sort of tree would produce any fruit. 
If everything did not have its seminal elements
How would we ever know what anything comes from?
But, as it is, the origins are determined 
And everything comes to the shores of light
The moment matter has reached the right point of 
No question of undiscriminating creation
When everything has its seeds within itself.

Besides, have you thought why roses come in spring,
Corn ripens in the heat, and the grapes in autumn?
It is because their seeds are so determined
And all creation happens when it must.
It needs only the season, and the vivid earth
As it were finds it safe to produce what it does.
If things came out of nothing, they would come from nothing,
Turning up at odd times in a random way;
They would have no natures to hold them to their course
Nor elements answering only to certain seasons.
There would be no question of interval after coition
Before the child appeared, if we came from nothing.
Young men would disconcertingly spring from perambulators
And full-grown trees appear in a flash from the ground.
As such things do not happen, but on the contrary
Everything grow and changes little by little 
And all growth follows the law of particular species,
It proves that everything’s made from its own material. 


Susanna's grandson on my shoulders
checking out the combine harvester
If you ask any small child today about harvest their response is more than likely to include a reference to a large combine harvester chomping up a crop of wheat in a huge field. If you do a Google Image search for the same word you will receive pretty much the same answer. But even if the combine harvester isn't your own default image of harvest something connected with a harvested field is likely to show up strongly in your imagination. Classic images of stooks, bales of hay or haystacks in a field readily spring to most people's minds.

But we know that harvest is far from being just about large cornfields, haystacks and huge combine harvesters. It is also about much smaller scale crops. In our readings we heard Paul's famous horticultural image found in 1 Corinthians 3:1-9. However, the traditional translations keep the overall imagery on the larger side of life by speaking about us as being God's building. However, the former Baptist minister John Henson offers us a wonderfully downsized version of the same passage in his recent "Good as New" translation of some of the New Testament texts:

"Friends, I had difficulty in knowing how to talk to you. You seemed not to have been affected by the Spirit. Your way of talking was crude. Compared wiith Jesus, you were children at the nursery stage. You still needed breast feeding; you weren't ready for solids. You're not ready yet! You're still squabbling over your toys and competeing for attention. When are you going to grow up? Those rival fan clubs of yours, "I'm in Paul's gang!" or "I'm in Ray's gang", just show how immature you are! What's so big about Ray or Paul? We're only helpers, doing the job God has given us. I put the plants in the pots, and Ray came along with the watering can. It was God who got the plants to grow. The one who pots, and the one who waters, are nothing compared with the gardener who produces the plants. Planting and watering are all part of the process, and those of us who do these elementary tasks get paid for it. You're expected to work as a team in the potting shed. You're God's potting shed!"

How I remember, with an almost overwhelming affection, the time I spent as a small boy working as a team with my grandparents in the vegetable garden of their bungalow in North Walsham, Norfolk whenever we went to stay with them. Just by uttering these few words I can smell, right here and now, the wood of the shed, the paraffin stove and, of course, the earthy smells of their harvest stored there, particularly apples and potatoes.

Now technically, I suppose, a potting shed is a kind of building but when, in the traditional translations, Paul tells me I am "God's building" the feeling this gives me is of a very different kind from what I feel when I begin to hear Paul say to me that I am a "God's potting shed."

To help me express this feeling in words so as to be able to use them with you to suggest a lesson we might learn from them learn I need firstly to turn to our reading from Lucretius' poem "De Rerum Natura" (On the Nature of Things). Lucretius' genius - one which scholars are increasingly beginning to see was key to the development of our modern, scientific world view - was, in part, his ability to find memorable and often witty examples to point again and again to the law-like operation of the natural world. It was this that allowed him to articulate the then almost inconceivable claim how, without the gods, all things have come to be..

Our whole secular educational culture is today, of course, shaped by a general acceptance of the law-like natural order of things. Now, although there is a kind of wonder to be experienced in being able to seeing this law-like stability - my grandparents certainly helped encourage this wonder in me (as did Lucretius) - we know that when seed potatoes are planted all things being equal potatoes will be the eventual harvest of our work of planting and watering. At this fundamental natural level we can be thankful that there were going to be none of the surprises Lucretius humorously lists.

Since those days I have, of course, learnt lessons as influential upon me as those I learnt in grandparent's potting shed in the big university buildings of both academe and the Church. The natural sciences and the Church, in their own very different ways, were desirous as my grandparents to teach me that, although it was hard at times to see the word for the trees, underneath everything there was indeed a reliable, unchanging, law-like predictability to the world. It's just that science wanted to say to me that the law was that of Nature and the Church wanted to say to me it was the law of a certain kind of God; a God who, in the words of the Westminster Confession, was infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His Being. That this is so should come as no surprise because these big buildings are always constructed by institutions deeply committed to passing on their own stable world views in order to make of us good, stable and reliable citizens - people who are not going to be in the business of unnecessary boat rocking. In these institutions there was huge amount invested in getting me and my fellow students to believe that that world was just the way they said it was and to leave it at that.

