“A Little Manure Goes a Long Way”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, March 20, 2022
Reading: Luke 13:1-9
When I was 5 years old, my Mum and Dad purchased a half acre lot from Dad’s father, that was severed from the back of the family’s farm, and they built a house just outside the village of Elora; and most of my memories of childhood and youth revolve around this house. From our back deck we could see the barn and silos of the farm that my uncle and aunt were now running, and sometimes my siblings and I would walk or ride our bikes up a laneway through the field to play with our cousins. We got into all kinds of mischief playing around the farm but I think there was only one time that one of us had to be taken to the hospital!
Our house was surrounded by farmer’s fields, and sometimes there would be corn in the field, and I would go out and chop down a few stalks to build myself a little “fort” in the middle of the cornfield, much to my aunt and uncle’s displeasure.
In the years when hay was planted in the field, I would look forward to the time when it was cut and would lie in long rows waiting to be gathered up, because I would then go out in the field and prance around pretending I was a show horse, and the rows of cut hay were my jumps over which I would gracefully leap on my way to winning an imaginary championship ribbon!
My blissful, imaginative country childhood, though, would inevitably be interrupted when my uncle would fertilize the soil in his fields. I’d come home from school one day and the whole house was surrounded by…manure. The whole house smelled like…manure. Depending on the winds, sometimes the smell would last for days. To be honest, though, after a while you get used to it. As that one commercial says, you go “nose blind.” No air freshener was going to help with this, though. I actually got pretty good at being able to identify which kind of manure my uncle was using; cow manure wasn’t so bad, actually, but if he was using pig manure the smell would make your nose hairs curl!
It wasn’t pleasant, to be sure; but it was necessary for good things to grow. It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus compares repentance to manure in the parable read this morning, because repentance stinks, but it is absolutely vital to our growth.
The first five verses of this passage recall two tragic events of which we have no other historical or biblical knowledge: the people tell Jesus of a bloody vengeful act by Pontius Pilate against Galileans who were at worship in the temple in Jerusalem; and in response he recalls the collapse of a tower near the pool of Siloam. One is a tragedy of human aggression; the other is more of a “natural disaster.”
In reference to these tragedies, Jesus asks the people, “Do you think that because they suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than others?” It’s the perennial question; one we still ask today: why do tragedies like these happen? Why do cruel rulers attack innocent people? Why do natural disasters happen and cause such suffering and destruction?
Their answer to Jesus’ question, “Do you think that they were worse sinners than others?” would, in fact, have been, “Yes; obviously they were.” They did believe that people’s suffering was the direct result of some sin. We get a clearer view of this in the gospel of John Chapter 9, for example, when Jesus comes across a man who had been blind from birth, and the people ask him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Some of them believed that a baby could sin in the womb, and for this reason be born with blindness. Others believed these things happened because of some sin the child’s mother or father had committed, and the punishment was meted out on their child.
But here, Jesus is clear that it is NOT the case that people who commit so-called “worse” sins suffer God’s punishment. In fact, in verses three to five he says to them, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” This is shocking news for them! Jesus says that they deserve punishment just like any “worse” sinner, and he ties this directly to their lack of repentance. But what do they need to repent? They are law-abiding Jews; normal, decent citizens; not common criminals or blatant sinners! To answer their question, Jesus goes on to tell a parable….
In this parable, you couldn’t say that the tree symbolizes someone doing anything wrong. It wasn’t hurting anything; it certainly wasn’t “sinning,” per se. It wasn’t doing anything at all, and that is the problem. It wasn’t doing what trees are meant to do. The tree’s only “sin” is in not bearing fruit. If you are a fig tree, you should bear figs. If you’re a fig tree and you’re not bearing figs, then the only thing you’re useful for is firewood. Likewise, if God’s people are not producing the appropriate fruit in their lives, Jesus says, then they are perishing. “Perishing” is the natural condition for fallen humanity. None of us is free of sin. We’re born self-centred – for better or for worse – and it is by a lifetime of intentional seeking that we learn to live lives that are God-centred and produce God-like fruit.
Along the way, we all sin against God; and so, we’re all given opportunities for repentance. The person who has murdered someone is no less redeemable in God’s eyes than the person whose only sin is thinking that they never sin (which is the sin of pride or arrogance, by the way). Both call for repentance. Jesus said that thinking hateful thoughts about someone is the same in God’s eyes as murdering them. That lusting after someone in our minds is the same as committing adultery with them. It is only when we recognize our total inability to live up to God’s standards of perfection, and we turn to Him for forgiveness that we can receive His grace. But this is hard for us.
