“A Tale of Manure”

“A Tale of Manure”
Luke 13:6-9
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
June 19, 2022 

There was this man who had a vineyard. And a vineyard was hard work. The ground in Israel is full of stones that need to be removed when fielding a vineyard. A wall or hedge would be built around the vineyard – often accompanied by a watch tower. All of this to keep thieves at bay. Digging rocks, tilling the soil, building a wall – making a vineyard took a great deal took time and resources. 

And this man decides to have a fig tree planted in this vineyard. And eventually, one day, he comes looking for some fruit from that tree. Figs, you may know, have this sweet, honeyed flavor. Some have said they are a mix between dates and strawberries. And their syrupy sweetness can be such a refreshing gift on a hot day not unlike what was likely the case in Israel during the ripening season when the man goes for fruit from the fig tree. And there is none. 

All this soil preparation, all the rocks removed, the trees planted, the protective wall built, and then all this time waiting for the growth…and nothing. So, he said to the man working in the vineyard, ’See here! For three years, I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none.” 

Can you imagine? 

Imagine working on a garden or a special project or an assignment at work. And going three years and truly nothing has grown or changed. Or imagine relationships that have been carefully and lovingly tended and protected and nurtured…like the one we have with our children or a spouse or a friend or a coworker or… and three years of counseling or hard conversations or trying all the expert tips…and nothing, really. 

Can you imagine a church or a nation or any entity of people who have been thoughtfully cultivated, protected, nourished…and then what if there was no fruit? No sweetness, no refreshment, no life. 

Have you ever known a time when so much is poured into a vineyard, but then you look for some fruit year after year and… 

“Cut it down.” “Cut it down. Why should it be wasting the soil?” 

Eugene Peterson observes, “If it is results we are after, chopping down the tree is just the thing: we clear the ground and make it ready for a fresh start. We love beginnings: birthing a baby, christening a ship, the first day on a new job, starting a war.” 

We love new beginnings. We love the very obvious evidence of results. Where the was a tree, now clearly but moments later there is no tree. Finally, something has happened. 

Isn’t that ache to see change so powerfully present in our day? 

  • Every election cycle entails this belief that if we can chop down that person and raise up that person – well overnight, we have some visible change, finally.
  • We use our words and sometimes actions to hatchet through the people and things we see wronging us, blocking us.
  • We can move quickly to boycott this, shun that, or purchase this – all various ways to contribute somehow, some way very visibly with our financial choices – a change. 

And the longer we show up to vineyards lovingly tended and protected that somehow are not producing the sweet fruit…the more every fiber in our body starts to says: cut it down. Chop it. End it. Make clear that something has happened. Where does the frustrated desire to just chop the whole thing down and start over most well up within today? 

But then what if the fig tree is us? The people of God lovingly planted and tended in God’s vineyard? What is there are persistently stubborn areas in us? Guarded areas that refuse to open up…refuse forgiveness…refuse a new humility…refuse to love our neighbor as ourselves… What if we are the fig tree? 

The man working the field has idea that can avoid chopping the tree down right now. 

  • Maybe it’s a new, fast-growth technology. “A miracle grow, change-your-life in 40-days kind of fertilizer.” 
  • Maybe he’ll build all kinds of bells and whistles around the vineyard and put up fresh signs and new decorations and update his equipment and put the right kind of bumper stickers on it and everything…because maybe nobody will notice the failing fig tree if everything has the right look, the right language. 

Vineyard worker, what’s your idea for this fruitless tree? The man working in the vineyard replied,Sir, let it alone for one more year.” 

“The fig tree that is showing no promise year after year and surely the frustration is through the roof…let it alone.” “Nothing!?” If we don’t do something, if we don’t speak up, if we don’t act, if we don’t…. 

“Let it alone because I am going to do something. I am going to dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good, but if not, you can cut it down. 

Have you ever noticed how often Jesus’ stories put things like yeast or salt or seeds – or now manure – at the heart of the story? He seems to have a strong preference for that which grows sure and strong and great…but always in ways quiet, slow, invisible. Definitely unlikely. 

Manure – it is refuse. It’s garbage. It smells terrible and we work hard to get it away from our eyes and our noses. “I want to use the garbage, the stuff people try to move out of the way, the stuff that smells terribly…I’d like to really pour that on the root system this coming year.” 

Which is to say, instead of chopping down the stubbornly fruitless tree…what if the tree’s roots sunk into the stuff that smells terrible, looks terrible…but then as many of you know, manure is also teeming with enzymes and microorganisms vital to life. 

How often we are tempted to look away from our failures. From our shames. From our grief. From the tragedy. From the grave injustice. From the manure of it all. 

How often we want to surround our days with as much sunshine and smiles as possible…what if we slowed down and let our hearts look upon the manure of life. Of our life. Around our life. Not to bring us down. Actually, quite the opposite. Because for our God, it is always in the refuse, always in the ugly, always in the space of deepest pain…wherein the nutrients of resurrection are given. 

What if this is not a season to chop him or her or them…or us? What if it the word for this season is “Let it alone. I’m going to dig around and create some space for manure”? 

The Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer tells the story of going on this program 4 decades ago called Outward Bound when he was in his early 40s, and at one point in this program, the instructor ties a very thin rope around his waist and tells Parker that the next endeavor for him is to rappel down this 110-foot cliff. 

Palmer has never done this and awkwardly tries to get moving and slams up against the face of the cliff. The instructor continues to give him guidance and eventually Palmer 

starts making his way down ok until at the 1/2 way mark the instructor says, “Parker, I think you’d better stop and see what’s just below your feet.” 

It’s a deep hole in the face of the rock. And Palmer could see right away that to swing himself far to the left or the right to get around this hole would lead to his death. He could not do it. So he freezes. 

“Parker, is anything wrong?” The instructor asked. 

And Palmer says that he has no idea where these words came from but that he has 12 witnesses who all heard him say this while frozen on his rope above this deep hole. “I don’t want to talk about it.” 

Then a second instructor replies, “I think it’s time you learned the Outward Bound motto.” Palmer thinks to himself, “Oh good….I’m about to die, and she’s going to give me a motto.” 

Palmer puts it this way: “But then she shouted ten words I hope never to forget, words whose impact and meaning I can still feel: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” 

If there is a darkness, a pain, a brokenness, an uncertainty that sits before us (or within us)…what if the wisdom is not so much figuring out how to navigate around it, how to act like it’s not there, how to just cut it down and get it away. 

What if the wisdom is somehow to “get into it.” Or let your roots receive what is there, to embrace what is there not because its good but because it is there…and because what if the manure if full of nutrients? 

Just after the crowds were shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him” which is to say, “Chop him down” – Jesus was then put on a cross. And on that cross, Jesus looks upon all these “chop him down” people and says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” 

The Greek word Jesus uses is “Aphes,” – in some contexts meaning “hands-off” or “cool down” or “leave it alone.” In other contexts, it means “forgive.” This is to say, Jesus uses the very same word that our vineyard worker uses today. When the cries for “Chop it down” and “Crucify him” and “Harness violence to make the change now!”… the reply from our God is “Aphes.” 

“Let it alone.” “Forgive.” Three days later he would make clear then and now that there is another way. 

It is the soil of refuse and sin, failure and death…and the soil of forgiveness. Of resurrection life. 

“Let it alone. Sink your roots. Receive the abundant nutrients known only in manure.” Amen. 

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert