Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Down on the Farm: Manure Happens

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 13:1-9.  This series was based on a series created by Rev. Adam Hamilton.  Perhaps this is also an appropriate thought for  September 11:

For the past few weeks, we have been looking at lessons we can learn from life on the farm that can teach us about the Christian life.  The first week we talked about being stuck in the mud, and the fact that when you get stuck, that our natural inclination is to step harder on the gas, and spin our wheels, which of course just gets us deeper and deeper into the much.  Instead, to get out of the mud of our lives, we first need to accept that we are stuck in the mud, surrender to the idea that only something bigger and stronger than us can get us out, and of course that person for Christians is Jesus Christ, and then we must follow him.  So the first step of discipleship is accepting, surrendering and following.

Then last week we looked at how we keep weeds and other pests out of our crops in order to allow them to grow.  In most farms we would use herbicides and pesticides to protect them, but we need to be more organic in our spiritual lives, and so the way to keep our spiritual crops free of weeds and pests is to be ever vigilant in our relationship with God by practicing spiritual disciplines.  There are lots of things we can do, but we talked about some recommended by John Wesley the founder of Methodism, and included reading and searching scripture, participating in communion, praying and fasting or abstinence. So the second step of discipleship is preventing weeds in our lives by practicing some of the spiritual disciplines.

The third key to understanding the Christian life is manure, and I am indebted to Rev. Adam Hamilton for this idea, which began this whole series and which I stole, but manure is the third key to living a Christian life because, as they say, manure happens.  I’m sure you’ve seen that on a bumpersticker before, although it says another word instead of manure, but you get the meaning.  Maybe you’ve even said something like that in your life.  Now this sermon is going to be a little, shall we say, earthier, than most sermons and if that bothers you you’re going to have to just bear with me.  Because I’m not talking about manure in order to be funny or controversial, but instead because how we deal with the manure in our lives will have a tremendous impact on our lives and also the lives of those around us.  Understanding the manure in our lives and how we deal with it is essential for becoming the disciples that God has called us to be.

If you have livestock of any sort you have to have a manure management plan, or an MMP, this is one of the things I learned in my research for this sermon series, you have to have an MMP if you are going to run an effective and successful operation that deals with livestock of any sort.  Now some of you will know this, but according to the University of Rhode Island extension program, the average horse produces 50 pounds of manure a day, that’s 9 tons a year.  I asked Al Anderson how much one of his dairy cows produces in a day, and he said he didn’t know the exact amount, but it’s a lot.  As it turns out, according to the University of Washington extension program, a typical dairy cow produces 148 lbs of manure in a day, which works out to 27 tons a year, when you multiple that by, how many cows do you have Al, well I need my calculator for that, but you end up with a lot of manure.  And when I asked him if he had a manure management plan, he said that he did, that you had to, otherwise you would be overwhelmed.

My favorite story from visiting with Al was that he said he was out where the cows were milked one day, and a fly flew into one of the cows ears, and the cow sort of jumped a little bit, but he didn’t think anything of it, but then noticed that the cow started acting a little weird, and suddenly the fly came out into the milking machine, but you know what they say, in one ear out the udder.  Now you might say that you don’t really have to deal with as much as a horse or a cow produce, but just to give a little different perspective on this to show how quickly even a little amount can add up, a four pound hen produces ¼ pound a day, which may not seem like a lot, but even that little bit works out to 91 lbs a year.  All that manure has to be accounted for; something has to be done with it, and so we we’re going to talk about how to create our own effective personal MMP.

There are several things that can be done with manure.  The first is that you can do nothing with it, and just let it accumulate wherever it’s deposited.  That’s what we tend to do with our dog, but what happens when you do that?  Well it sort of spreads everywhere and then you have to watch wherever you step to be careful you’re not stepping in it, as does everyone else who comes around.  That’s not really effective.  So the next thing is to shovel it up and collect it together, and create a pile.  Maybe with small animals might work for awhile, but with larger animals, pretty soon that pile gets huge and because you can’t just keep piling it up on top, it’s spreads out.  And it stinks, and it attracts flies and other pests.  We might think that we can just ignore it and if we ignore it that it will go away, but sooner or later that pile is going to get too big and the smell and the flies will start bothering your neighbors and it can seep into the water supply and contaminate it, and it will begin to overwhelm and overshadow everything else.  So we can’t just keep piling it up and ignoring it.

