This week, my Facebook memories were full of pictures and reflections on life in the early days of COVID shutdown. There were photos of Rick and Linda’s earliest live-stream setup right there in the crossing. There was a post from outside Kroger, waiting with 25 others for it to open at 7am so we could buy toilet paper. My favorite was the whiteboard in the Conference Room with a 90-day plan to reopen and blow the doors off with brass at Pentecost. Oh, March 2020 Steve, how naïve you were. This year, unlike last March when these memories rolled through, I found myself feeling a little bit nostalgic for how life slowed down, frustrated with how long it has taken us to get beyond COVID’s disruptions, and hopeful for what the future might hold. That hope is built upon our ongoing work to bring this parish back to its active and full life.
Of course, starting back from a standstill takes a while, and it requires us to use muscles that we haven’t used in a long time. Like getting back into exercise, we are slowing building, being very careful not to hurt ourselves. For example, the Alleluia banner that will beautifully adorn the nave on Easter Day, still isn’t fully colored in. We haven’t been stressing about that because people are back in the building most days, and we can get some help from adults who like to color. Monday night, I got a text from Karen Crabtree as EfM was wrapping up. Marker had bled through the paper and onto the conference table that was just refinished last year. I think most of us know Karen well enough to know that she was feeling a little anxious about the mess. She had checked several times to be sure that the markers weren’t bleeding through, and yet, it happened. My response, from the comfort of my own living room, was more joyful, “It means our church is alive. I’ll take messy tables every day of the week,” I wrote back. Karen, in her wisdom, quickly responded, “Life is messy.”
Gosh if that isn’t true. Life, in all its shapes and forms, is messy. From birth to death and everything in between, life is messy, and while there are several different lessons we could draw from our Gospel lesson this morning, this week, my take is that Jesus knows all too well just how messy life can be. The lesson begins with a classic question of theodicy. Why do bad things happen? More specifically, why do bad things happen to good people? The Galileans whom Pilate had killed were offering their sacrifices to God. How could God not have spared their lives? The eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell, why them? In our context, I can’t help but think about the 475 families whose homes saw significant damage during the December tornado. Were they somehow deserving of the heartache and headache while two blocks away, I had internet back the next morning? Jesus won’t even entertain the question. Focusing on what others did or didn’t do to deserve the hardships in their lives is futile, Jesus says. His response is simply a call to repentance lest we too should die unprepared. If life is as fragile as it seems given the stories of the Galileans killed by Pilate and the 18 crushed by the tower of Siloam, then we would do well to get to work producing the fruit of repentance: showing signs of a life committed to the Kingdom of God rather than self-preservation.
In typical Jesus’ fashion, he makes his point by way of a parable about something in nature. This time, it is a fig tree that after three years of growth, has yet to produce fruit. The landowner, growing tired with a tree that is at least two harvests behind schedule, calls on the gardener to cut it down so that it no longer wastes the good soil in which it was planted. The gardener, the one who has been tending to this particular tree for three years, knows its potential. The gardener can see that it needs conditions that are just a little bit better than the other trees around it, and so they ask the landowner for a stay of execution. Give it one more year. I’ll dig around it, give it plenty of manure, and hopefully next season it will produce fruit. The gardener put their money on dirt, manure, and sweat to bring about fullness of life – albeit messy, messy life – to that fig tree.
I learned a lot about this kind of messy life back in 2008. The grass in south Alabama is not like the beautiful, lush lawns we have up here. Zoysia and Centipede might grow in the sandy soil, but they are rough, ugly, and hard to maintain. So, when my parents moved down there, into a brand-new house with a freshly sodded lawn, my dad wanted to everything he could to maintain it. He asked around at the Ace Hardware and learned that the best fertilizer he could use on the garbage grass in his yard was turkey manure. Early in the growing season, so like February in south Alabama, dad spread a few bags of turkey poop on his lawn, watered it per the instructions, and waited for it to do its work. What the helpful folks at Ace failed to mention was that no matter the season down there, the sun is really, really hot. Do you know what turkey manure does when it is met by the really hot sun? It stinks. It stinks to high heaven. It makes you want to sell your house and move a thousand miles away; it smells so bad. While you didn’t want anything to do with that yard through most of the spring, it was as lush and as green as a builders’ grade centipede lawn could be.
Life is messy, and the things we use to bring about abundant life are even messier. When Jesus uses this parable of a fig tree surrounded by manure, he is affirming the messiness of life and giving us permission to live into the mess. Like our parish restarting after COVID shutdown, each of us have, in our own lives, gone through fits and starts in our discipleship. Sometimes, fruit is being produced with ease, but often, our own spiritual lives need to be tended to with great care. Sometimes, with just a little advice of the helpful folks at ACE, we can make these adjustments on our own. At other times, like the fig tree, we need someone outside of ourselves to roll up their sleeves, offer their time and talent, and be unafraid to get dirty.
That second route is, I think, what congregations are here for. We are here to support one another. By we, I don’t just mean the clergy. Nor do I mean just the staff. Nor do I just mean those who are seen as leaders. It is the job of all of us to support one another in the messiness of life; to pray for each other; and to encourage one another. It’s messy, this caring for each other thing, but it is the gift of community. Sometimes, marker will leak through. Sometimes, the turkey manure might try to stink us out of relationship, but as good gardeners in God’s Kingdom, we are committed to sticking it out in the hopes of producing fruit that endures and becoming the beloved community that Jesus came to build. Life is messy, but thankfully, we have help in each other to carry us through. Amen.