It should be apparent that lurking in Lucretius' important and, to some extent very comforting insight, there is the possibility that it will tempt some people, not only to say that the natural world is structured according to immutable and ultimately predictable physical laws (something, on the basis of the evidence available to me I subscribe to myself) but so, too, are the worlds of human morality, ethics and politics. This address strongly rebels against this latter tendency but, to get to my rebellion, let's go back now to the potting shed and my educational institutions so as to take another look at what other kinds of potting and watering actually occur there.

Even as my grandparents were using their wooden dibbers to make holes in the earth to plant a seed or bulb with a highly predictable harvest, the dibber that was one of their well-told stories (which included many Biblical tales) was being used to pot-up in my little head countless fertile ideas and values the harvest of which could never bring forth a completely predictable harvest. I know my grandparents fervently hoped that their planting and watering would result in my own life bearing a meaningful family resemblance to their own but, as I grew up, I found that they were both wise enough to know that in countless ways the seed they sowed in me was highly likely to produce in my life something as surprising, unexpected and wholly new as the young man disconcertingly springing out of his perambulator that Lucretius knew could never happen in the natural world. Becoming a musician and a theologian were, for my family, both very unexpected fruits.

I was lucky, too, that in those large university buildings, even as the institution was desperately trying to ensure that as an alumnus I would be a perfect image of that same institution there were one or two of my teachers who, like my grandparents, were willing to accept that the harvest of my own life might produce a very different, unexpected and even new kind of fruit. My becoming a post-modern and post-liberal kind of Christian was certainly an unexpected fruit of the teaching I received in my theological education.

This thought brings me back to St Paul's words about planting and watering in 1 Corinthians. Remember that there everything hinges on his recognition that, in the end, it is not us but God who makes the seed grow. But it is vital to understand that the God of whom Paul speaks is neither the ordered doctrinal God of the Church nor even that of the Deists.

It has long seemed to me that, in its non-institutional forms, the genius and power of the Christian tradition is its constant recognition and acceptance that once the Gospel has been planted its fruit is always going to be unexpected that will for ever be challenging and overturning all ossified human social and intellectual structures whether they be of the family or of the state and religion. Remember with regard to the family, when Jesus' family turn up one day asking to see him he shockingly says: "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?" Pointing to his disciples he goes on to say: "Look, these are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!" (Matthew 12:46-50). With regard to the state and religion, in John we hear him startlingly claim: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19).

Indeed, we should pay very close attention to the historical fact that, whenever the powerful of whatever stripe have begun to believe they had finally got hold of the Christian tradition by the scruff of the neck and could plant the seed of the Gospel in such a fashion that they would be able to predict what its eventual fruit would be like - i.e. little clones of themselves - what actually showed up, time and time again, were people whose reading of the tradition was able to bring the old ossified edifices tumbling down. It's no wonder that the Gospel remains so congenial to radicals, revolutionaries and reformers the world over (theists and atheists alike such as Zizek, Badiou and Critchley) who, in the same rebellious spirit of Jesus, have continually valued life, love, freedom and justice over the death, hatred, imprisonment and injustice that is continually inflicted by the powerful upon the poorest and most dispossessed peoples of our world. We find that the God of the Gospel, far from being an immutable law-driven BEING is instead best thought of as a creative EVENT known to us in acts of life, love, freedom and justice. This event of God regularly shows up (incarnates) in human history and as it outplays in either actual or symbolic interventions in our world the apple carts and money-changing tables of the powerful are upset left, right and centre.

Consequently, I find that I far prefer the image of both myself as an individual Christian and of the Church as a whole as being a rickety old potting-shed rather than the image of a grand and solid building of some description. Why? Well a potting-shed is always constructed and inhabited with a recognition that it is only ever going to be a temporary edifice. A grand building, of whatever kind is, on the other hand, always in danger of making its builders and inhabitants believe it is a reflection, and even seat of a permanent, unchanging power.

To paraphrase Aunt Ada in Stella Gibbon's comic novel "Cold Comfort Farm", to the powerful of the world there is always something nasty lurking in the potting-shed - namely that community of people dedicated to planting and watering the Gospel of life, love, freedom and justice. So I say to you today - dibber in hand - that in places such as this we are indeed God's potting shed and, if we plant and water well and have faith in the event that is God the fruit produced will be as surprising to the world as any young man leaping fully formed from a perambulator.


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