Spring is upon us, and aren’t we ready?
I recognize spring’s arrival not just through the sight of the world changing around us - but especially the smells.
- The smell of the woods around us after a spring shower
- The sweet fragrance of flowers and trees beginning to bloom
- And most definitely that oh so wonderful fragrance of manure and compost all around
Now, I am being a bit sarcastic here, but it’s true - you don’t really get those bright and bold colors of spring and all this new life emerging like a gift from Creation without the rejuvenating, nutritious power of manure and compost at work in our gardens and our landscape. In the cycle of plants and of this earth, things often must die to feed those things that are yet to come. There is a constant churning going on beneath our feet when we take a long walk along Lake Artemesia or among a neighborhood flowing with wildflowers - there are worms and other creepy crawly things, bacteria and sights we can’t see by the naked eye, at work to break down, digest, and turn last year’s life into something new and whole.
To be blunt, we don’t often to get to enjoy some fruit until we’ve handled some crap too.
I want to be real for a moment - this past week, there has been a lot of crap in our world and in our lives.
- A terror attack in New Zealand on worshipping people
- Natural disasters and storms that wipe out entire communities
- The loss of a precious newborn baby far too soon
- Persecution of Christian faithful in parts of our world
- And even after worship today, we are going to welcome neighbors from across our county to learn about our state’s history of racism and lynchings.
Some of you are dealing with your families, with messed up work situations, with decisions that are overwhelming, with health crises, and with anxiety and agony that you may not feel courage to share with someone else. For so many of us, life stinks.
We may not right now see the flowers around us - because we are overwhelmed by the stench of death and hurt and loss.
And yet - there is something here for us to think about - that Jesus and his disciples knew this same stench that we knew - they knew tragedies and terror. In our scripture today, Jesus is asked about some of the these things. There was a tower that toppled over and killed some people. Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler of this region, executed some faithful Jews and had their bloods mingled with temple sacrifices. These were acts that smelled of sorrow and injustice.
Rather than focus on that stench, Jesus shifts the conversation. He rebukes any theology that suggests victims of injustice or violence deserve what they got - God doesn’t ordain bad things to happen to bad people. But - and here is the twist — which makes this passage so challenging - if you don’t repent, something like this might happen to you!
Ouch! This is not the cuddly, fluffy Easter Jesus that we may want to hear today. Is that a little whiff of manure I smell?
Theologian Ron Allen explains that this teaching is less about the nature of evil and suffering than it really is about that word “repentance”.
On Friday night at our youth group, I used a simple object lesson to help our kids understand this word a little better. I took a mug and showed them what happens when you try to fill it up when the mug is turned upside down. (Maybe ask for a volunteer.) The water goes everywhere. But when you flip the mug over, you can fill it to the brim. Repentance is more than just seeking forgiveness - it is about turning our lives in 180 degrees to be more open to God’s way.
Dr. Allen writes - “Indeed, repentance refers to individuals and communities turning away from things that violate God’s purposes (such as idolatry, injustice, and exploitation) and turning towards faithful living centered in worship of the most-high God and in the practice of justice, mutual commitment, and other values of living in covenant.”
Jesus shifts the focus to what we are doing with our lives now - an invitation with urgency.
In the midst of suffering, in the midst of turmoil, in the midst of change, in the midst of Special Counsel reports - how will we live right now? Will we turn our lives to God or another way?
Jesus tells us parable, like all of his parables that challenge us to go deeper and consider our place in the story.
A vineyard owner, after having gone through the trouble of planting a fig tree to enjoy its fruits, comes strolling through his land one day to find the fig tree empty. He grabs hold of his gardener and complains - it’s been three years. I’ve waited long enough. Get rid of it. What good is a fig tree that can’t produce figs?
But the gardener pushes back. Hold on - let’s give this fig tree one more chance. I’ll take some of that smelly manure and do some digging - let’s see what happens next year. But if not, then (throat motion) let’s get rid of it.
I identify with this story in a lot of ways. I am not much of a gardener - working with plants can often seem so mysterious to me. Sometimes, the plants shoot up out of the ground with just a little water and sun. Sometimes, they require constant, daily care to nurture their potential. Sometimes, you get tired of waiting for the tomatoes, blackberries, or apples to come forth after all the time and money you spend and just go to the produce section which is a heck of a lot easier.
