Chrissy Tatum Williamson: The Gospel According to the Compost Pile

Anyone who's ever tried their hand at gardening knows that the outcomes are completely unpredictable. From drought to flood, springtime frost to midsummer heat waves, and worst of all...bug infestations. When we humans attempt to collaborate with mother nature, we have to learn to let go of our control issues. No matter how hard we try, we cannot control what grows in our gardens. We just can't predict the outcomes. In the creation business, two plus two does not always equal a nice, clean, predictable four.

At the church I served in Charlotte, North Carolina, there was a ministry called "EarthKeepers." This was a dedicated group of folks who were really on the cutting edge of environmental stewardship (And this was before it was cool). The EarthKeepers were smart, they were passionate about their work, they were dedicated to their mission, and they knew everything about gardening! And this was great for me because I had this tiny little start-up garden in my back yard. Anytime I had a question I had a whole group of experts at the church I could go to for advice.

For some time, the EarthKeepers kept a community garden on the church grounds. They'd grow all kinds of produce: squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, name it, they grew it. Cold weather and warm weather crops. There was always something growing in their garden. One year they added a compost heap to the garden project. It was a huge wooden structure that was adjacent to a big brick wall separating the garden area from the church dumpsters. The church kitchen would toss in scraps from community meals and church members were also encouraged to bring items from home to add to the pile. And over time, the compost pile did what compost piles do, and the scraps and leftovers began to decompose forming nutrient-rich soil to go back into the garden.

From time to time, voluntary plants would pop up in the compost pile and one of the faithful EarthKeeper gardeners would have to decide whether the sprout was a good one that should be planted in the garden or if it was a weed that needed to be pulled out and tossed aside. You get all kinds of strange things in a compost pile.

One year, a vigorous new vine emerged and quickly began to grow in the compost. The EarthKeepers couldn't identify it and so they were puzzled about whether or not to pull it up or let it grow. By some stroke of luck, genius, or perhaps good faith, the gardeners (who perhaps were familiar with today's Gospel reading), they decided not to pull it up, but to wait and see what it might become.

The vine grew to extraordinary lengths, quickly climbing out of the compost pile, it covered the garden floor, leaving little space for gardeners to walk between the raised beds. It also grew out the other side, climbing up the brick wall and down around the dumpsters. I have never seen a vine so massive. It filled absolutely every inch of unclaimed space over on that side of the church. Left alone to grow and mature for the summer growing season, the vine eventually produced gigantic, pumpkin-like fruits that were the deep green. It was the color of an acorn squash.

One brave gardener and his wife took one of them home. They cooked it, and ate it for dinner. Well, they survived the night and lived to testify that the crop was both non-toxic and absolutely delicious. Over the course of that summer, this mystery vine ended up producing over 100 pounds of food that went to a local non-profit called Friendship Trays. All because of the patience of our gardeners and their wise curiosity that urged the rest of us to wait and see what would become of that vine. One hundred pounds of food went to serve a local non-profit.

A gardener sows good seed in the field but, while she is sleeping, another gardener sows weeds among the wheat and then vanishes into the night. Before long the servants notice the weeds growing together with the wheat and immediately, they want to pull them out. And it's a reasonable response. But in the world of the parable, reasonable is seldom rewarded.

Instead of indulging the temptation to rush to judgment, the good, patient, gardener says, "No. Let's wait, watch, and see what comes. After all, we don't want to risk uprooting the wheat in pulling up the weeds. Let's just wait..." (adapted) "Let them both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, 'Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'" (13:30b)

This parable - perhaps more than most - resonates deeply with our human fascination with creating groups of "us" and "them". We want to know who is "in" and who is "out," and we want to secure our place in the "in" group, because we never want to have to feel the isolation and the loneliness of being left out or being thrown out.

In its original context this parable of Jesus undoubtedly brought comfort to his disciples who faced daily persecution and judgment, and hostility against their movement. Viewing themselves as the children of God, they might have found a peaceful sense of patience with the way things were going. But somewhere between then and now, popular interpretations of this parable have grown to encourage dreadful and deadly ideologies that seem to overlook that little part about holding out judgment.

The problems with this are fairly self-evident, but none is more problematic than the theological certainty produced by those who just know that we are the children of God and they are not. Churches are really good at this, and honestly, that should scare us to death.

Parables are intended to arrest the reader by their strangeness. They are intended to subvert our worldview and to leave us with more questions than answers. So, why is that this one tends to feel so definitive? Have we traded our sense of spiritual curiosity for the lure of eternal certainty?