The next option is that we can decide to bury it, but there are several problems with that. The first is the simple logistics of digging enough holes for it all, but the biggest problem is that manure needs air and sunlight in order to decompose.  So if you bury it and you come back in thirty years, do you know what you’re going to find?  You’re going to find a lot of manure that’s just as you left it.  Burying it won’t make it go away; it will still be there, festering just under the surface.

So we can’t just ignore it, we can’t pile it up, and we can’t bury it, so perhaps we can burn it.  Did you know you can burn manure?  Well you can, but unless it’s nice and dry, which it won’t be unless it’s been there for a long time, it won’t burn by itself, and so you need to pour a lot of chemicals on it, something that will help it to burn.  But you know what happens when you try to use chemicals to dispose of manure?  It stinks to high heaven, it creates a lot of smoke, sometimes it catches other things on fire, sometimes it just smolders and doesn’t really go away and so we keep pouring more and more chemicals on it to make it disappear.  But burning it doesn’t solve the problem, in fact it usually makes the problem much worse, and it tends to make not just the person who is using the chemicals, but everyone around them who get caught in the smoke and the stink.  Do you understand?

The final thing we can do is to recognize that we have to deal with it appropriately.  We know that manure is valuable for crops and plants, but did you know you can’t just spread fresh manure into your fields?  Well, technically you can, but it’s not always helpful because, according to the Virginia Tech extension program, it takes nitrogen to help break manure down and if it hasn’t already started decomposing, instead of adding nitrogen to the soil, the microbes that break it down it will actually pull the nitrogen out of the soil.  So rather than helping the plants, putting fresh manure straight onto fields can actually limit their growth.  So you can’t just shovel the manure up, put it in your manure spreader and take it out to the fields, and did you know that John Deere stands behind all of their products, but they refuse to stand behind their manure spreader?

We can’t just ignore it, or keep piling it up, or bury it, or use chemicals to remove it, so that leaves us with one final option and that is to decide that we are going to compost it.   But composting has to be done properly, and when properly done, it can virtually eliminate many of the major problems with manure accumulation, including odor, flies, weed seeds and the internal parasites, and rather than having something you don’t know what to do with or want to avoid altogether, now you have something in the compost that can actually bring new life, it can actually bring nutrients and all sorts of good stuff to the soil that allow it to restore what has been taken out of the soil by other plants, it can refresh everything and cause new life to grow, but not just grow, but to grow abundantly.  Isn’t that what Jesus said, “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly”?

Manure happens; it is a by-product of living.  At some point in our lives something bad is going to happen, it’s just inevitable.  Now some people will sort of fixate on all the bad things that might happen, even sometimes to absurd lengths.  Have you ever met someone like this?  Even though 99% of the bad things they worry about never happen, that’s all they can think about.  They live by Murphy’s Law that anything that can go wrong will, and it dominates their life.  But the healthier thing to do is to simply accept these things as part of life and deal with them.  But knowing how to deal with it, or wanting to deal with it, doesn’t always answer the question of why, which is one we have all asked at least once in our lives.  “God, why is this happening?”  And usually not just why is it happening, but “why is it happening to me?”

That has been a question that has been asked from time immemorial.  In fact, a large portion of the Hebrew Bible sets out to try and answer that question, and there are lots of very different answers given.  There is not one monolithic answer given in scripture about what bad things happen in life, why there is manure, instead there are lots.  Unfortunately we don’t have time to go into or consider all those answers, but we will seek to answer some of those questions in a series after Christmas.  But here is one thing I feel absolutely comfortable in saying: God does not cause us to suffer.  God does not give us cancer to punish us, or cause natural disasters which kill hundreds or thousands.  Most of the manure, most of the suffering, pain, hardships we experience in our lives is simply the byproducts of life.

CS Lewis said that he thought that 2/3 of human suffering was the result of things that we did to ourselves or others did to us because we are free moral agents.  That is we have the right to make the right decisions and also the wrong decisions and God doesn’t stop us from doing those things, and because of that we sometimes have to pay the price, not because God wants us to, but because that’s what happens.   Hurricanes are not caused by God, they are caused by the waters of the oceans warming, which causes the heat to rise, which warms the air even more, which causes the air to spin and storms are formed.

