Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Real Miracle-Gro

   Third Sunday of Lent   C 
A little boy from the city
was visiting friends out in the country
when he saw a farmer with a wagon full of manure.
The boy asked what he was going to do with it,
and the farmer answered,
“I’m taking it home to put on my strawberries.”
“Well that’s funny,” said the boy, “because where I come from,
we put cream and sugar on our strawberries…”

We here in the North Country are no strangers to manure.
Even if you’re not from a farming family,
it’s hard to avoid:
you’re on a side road and get caught behind a load of the stuff;
or it’s spring, you can finally open the windows,
and in wafts the fragrant aroma
of what I like to call “fresh country air.”
Manure is simply a fact of life in these parts.
And there are two very different ways to look at it:
as a rather unpleasant byproduct of food production
that you’d rather not have to deal with;
or—as wise farmers and gardeners see it—
as an abundant source of good (and basically free) fertilizer.

Did you notice the manure in this Sunday’s gospel reading?
Of course not—
because it must have been translated into English by city folk
who were afraid to offend delicate sensibilities.
But if you look at the original Greek text
of Jesus’ parable of the fig tree,
it’s right there in black-and-white:
“I shall cultivate the ground around it,” says the gardener,
kai ballo kopria”—
not “and fertilize it,” as we have in the sanitized version,
but literally, “and throw manure at it.”

That’s quite an earthy expression, isn’t it?
And it’s just the way life feels sometimes, too!
On occasion (maybe many an occasion),
life throws some pretty tough and nasty stuff our way.
Our days are touched by suffering.
As do Jesus’ listeners when they hear about recent tragedies—
whether accidental or all-too-intentional—
we can assume that such things are doled out as divine punishment.
We must have messed up.
We must deserve it.

And yet, deep down, we might also know that we don’t.
Very often, it’s the innocent who suffer most.
So what’s going on here?
Is God failing us?  Of course not.
Frequently, suffering just happens—
or if somebody’s brought it on, then it’s not God, but us.
Suffering is part of the lot of fallen humanity.
But we are not abandoned to face it alone.
Did you hear what God said to Moses from the burning bush?
“I have witnessed the affliction of my people.
I know well what they are suffering.
Therefore I have come down to rescue them.”
Israel’s cries have not gone unnoticed!
God plans to take their suffering and turn it around—
for their good and his glory—
leading them out of Egypt, through the sea, across the desert,
and into a land flowing with milk and honey.
And that’s just what God wants to do whenever we suffer!
Where we can see only hurt and hardship,
the Lord is able to see a rich opportunity.
As one of our spiritual directors in the seminary used to say,
“God is the great recycler:
he never wastes any of our experiences.”
That’s one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Christian faith!
For followers of Jesus, suffering is not without meaning.
In fact, suffering is even redemptive if we join it to the Cross.

What God can do with the manure of human suffering,
he can also do with the manure of human sinfulness—
which, although we hate to admit it,
is quite a pile of our own making.

Having grown up on a farm,
I feel rather qualified to expound
on some of the finer points concerning manure
and its notable fertilizing potential.
For one thing, it’s important to realize that,
in its original, raw state, manure is actually harmful to plants.
It kills them, rather than providing them with nutrition.
But if you take the time to stir it up (and do so rather regularly),
exposing it to the light and the air,
then that manure becomes something
which helps fields and gardens (strawberries and fig trees)
to just grow and grow and grow—
transformed from something that brought death
into something that gives life.

Do you see where this going?
Jesus warns that, if we don’t repent, we’re doomed to perish.
But if we do repent—if we allow God to cultivate and fertilize us—
then not only will our life be saved,
but we’ll bear good fruit.

At the request of Pope Francis,
in observance of the Jubilee Year of Mercy,
our parish—for the whole of Franklin Deanery—
is hosting something called “24 Hours for the Lord.”
This coming Friday and Saturday,
there will be 24 hours straight of Eucharistic adoration here in this church,
along with 16 hours set aside for confession—
with two priests always available.
Don’t miss this grace-filled opportunity!
Come kneel on holy ground—not before a burning bush,
but before the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus,
all aflame with love and mercy!
That Sacred Heart—
really and truly present in the Sacrament of the Altar—
is the one that suffered for you and suffers with you.
You face none of life’s troubles alone!
And come meet the Lord, too, in the Sacrament of Penance.
Good preparation for confession is essential
for this sacrament to be fruitful.
including a thorough examination of conscience—
is in your bulletin today
to help you dig deep and turn things over in your heart.
Then come, confess your sins, exposing them to the light and air.
Sure, it can be a stinky, messy process,
but it’s absolutely essential if you want that manure
to become fertile compost for your soul.

The Lord is a most patient gardener—
carefully, lovingly coaxing even the most barren plant back to life,
that it might flourish and bear the good fruit of his Kingdom.
So take courage when life throws manure!
It simply means God wants you to grow.

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