Homily for Soup & Bread, March 23, 2019
The ridiculous deposit of snow at our house—two feet plus—has finally melted. Then Spring arrived with eighty-degree temperatures. Boy, were we ready! We got back Sunday from a soul-filling weekend on Lopez Island with my daughter Leah and John and Hannah. We stopped by Tractor Supply on the way home and bought blueberry starts. On arrival at Lake Joy, we headed out back to root them down in the half-whiskey-barrels just inside our garden.
Last year we decorated our little plot with antique bottles Lucas brought up from the lake bottom. Some past owner of our property drank lots of Jim Beam—and something out of old glass bleach bottles. Maybe they were moonshiners!
The freeze took its toll on those treasures. I noticed a crack in one and, as I picked it up, it fell in pieces. One by one I lifted the others, and they did the same. Only one unbroken bottle was left. I took the shards, dumped them in the blue bin, and the recycle truck took them away Wednesday morning. Who knows what will come of them, but their useful days are over.
Our Gospel reading in Luke 13 includes a vignette about a fruitless fig tree. There are two human characters: The landowner has no patience with the useless bush—and orders it immediately uprooted and thrown out, like the glass in the garden, so that the yard-waste truck would haul it away on Wednesday morning.
The caretaker, though, has an investment in the tree, and isn’t ready to burn it. What he suggests is not so final—but is nonetheless a painful process. He proposes digging around the roots and piling on fertilizer. He sees that the only way to save the tree—to help it become strong and fruitful—is to take a hard hoe and a sharp shovel and to cut through the plant’s roots.
He tears them from their settled place in the soil, ripping rhizomes, opening raw wounds, jarring the plant loose. If you’ve worked a garden, you know this is risky. It has as high a likelihood of killing the plant as it does of saving it. Finally, the steward mounds manure over the torn tendrils, and walks away… for a year.
I can’t help but identify with that little tree. And I wonder if you might, too.
The spiritual journey often leads to these moments. We think we’re fine, then out of seeming-nowhere life comes with hard hoe and sharp shovel and rips our roots from the settled soil, jarring us loose from everything we count on. Then it walks and leaves us bleeding. Ever been there? I have.
This parable presents two alternatives: Either we are in the hands of the landowner, who is ready to call us worthless and discard us without second thought; or we belong to the caretaker, who knows that the way to nurture us into flourishing trees is through a painful process of cutting and digging. We might wish for a third alternative—maybe the leave-me-alone-and-let-me-become-fruitful-without-any-pain option—but no such thing is offered us.
As we consider God’s role in suffering, it is common to cast God as the landowner—eager to throw us on the burn pile if we don’t straighten up. That is a huge error! That is not who God is. God is not out to destroy us. God is restorative and redemptive: he desires to heal, forgive, and make us vibrant. God is not the landowner; he’s the caretaker.
That’s God’s role: His caretaking, though deeply painful at times, is given to make us alive, to make us life-giving.
That’s God’s role; what’s ours—our response to the caregiver’s painful caregiving?
Our parable springboards off an obscure conversation about undeserved suffering in which Jesus suggests that what is required of us in the face of all this is “repentance,” a word so misshapen by millennia of religious distortion that its original nuance is barely detectable.
The Greek word here is metánoia, which comes from two roots. Meta is a flexible pronoun with a range of meaning including “after” and “beyond,” which gives rise to the idea of change—the state of being something occupies after or beyond some event.
Nóos (nó - os) means mind or thinking—an English cognate is noetic. It is not just the cold act of rational thinking. It’s not just math. Nóos is about perception of the world through our senses, and includes emotional responses, too.
So metánoia means to change your thinking: not just your opinions and conclusions, but your whole way of grasping, grappling with, and responding to the world. Besides “repent,” metánoia is sometimes rendered in English as “convert,” another overused and misused term we can hardly hear anymore.
So, here’s the question: “What sort of change of mind, perception, or response to the world is called for in this passage?”
One common misconception in contemporary Christianity is the idea that, if we do everything right, if we follow the prescribed path (marry a like-minded Christian, are diligent in our work, serve our church, raise our kids according to Dr. Dobson and “Love and Logic”), then everything will work out well for us. We behave: God rewards.
This, my friends, is not the gospel.
I didn’t think I thought it was. Then, half a decade ago, the sharp shovel and the hard hoe hit my roots and rhizomes, and the manure was piled on. My marriage dissolved. I found myself alone, and I shouted out to God, “Where are you!!” It was visceral. I felt like someone had taken a shovel, scooped out my chest, and tossed it on the compost pile to rot.
It took me a lot of inward-looking prayer, and talking with pastors, counselors, and spiritual directors, before I realized I had to repent of my skewed understanding of God.
I thought that God rewarded the good and that I was one of them. If I was good, why was I being rewarded with… this?!
Again: This, my friends, is not the gospel!
This is: “In this world you will have tribulation; but never fear, I have overcome the world.”
And this: God is caretaker, willing to use viscerally painful means to nurture you and me into the flourishing people we were created to be.
Pain and loss are in God’s tool-chest, just like power-saws and lawnmowers are on a landscaper’s truck.
My repentance meant I had to leave that false construction behind and embrace a completely different worldview.
I brought up the word conversion a little earlier. In Benedictine spirituality, conversion is not a one-time event where we go from being non-religious to identifying as Christians. Instead, it is something expected to happen in us repeatedly. It is intrinsic to the growth process. Think of it like cognitive development, but in the spiritual realm. Instead of cognitive dissonance; we experience spiritual dissonance. We grow for a time, then we hit crisis. Pressing through the crisis requires setting aside old ways of perceiving and responding to reality, and adopting whole new ways of being and thinking. Faith to faith, and glory to glory.
In response to this passage, then, how shall we repent? How shall we be converted?
I’ve entitled this homily: “The Richest of Foods,” from our Psalm, “My soul is satisfied as with the richest of foods,” and from our Isaiah reading, “Eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.”
It seems too crass to say, “God has piled manure on your roots, now your job is to soak it in”! That brings new meaning to “the richest of foods”!
Instead, perhaps we should say, “Your life has been shaken up and God is challenging you to a brand-new perspective. Your roots are tender. You’re not quite so solidly embedded in your old soil as before.”
Drink the fresh clean water of God’s word.
Gobble up life-giving nutrients through reflection and deep prayer.
Engage wholeheartedly in God’s community, and let that community heal and transform you.
Get out into the needs of your community and serve.
Abandon yourself to worship God, basking in the light of God’s glorious presence.
Feast on the richest of foods.
And do it on purpose.
This is what we mean by spiritual practice: intentionally feasting on God as a way of life.