|This photo is entitled "Fig Tree Jerusalem" and pictures not yet ripe figs among the wide green fig leaves.|
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
March 24, 2019
Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9
Yesterday Mary and Eric Walker and I attended “Roots & Wings” the annual gathering of the Puget Sound Missional District. The theme this year was
“Love Thy Neighbor” and one of the overarching messages of the day was
the speed of change in our world today. We really don’t need to be patient
any more – or so it seems. Everything these days seems to be about speed
and convenience. The basic parameters of culture are rapidly changing, and
the church doesn’t seem to keep pace. It could be summarized with the
phrase “shift happens.” We need to be careful about how we say that don’t
we? Remember that: shift happens. Fortunately for us, God is patient. God
Let me share a definition. Try to guess what is being defined.
1640s, “purification of the mind or soul”; 1650s, “act or process of
separating from sediment or residue, a cleansing from impurities,”
to “cleanse from residue, purify.”
It sounds a little like what we do in Lent, doesn’t it? It’s part of the self-
emptying process – a kind of Spring cleaning of the soul in preparation for
our focus on the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry as he turns toward
Jerusalem on his journey into the heart of God. With Jesus, we are scuttling
the baggage that is unnecessary – or even an impediment to – that journey.
There is something so satisfying, such a sense of wholeness, when we only
carry enough. With open hands, we can respond to the exigencies of the day
and the unexpected needs of neighbors or strangers.
Especially the baggage that is “more than enough.” My mom used to say the
best advice she ever received about packing for a journey was to take half
as much stuff as you think you’ll need, and twice as much money. Well,
even money can be unnecessary baggage – a burden that is often too great
to manage or to bear.
So, is it time now to reveal the word that I defined at the outset, and the
title of my sermon for today? (Those who are reading this in print already
know the answer!) Defecation. It’s true that since the mid-Nineteenth
Century, defecation and feces have referred primarily to animal excrement.
But the older definition – “to purify” – predates the New Testament. I know
that there are certain things you don’t expect to hear in a sermon, and, well,
poop is probably one of them. But the bible is not silent on the topic. Take
Deuteronomy 23 for instance. That chapter begins with these words:
“No male whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is severed may enter
the assembly of YHWH.”
Verses 12-14 read thus:
“Designate a place outside the camp where you may go to relieve yourself.
Make trowels a part of your standard equipment; when you squat, you are
to dig a hole with the trowel, and then turn and cover your excrement. For
YHWH, your God, moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver
your enemies to you. Your camp must therefore be holy, so that God will not
see among you anything indecent and turn away from you.”
It seems that we should avoid having God step in our poop. But two further
ideas occur to me. First is that our own waste is a metaphor for humility.
Like the children’s book says, “Everybody poops.” It may be a sign of our
hubris that we would rather talk about death and taxes than about our own
excrement. A more recent connection between humility and human waste is
what we seem to be doing to our planet. We are wasting it. We are
extracting more than we need and we are throwing it away, turning our
oceans into plastic graveyards and our skies into photochemical shrouds and
our weather into monsters and the cores and outskirts of our cities into junk
Surely this does not speak to the greatness of humanity as described in
“When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the
stars which you set in place – what is humanity that you should be mindful
of us? Who are we that you should care for us? You have made us barely
less than God, and crowned us with glory and honor. You have made us
responsible for the works of your hands, putting all things at our feet….”
Surely our awesome responsibility for creation and what we have done with
it should be a cause of humility.
Second, the Deuteronomist tells us to humbly, discretely, and sanitarily
dispose of our excrement “outside the camp.” Let’s expand on that. Inside
the camp means amongst our own. Outside the camp means in someone
else’s territory. Now, I’m not suggesting that we bury our dregs in someone
else’s yard. But consider this: the dregs are some of the richest fertilizer
available. When we have been nurtured by the Spirit and nourished by God’s
unconditional love through the living Word, perhaps what comes out in the
end is a gift to be given to help the fig tree thrive. Which brings us to the
Gospel reading about Galileans and fig trees.
God – the self-emptying, the Source, love poured out – God is so patient.
Incredibly patient. Unfathomably patient. God’s patience ranks right up there
with God’s grace, God’s mercy, and God’s unmeasurable, unconditional love.
And God, as revealed in the Gospels, is humble and vulnerable too.
A friend posted an article on her Facebook page on Friday from Breitbart. At
least I thought she was a friend, and I thought an intelligent one, too. The
article was ostensibly reporting the sectarian motivated massacre of 200
Christians by Muslims in Nigeria. We are supposed to be outraged about this,
in part because we are Christians, and supposedly better, purer, and more
faithful than those violent, ruthless Muslims. The article neglected to
mention the previous preemptory attack on Muslims in the same area, or the
fact that the conflict in that case is primarily about economics – an age-old
clash between herders and farmers that predates the arrival of Christianity
or Islam. The sectarian aspect of the conflict is little more than incidental.
We, like the Galilean company of Jesus, are supposed to be outraged about
the plight of the victims who share our identity. Jesus says, “Wait a minute.”
The suffering of a people does not prove or dismiss the righteousness of a
people. God has not allowed this to happen because one side is more holy
than the other. God does not see us and judge us according to our laws and
affiliations, but according to our love and affection. A humble heart – the
kind God exemplifies as righteous – grieves equally over the Galilean and
the Roman, the Muslim, the Christian, and the Jew, the atheist and the
addict. We are all made of the same dirt, enlivened with the same Spirit, and
fertilized with the same… hard life lessons.
Just as excrement signifies something rich in the record of salvation history,
so does the humble fig. In the Hebrew Bible, the fig tree is a symbol of
justice and prosperity, and from the perspective of the Deuteronomist – who
believed that the exile into Babylon was a direct sign of God’s disfavor – the
prosperity represented by the fruitful fig is a sign of faith – a reward for
trusting and following God’s desires – rejecting the allure of rich and
powerful empires and their gods. So, at least on the surface, the barren fig
tree is the sign of a people who have lost their way. The land owner – often
assumed to be God – grows impatient. “Cut it down!” he says. The gardener
– often interpreted as Jesus – intervenes with kindness and patience. He
says, “Why not put some poop on it and see what happens?”
I’m not so sure about the interpretation that the landowner is God and Jesus
is the gardener – for two reasons. First, why would they, who are one with
each other and with the Spirit – one essence and nature – why would they
see the world from such an opposing perspective? That breakdown of
communication within the Trinity is the same kind of thinking that supports
the idea that God would set up salvation to require the execution of God in
order to redeem the pathetic, helpless, and base nature of humanity and
creation. In it’s grand sweep, the Bible doesn’t start that way and it doesn’t
finish that way. It starts with God’s declaration, “It is good. It is very good.”
And it ends with the redeemed creation, fertile and flowing with water, light and song. You see, the fig tree is worth saving. The fig tree is worth waiting for. God
will wait. In the meantime, what do we do with our dregs – the detritus that
remains when we have suffered and struggled, celebrated and prayed –
when we have extracted from the manna and living water just what we need
for the day? We are invited to fertilize the tree of faith with these humbling
lessons. And if our fig trees are doing fine, perhaps we are invited to share
our “stuff” with those who are outside our camp.
I think that sharing looks like this.
It means to listen humbly.
It means to sit with the other until the other becomes us.
God is patient, AND God is no respecter of persons. God will not be satisfied
with one or two fruitful trees. God will wait, and one day, we all will arrive home by the journey into the heart of God.