But here is one thing that is clear from scripture, regardless of what answer is given in scripture as to why we suffer, it is that God is with us and that God can work through even the worst circumstances to bring about some good.  Paul famously said that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-5) Now one of the problems with this quote is that it has been used to justify suffering because it might produce hope.  Suffering is slavery? Don’t worry you’ll be rewarded.  Being beaten by your husband?  Don’t worry, it will build character and you’ll receive hope.

A better quote from Paul, who certainly knew something about suffering, comes from 2nd Corinthians where he says, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down by not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be visible in our bodies.” (2 Cor. 4:8-11)  What we find in the New Testament, and what we proclaim as Christians, is that Jesus Christ is the solution to our suffering, that he is the sign of hope and transformation, for us and for the world.  It is through Christ and his presence in our lives that we are redeemed, that the manure of our lives is redeemed, that it is changed and transformed into something else.  But how does that happen?  Well I’m glad you asked, because that leads us back to composting.

There are two essential aspects to composting.  The first is time.  As I said you can’t just spread manure out onto your fields, it takes time to break down, and that certainly is true with us as well.  On the Monday after the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, there were news stories talking about how the victims of that event were claiming that it was “a nightmare they just can’t shake.”  That they were still having difficulty sleeping, they were still having anxiety attacks.  It had only been four days, why would we ever assume, let alone question, whether they were over it already.  The manure is just too fresh to be able to be spread.

It takes time to heal many wounds, it takes allowing others to help carry us during those times.  It's those times in which we go to our knees as Abraham Lincoln said because it's the only place we can go, and we cry out to God.  Those are pains and hardships that simply don't disappear or get better because we want them to, they take time to heal, but for them to heal we also have to deal with them properly, we can't ignore them, bury them or try and remove them with chemicals.  They have to be dealt with, and the first thing that helps is time, but the second is what we do with those hurts.

Manure will not break down unless it is exposed to oxygen and sunlight, it has to be turned.  If you don’t turn it, then it’s just like burying it, it will never break down, and do you know how often compost has to be turned?  According to the extension program at Virginia Tech, and others, manure must be turned at least every seven days.  Let me say that again, manure must be turned every seven days so that it can get proper oxygen, so that it can be transformed into fertilizer.  Turning it every seven days creates a product that can bring new life and transformation of other things.  Does anyone see a connection here?  How often do we gather for worship?  Every seven days, and when we gather for worship we do the same thing, or at least we should, we expose our hurts to God, we turn them over to God, we turn them giving them fresh air so that God can break them down and redeem them.  And do you know what else happens when you compost? Composting reduces the volume of waste by more than 50%, but you have to turn it every seven days.

Manure happens.  God does not make it happen, but what God does is allow that manure to be transformed, but just as James said in his letter today, we must participate in that transformation, and that happens through the person of Jesus Christ.  To allow Jesus to transform the manure of our life we must allow it to be exposed to oxygen and sunlight, we must turn it up every seven days, we must gather together to expose our hurts and pains, and to carry one another burdens, and when we do that it provides the raw material that allows new life to grow.

The first step to being a disciple of Christ is to accept, surrender and follow, the second step is to practice the spiritual disciplines to protect ourselves from the wrong type of seeds, and the third step, in order to allow those seeds to grow, is to provide them with the right type and amount of fertilizer by creating our compost by turning it over to God and gathering in worship.  Manure happens, that’s just a fact of life, but when we turn it over every week, when we turn it over to the redeeming power of Christ, then the manure in our lives can be redeemed and give us and others new life, but not just any life, but abundant life.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.Amen.

1 comment:

  1. ebenezeramebrunswick.orgMarch 2, 2013 at 10:26 AM

    This is simply an outstanding sermon. I would like to use the analogy in my urban congregation, but I'm not sure that all the metaphors will resonate. I'll leave it to the Spirit to make it relevant to my folk. However, I thank you so much for sharing and for your obvious anointing. Rev. Don Marbury
    Senior Pastor, Ebenezer AME, Brunswick, MD