Shuck and Jive

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Of Manure and Figs: A Sermon

Of Manure and Figs
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 7th, 2010
Third Sunday in Lent

Bhagavad Gita 3:3-8, 17-19
Isaiah 55:1-9
Luke 13:6-9

...But when a man has found delight and satisfaction and peace in the Atman, then he is no longer obliged to perform any kind of action. He has nothing to gain in this world by action, and nothing to lose by refraining from action. He is independent of everybody and everything. Do your duty, always; but without attachment. That is how a man reaches the ultimate truth; by working without anxiety about results.”
--Bhagavad Gita 3:17-19
6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So 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?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
--Luke 13:6-9

Spring is coming in a couple of weeks. Those of us who have had enough snow are breathing a sigh of relief for that. Worship will be moving into the next theme for Spring which will be the via transformativa or way of justice making. During Winter we are celebrating the via creativa or the way of creativity. These are two of the four paths of Creation Spirituality. We do not participate in them like climbing a ladder but dancing a spiral.

Creativity is something we choose. Creativity is available to everyone. It is not a special gift reserved for the professional artists. Creativity is what it means to be a human being, created in the image of a Creator. Theologian Gordon Kaufman tells us that creativity is the name for God in our time. The very nature of the universe is creativity. It is not designed but surprising. Creativity interacts, responds, bubbles up spontaneously. It is to use a favorite word of Gordon Kaufman, serendipitous, the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.

It is that unexpected creativity that creates life and shapes and changes life. Human beings can choose creativity. That means that we are conscious of our creativity and can choose to participate in creative expression. We can nourish it, disciple it, encourage it, celebrate it, fertilize it, or we can ignore it and let it dry up. We have creativity just because we exist. A carrot has and is the product of creativity. Creativity is within us even if we do nothing but we, unlike carrots, are conscious of creativity and can choose to participate in life creatively.

One of the jumps in creativity in the history of Earth was the creativity of symbolic thought. The development of language was serendipitous creativity. Art, culture, civilization, all came to be because we can think abstractly and use symbols to communicate. Because of language we have been able to manipulate Earth to our favor. In the Bible story, the tower of Babel, the author ponders human creativity. The Lord looks down upon the humans building a tower to the heavens and says:
‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’
In the Bible story there is an ambivalence about human creativity. There is a danger about it. It is a wild unknown. With language humans will cross boundaries, explore frontiers, change ecosystems, and in the words of the PCUSA Brief Statement of Faith, "threaten the planet entrusted to their care."

So in the fable the Lord confuses their language, but we know it is only a stop gap. Creativity has been unleashed and there is no stopping it. Towers of Babel will be built. We will continue to create. The question is: will our creativity result in distributive justice and compassion for Earth and its inhabitants or injustice and self-destruction? The fourth path of Creation Spirituality, the way of justice-making, is essential to our self-understanding and life together. The fourth path invites us to direct our creativity toward compassion and healing.

I want to stay with creativity a bit longer.

The way of creativity is the celebration of language. It is opening ourselves to it, trusting it, exploring it. When I say language I am including music, art, all of human expression. We are not interested in shutting down creativity or muzzling it, shaming it, or repressing it. Just the opposite. We want to embrace and encourage it.

One of the exemplars of this creativity was the historical Jesus. He was a poet. He told parables. Through his parables he offered a glimpse to an alternative way of being which he called the kingdom of God. It didn't take long before his admirers missed his message and turned him into the message instead.

The historical Jesus never thought of himself as the messiah, or the second person of the trinity, or being resurrected, or being God, or dying for anyone's sins, let alone the world's sins. His spirituality was earthy and Earth-based. It was open, trusting, celebratory, and critical of hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

One of his parables that Luke preserves is the parable of the fig tree.

The fig is an important symbol in the Hebrew scriptures. It symbolizes blessing and a hopeful future. A fig tree that bears fruit in season is a sign of grace, life, and hope. A fig tree that does not bear fruit or bears fruit out of season is the sign of a curse.

It is the fruit of romance. From Song of Solomon:
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.
The withering fig tree is the sign of a curse. From Isaiah 33:
All the host of heaven shall rot away,
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall wither
like a leaf withering on a vine,
or fruit withering on a fig tree.
Several times in the Hebrew scriptures, fig trees are the sign of peace and prosperity as in Micah chapter 4:
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
4but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
Sitting under your own fig tree is the most blessed existence one can imagine in the Hebrew scriptures.

In the Garden of Eden the only kind of fruit tree that is named is the fig tree. We have the tree of knowledge and the tree of life but those aren't real trees. Eve and Adam eat a fruit which for some reason we say was an apple, but the text doesn't say that. The only tree named is the fig tree. It is named in this verse:
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
The fig tree is the tree of paradise.

When Jesus tells this parable of the fig tree that has not produced fruit for three years we are already into a story rich with symbolism. It really isn't about figs.

It is about hope.

Good Lord, if we need anything we need hope.

This fig tree is lifeless. It is barren to use a biblical word. For three years it has not produced fruit. In the sense of the parable it should have. The sense here is not that it is not old enough to produce fruit. This is a mature tree that should be producing fruit and it isn't and hasn't done so for three years. It is not likely to do so. It is barren. Keep that word barren in mind.

The owner says,
"Cut it down."
The gardener says,
"No let us give it one more year. I'll dig around it and put some manure on it."
I always look for those opportunities to say manure in sermons. It is an earthy word. It is not a word used often when speaking of divine things. But we should never be too spiritual for manure. Just the use of the word manure in a parable is something a bit unusual. Jesus is having fun. I'm saying "manure" in church! Manure. Manure. Dung. I could go on. But I'll let it go.

