The Richest of Foods
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?”