Why the Manure?

Luke 13:1-9

What makes you angry?

In college I had a roommate who made me angry.

Scott was the quintessential only child.  His mother had always picked up after him, apparently; and done his laundry; and his dishes; and cooked for him.  And, apparently, he figured his new roommates would show him the same treatment.

I didn’t know this about him when he and I and two other guys agreed to rent an apartment together.  But I figured this out by Christmas break.  So did my other two roommates.

In the academic quarter following Christmas, Scott decided to PELP.  That is, he took advantage of UC Davis’s Planned Educational Leave Program, to take a quarter—or two—or a year—off to write a book.

In other words, he stayed in the apartment for long hours on end playing computer games and dirtying vast, vast quantities of dishes.  Oh, and maybe he’d put in an hour a day on his book.  Maybe.

Anyway, this behavior began to annoy me.  My other roommates too.  Especially Brian, who shared a room with Scott.

It became particularly maddening for Brian when he couldn’t even walk across the floor of his room to climb into his bed because of the plates, bowls, silverware, glasses, and mugs that lay everywhere strewn like so much shrapnel.

Brian began to sleep regularly on the living room couch.

So, our temporary solution was to hide a single place setting each—one plate, bowl, glass, mug, fork, knife, and spoon—where Scott wouldn’t find them and let him deal with the rest of his mess.

Still, this made me angry.  Why did we have to take such measures just to enjoy a hot meal?  The injustice!

So what makes you angry?

Is it something petty, like dealing with a messy roommate, or like someone cutting you off on the freeway?  Hey, I feel you.

Or, maybe, it’s something more substantial, something like politics.  Do we have to listen to someone spout off their ideals seemingly every night these days, ideals we just know are going to mess everything up more than it already is?

Or maybe it’s something deadly serious, like ISIS or mass shootings.  There’s evil in the world.  But ours is the land of the free and the home of the brave!  Why can’t we do something to stop it—and preferably before war comes to our shores?

Kind of makes you want to go out after church and eat a nice, thick, juicy Anger Burger.

You know, made of 100% certified Anger beef, it’s one of seven offerings on the menu of Deadly Sins, that new yet timeless restaurant on the other side of town.

Granted, by itself, the Anger Burger is a little strong, a little difficult to stomach.  To enjoy it by itself requires something of an acquired taste.  But, oh, when it’s covered in a healthy helping of sautéed self-righteousness—mmmmmm, delicious!

Yes, that self-righteousness sauce helps you say angry things yet maintain an air of superiority.  So it’s okay.

You say things like, “Can you believe her audacity?  Who does she think she is?”

Or things like, “Did you hear about his addiction?  One thing’s for sure: I won’t be spending much time with him anymore, not if I can help it anyway.”

Mmmmmmmmm, so good!

So good, that is, until you learn there’s a secret ingredient added to the self-righteousness sauce during Lent—the Lenten special.

Right now, during this particular season in the Christian year, Anger Burgers are a little different.  Right now, during this time of the year when we omit “alleluia” from our vocabulary, there’s something about the sautéed self-righteousness that tastes a little funny, a little off.

You’re just sure of it.

So you ask your food server about it.

And he says, “Oh, didn’t you know?  During Lent we mix some manure into it.”

“I’m sorry,” you say; “I’m not sure I heard you right.  Did you say manure?”

He stares at you incredulously for a moment before answering, “Um, yeah!  Duh!” like it’s obvious.

Confound Lent!  It’s always messing with the menu!  We give up chocolate.  We give up beer.  And now we’ve got to give up our delicious Anger Burgers smothered in self-righteousness sauce!  (Unless, of course, you’d like to try to stomach the manure!)

What we’d really like to say is:

“Hey, Jesus, did you hear about what Pilate did to our Galilean people?  They were in the very Temple, a place where Pagans aren’t even allowed.  And yet he waltzes right in and cuts them to pieces right there at the altar.  Can you believe it?  The audacity!  Doesn’t that just make you angry!”

We want Jesus to be self-righteously angry and superior right along with us.

We’d also like to say:

“Hey, Jesus, have you heard about ISIS?  Why do you allow it?  Why do you allow such evil to take place in our world?  You’re God, after all; so why don’t you do something about it?”

Or:

“Hey, Jesus, what about all the shootings we keep hearing about?  It’s sheer idiocy!  Do something, quickly.”

Or:

“Hey, Jesus, why does my sister have cancer?  She’s lived such a good life!  Why do you have to take her?  Why can’t you take someone else instead, someone like ol’ Benedict over there?  He’s been drinking, smoking, and cussing for ninety-seven years.  It’s just not fair!  Am I right?”

All this is what we’d like to say to Jesus.

But we don’t.

Because it’s Lent.

And we can’t.

Because of the manure.

Then Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Now there are different ways to interpret this parable.

One interpretation says that we, as Christ’s disciples, are the vinedressers.  Both as individuals and churches, we are the ones who must do the hard work of digging and aerating the soil; and the smelly and dirty work of spreading the manure with our hands, of mixing our sweat with the dirt and muck of the world until it is wedged into our fingernails.  We are called to do the difficult work of preserving and tending to the sterile tree in the hopes that it will produce fruit.

Another interpretation, however, says that Christ is the vinedresser and his disciple is the tree.  In this picture, Jesus Christ mixes his sweat with the muck and dirt and manure of the world!  And, as for us, his disciples, we are effectively stuck in a pile of manure.

So, which interpretation do you like better?

As for me, I like the second one.  Not only is it a wonderful picture of the incarnation—of God mixing his sweat with the world’s muck—but also it offers a better insight into repentance, which is really what this whole episode is about.

But here’s the thing.  Whichever interpretation you happen to like better, in both cases we can’t escape the manure!  In the first, our hands are covered in it; in the second, we’re buried up to our knees in it.

Let’s face it: manure is a part of our earthly sojourn!

Why is there evil in the world?  Why do politics make us so angry?  Why does a family member have cancer?  Why ISIS?  Why mass shootings?  Why all the manure?

I don’t know!

But it’s here.  We have to deal with it.  It’s a fact of life.

And I do know this: through it—whether our hands are dirty with it or we’re buried up to our knees in it—through it Jesus works with us so that we might bear fruit.

Will you harden your roots to the manure all around you and remain a sterile tree?  Or will you allow the muck, sweat, and dirt that everywhere surrounds you—and the manure—to work new life within?

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