Today’s readings are full of the “earth”.
So Isaiah: “As the rain and the snow come down from the heavens and do not return without watering the earth, making it yield and giving growth…”
So the Psalm: “You care for the earth, give it water, you fill it with riches…Thus you provide for the earth; you drench its furrows; you level it, soften it with showers; you bless its growth.”
In the Gospel, the sower goes out to sow, and the seed he sows falls on four kinds of soil, of earth, and last of all in good soil, rich soil, that yields a harvest, a hundredfold, sixtyfold, thirtyfold.
In his Letter to the Romans, St Paul doesn’t mention earth as such, but he talks of creation, which includes it, and he hears it groaning “in one great act of giving birth.”
When we use the word “earth”, we may mean our planet: not Mars or Venus, but Planet Earth, “our common home”. Or we mean its outer crust, a mere 1% of earth’s volume, or more precisely the skin of the crust, what geologists call the pedosphere: the soil. That’s what our feet rest on, what keeps us upright. “Human” means “drawn from the soil.” We are earthlings.
For a good while now, we’ve been hearing the cry of the earth in a new way. Pope Francis has proved a powerful spokesman here. His Encyclical, Laudato Si, begins with his namesake, Saint Francis, and his Canticle of the Creatures: “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.”
“This sister now cries out to us, says the Pope, because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters” (LS, 2)
In the biblical story, the human being is put in the garden to “till it and keep it”. A two-fold mission: to till, to bring out its potential – think of the wonders we have wrought with wood and stone and minerals. And then to keep, to care for it, protect it, preserve it. That, we’ve not been so good at. Our greed has made deserts. And the earth has begun to groan against its oppressor. The relationship’s awry. How lyrically today’s Psalm, 64, evokes God’s care for the earth: You visit it, water it, fill it; you provide; you drench, level, soften, bless. Don’t the last verses speak to our summer? “The hills are girded with joy, the meadows are clothed with flocks. The valleys are decked with wheat. They shout for joy; yes, they sing!” The ancient Israelites were farmers, mainly. Passover marked the birth of lambs in the spring, Pentecost the summer cereal harvest, Tabernacles the autumn harvest of grapes, olives, pomegranates, figs and so on. So, the work and life of every year was taken up into liturgy. Our Eucharist does the same: through your goodness we have received this bread, fruit of the earth; this wine, fruit of the vine. The earth makes the Eucharist possible. It sustains us, it’s what we work with, it’s a ground for praise: “the earth has yielded its fruit, for God, our God, has blessed us” (Ps 66). One of lockdown’s positives has been the chance for the earth to breathe again. Let’s not squander this and just go back to business as usual. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and if God cares for the earth, so must we.
In the Gospel parables, Jesus goes further. We are God’s earth. We are the earth on two legs, as it were. We are the earth that has grown ears. We are the earth with a mind and a heart able to understand and respond; the listening ear of the world, blessed with what St Benedict calls the ear of the heart. We are earth able to till and keep “the word that goes from the mouth of God”, as Mary kept the words of the shepherds, and Simeon and her 12-year old son and pondered, tilled, them in her heart. We are not merely created, we are able to endorse, each one of us, the creative action of God. In the Gospel, the Word through whom the universe was made, now goes forth as human dust to sow the word of his Father’s kingdom in the earth of our hearts. He meets with a threefold resistance. We can be hard earth: the word ricochets off us. We can be shallow earth, receptive one moment, listening to something else another, constantly surfing as it were. We can be overcrowded earth, full of worries and desires; the words are choked. It’s as if the Lord is trying to speak to someone who’s checking their emails at the same time. The Sower’s sowing fails at first. “If we scan the regions of our planet”, St John Paul II once said, “we immediately see that humanity has disappointed God’s expectations.” But then the Sower’s fortune changes. As he walks on through history, the seed “produces now a hundredfold, now sixty, now thirty.” We can be good, rich, receptive, patient earth, fruitful, nourishing, life-giving earth. And the Sower’s word does not return to him empty. As St Paul implies, a new creation is being born out of the pain of history. The sufferings of Christians and all who hunger and thirst for justice are part of the birth-pangs. God’s purposeful care is not all wasted. Sometimes we are drenched, sometimes levelled, sometimes softened. But the Lord is at work. And on the Cross the blood and water from the Sower’s own human heart drips into the earth and sows the seed of its Resurrection.
So let us go to work with him. Let’s care for our planet Earth and its skin of soil. Still more, let’s open the earth and the ear of our heart to the seed of the Word and bring forth fruit for God.
(Live-streamed, St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen)