Year C, Lent 3 February 28, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“No I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Or, “You have to learn to love what’s good for you, so… What’s good for you?”
Before I was ordained, I was a farmer. Windy and I farmed in Western Massachusetts, Amherst, then started another farm at an Anglican monastery north of Boston. I was an OK farmer; Win is much better than I was. We grew a lot of food, gorgeous food, and we fed a lot of people, but I wasn’t as organized as I needed to be, or maybe I just got too many things started too fast to keep track of. You might recognize that as one of my limitations. In any case, one thing I did end up being very good at was soil, building soil. More specifically, I was very good at making and using compost, lots of compost, tons and tons of compost and the soil… heavens to betsy, with just five years of work… magnificent stuff. I could go on and on and on about the theological import and virtues of soil; much of my doctoral thesis was on the subject. But this morning, one key principle of soil in organic agriculture offered by the great Maine grower, Elliot Coleman, presents itself as most important. That principle is: feed the soil, not the plant.
Soil is the base of all terrestrial life and it is an immensely complex ecosystem that we know much less about then you might imagine. The soil food web is a complex of minerals, organic materials, plants, bacteria, fungus, microorganisms, worms, insects, animals of all sorts that make soil the living, breathing, life giving gift from God that it is. A teaspoon of good soil has billions (with a B) billions of living beings in it, in countless forms, with things as different as bacteria is from fungus residing in the soil that are still undescribed. It is a phenomenal, infinitely complex ecosystem, a deep, dark, earthy mystery that is the source of our lives. And compost is what we feed the soil. The parable today says “manure,” but it would have been composted manure. You can’t put fresh manure on plants, they would have known that better then we do.
In contrast, in a typical conventional/industrial farm system, like the ones that most American calories are produced on, the soil is basically sterile. It is virtually devoid of biologically activity besides whatever crop is planted there. Farming like that is almost like hydroponics. Seeds are placed in a sterile medium and are given exactly the nutrients needed to produce x amount of corn/pound of input. If you put this many pounds of N, P and K, (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, the three numbers on any bag of fertilizer) you get a very predictable output. Well, in theory. For while it is predictable, it is also very precarious. Which is why the Gulf of Mexico is dying because the soil is dead and washing away across the Mid-West
Natural soil systems, or the organic agricultural systems that try to mimic natural culture are stable, they are resilient. A couple of years of drought? Good soil holds exponentially more moisture then dead soil. Disease? Soil teeming with life, like a healthy intestinal tract, is more impervious to pathologies. Conventional agriculture feeds the plant. Crop science tells us how much of what chemical grows what crop, but the second we stop adding that, the sterile soil (which we sterilized with all of those harsh, inorganic chemicals) will cease producing anything but the most ornery of weeds. That’s what I mean by feeding the plant. It’s no good. But feeding the soil, which is what compost does, surely provides some NPK and some micro nutrients, but more importantly, compost adds to the richness and diversity of the myriad life forms in the soil who on their blessed own create boundless, complex relationships with the plants, producing 40, 60, 100 fold increases and each year the soil gets better and better. It is not as responsive as that bag of 25-25-25 from Home Depot, the gardener adding the composted manure in the parable this morning didn’t see the plant green up over night, but next year, five years from now? We killed the soil in Iowa in three generations of chemical agriculture. There are fields in China and India that have been in continual production for 3000 years and have only gotten better, richer, more fertile and fecund.
Feed the soil and the plants will be taken care of just fine. Which brings us back to repentance and learning to love what is good for us.
At our very center, in the innermost core of our being is our true self. And it is beautiful, a pure grain of agape given life by God, it is the part of us in perfect right relationship with God, or in the technical language of our mystical heritage, it is in union with God. We all have it. It is inextinguishable. Gorgeous. Your center dances with the angels, always. That is why Jesus came: to remind us of this, to show us.
Why? Because it very hard to notice, for most of us, that we are in perfect union with God, that we are in right alignment with the way it is all supposed to be. Are you your very best self? I’m not. Jesus was, maybe Mother Mary, probably, but otherwise, none of us. That brilliant center we were born with is hidden, buried, forgotten. That fact, that our right relationship with God is not only possible but is happening, that we forget that, don’t know it… that is what we are talking about when we speak of original sin. The forgetting of our part in God. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk we are reading now, says that original sin is maybe best described as, “the human condition.” Not knowing our relationship to it all. The human condition… not knowing that we are loved by God, we are of God. I don’t now about you, but I’ve got a bad case of it, the human condition.
Think of your true self as a ball of light right in the center. Around it, like the skins of an onion, all the sins of the world start to build up from a very, very early age. Remember, sin is just distance from God, and the things that obscure, inhibit, bury your true and beautiful self in relationship with God. All the needs you had that were not met. All the hits and hurts and hates you absorbed. It builds up and builds up, layer upon layer upon layer and pretty soon, by the time we reach consciousness, the time of our memory, that true self is just a faint glimmer, obscured as it by the false self, all those layers that we think is us, that we have taken on. The human condition.
This is why Jesus came, to cure our alienation from our true selves, to save us from the darkness of sin that separates us from God. He came proclaiming, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has drawn near!” Repentance, that is what Jesus calls us to. I am just learning this and I am very excited about it! Repentance. They don’t teach much about that at Harvard. They wouldn’t. Probably couldn’t.
Repentance is not about fasting, or flagellation. (though those things could maybe point us in a better direction). Repentance is about growing up. Repentance is about changing the direction you are looking for happiness. It is about learning to love what’s good for you, but first figuring out, what’s good for you.
What we really need, what that shining kernel of Christ-nature inside of you truly needs is very simple: we need life and light and love. From each other, from ourselves and from God. Very simple. But those layers, our false self, they distort what we think we need to be whole, to be happy. Our parents, our schools, our culture teaches us from a very early age what we are supposed to need to be happy. Like material goods. Like success. Like achievement. Like a family where everyone is hunky-dory. Like not screwing things up. Pretty soon we think that having a certain type of car or certain type of job or certain type of life has something to do with what we actually need. We humans are baseless, scaty creatures, moths without a flame to circle around, and we seek, ever seek something to bring us satisfaction, something to bring us happiness as we are mired in a world full of people in the same predicament of knowing that something is wrong, something is missing, and wanting love and connection and not having a clue about where to look for it. And so we fill in the blanks from the menu we are offered by our culture.
It is just like when I farmed and had troubles. The tomatoes had, let’s say, leaf curl. Too much of one thing… not enough of another… some disease… The predictable, manageable, definable way to address it is to add inputs. Leaf curl means not enough nitrogen so add nitrogen: problem solved. (But leaf curl can also mean too much nitrogen… problem worsened. And nitrogen is very hard to measure in the soil… problem intractable). It is incredibly hard to balance soil with the contents of a bag of fertilizer. Like it is impossible to heal a broken life with one pill. One program. One singular, atomized approach to an intrinsically holistic system.
You are uncomfortable with other people, you avoid social situations, but back in college you noticed that a little nip of something made social situations a bit easier. But that little drink actually made it harder to relate, so you got more uncomfortable, but a little more to drink fixed that trouble, but that made it harder to get to know folks, so maybe you drank a little more and so on and so on and so on so here you are, 62 and a solid alcoholic. Or you are really nervous about not having everything you need; house, car, food, clothes… and the world, the media taught you what “sufficient” housing, cars, food, clothes means. So your family has to make great sacrifices so you can work as much as you do so that they have everything they need as defined, but working so much takes you, the thing they need the most, away from them, so you work harder to replace yourself with other things and again, so on and so on. Or you work really hard to get into the best school because that will make you happy (and your parents), but all that work really makes you unhappy, but just a little longer, little more work, it will be worth it in the end, whenever that is. And that stuff leaves marks.
Starved of affection in childhood: seek solace in sex for its own sake as an adult. Not comfortable with your self: loose yourself in the problems of others. Fearful of scarcity: accumulate, accumulate. All the deadly sins come into play. The problem of the human condition. Looking for love in all the wrong places. We are on the wrong path, all of us. Seeking satisfaction, seeking happiness in things that cannot provide happiness, feeding the plant for the day not enriching and enlivening the soil for a life time, for all those layers of hurt and depravation prevent us from accepting what we really need to feed our true self, to feed the soil of our soul, our very lives and how we live them. Repent.
So when an Ash Wednesday we were called “…to the observance of a Holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance…” what we are talking about is no less then beginning to understand the nature of your true self and the nature of all the things that come between who we actually are, who God made us to be and who we feel like we are and how we are acting in the world. And all the fasting and prayer and self-denial, those offerings of this season, those are ways to reset, to re-calibrate, to gain perspective on how we do things when left to our own devices in day to day living.
We have a problem in our lives, our personalities, we fix it. Of course we do. We have to. But for most of us, those little problems we face are part of a complex mish-mash of a false self, layers upon layers of wrong answers given by unskillful teachers mired in their own false selves through very little fault of their own. So when we fix those individual things, like feeding the plant, we might make it today, or limp along the next couple of seasons, but with desolate soil, a desolate soul, it is bound to collapse. Repent. Feed the soil of your life, the ground of your being. Feed the soul.
Next week we will delve into the parable of the Prodigal Son, one of St. Luke’s towering achievements in rendering our Lord’s wisdom unto us. It is a story of repentance, of changing the direction in which we seek happiness. We’ll continue this then. “No I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” AMEN