Tag Archives: lectionary

Manure happens

12_jesus-throneSeveral months ago, my husband and I had a theological conversation with an agnostic friend who said (I think) that if there is a God, then God is DNA.  The idea (I think) was that DNA constitutes the building blocks of life and if God is indeed the creator of all life, then God is obviously DNA.  I think.  Honestly, when my husband and I got home that night, we spent forty-five minutes trying to figure what the heck our friend had said.  I finally threw up my hands in frustration and said, “Sometimes it’s just easier to think of God as an old man with a white beard sitting on a throne.”

To which my husband said, “We’re paying way too much for your theological education for that to be your conclusion.”

Now, interestingly, this God and DNA thing has been picked up by some Christians, but in a different way.  Google “God and DNA” and you can sample any of several thousand earnest Christian websites claiming that some sort of “DNA code” proves that God exists.  One “researcher” said that he spent twelve years decoding human DNA before finding string of characters which read,[i] “God Eternal Within the Body.”


I find this conclusion troubling.  Because like my agnostic friend’s idea that God is DNA, this Christian take on the matter has nothing to do with the central tenets of our faith:[ii] our justification and sanctification by God’s grace. Rather, it’s about our satisfaction with our own scientific “proofs.”

There’s a lot we just don’t know about God.  That’s what makes faith so handy.  But the temptation to which we so often succumb is the demystification of God.  We do this by simplifying our notions of God, because a simple God is easy for us to deal with.  Whether we’ve got God on a throne or in a string of molecules, the important thing is that we’ve got God right where we want him/her.

Luke 13:1-9 is this week’s odd little selection from the Revised Common Lectionary.  It poses one of the most difficult questions people of faith wrestle with:  “Why do bad things happen if God is good?”  Jesus’ answer is interesting because it’s not even remotely clear; in fact, he basically just poses more questions.  That suggests to me that there’s something very important about questions and that something about our faith depends on our not knowing.  A synopsis:

Bad things happened to some people and some other people were worried about why the bad things happened to the particular people they happened to.  Jesus said, “No, they did not have it coming.  But unless you repent, you’re going to perish the same way.  By the way, that reminds me of a pert little tale about a guy who owns a fig tree.[iii]  This dude owned a fig tree and got mad that it didn’t have any figs on it.  He told his servant to chop it down, saying, ‘Why should it be wasting the soil?’  The servant, who apparently had a spare bag of manure and some time on his hands, offered to fertilize the tree for a year.

The “perishing” Jesus mentions isn’t about physical death.  After all, death comes to sinner and saint alike.  I strongly suspect he’s actually referring to the death of the human spirit in this life.  By “perishing,” I think he means our despair about God not caring when our grief and fear and confusion are at their worst.  And by “repentance,” Jesus is talking about way more than feeling bad about how bad you suck.  The word in Greek, which I can’t spell or pronounce, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, implies something transformative and life-altering, along the lines of being “born again,” except not nearly that annoying.  I’d suggest that life’s difficulties somehow transform the gap between our grief and our experience of God’s grace

The parable of the barren fig tree sheds some light on this, but not if we read it the traditional way.  Traditionally, it’s read with us as the unfruitful tree, God as the owner of the tree, and Jesus Christ as the servant.  But that reading doesn’t answer the riddles in the first part of the text.  What if we move things around a bit and make ourselves the owner of the tree and our relationship with God, the tree itself?  After all, in times of suffering, that tree can seem pretty fruitless.  And what if we think of God as the servant and the soil as our own lives?  As for the manure…well, as we all know, in this life, shit happens. 

Does God work with manure like the gardener in the story?  Absolutely.  God works with the manure of life.  God works with the terminal cancer diagnosis, with the motorcycle accident, with the foreclosure, the divorce, the arrest, the addiction, the bankruptcy…and with the countless little disappointments in life that can eat away at our spirits and make us seriously question if God really cares at all.

Jesus’ question, “Why should this tree be wasting the soil?” is a question for all of us, especially when we’re going through tough times.  If God, like a tree, is rooted in the soil of our lives, God will not waste the soil.  God works the manure of life into the roots of our faith so that our relationship with God will bear good fruit.

