A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on March 13 2022 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for address: Luke 13: 1-9
Not long ago I was talking with a woman who’d led her organisation through the pandemic. She told me what it was like: a now-familiar story of furlough, redundancies, financial hardship, improvisation, patience, and slow rebuilding. It sounded resilient and well-thought-out, and I was impressed. But I thought I’d ask one more question. ‘What was it really like?’ She shook her head, and tried to speak, but had to pause and shook her head silently. Her voice broke slightly, and I saw a tear surface in the corner of one eye. ‘I had to become two people,’ she said. ‘I had to be the colleague and friend and co-worker; and then I had to be the hard-nosed unfeeling executive. It didn’t do them any good to see what I was really feeling. So I took feelings elsewhere. But I couldn’t find an elsewhere. So I went for a long walk. Three days in, I fell apart, and was shaking, and my mind was full of panic and pain, and I had no faith, no logic, no trust in the next day, or even the next hour.’ I asked, ‘What did you do then?’ She replied, ‘I went to see my mum. I always looked up to her. Now she’s got a condition of the nervous system that takes away some of her inhibitions. So when I told her how I was feeling, and tried to hide my tears, she burst out in great moans and convulsive sobs. She saw exactly how I was feeling and expressed it so much more vividly than me. It was terrible, but in a way, it was also good. Because from that moment I didn’t feel so alone. I saw her distress, but she’d made my story part of a much wider story of pain and loss. In some strange way she took the agony from my stomach into hers.’
I felt this woman was describing to me the whole of the pandemic – the effort to carry on regardless, knowing that it was worse for others than for you, and the more private bewilderment and howling distress, lingering beneath the surface, needing to come out to be shared, understood and healed. Today’s gospel reading from Luke 13 offers us three apparently unrelated stories. But they’re in fact deeply connected, and I think the words of the woman who told me how the pandemic was for her can give us the key to the connection between those three stories.
Jesus divides human suffering into two kinds. He considers two notorious events that had evidently happened in Jerusalem in recent memory. The first kind is suffering that comes about through human malevolence. Pontius Pilate had ruthlessly punished some Galileans, taking the sacrifices they’d brought to the temple, killing them and mixing their blood with those sacrifices, thus being not just merciless, but at the same time sacrilegious. The second kind is suffering that just happens, because of bad luck or human error. There was a pool in Jerusalem called Siloam that’s there to this day, and evidently there’d been a tower beside it, which had collapsed and killed 18 people. This was sad and terrible, and today there’d be a public enquiry, but it was different from what happened with the Galileans. It may have been partly due to neglect; but it wasn’t deliberate – it was unfortunate.
We’ve been through a two-year pandemic, and now we find ourselves in a European war. Ukraine is like Pilate and the Galileans – it’s caused by human action and deliberate intent. Covid is like the tower of Siloam – it’s unfortunate, but no one’s deliberate fault. Notice what Jesus says and doesn’t say about these two kinds of suffering. What he doesn’t do is go into a long theoretical exploration of the nature and origin of evil. What he does instead is tell a story. He tells a story about manure.
Manure happens. It’s an expression better known in a more vivid form. There’s a joke about how different religions express their relation to the expression ‘Manure happens.’ Hindus say, ‘This manure happened before.’ Catholics say, ‘If manure happens, I probably deserve it.’ Jews say, ‘Why does manure happen to me?’ Seventh Day Adventists say, ‘Manure happens on a Saturday.’ Jehovah’s Witnesses say, ‘People now living will see manure happen.’ Marxists say, ‘You know what? This manure’s going to hit the fan.’
Jesus doesn’t make jokes about manure. He says, ‘A man had a fig tree planted. But no fruit came from the tree. For three years he found no fruit. He told the gardener to cut it down. But the gardener said, ‘Give it one more year. I’m going to put manure on it. If it doesn’t bear fruit next year – then you can cut it down.’
One of the strangest features of covid-19 is that people lose their sense of smell. Smell is so evocative. You just get a whiff of spice, or bubblegum, or a nappy, or a brewery, and it can take you back across continents, across years, and evoke experiences you’d otherwise forgotten. There’s nothing like an intense exposure to the smell of manure. It somehow gets into your nose so that you can still smell it hours later. If we’re to understand these three stories, about malevolent suffering, unfortunate suffering, and the fig tree, the key to understanding them is the word manure.