But the gardener has patience, patience for this fig tree that hasn’t yet shown its value. This gardener, with great care, goes beyond compassion and dips down, freshening the soil, laying out fertilizer, tending to those fig tree that it might bear fruit.
As much as I can identify with the vineyard owner or admire the character of the gardener, it is the fig tree that I am drawn to and that sight of manure and digging.
This may be an unusual image for the spiritual life - for the journey of repentance - but turning our lives around can feel a lot like what that gardener planned to do to that fig tree. There is uncomfortable digging, unsettling prodding and poking into our moral lives, where we have done well and where we have made poor, harmful choices. And sometimes, it stinks. It smells awful. Having to untwist and turn our lives, reshape ourselves, re-align our patterns to God’s way - it is indeed smelly work.
And yet it is God’s way, the gardener’s way, to help us bear fruit and become who we need to be.
Today, I invite you to wonder if you are a fig tree in God’s garden.
You are the fruit of God’s work.
You are one of God’s glorious projects, that Jesus comes to tend, help grow into fullness, and use for the transformation of our world.
There is urgency in God’s work - God seeks right now for you to join in reshaping and bringing wholeness to Creation, sometimes by digging into the stench and decay of this world so that the beauty and new life might emerge.
How many times are we told we aren’t fully formed? Or we don’t have capacity? Or we need an expert to tell us what to do or how to be? Sometimes, we do need gardeners in our lives - our society needs gardeners. I can think of so many people in my life, who even when I was not at my best fruit bearing capacity, gave me a second change.
Patricia St. Onge - indigenous activist - in her work with American Indian communities - “We remember that we are born with inherent capacity.”
We have capacity! We are capable! God has already grown something us! Why waste that gift?
What is it in your life that is simply not bearing fruit? What is it - a relationship, a work situation, a financial commitment, a place where you are spending too much time, a behavior that is wearing down your body and soul?
What is it in our church life that is simply not bearing fruit? What is the thing we keep doing it, going round in circles, hoping for a different result? What would it mean to turn 180 from that behavior and move deeper into God’s care for the poor, for the oppressed, and for the wounded?
What is it in our society that we as a nation need to bear more fruit? Is it our relationships with neighboring countries, our lack off hospitality to refugees, our divisiveness, our anger, our white supremacist foundations? What is it that is preventing us from becoming a light to the nations? What might we repent of?
What will we do with this knowledge? Will we reject God’s care in our lives? Will we say now and stubbornly cling to our ineffectiveness or incapacity to bear God’s love? Or will we embrace this care and let God prune and shape us into more and more of God’s likeness?
The world needs more bearers of fruit.
Over the past few months, our church hosts an after school program run by the Nelkins - Sara and Keith. While I am sitting in my office, planning worship or responding to emails or preparing for worship, these groups of kids are brought up to use the restrooms, and while they do so, they talk. They chatter. They look around and ask questions. And not too long after our memorial tree was moved from out in our memorial garden to the end of the hallway, the kids began to ask lots and lots of questions about it. What is this? Why are their names on the tree? Who are they?
And one day, I got tired of hearing them ask - so I stepped out and started answering their questions. These are saints of our church. These are wonderful people of God who were members here, loved this church, loved what we would do for our neighbors, gave money and time, believed in what God was doing here, and so as a church, when they died, we honored them and their memory by placing their name on the leaf. And if there is a cross there, it means their ashes are scattered somewhere in our memorial garden. And the kids soaked it all in, like this was the best sermon I ever gave.
And then the funny thing happened - a few days later, a different group of kids come upstairs, and one of them starts asking about the tree - what is this? Who are these people? And the kids jump in without me having to leave my office - and they start telling the story just like I told them. Of these saints, of these people who loved the church and loved God. Of those with the crosses on their leaf who are scattered in the garden.
If I could have told those kids one more thing, it would have been that those people on that tree weren’t any more special than them - their lives stunk often. They wondered of the big questions of their lives. They had doubt and moments when they were angry and said and did things that hurt others. And yet God used them for the kingdom. God made fruit out of their lives, fruit that produced this community of faith, ministries that serve the homeless, compassion outstretched to Nicaragua and Singapore and beyond, lives and stories that are still being told by children and adults.
Take heart - your life may stink right now as you turn to God - but God is prepared to grow something amazing in and through you.