And that is it. That's the end of the parable. It ends with manure. What kind of story is that? We don't know if the owner said, "Good idea, let's do that" or "That's a dumb idea, cut it down." We don't know if the gardener did get to keep the fig tree one more year and if the tree did produce figs or not.

It just ends. Can you imagine how frustrated people were with Jesus? No wonder they crucified him. He never finished his darn stories. Tell us what happened to the stupid tree!
"Meh. It is irrelevant."
That is what the rabbis would say to our impertinent questions. The rabbi waves his hands and winks:
"Forget the tree. What are you going to do?"
Serendipitous creativity is unexpected fortune. It is the grace to be open to surprise. The sin against the via creativa the way of creativity is to stifle it with reason.
"We've never done it that way before." "It won't work." "The outlook is hopeless." "This is the only thing we can do."
I said earlier to pay attention to the word barren. The fig tree is barren, unable to give life. One of the themes of the Torah is the woman who is unable to bear children for whatever reason. In Sarah and Abraham's case, they are both 90. They are not the age we think of to start a family.

Jacob's beloved Rachel is unable to have children. Jacob has another wife, also unable to have children and two slave women. Eventually he impregnates all of them. The story is comical. God opening and closing wombs at will.

Later in the saga, Hannah is unable to have a child and Samuel is a gift from God. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a story that fits this pattern.

What the storytellers are telling us is that life is unexpected. Creativity happens. The point of these stories is not to take them at face value. In my view, the stories of the Bible, particularly these stories of creativity and life in the midst of barren and hopeless situations, are expressions of sensitivity to something very real.

They saw life as being surprisingly creative. Serendipitous creativity. The stories including the story of the barren fig tree are told to invite us to look to life with hope not despair.

You would have to be in a coma not to be aware of the dire straights Earth and human beings are in at this time in history. The challenges facing civilization are huge. Civilization is as likely to survive as this barren fig tree is as likely to bear fruit next year.

We can choose now to be like the owner and say,
"Cut it down. There is no hope. It is worthless."
Or we can be like the gardener and not give up just yet on creativity.

Let's keep manure-ing a little while longer.

Martin Luther famously said that if it were the last day on Earth he would still plant a tree.

In the Bhagavad Gita (the song of God) Krishna tells Arjuna to do his duty without attachment to the results.

Wise words these. They keep us hopeful. They keep us joyful. They keep us creative. They keep us in the game. That is all we really are asked to do. Stay in the game. Show up.

The serendipitous creativity of the universe has happened before.

Many, many times.

It will happen again.

Keep manure-ing.


  1. A couple of comments, one rude and the other thoughtful

    1. (From Monty Python) What's brown and sounds like a bell? Dung!

    2. Bruggeman says that the reason for the change of languages at the tower of Babel was that humans were all staying together for mutual support and thereby not trusting God. Further God wants diversity in human culture and for humans to spread throughout the earth referring back to Gen. 1 "fill the earth and subdue it.

  2. While the appeal to diversity is modern and hip on Brueggemann's part, I am not sure if the "God" character here is quite so sophisticated or altruistic.

    I think "God" here is scared that human beings are going to take over his heaven. It is the paranoid God of Genesis 3 who wants immortality all for himself:

    Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’— 23therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden...

    One of the interesting things about these stories in Genesis 1-11 is that "God" is ambiguous in regards to goodness.

    Can we really call the god of the Noah story good? A bumbler at best.

    While I learned a fideistic interpretation of these stories and the rest of the Bible stories (God is always right) I find that they are much more interesting and open-ended when we allow "God" to be a character who has to learn who he is and what his limits are as he struggles with these human beings whose creativity is out of his control.

    Through and through it is a human story of a people wrestling with mystery.

  3. Thanks @David and @SeaRaven

    Knew you'd like that shit.

  4. I certainly prefer manure to BS!

  5. Reminds me of:

    "Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
    Say that your main crop is the forest
    that you did not plant,
    that you will not live to harvest.
    Say that the leaves are harvested
    when they have rotted into the mold.
    Call that profit. Prophesy such returns."

    Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front" from The Country of Marriage, by Wendell Berry.

  6. Gorgeous. I'm stealing it for an article I'm writing for the Martinsburg Journal.

  7. I think it goes well beyond Genesis 1-11. One of my favorite stories from the Exodus narrative is the one where God gets angry at the people of Israel for some complaining they do and God basically says "Get out of the way Moses cause I've had it and I'm going to let them have it! And I'll make a new nation out of your descendants." Moses says, "Now calm down God. If you kill off all these people what will the Egyptians think?" And God changed his mind. Interesting sentence for Calvinists isn't it? God changed his mind.

  8. Brilliant Sermon, John. You really have a gift for making me think about things in new and different ways.

    Speaking about trees, I have 2 passages to offer from Buddhist sages and a reflection of my own:

    May I be the wishing jewel, the vase of wealth,
    A word of power and the supreme healing,
    May I be the tree of miracles,
    For every being the abundant cow.
    -- — Shantideva, Way of the Bodhisattva, Chapter Three, Bodhicitta (v 20)

    The grand old pine stood serenely,
    Immersed in that celestial music,
    Moment by moment, steady,
    A stalwart guardian of the endless
    Stream nurturing it.
    Strong and solid,
    Unmoving at its thick base,
    Its long, soft needles swaying
    Gently as feathers in warm wind.
    Alive it was, and unfolding as the
    Present, retaining only the flow,
    Nothing more.
    - Ji Aoi Isshi
    (todays selection)

    I seek to be in that natural flow of energy -- strong and solid -- which connects us and creates the abundance of our everyday lives in all so many different branches and songs and cries for help.

    love, john + + "The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire." -- Teilhard de Chardin

  9. Thank you John!

    Good quotes today from Wendell Berry and the Buddhists--that was a blues group I think. : )