Answers, especially easy answers often come up short, leaving us to deal with our questions.  Our questions frequently don’t give us a lot of satisfying answers.  Perhaps the answers are not the point.  Perhaps the task of faith is best described by poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who offered these words of advice to a struggling friend:

 “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

[i] In English, conveniently enough.

[ii] The central tenets of Christianity, btw, have nothing to do with proving the existence of God.

[iii] Whenever Jesus gets near a fig tree, things get weird.  What was it with this guy and figs?  Did he just love figs so much that he stayed up nights worrying that they would run out…not unlike I do with vanilla Oreos?  Or did he hate figs, remembering the many nights when Mary made him sit at the dinner table until he ate all his figs?  Yet another inscrutable mystery of the Christian faith.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2013


First sermon

The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth, but the order of worship was just too much for him and his head exploded.  Which is to say, all is vanity.  (Ecclesiastes 12:10ish)

In an oddly auspicious turn of events, I delivered my first real sermon this morning.  I say “real” because coworkers have accused me of delivering sermons on more than one occasion during my library career, but somehow, I think the term is more accurate when applied to a prepared address of the faithful than an extemporaneous rallying cry to bookmobile librarians. 

Still, the lead up to this sermon was nerve-wracking.  So much so, that I couldn’t bring myself to blog for two weeks.  (And you all thought I was just tired out from holiday partying.)  Here’s basically how the deal went down:

November  15ish

Pastor calls to invite me to preach at a small rural church about 40 minutes outside Denver.  I don’t give it a second thought and jump at the chance.

November 16ish

I check out the Revised Common Lectionary texts for January 1, 2012.  Suddenly realize that it’s going to be a chore to come up with a coherent sermon from this apparently random selection.  Write the first draft of the sermon.  It is crap.

November 17-December 4

Obsessively return to the lectionary texts in vain hope that a) some unifying theme will leap out at me, or b) the Consultation on Common Texts committee will suddenly think better of their decision…from 1992…to list these particular texts on this particular day and will change them to something easy to preach on.

December 5

10:00 a.m.:  Rural church pastor and I meet for coffee to go over the liturgy.  I leave feeling entirely confident and capable.

12:30 p.m.:  Confidence and capability are out the window.  Back to the lectionary texts.  Email my own pastor for advice on what to do with the texts.  She says it’s okay to ditch them and come up with something completely original.

1:45 p.m.:  Haven’t come up with a damn thing original.  Decide to go back to the lectionary.

1:50 p.m.:  Have come to the conclusion that the Revised Common Lectionary is dumb.  Decide to check out what the Catholics have going on.

2:05 p.m.:  Back at the frickin’ Revised Common Lectionary.  The Catholic Lectionary has a different New Testament reading and a different Psalm, but the Old Testament reading is from the Deuterocanonical* book, The Wisdom of Sirach, and I’m not sure that’ll go over very well with Presbyterians.  Plus, the Gospel reading is the same and that’s the part I’ve been hung up on all along.

December 6

I rewrite the first draft.  If possible, it is even crappier** than the first draft.

December 7

9:00 a.m.:  I check out the lectionary readings again.  Decide that maybe I could fudge and instead of using the lectionary readings for January 1, I could use the readings for Epiphany (January 6).

9:10 a.m.:  Realize that the Epiphany readings are just as random as January 1st.

9:30 a.m.:  In tears, having just concluded I’m going to be a terrible minister, I delete the first and second drafts and start over completely.

11:30 a.m.:  Awash in self-congratulation, having just discovered that I am the most original theological mind since Augustine, I finish the final draft.

7:05 p.m.:  Sitting in stunned silence after reading Laura F. Winner’s description of the Incarnation, which is a bald-faced knockoff of my sermon.  Wondering how she managed it, having written her book ten years ago.  Decide that a) I am not as original a theologian as I thought, or b) Winner sold her soul to the devil in order to see into the future and steal my sermon.

December 15

Realize that the sermon is too short.  Commandeer three paragraphs from Lauren F. Winner’s book to include in the sermon, figuring that’s an acceptable strategy for two reasons.  First, because I fully intend to credit her writing.  Second, because she stole the ideas from me in the first place.

