Sunday, March 28, 2010

No More Crosses (3/28/2010 Palm/Passion)

No More Crosses
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Palm/Passion Sunday
March 28th, 2010

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Luke 23:1-49

Religion is like sausage. The trick we learn early is just to enjoy it and don't ask too many questions about how it was made.

I admit I do spend a lot of time analyzing religion's entrails and I am not sure if doing so whets my appetite. Here is a for instance. Do you ever wonder why the execution of Jesus became such an important story?

In my office I have a collection of sermons and writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I also have a biography about him. The biography includes a chapter about his assassination in Memphis on March 29th, 1968, 42 years ago tomorrow. But it is only one chapter. He was assassinated. And there certainly has been a great deal of mystery and intrigue surrounding his death.

He was relatively young, not quite 40 when he was killed. Even with all of the accusations of government conspiracy and so forth, no one would say that the most interesting or important thing about his life was his assassination. It deserves mention. It gets a chapter, but it isn't the focus of who he was and what he accomplished.

Think of others who were killed in the line of duty. Soldiers, firefighters, police officers, politicians, heretics, even political prisoners. In none of those cases do we say that their deaths were more important than their lives.

An exception might be the masses of people who were killed in the Holocaust or those killed in the September 11th attacks. History may not remember them except for their names on memorials if even that.

But even then, each person killed would have a story even if we don't have record of it. Each person was an individual with some sort of history. No one would say that their lives only were meaningful because they died.

Yet much of Christian theology, you might call it default Christianity has said that about Jesus. A few years ago a poster advertising Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion, featured an image of Christ wearing a crown of thorns. The caption read:

Dying was his reason for living.
The movie itself was about his supposed last hours cobbled together from the various fictional accounts in the gospels.

The four gospels that made it into the canon of holy scripture all contain a version of Jesus' trial and execution. In fact over half the gospel material has to do with his death.

Why are we so obsessed with this man's death?

Dying was his reason for living.
Really? The belief that Jesus died for us or died for our sins or died to save us has been Christianity's theological centerpiece. His death and resurrection are two parts of this mythology.

That mythology has little to do with the historical person of Jesus.

Details about the trial and crucifixion are literary memes taken from other sources. It isn't that the gospel writers observed what happened and wrote it down. It is what we would call, for lack of a more sophisticated word, fiction.

For example, Jesus is reported to have said from the cross:
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
That is a direct quote from Psalm 22. Before we think that Jesus was quoting the psalm, we have other problems. That same psalm also says,

All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’
Here is the text from Mark:
Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ 31In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself.'
Also from Psalm 22:
They stare and gloat over me;
18they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
Here is the text from Mark:
And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
It is clear that those who were writing the account of his crucifixion were not observing an event. They were going back to their sources, their scriptures, to find language with which to create the story of Jesus' execution.

Now virtually every scholar would say that it is an historical fact that Jesus was executed. There is not a lot to know about Jesus, but that is fairly definite. The story, the how it happened and the why, comes from the imaginations of the various authors.

Fairly early on those who decided that his death and resurrection was of chief importance took control of the stories about him. It didn't have to go that way. The Gospel of Thomas that did not make it into the Bible contains only sayings of Jesus. It has no story of his death or resurrection.

Jesus had a life before he died. The things he did and the things he said were provocative enough to put him on the wrong side of the authorities. From the things people remembered that he did and said, he was critical of the authorities. He was critical of the religious authorities and of the political authorities. That is what got him killed.

He challenged systems of authority that took advantage of widows, of the poor, and of the outcast. He created a movement. And it was threatening enough that those in power felt the need to stop him. Perhaps to make of him an example. That is what got him killed.

There were many people tortured and killed on Roman crosses. Jesus was one of many.

It appears from the evidence that we have in the gospels, and the history of that time period, that Jesus crossed paths with those who could do him harm. It is very possible that he was on the side of people who were executed and tortured by the government. He was on the side of people who lost their land to pay for Herod's palaces and projects. He shared his contempt quite openly for the religious leaders:

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell* as yourselves.
If you keep saying stuff like that you know you are eventually going to anger some folks.

He was on the side of people who were oppressed by the economic policies of the temple. That is what got him killed. He was on the side of people considered unclean and sinners by the religious.

