Creating and Shaping
Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time. Fr David Goodill ponders on plastic.
As I look around my room, searching for inspiration to begin this sermon I am struck by the dominance of one material. Other materials are also prominent, wood, metal, paper, but it is plastic which surrounds me from my computer mouse to my coat hanger.
I suspect that as you sit and read this sermon plastic has a similar dominance. If any material sums up the present age, plastic is strong favourite for that title. Democratic, friend to rich and poor, ubiquitous, knowing no limits to its reign and, most importantly, plastic to our designs. For good and bad we are a plastic age.
The parables Jesus gives in today’s Gospel are distinctively from a pre-plastic age. Whereas plastic gives the promise of instantly shaping our designs, the sower must patiently wait for the grain to sprout and grow. The mustard seed will become the greatest of shrubs, but even this fast-growing plant does not spring up overnight.
Human beings have always shaped their world. Agriculture relies on human artifice, our ability to bring something from the earth for our benefit. Yet such work is not unnatural, for by nature we have intelligence and the ability to shape the world. Nor is it contrary to God’s designs. In the First Reading the prophet Ezekiel describes the work of God as planting and tending to His creation. Human beings, created in God’s image, share in this work to shape the world for the good of all.
When we shape something, we have in mind the shape we are trying to achieve. Yet we can only achieve this shape if we respect the nature of the materials we are working with. When the sower goes out to sow she has the fully-grown crop in mind, the beginning looks to the end. At the same time, she is aware that the crop will grow in its own time. Without the sower there is no crop, but she is completely dependent on the processes of nature to achieve her end. And she is vulnerable to whatever might prevent the crop from growing: too much rain, too little rain, poor soil, disease, pests, animals, natural disasters, war.
Plastic has few of these vulnerabilities, nor do we need great patience in shaping it to our designs. Vulnerabilities, however, are not defects. The lamb is vulnerable to the wolf, but this is not a defect in the lamb. The lamb’s very vulnerability is essential to it being a lamb. In the same way, the sower’s vulnerabilities are essential to her. With modern industrial farming we tend to forget that our lives are sustained by fragile processes. We see nature as plastic, infinitely shapable and reshapable; and disconnected from our vulnerabilities forget who we are.
The sower is attentive to the growth of the crop, and this attention connects her to the author of creation. Her vulnerabilities enable her to see her dependence on God’s gifts, and the role she is called to play in shaping the creation.
Jesus uses this parable to help the crowds understand the growth of God’s Kingdom. Those who preach the Word do so with an end in sight; the salvation of souls. Unless the Word is preached the Kingdom will not grow. Yet the preacher is completely dependent upon God’s gift of grace, both for preaching the word and for its reception in those who hear. The growth of the Kingdom is vulnerable to many challenges and yet it is this very vulnerability which makes the preacher completely dependent on God. The preacher cannot shape and reshape the Word of God for her own designs, rather she must allow herself to be shaped and reshaped by the Word; to be moulded as a fragile earthly vessel. The Kingdom is fragile, made from the fragile materials of you and me, yet God has chosen these fragile materials to establish the dominance of His love.