Sacred Soil

Of Soil and Dirt
November 18, 2012, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Lectionary 33
November 18, 2012

I remember well that first month I had moved to the Midwest. I grew up on the West Coast, so this land was strange to me. Foreign, with the humid weather, and the overly nice people, and the sweet coffee. To be honest, I felt out of place as I searched the trees for moss, and scanned the horizon for mountains. But there was this moment, when I went out to the garden where I lived, and I began to pull weeds. First I begrudged the task, until I dug my fingers into the soil (strange though it was) and lifted out the interloping grasses, finely shaping the bed to welcome the flowers that were intended. And in the doing, the strangeness of the Midwest melted away. It became more normal to me. It is as if the soil welcomed me, invited me to make this place home.

Perhaps soil has this power for you too? I know there are many here who love to garden. Though, I’m just as sure that most of us aren’t that fond of dirt. The grime, the way it clings to clothes and shoes. The mess, the risk of planting and getting no yield. The work required. The water. The scheduling. These things get at me too… so quickly does soil become dirt. Dirty. Messy. Undesirable.

And it is interesting these words, soil and dirt. They are made of the same things, and yet, soil becomes dirt when it is no longer contained. No longer where it is supposed to be. When it has fallen out of the pot, soil suddenly transforms into dirt. Into mess.

Which actually brings me to those temple stones.

Jesus and his disciples have just left the temple, where he’d given a discourse on the dangers of the temple. And one of his disciples turns to him and admires the grand building. It is huge and magnificent. A wonder to behold.

And Jesus responds, you see this? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. These stones will become rubble.

The soil will become dirt.

Jesus goes on to explain that things are going to get bad. There will be wars, and earthquakes and famines. The dirt will be rife and infested. Putrid. Everything they have ever known will be torn apart, tossed aside. Scattered.

Truth is, many of us know what it feels like to have our temples toppled, our dreams shattered, our traditions forsaken. It is that sense that whatever fertile garden we had, whatever soil we stood on, has suddenly turned to barren dirt, to mess and frustration and sadness and grief. And there is nothing left.

For too many have experienced this sense that the world as we have known it has ended. And nothing will ever be the same again.

We get anxious about change, about messiness. Anxious about the soil of our lives turning to dirt. It’s natural and human. Change is disorienting and causes us to feel as if everything has toppled.

These moments of toppling, these moments of dirt and mess, are overwhelming and confusing, and saddening. And they tear us apart. Overcome with grief, it is so tempting to live bounded by the devastation surrounding us.

But Jesus says a curious thing in this passage. Curious indeed. For all his prediction of dire events, for all his warning of the difficulty to come, he drops this one little sentence that seems to change everything. One little sentence that completely re-orients us: This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Now birth is a painful experience in its own right. Thus fitting with Jesus’ metaphor– but the end result is new life. The end result is birth.

And if there is one thing we know about God, beyond God’s overwhelming, and sometimes confusing love for us, it is that God desires life. That God yearns for new growth. That God’s creation cannot help itself but live.

Our God, compelled by love for all of us, came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.

But the truth is, as heart warming as that may be; it doesn’t make the dirt less messy. Doesn’t make the temple stones grand again, it doesn’t fix our broken hearts, and it doesn’t erase our grief.

One of the great saints in my life was Thea. She was an older German woman who served as a youth group leader. I was in high school at the time. And I remember clearly sitting in her living room one afternoon, with a few other friends of mine, talking about the Psalms. We had landed on one that seemed to us to be kind of angry, and we puzzled over it. How could something in the Bible be so angry with God?

Thea leaned in close to us. Her voice dropped, and her pace changed. And then slowly, she began to tell us about when she was five years old, when she and her kindergarten classmates solemnly walked through the city she had known, as flames licked the buildings, in the eerie calm after the bombs had stopped. Silent tears streamed down their faces, as they fearfully marched, too young to know what had really happened. Old enough to know it was utterly devastating.

And then she said to us, this is what those angry Psalms are for. For the lament and the fear and the sadness, for the frustration with God. For the reality of death. To remind ourselves and remind God, that God always seeks life. Desires life. Always. These Psalms are the anger of hope.

There is nothing that can ever take away the horror of that war. Nothing. But I was grateful that day for the seed that Thea planted in me. The permission to be mad, the permission to grieve, the permission to yell at God. The permission to join with God in hoping and yearning for life.

Life is complicated and messy like this. Good is intertwined with bad. Hope rises even from horror. Beautiful flowers grow in the dirtiest of places.

And so I wonder– perhaps this is an invitation to blur the distinctions. To mess with the conventions, to intertwine soil and dirt. To seek the life giving potential in both. An invitation to truly trust that God will bring all things together for good.

This is the promise we have: life will find a way; life will rise up from the ashes of our scorched hope. Indeed, this is our certain promise given to us in God’s own son.

And so we heed well the words from Hebrews: Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for God who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds… encouraging one another.

And from John, For God has so richly desired that we might have life, and have it abundantly.


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