He is remembered for telling parables and stories that upset people. He used a phrase "kingdom of God." That phrase means little to us because we have tamed it. Most folks thanks to the theologians think it is another phrase for heaven, a place the true believers go when they die.

It is likely that it was a political statement. As opposed to the kingdom of Caesar, this is what the kingdom of God is like. It wasn't just a fantasy, a story. It was a movement. This the kingdom to live for, to work for, perhaps even to die for. It is a kingdom of justice and compassion. In this kingdom, in this political economy the hungry are filled with good things. Now let's make it so.

Jesus was about making changes in this world. That is what got him killed.

He talked about compassion. He talked about moving beyond ethnic boundaries and divisions. He talked about forgiveness. Not something you go to the priest for or even to God for, but your neighbor. That is the one we hurt. That is the one from whom we need forgiveness. We get it as we give it. He worked to bring people together: Samaritan and Jew, Greek and Roman. He practiced an open table, rich and poor, male and female. He challenged unjust boundaries and rules. That is what got him killed.

Dying was not his reason for living.

Living was his reason for dying.

For life, he died. For integrity, he died. For compassion, he died. For justice, he died. For change, he died.

He was in the way. He was in the way of progress. He was in the way of Rome. He was in the way of the religious authorities who had sold out their people to Rome. He was killed as were many just like him.

The only difference is that while those others are unknown to us, we know some of Jesus' story. We know about what he lived for.

I think it is a sham and a shame that the religious establishment distorted his story. They took his story and turned into a caricature. Here is the theological story that is as common as dirt. You all know it. Here is the basic plot.

Once upon a time, God created Heaven and Earth. God is good, just, and perfect. He created Adam and Eve and put them in a garden. Well we know that is fiction as we know that human beings are the product of evolution that has taken billions of years. But OK.

Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying. A talking snake convinced the "bad" woman to eat some fruit from a tree from which they weren't supposed to eat. The logic of this is that because of Eve and Adam everyone on the planet therefore deserves eternal punishment in hell.

I know. It is kind of a leap for me, too.

God's honor has been damaged by Adam and Eve's sin. So God sent Jesus the God/Man to be sacrificed (like a goat) to satisfy God's honor and to pay the penalty that we deserve, in fact you deserve, even though you didn't eat the fruit. But you did all kinds of other bad things and had bad thoughts (usually having to do with sex) so it all washes.

But if you believe in that story you will go to heaven and not hell.

That story is supposedly better than what really happened?

And the crazy thing is that we just take it. We accept it.

Hardly anyone raises an objection. No one says,
"Wait a second! Jesus had to die this bloody torturous death because I am so bad? Even though I wasn't even born when he died?"
It is actually rather sick. Seriously. It is pathological theology. We simply take it.

In fact, I can sense right now people squirming in their pews because they think I am being blasphemous by being so frivolous with this story. Why is that? Why so scared? Because the holy weight of theological double-talk has been crushing our spirits for centuries.

It has served to make people feel guilt and shame about themselves and fear about their future (eternal hell) that they never needed to feel. And they never need to feel.

It is all shrouded with holy hocus pocus and theological slipperiness. It is a matter of faith and mystery we are told. Don't look too closely. Just believe.

I personally think we should look closely. We should examine how this sausage is being made. Our spiritual health depends upon it. Perhaps the health of America which is becoming a revivalist nation before our eyes, depends on it.

One of the best commentaries on the crucifixion is by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Nickle and Dimed. She writes about attending a tent revival at a Deliverance Church. At the revival she heard the usual kind of preaching about the Bible as the only book God ever wrote and the importance of accepting Jesus who died on the cross for your sins. She writes:
The preaching goes on, interrupted with dutiful "amens." It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth. I would like to stay around for the speaking in tongues, should it occur, but the mosquitoes, worked into a frenzy by all this talk of His blood, are launching a full-scale attack. I get up to leave, timing my exit for when the preacher's metronomic head movements have him looking the other way, and walk out to search for my car, half-expecting to find Jesus out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole. Pp. 68-9

We need more people like her to tell the truth about Christian sausage-making.

The Christian religion, especially its damaging mythologies that are used to induce guilt and fear and promote everything from creationism to gay-bashing, no longer deserves a free pass.