A few years ago, I remember reading an article in the Observer magazine (now Broadview) that told the story of United Church people who were making a switch to Unitarianism. Part of this article told the story of a 71-year-old woman from Stoney Creek, who spent most of her life in the United Church before leaving for a number of reasons in the mid-1990s and joining a Unitarian congregation. At one point the woman admitted to missing “some elements of the United Church and remnants of Christianity that are still deeply part of her” but what she didn’t miss was theology that says we must, and I quote, “crawl on our bellies and repent.” Repentance is hard for us. It is not easy for us to admit that we aren’t perfect, that we are unable to help ourselves, that we keep making the same mistakes over and over again – or maybe that’s just me!
Like the people in the passage from Luke, it’s hard for us to humble ourselves and recognize that we need God’s forgiveness, and that we are dependent on God to put us on the right path. Repentance is a hard pill to swallow, and usually during Lent we get to hear a lot about it! Last week Orv talked about sin; this week I’m talking about repentance… I don’t know about you, but I’m already looking forward to Easter!
Repentance was an inescapable and integral part of Jesus’ message, and it’s what John the Baptist preached in preparation for the coming of Jesus, but it’s not exclusive to Christian theology to think that to do better in your life you need to acknowledge what you’re doing wrong. In Christian theology, to receive God’s forgiveness and to become followers of Jesus, we must first be willing to repent, that is, acknowledge our fallen condition, our need for forgiveness, our need for Jesus – “I’m desperate for you; I’m lost without you” – and then that acknowledgment of our need for forgiveness is turned into action – “fruit” – when we turn around from the path we’re on and follow Jesus’ path instead.
The response that the woman gave in the Observer article showed tremendous short-sightedness, and I felt sorry for her when I read it. She completely misunderstood what repentance means and what it does for us: repentance is what gives us freedom. You see, when we really understand who Jesus is, when we really understand how much he loves us, how much he sacrificed for us, how much he wants to give us, it truly is humbling. It is not a sacrifice to be humble in the presence of a person who we trust and who we know will love us at all cost.
God’s idea of repentance was never that we should, as she says, “crawl on our bellies” just so that we would wallow in our own misery and feel like dirt. No, when we are crawling that is precisely when Jesus himself takes our hand, picks us up and carries us. It is when our own resources have run out, that Jesus steps in with all of the resources of Heaven and Earth to set us back on our feet. Repentance is just acknowledging that we need to reach out and take that hand.
From his call to the people to repent, in this morning’s passage, Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree that is not bearing fruit and should be cut down. As we read it, it becomes clear that the story of the fig tree is more than a story about a tree that deserves to become firewood; it’s a story about God’s divine patience and His desire to give second chances to all those who will reach out and take it. While the tree has shown no sign of deserving it, God freely and easily offers another opportunity for it to bear fruit.
Attending to one’s relationship with God is of utmost urgency, and yet God is ever so patient with a fig tree that may yet bear fruit. This particular tree has not given any fruit for three years – the length of time of Jesus’ ministry amongst them – and it is therefore wasting good soil that could be used by another plant. Yet, God is willing to be patient; He desires to tend to that tree and work on it so that it may yet bear fruit and be saved.
Cultivating and fertilizing the tree is a symbol of God’s mercy. The gardener does not let it sit there for another year and wait to see if it will bear fruit on its own. Rather, he actively tries to encourage the tree to bear fruit, digging around the root, putting down a little manure to fertilize it. Just a little manure is all it needs. The tree, if it could talk, might say it didn’t like what was happening to it, that it stinks; but the gardener knows exactly what it needs to be strong and healthy, and provides it with all the necessary conditions for good and fruitful growth.
Sometimes just a little manure is all we need too. God in Christ grants all of us more than just one second chance at life. After three years of Jesus’s ministry, when the expected fruit in Israel still did not appear, Jesus was undeterred, offering himself to be cut down instead, and continuing to nurture us with the Word, confident in our forthcoming fruit. In digging ‘round it and putting manure on it, he will give it what it needs. He will give it his life if necessary. Jesus trusts the power of his actions to nurture good fruit. He is eager to give another chance.
We all get a little manure dumped into our lives, right? Christians and non-Christians alike face injustices, struggles, tragedies, and trials. How we react to these tragedies determines our spiritual growth. Is the manure just a pile of …manure or is it fertilizing your heart and calling you back to God, so that He can pick you up, strengthen you, and set you back on your feet so that your life will bear fruit for God’s kingdom? When life seems to hand you a pile of manure, turn to God. You may not understand it in the moment, but he will patiently and tenderly take you through it and fill your life with good fruit.
God wants us to live healthy, fruitful lives, and gives us everything that we need to do that. While repentance is a necessary precondition, God is patient, and gives us every opportunity and all of the conditions that we need to turn our lives back to Him.
Jesus’s Word has power in our lives. Whatever fear we may face, Jesus’s word has greater power. God set a limit on Satan’s power (see Job 1:12), and the greatest limit is Easter, the defeat of death.