Year C, Lent III
March 3, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Everyone hearing this story would have known the Jesus was talking about rotted manure, compost. Fresh manure, when it is actively breaking down, ties up so much nitrogen that it can actually kill a plant. But let it sit for a while, turn air into it, mix it with leaf mould or other brown organic material and it is straight up alchemy. The diversity of life that develops in short order in a compost pile is staggering and very poorly understood. What we know though, is that from a pile of poo and the detritus of any natural system evolves the stuff of life: humus.
Now this story that Jesus is telling is not about compost. It is about repenting and returning to God. This is what Lent is all about, repentance and return. What most of think of when we think repentance is stopping our naughtiness and being sorry so that we may be forgiven our sins. That isn’t it. Sin isn’t naughtiness. Sin really is about distance from God. Things are sinful in that they increase our distance from God OR they result from our distance from God. It is kind of hard to tell which is which. Are we violent because we do not feel the love of God or do we not feel the love of God because we are so violent? Which comes first the distance or the sign of the distance, I do not know, but repentance and return is what we are called to do make things right.
Repent and return is not just about ceasing sin, turning from sinful activity, but, in the words of a Jesuit scholar, it is more importantly “…an acceptance of the visitation of God in the proclamation of God’s kingdom.” In lay terms, true repentance and return happens in seeking, accepting, inhabiting the Kingdom of God proclaimed by God in Jesus Christ. It is at hand, that Kingdom.
I recently had a bit of a revelation about this Kingdom of God that we (and Jesus) talk about so much. I am learning that God’s kingdom is not something mythical, not other worldly, not something we need to wait for until the eschaton, the prelude to the end of days… No. The kingdom of God is something far more ordinary, far more commonplace that that: The kingdom of God is simply how things are supposed to be. Think the archetypical Eden before the apple incident. Think the fine balance of wilderness. Think the activity of the Horsehead nebula. The kingdom of God is when and where things are the way they are supposed to be. From Paul Tillich’s towering “the arc of the universe is long and bends towards justice” to the base understanding that the concentration, the hoarding of wealth has been a primary source of human suffering since people considered things ownable; it is all the same. We know how things are supposed to be, we can smell it, we know it when we see it. See the quite joy of a mother nursing an infant. (Well, ideally it is a quiet joy). Sneak a peek of two sisters pretending together, or a mighty river endlessly coursing or a sea lion floating peacefully in the chaos 100 meters off of the beach. How do they do that? I don’t know but that is the way it is supposed to be.
That is the most devastating thing about all of this, the world. We know what is right and good and joyful when we see it. We know what to do. We know how to be. We know to be ourselves as God intended us to be, but goodness it is hard to stay on that path. Well, it is for me, anyway. Besides a tiny percentage of severely broken people with deep pathologies, we know the difference between right and wrong, truly; we know the difference between good and evil, between what we should do and what we should not do, how we should conduct ourselves in the world and how we should not. Sure we have lots to learn because much of the world is not as it seems and is not as we have been taught, but in our hearts we know light from dark. You know when you are on the wrong side. You do. But if only it were as easy as knowing. We must repent and return, constantly.
One of the key understandings of repentance and returning is making things as they are supposed to be. Now that is exceedingly hard to do in the context of a society (if not a civilization) founded on principles directly not in line with the way things are supposed to be, but it is possible. We can repent and return. We can take baby steps towards the kingdom, which, brings us back to the matter of compost.
“O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?…
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?”
Walt Whitman wrote these words reflecting his experience walking across the hallowed fields of Gettysburg when it was still littered with the dead in various stages of disrepair.
“Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person – yet
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden…
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of
Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions…
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings
from them at last.” That is just a snippet of a longish
poem, but you get the point.
Compost, the process of compost turns the sick into the healthy, the broken into the whole, the dead into the living. This is the way it is supposed to be. The complex economy of life and death, of desiccating or mouldering into the next generation… that is the way of life. It is the way of the kingdom.
War is one of the great manifestations of human sinfulness. It breaks the bodies, minds and spirits of everyone involved and rains desolating sacrilege on the land upon which it was fought. But in due order, that desecration is reconciled. The kingdom is poking through the mould in those bean plants. The kingdom is resurrected in the pale visage of wheat. Horror and death happen. Brothers rise against brothers, sisters rise against sisters (though less often and with fewer weapons) but the kingdom of God, the way things are supposed to be… it is right there. Waiting. Sometimes waiting in that top five inches of soil, but always waiting. Waiting to take the filthy and make it clean. Waiting to turn the foul into flowers, stench into sweetness, disease into health.
What do we have to discard of ourselves on the compost heap of existence? What in our lives, our beings do we need to excise and purify in the mighty 150 degree furnace of a good compost system? This is a way to approach repentance. This is a way to understand our return to the kingdom of God.
Is this that unlike God’s definitive revelation to Moses on Mt. Horeb? “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters… So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” This is not the way it is supposed to be. Empire. Slavery. The subjugation of a people under harsh taskmasters. This is not the kingdom of God, and here, God in God’s self intervenes and ordains a man; an orphan, a refugee, a survivor, God ordains Moses to go down to Pharaoh and lead God’s people to the promised land. The promised land flows with milk and honey, cultural code words for life much like grapevines and fig trees were code words for God’s blessing by the time Jesus walked in Galilee. (Micah 4:4; Joel 2:22)
Life and Blessings. These are Godly ways. These are kingdom ways. Life flows like milk and honey. Blessings increase like grapes on the vine and figs on the tree. The trouble is, we don’t go from bondage to the promised land in a single bound. We don’t go from carcass to bean plant overnight. We don’t move from death to life, from curse to blessing without some form of trial, winnowing or ordeal. Yes, that half eaten ham sandwich will compost eventually, but it is quite a thing to go through to get there.
This is the journey of Lent. This is the journey of repentance and return.
Because like those Galileeans slaughtered in the midst of worship, or the workers killed as the tower of Siloam collapsed, the end often comes unexpectedly. We only have today to work on our relationships with each other and with God. Repenting and returning is a daily process, a daily reconciliation of the way things are supposed to be. It is no less than a daily practice of envisioning and realizing the kingdom of God. We have our work cut out for us. Repent and Return. AMEN.