Religion is in need of an overhaul. We are in the midst of a new reformation. This congregation right here in the mountains of East Tennessee is a leader in this reformation and it has been for a long time both in this community and in this denomination.

I titled the sermon 'no more crosses.'

There was and is nothing sacred and holy about the execution and torture of Jesus or of anyone. "Holy Week" is a misnomer as is "Good Friday." If anything, remembering the death of Jesus should summon us to honor life not death. It should give us the courage and commitment to speak out and not remain silent in the face of torture, execution, violence, injustice, and needless suffering around the world.

Jesus' life was fast. Like Martin Luther King, they both died before reaching forty. But their lives burned with passion and fire. They burned out for compassion and justice.

Apparently, they believed that it is better to have burned out than never to have burned at all.

Whenever any of us stands up for those who are abused or put down or who suffer injustice from bullies big and small, we practice true religion.

No need for a lot of theological hocus pocus.

Do justice.
Love kindness.
Walk humbly.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Lost and Found (3/14/2010)

Lost and Found
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 14, 2010
Fourth Sunday in Lent

Joshua 5:9-12
Luke 15:11-32

We are coming to the end of our creativity.

That is not true at all. What I mean is that we have been exploring the path of creativity during Winter, and Spring is coming. We will begin exploring another of the four paths of Creation Spirituality.

Creation Spirituality is a term coined by theologian Matthew Fox but it refers to a way of looking at life that is quite ancient. An aspect of Creation Spirituality is to approach Life (or "God" if you prefer) through four vias.

How do we become authentic? How do we in the words of the story the Velveteen Rabbit, become real?

Traditional mystical Christianity has given us a three-fold path of purgation, illumination, and union.

Purgation is letting go of worry or sin.
Illumination is receiving the divine light or salvation.
Union is empowering the self, taking ownership, becoming holy.

Fox added a path and shifted the image from climbing a ladder to dancing a spiral.

How do we become real? He invites us to think of four vias or paths.

We can think of them as the journey of the heart. In his book Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, he describes the four paths in this way:
  1. The heart of exaltation, awe, wonder, and delight (Via Positiva)
  2. The heart of silence, letting go, suffering, sorrow, grieving, and “roaring” (Aquinas’s word) (Via Negativa)
  3. The heart of passion for creativity, co-creating, birthing, life and power in all its forms: the art of empowerment. (Via Creativa)
  4. The heart that is compassion: moral outrage at injustice that leads to the passionate work of justice making and healing and the heart-work that celebration entails and demands. (Via Transformativa) p. 29
I have been playing with and celebrating one path with each season of the year. During the Winter we have been exploring the via creativa in sermons and in worship. I have been trying to look at the scripture readings through this lens.

The via creativa is again, to quote Matthew Fox,
“the heart of passion for creativity, cocreating, birthing, life and power in all its forms: the art of empowerment.”
How might that path, that way of looking at life and acting with life give juice to our reading of this very familiar parable of the man who had two sons, not only a “prodigal” son?

Traditionally, this story has been one of fall and repentance. The younger son, the prodigal son, is the sinner who finally hits bottom, comes to his senses and comes home to the father who, ready to forgive, welcomes him with a fatted calf.
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.

Come home, come home,
You who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!
Some of you may remember singing that song in church. I do. I also remember as a kid hearing many testimonies that at times detailed the dissolute living of the prodigal in the sinner’s own life. Then the testifying sinner found Jesus or Jesus found them and we heard the story of repentance, forgiveness, and union with the Father.

That is how this parable has been read and how the Christian life was thought to be lived.

But there wasn’t much for the rest of us who didn’t have those dramatic stories and were sitting in church like the elder son behaving ourselves in the first place.

In this reading, the elder son’s story is an uncomfortable add-on. He is the grumpy do-gooder who should just lighten up. But really, after you have been saved and been given the ring, robe, and calf, the rest is a bit anti-climactic.

If that is the extent of the spiritual path what do you do with the rest of your life? You could rinse and repeat. Go do a bunch of sinning again just because making up with Jesus feels so good. Or you could sit there in your smugness like the other son and with a scolding and knowing look welcome the other sinners home.

Bernard Brandon Scott has been helpful with this parable in his book Re-imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus.

