A Sermon from Sherborne

The garden of your soul

A sermon for Rogation Sunday, preached at Sherborne Abbey on 26 May 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


Rogation Sunday – from the Latin rogare, to ask – has almost disappeared from our modern liturgies, and from the consciousness of most churchgoers except those who live in farming communities. The Roman Catholic Church officially eliminated Rogation Sunday in its reform of the liturgical calendar in 1970. In the Church of England we prefer things to die by benign neglect, so Rogation Sunday lingers on – just. In the modern farming calendar the old seasons of the farming year have been radically shifted both by modern technology and climate change. Yet for centuries this was the day on which priest and people beat the bounds of the parish and asked God’s blessing upon it, and especially on the growing crops and the new-born livestock.

I chose readings tonight to help us to focus back onto Rogation, but in fact my text comes from the instructions on a bag of lawn weed-killer and fertiliser which has been languishing in my garage for years. It reads as follows:

Apply when the weather is calm and fair, not when windy. The soil should be moist but the grass day. Rain should be expected within 48 hours. Do not apply during prolonged dry spells, drought or during frosty weather.

I have come to the conclusion that it is almost impossible to get that particular set of conditions in England. It’s either too wet or too dry or too windy, and on the rare occasions when I might have applied the treatment I have been too busy. So, although I still mow the lawn myself, I rely for its care on a very nice couple of chaps who call themselves Dorset Lawn Care.  Their original diagnosis was that my lawn contained moss (masses of moss), and clover, dandelion, buttercup, prunella, daisy, thistle, plantain, yarrow and speedwell. The good news was that there was no woodrush, pearlwort or selfheal. What a relief! And the prescription is mechanical scarification, controlled release fertiliser, selective liquid herbicide and hollow-tine aeration. Then along came last year’s drought, from which the patient is only beginning to recover.

Thinking about it, my lawn’s sickness is not unlike the sickness that so readily afflicts the human soul. Most people would, I hope, admit to having a soul. Who would be content with Professor Joad’s definition of a human being as a description of themselves? Enough water to fill a ten-gallon barrel; enough fat for seven bars of soap; carbon for 9000 lead pencils; phosphorus for 2,200 match heads, iron for a medium-sized nail; lime enough to whitewash a hen-coop – and a little magnesium and sulphur. We know – we just know – that we are more than that: we have a soul, capable of being filled with joy, love and peace; sadness, despair and anger; courage, happiness and hope – and a thousand other things besides.

Well, many if not most people take reasonable care of their bodies, and some seem positively obsessed with diet, exercise and fitness regimes. But I fear that far fewer take care of their souls. And I don’t just mean the unchurched masses. I mean those who sincerely regard themselves as Christians. We know in theory how important it is to read the Bible, to explore our faith, to pray every day, to be regular and committed in our worship, our giving, our service. But somehow the conditions are never quite right. We are too busy; there are too many other things to be done; people are too demanding; our diaries are too full; whenever we mean to begin we get a better offer; we are just too tired. And so our spiritual life languishes and, just as unused muscles in the body wither away, so do our souls. And that is why so many people who enjoy good health, loving families, loyal friends, successful careers and a comfortable lifestyle nevertheless suffer unhappiness, depression, a gnawing dissatisfaction with life, or a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness.

In trying to help us understand why this should be, the Bible asks us to picture a garden. It is the garden of creation, and it is full of good things, created by God in love and delight. And he has created Adam and Eve – and remember that ‘Adam’ is simply the Hebrew word for ‘man’ or ‘mankind’ – to share these good things. They have everything – but it is not enough. And so begins a sorry story of dissatisfaction and envy, of shame and of blame, which leaves them with – nothing.

But the Bible also says that what went wrong in a garden was put right in a garden. It was put right when a woman who had known her own share of shame and blame went to weep at the grave of the one man who had loved her for herself and not what he could get out of her, and had given her everything that her life had lacked. He had been taken from her and from all those who had found in him forgiveness and worth, meaning and purpose. And now this woman – Mary of Magdala was her name – finds his tomb empty and the body gone. Through her tears she sees a figure she takes to be the gardener, and cries out ‘Tell me where they have taken him’. But he is no gardener or, rather, he is the gardener of souls, and he is the one she seeks. He is the one who has triumphed over all that life and all that death could throw at him, and now he gives Mary, and then Peter and John and Thomas and the other disciples (and you and me, and anyone and everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to understand) a resurrection hope, new life, the forgiveness of our past and the promise of a future filled with all the goodness of God.

Have you ever wished that you could wipe the slate clean, begin anew, root out from the past everything which spoils the present and threatens the future? Who of us here hasn’t wished that a thousand times? Yet in that garden nearly two thousand years ago it all became possible. What had been spoiled in a garden was put right in a garden, and since then all the forgiveness and grace and love of God has been ours, just for the asking, if only we will ask with sincere and true and repentant hearts.

I have put my lawn into the hands of Dorset Lawn Care, but when they have finished the treatment it will become my responsibility to see that it stays moss and weed free, and in good condition. If it reverts to its old state, all their hard work will have been in vain, and I will have no-one but myself to blame. And the same is true of the garden of my soul, my heart, my life – and the same is true of yours. Let Christ the gardener come in, to uproot your regrets and your failures, to prune and to strengthen all that is worth keeping, to heal that which is broken and injured, to confirm and bless all that is true and lovely and good – and the garden of your soul will flourish again, and blossom, and grow, and yield much fruit, fruit that will last. And then you will be the person God always wanted you to be, part of the garden of creation, flowering to his glory. And as the years go by all that you will have to do – but it is all – is to work with his spirit, the Holy Spirit of God, in the rhythm of creation: sowing and planting, weeding and pruning, caring and loving, serving and praying, until all is safely gathered in and you come to the joy of your soul’s own harvest home.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 26/05/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne