Plough Sunday appears to be a very ancient festival, revived by the Victorians. Traditionally it is celebrated on the first Sunday after the 12 days of the Christmas festival. Often the plough was fêted and drawn through the streets to be blessed in church. This was thought to ensure food for the coming year. The following day, Plough Monday, was the first day that work in the fields recommenced after Christmas. The ploughing may not have started then if the ground was too frozen, but soon after the new year is still a good time to offer our labours to God. Do join Lightwave if you can this year for the Plough blessing at St Edmundsbury Cathedral on 8th January.
My favourite Plough Sunday reading is from Luke Chapter 9. 57-62. Here it is in the traditional King James translation:
And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, "Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest."
And Jesus said unto him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head." And he said unto another, "Follow me."
But he said, "Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father."
Jesus said unto him, "Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God."
And another also said, "Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house."
And Jesus said unto him, "No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."
Belonging to the ‘tractor generation’ it was a long time before I understood what Jesus was talking about: I thought ploughing required looking back to see how the plough was running behind the tractor and Jesus’ words just didn’t make any sense.
That is, until I heard about someone who had had a go at horse ploughing. By the time he reached the end of that furrow not only did he feel as if his arms were an extra three feet long but at about the half way stage he’d made the mistake of looking back to see how I was doing. It was then that the plough took on a life of its own, he lost control of the horses and any chance of me ploughing a straight furrow was lost! It was then that he understood what Jesus was talking about – ie start looking over your shoulder and things are likely to go pear shaped.
Yet, it’s something we all do – Things aren’t like what they used to be. We want to turn back the clock – and maybe farming is an area where we’re tempted to be nostalgic. Many of the perceptions that the general public has about farming seem to be drawn from the ‘40s and ‘50s, influenced by images from the Ladybird Book of Farming with the farmer in his smock, a few hens scratting around the farmhouse door and a pig and a couple of cows out in the yard. As farming moves on - we may even start talking about Drilling Sunday
I don’t mean we forget the past, and I don’t believe Jesus is even suggesting that we should. Every time a farmer sets up a furrow, he remembers how a field ploughed in previous years – where it held water, where it was stony, where the land was heavy, etc. The memories and experiences from the past help him do a good job in the present. Rather what we can also learn the lessons from what we remember and apply them to where we are now. The reminder of the goodness and faithfulness of God is a key feature of every Plough Service. We celebrate the fact that through good times and bad the land has been farmed and God’s promise in the Book of Genesis that there will always be seed time and harvest has been kept – the crops have been grown and people have been fed.
So : Remember where we’ve come from
But also, realise where we’re going.
Even now when many farmers are ploughing they’ll use a marker – something at the other end of the field that they focus on and use as a guide to plough a good straight furrow. I heard about one farmer who farmed over in Lincolnshire was setting out to plough a riverside field and chose what he took to be a tree on the river bank as his marker. He faithfully, kept his eye on it as he laid down his first furrow. He got a shock when he looked back however, as instead of seeing the straight furrow he expected, the furrow made a beautiful curve across the field. It was then that he looked closer at his marker and found that it wasn’t a tree but the mast of a ship going upriver!
When you choose a marker you need to make sure it’s one you can depend on and that will keep you on course. There’s an old saying to the effect that ‘those who don’t know where they’re going usually end up somewhere else.’ As Christians we know that material things and just acting as we feel like are not the answer. We are seldom called to plough our own furrow in life... but to plough together - and it is Jesus who shows us what it is to live lives of love and sacrifice and joy and wonder.
Jesus is the one who gives us our marker for where we are going. As we enter this New Year, let's determine not to get distacted. Fix your eyes upon our faithful marker, upon Jesus.