That is a great title. Re-imagine is the work of creativity. Creating images and using our imaginations is what creativity is all about.

The parables of Jesus become not allegories for how to get to heaven but pushes, pokes, and prods to inspire us to think differently, to imagine differently, to change our script so that we might live differently as individuals and as a human community.

These parables are creative stories to inspire creativity.

Creativity is perhaps the best thing we have going for us in a time of change. Our Thursday reading group is reading a sober book. Dianne Dumanoski, The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive a Volatile Earth. She writes what really is needed at this time of change. She quotes C.S. Holling:
Do not try to plan the details…the only way to approach such a period, in which uncertainty is high and one cannot predict what the future holds, is not to predict, but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living.” P. 213
We need to get some background on this parable. The eldest son received 2/3 of the inheritance. The rest of the sons split the remaining 1/3. Usually this meant that the eldest would buy out the others and they would have to find some other way of making a living.

The Father would be a fool to give his inheritance away before his death. The word translated "property" is bios or life. The younger son is asking for his father’s life, as if he were dead to him. The Father, out of character for a traditional Father, does it. The Father seems to be shirking his role. He is careless and allows his youngest son to disrespect him.

The younger son parties. Dissolute living says the text. Blows it all. Then he despises his own religion by living with pigs. While he is at the bottom, he doesn’t repent, he calculates.
Even my Father’s servants have food to eat.
He dreams up a story that he hopes will fly and heads home.

The Father when he sees him, again acts out of character for the Father. He runs which is a shaming thing to do. Embraces him, kisses him, and doesn’t even let him make his rehearsed speech. No questions asked. No justice meted.

Instead he gives him a ring, robe, sandals, and kills calf so the whole village will have a feast. He is restored as son not as servant.

Meanwhile, after the party the elder son who has been working comes in from the field finds out what is happening and is angry. He insults his Father by refusing to go to the party. The penalty for disrespecting his father in this traditional society is death.

But the Father again rather than fulfill his role as Father pleads with his elder son. Again, shaming. He again sacrifices his male honor.

We have two sons and a Father. The youngest is home celebrating. The oldest refuses to celebrate even though he has all the property. They are operating under the codes. Honor and shame. Property and duty.

It is a male story. It is a man story. The only one who consistently refuses to be a man is the Father. He continues to act not out of concern for his life, his estate, his duty, and his honor, but instead out of compassion and mercy.

Ultimately, he hopes that his two sons will see themselves as brothers.

What happens next?

What happens when the Father dies?

This is how Bernard Brandon Scott closes his commentary on the parable:
So what happens next? The audience is perhaps asked to imagine a third act. Soon the father will die. Then what? If the sons continue on with their established scripts, they are headed for a collision. One will kill the other. Or they can follow the father’s script and surrender their male honor and keep on welcoming, accepting, and being with the other. They have a choice between being lost or found, dead or alive. P. 83
This parable is open ended as are many of the parables of Jesus. We don’t know what will happen. The ending is not satisfactory. The ending is up to us.

This is our story of life on Earth. While the parable lives in a world of male codes, scripts, honor, inheritance, duty, and property that prevents human beings from seeing each other as human beings, as brothers and sisters, we as well have codes and scripts.

The parable invites us to examine our entitlements, expectations, and patterns to which we cling. Are we so tied to a script, a code, a system of honor and shame and entitlement that we are killing each other and Earth for it?

This story of a Father and his two sons is a story familiar in the Bible.

Cain and Abel.
Ishmael and Isaac.
Jacob and Esau.
Joseph and his brothers.

Brothers can end up killing each other. This is the script. You kill for your honor. You kill for property. You kill for security. You kill to right wrongs.

Jesus tells this parable to invite us to change the script. Can we be foolish enough as the father in the story is foolish enough to say that the entitlements, grudges, wrongs real and perceived, are not enough to keep us from seeing each other as beloved?

Perhaps the way of the foolish father is the way of wisdom.

Can we be foolish enough to recognize that our codes, our boundaries, our allegiances, our creeds, our national pride, our way of life can be changed so that all can live?

Can we be foolish enough to come to our senses and share one Earth as one family and with joy and courage change our script?

Can we be foolish enough to become real?

That choice is ours today.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Of Manure and Figs (3/7/2010)

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.