December 28

Finally let my most constructive and kindest critic read the sermon – my long-suffering husband.  He comes back with two suggestions for revision.  One of them pertains to a typo.  The other pertains to a joke about the boondocks that he suggests might not be as well received in the small, rural church where I’ll be preaching as it would in metropolitan Denver.

December 31

10:00 a.m.:  In paroxysms of anxiety, I tell three different friends NOT to come to the service. 

11:00 p.m.:  Unable to take any more of Dick Clark’s impersonation of the Crypt Keeper, I go to bed. 

January 1

6:00 a.m.:  Having gone to bed seven hours earlier, I estimate I got about 25 minutes of actual sleep.  Drag out of bed suspecting the Crypt Keeper left Dick Clark’s body in favor of mine.

6:45 a.m.:  Reading from the lectionary.  (I can’t seem to let it go.)  Today’s reading includes Ephesians 3:7-12.  It’s a sign.

7:30 a.m.:  Have received three texts, an email, and two voicemails from friends and family wishing me well.  It’s a sign.

8:00 a.m.:  Listening to the classical music station.  They play Karl Jenkins’ Te Deum.  One of my favorite composers doing one of my favorite settings.  It’s a sign.

8:45 a.m.:  Have arrived in town fifteen minutes early, so stop at the local Starbucks for a bathroom break.  Realize that I am the only person in the vicinity driving a compact economy car.  Everyone else is in extended cab pickups and SUVs.  I am a stranger in a strange land.

9:00 a.m.:  Am greeted at the church by the nicest lady in the world who makes me feel right at home.  She gives me a tour of the “wee kirk of the foothills,” and lets me use one of the offices to get ready.

9:20 a.m.:  Alone in the office, I realize I have no idea what pastors do in their offices before a service.  I decide to cut and paste my notes to match the order of worship printed in the bulletin.

10:00 a.m.:  The church pianist nods to me and the liturgist.  Show time.

10:10 a.m.:  Realize that my carefully reordered notes are just confusing.  We pass the peace before saying the prayer of confession.  Everyone follows right along.  Either a) I have staggering powers of charismatic leadership, or b) these are really kind people who don’t want me to feel bad about messing up ten minutes into the service.

10:15 a.m.:  The liturgist points out that we’ve skipped a hymn.  I was so happy that no children showed up for the children’s time, I just plowed right through to the lectionary readings. 

10:20 a.m.:  Sermon time.  I decide to go with the speaking style I know best – out from behind the podium and drifting around directly in front of the listeners.  It’s a good call.  I know my way around out there.  Once I hit my stride, I barely need my notes.

10:45 a.m.:  Service is over.  I beat a hasty retreat to the foyer.  Everyone shakes my hand on their way out of the sanctuary.  One older gentleman takes my hand and, with tears in his eyes, says, “It simply would not be enough to say that that was a great sermon.  It’s exactly what I needed.”  Several other people invite me to come back to preach.  It’s a sign.

10:50 a.m.:  Leftover Christmas cookies in the fellowship hall.  It’s a sign!

12:30 p.m.:  On the way back to Denver, I pass a herd of buffalo.  It’s a sign.***

1:00 p.m.:  Back in town and having lunch with the ‘rents.  Back to planet Earth, back to normal. 

Next stop…seminary starts in three days.  My first preaching class is in four days.  Thank goodness.  I obviously have no idea what I’m doing.

* Several of the Deuterocanonical books are, rather disparagingly, known in Protestant circles as The Apocrypha.  They’re great books.   I think we should form a “Protestants in Favor of the Apocrypha” committee and see about getting them voted back in.

** Microsoft’s spell check feature never ceases to amaze me.  For example, it recognizes “Manichaeism” and “concupiscence” and “crappier,” but doesn’t recognize “sine” (as I discovered the other day when I mistyped “sin”) or “frickin’.”  WTF?  Oh, btw, it recognizes “btw,” but not “WTF.”  WTF???

*** Let me explain about the buffalo.  Just outside the Denver area on I-70, there’s a so-called “Buffalo Overlook.”  I have lived in Denver my entire life and pass that overlook at least ten times per year and have never seen the faintest trace of any freakin’ buffalo.  In some plains Indian lore, sighting a white buffalo is an auspicious omen.  I’m not picky – I’ll take the plain old brown ones.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2012

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