What happens with manure is that animals dump their droppings, those droppings are then gathered up and turned into fertiliser, and that fertiliser provides nutrients to aid the growth of vegetation. Finally the animals eat the vegetation. It’s a model form of recycling. It’s what the film The Lion King calls the circle of life. The key point of these three stories is to see how the two kinds of suffering constitute a kind of manure. Manure happens. Sometimes manure happens because someone caused it. Sometimes manure happens because … it just happens. Either way, these stories are saying that such miserable, painful and distressing parts of our lives can become the soil out of which new life comes. You can let it just be manure, and look at it, resent its smell, see it as dirt, soiling everything around it, and try to get far enough away from it so you can’t smell it anymore. Or you can put it to use to bring about new life and growth.
The word manure comes from the same root as manufacture and manoeuvre. They all refer to things you do with your manus, or hand, to manipulate (another such word) things to become useful. The parable’s saying, don’t just stare at the fig tree and complain and despair. Take the manure that has happened in your life and put it to work to give this tree a new life. The miracle of life is that out of the manure and dirt of the soil comes fruit and hope and delight. But you have to participate in that process, to let your experience become part of its miraculous transformation. Remember how, by telling her mother about the struggle of the pandemic, my conversation partner enabled her mother to express its true horror, and thus began the process of healing.
One night in 1932, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote some notes in his diary, as he was accustomed to do, reflecting on his day. Contemplating his decision to leave Germany and remain in America, he wrote, ‘The victor in the day of crisis is the one who has the serenity to accept what cannot be helped and the courage to change what must be altered.’ These words became a recurring theme in his theological writing. Nine years later, in 1941, they were published in the Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces. By this time the words had become a prayer. Ten years later they were adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous, eventually crystallising into the well-known form, ‘God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’
While associated with twelve-step recovery programmes, these words challenge all of us in the face of suffering. The parable is inviting each of us to recognise the adversity in our lives as manure. Some of it we can do nothing with; we need serenity to accept it. But some we can find courage to put to work as fertiliser to grow a fig tree. Remember the owner of the vineyard said, ‘This tree is useless, cut it down.’ But the gardener said, ‘No, what we haven’t yet done is integrate into its life all the negative experience of our lives, and let the soil and the tree work their miracle. We have to allow ourselves to see those experiences not as waste but as fuel.’ Imagine standing in front of two wheelie bins: the parable says, ‘Don’t drop it into landfill. Put it into recycling.’ The gardener says, ‘Give it time. It’s not easy. Give it a year. It won’t happen overnight.’
But this parable isn’t just an encouragement to let nothing in life to go to waste and to find courage to let our manure become fertiliser for the growth of others. There’s something else here. It’s a story about a tree. When we realise that these three stories describe all the evil and the sadness of the world and how they find their resolution in a tree, we see what this story is really about. Jesus is the one who says, ‘Give the tree of life a chance.’ Jesus is the one who’s lifted up on that tree. Jesus is the one who takes all the manure of the world, the vile intention and the sad misfortune, into himself on the tree. Through his life and death, manure turns to fruit. And some while later, women do come back to that place early in the morning to see whether the gardener has done his work. They witness what takes place when all the manure of the history of the world has been taken into that tree and transformed into the fruit of salvation. It’s called resurrection.
This looks like a story of judgement. It looks like a statement that we could all be those Galileans, we could all be those crushed by the tower of Siloam, so we’d better use this time of Lent to face our mortality and confess our sins and make ourselves ready to face our God. But beyond that it’s an invitation. It’s an invitation to take the same risk that woman I spoke to took: to share our deepest sorrow and sharpest pain the way she did with her mother, and so permit the Holy Spirit to make our manure part of the miracle of God’s fruitfulness. It’s not a process we undergo alone. For in Christ, God becomes the tree that takes all the manure of the world up into itself, and by the miracle at the heart of all things, turns its smell, its damage, its vileness and agony into fruit that will delight and feed and thrill and satisfy us and all God’s creation. For evermore.