In Jewish thought, there is an idea that human beings are created with two inclinations. Each of us is born with an inclination toward good and an inclination toward evil or self-interest. We spend our entire lives sorting out those pieces of ourselves. It's no wonder we can't accurately do it with others. Often, we think we can identify the flaws in our neighbors. We think it's pretty clear what they are doing is wrong. But more often those flaws are merely a projection of something that we don't like or have repressed deep within our own selves. Quickly, we must come to terms with the reality that the lines between right and wrong, good and evil, righteousness and unrighteousness - those lines are blurred and permeable. Neither of us is fully weed or wheat. We are both.

A similar conclusion is found in a book called The Gospel of Solentiname. Solentiname is a remote peasant village in Lake Nicaragua. Each week in the 1960's and 70's, the priest would come through and the people would gather and in lieu of a sermon on the Gospel reading for the day, there would be discussions. The people together would reflect on the reading. The author of the book, Ernesto Cardinal, was their priest and he recorded their conversations because, for him, their discussions were often more profound than those of many theologians that he's read, but they reflected the simplicity of the gospel readings themselves. "That is not surprising," he writes. "The gospel, or the good news, meaning good news to the poor, was written for them, by people like them." [Ernesto Cardinal, xi]

Peasants of Solentiname discuss today's reading from Matthew 13 and they echo the notion of two inclinations from our Jewish sisters and brothers saying that the weeds and the wheat represent justice and injustice in our world. They add that often the two (justice and injustice - good and evil), often they are so intertwined that they cannot be distinguished or separated from one another. The peasants agree that it is our responsibility to work towards becoming the wheat, which is of course justice, it is righteousness. And that requires a patient, faithful, and carefully discerning spirit.

In the same period as the peasants of Solentiname were gathering each week to discuss the Gospel, Latin America experienced great political and economic unrest. There were priests, like Camilo Torres, who worked hard to unite the peasant farmers, students, slum dwellers and trade unionists to advocate for their liberation, engaging methods of non-violent resistance. It was the right thing to do. But Torres soon came to the conclusion that working within the system as a priest of the Catholic church, he would never be able to usher in the change that was so desperately needed. In 1965, Torres discarded his vestments and joined the Colombian Revolutionary Forces saying, "I took off my cassock to be more truly a priest." [Miguel De La Torre. Liberation Theology for Armchair Theologians. Westminster John Knox Press: 2013. (Kindle loc. 398)]

Of course, there were many who did not agree about this means of achieving justice for the people. Like his friend and fellow priest, Gustavo Gutierrez, they remained committed to non-violence and they could not condone his decision to join the revolutionary forces, even for a righteous cause!

Perhaps they recognized that there's a sprout of both wheat and weed in each of us, even those we meet on the many battlefields of life, and perhaps they understood that the decision to pluck up and cast out is never ours to make.

Like my friend, the faithful EarthKeeper, looking at that mysterious vine climbing all over the garden. I can hear the Spirit begin to whisper, "Just wait a while. Let's see what comes of this one, here."

One of the most perplexing things about parables is that you never really get to know who is what and what is who. Take this one, for example. The kingdom of heaven is like a gardener. Hmm. The whole kingdom is like a gardener who sewed good seed into good ground. Little seeds of heaven sewn right into the gardener's creation.

But then comes another sower, the enemy of heaven, hell perhaps. This one sowing the seeds of hell or evil but also into that very same garden - garden that was God's creation. So, both are growing together within God's own created garden.

We've often thought that we (whoever we are) are the children of God, but I wonder, what if we are the garden? What if the seeds of heaven were sown within us and began to germinate until the seeds of hell were sown right alongside them? What if the weeds of hell have also grown - perhaps unnoticed - right there alongside a more promising crop?

Perhaps we have felt the pinch of greed squeeze out the sprouts of generosity that were beginning to take form.

Perhaps we have experienced a surge of self-doubt just as confidence helped us to answer God's call.

Or maybe a sprig of fear threatens to isolate us from our neighbors, touting self-protection as a human right as opposed to beloved community as our sacred calling.

The weeds and the wheat, they all look so similar at first. How will we know what needs to go and what needs to grow?

Perhaps we won't.

And that's okay, because if there is one thing that is fairly clear from this perplexing parable - whether we are children of God, children of the evil one, or some combination of both, whether we are servants of the master or the compost that is being worked into the garden - the project of sorting the weeds and the wheat is not ours to complete.

But even still, perhaps we might find a sprout of hope growing up within us, for our Master Gardener is full of patience, grace, and a whole pile of curiosity.

Can't you just hear the Gardener's voice whispering gently, "Hold on. Don't pull that one up quite yet. Let's just wait and see what she might become."