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"The Compost Pile" - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on August 9, 2020 by Kathy Miller

“The Compost Pile”


Over the course of a life, all kinds of things work to transform us and change us, and often our closest relationships with other people make one of the biggest differences. Our relationships can lead us to change in ways we never could have guessed and cause us to do things we never would have on our own. 


This has been especially true for me in my marriage.  Brian has invited me into all kinds of growth and change.  He has offered me many opportunities to do things I would have never dreamed up with on my own. Sometimes I have been enthusiastic about these invitations and offerings, sometimes I have been…let’s say less enthusiastic. 


For example, not long after we got married, Brian asked how I felt about bringing 1,000 little pets into our house.  More specifically, 1,000 worms.  We were living in an apartment and Brian wanted to begin composting, but since we had no yard for a compost bin, Brian had discovered worm composting, which it turns out you can do just in a big Tupperware right in your own house. 


So…this would not normally be my cup of tea, as it were.  But, we were newly married.  I wanted to be accommodating.  He promised I wouldn’t hardly see them and he was just going to use shredded paper, the leftover coffee grinds and some food scraps for them.  And they would make enough composted soil for our house plants. So, in moved the worms.  And I noticed them occasionally, but did nothing with them.


Then, in our first house, Brian built a compost bin in the backyard.  And it was big enough that now all our plant food scraps and yard waste could go into the bin, which meant I participated by just setting aside scraps in a bucket when I was cooking, but that was it.  In Milwaukee, we were finally able to plant a bunch of raised beds for vegetables and so I got to help do a bit of harvesting the compost soil and putting it into the garden.  And by the time we moved to Racine, I had come around to understanding the miracle of compost. 


Because it is a miracle.  The soil produced from waste and scraps and what would otherwise be garbage in a landfill, when composted, is an incredible gift.  The rich and fertile soil that gets made in the compost pile helps the garden veggies grow so much better than in just the dirt of our backyard.  And it is great to divert garbage from a landfill.  But finally I understood how in this simple process, we got to participate in creating something so beautiful and useful from garbage.  So, by the time composting came up at our Caring for Creation Committee here at Covenant, I was enthusiastic about how our church community could have the opportunity to participate together in a miraculous process of creation. 


And because I’m a pastor, you can’t leave me for too long with anything before I start making theology out of it.  So, yes, I have a theology of compost, informed by Brian, and a writer named Jeff Chu, and my own years of observation of the compost pile. And it turns out, God is a master composter.


You see, the first stage of a compost pile is a bucket full of stuff we don’t want – rinds and shells and the fruit and veggies that went bad in our bottom drawer.  The bucket can sometimes smell bad and will get soggy and moldy and if you don’t use a well closed lid or put it in the freezer, then the fruit flies may show up. 


Which can be compared to the most difficult times in our lives.  The moments when we feel worthless or abandoned.  The times we’ve done wrong but we don’t want to admit it.  Or the times we’ve done wrong and know we have to admit it.  The times when we’ve been hurt or bruised or cast aside.  The times when we had no hope that things would change or get better; when we just want to give up, give in, hide away. 


And, the next stage of composting is when you take the bucket out to the bin and mix around the new stuff with the old and you need to get everything well stirred up. 


Which is quite like the discomfort of change and challenge in our lives - the times when we feel disoriented and upside-down; when everything feels uncomfortable and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.


The next stage of the compost is how long it takes for all the various waste to begin to turn into soil.  The freshest stuff gets mixed with the things put in a month ago, six months ago, a year ago. And all the composting happens at different speeds based on how they started out.


Which is how we all are together here.  Some of us are really new, some of us have been around the block a bit.  Add in the prophets and teachers and leaders through history who have left us bits of wisdom – stories to apply and discard in our own work, on our own journey.  We are all at different stages of transformation and growth.


But, eventually, through the heat and stirring around, the compost pile becomes this incredible, rich, life-giving soil.  Soil that is extremely fertile, utterly transformed and ready to help create new life. 


And that is where God is leading us throughout our lives – to become good soil. In the mess and struggle and ugliness and hopeless moments of our lives, God keeps doing transforming work.  God calls us, pushes us, invites us into a life that is rich and fertile and life-giving.  And often, the best opportunities we have for change and growth and transformation come out of our hardest moments, our worst days, our biggest challenges, our deepest pain.  God is always there with us.


Jeff Chu writes (and this is a bit of a long quote), that the story of the compost pile, is the

“narrative of hope amid the world’s narratives of despair. (He says) The more time I spend at the compost pile, the more I see that death never gets the last word and the more I ask: Isn’t the story of compost really just the story of God, turning fear to courage, sorrow to joy, death to life? …

A robust theology of the compost reminds us that death and the things of death—our sin, our suffering, the endless ways we hurt each other, the numerous ways we harm ourselves—are never the end of the story. A robust theology of the compost reminds us that God has written redemption into Creation itself, if only we would see it. A robust theology of the compost reminds us that God has empowered us—…—to turn what’s ugly, festering, and dying into what’s lovely, beautiful, and life-giving.

A robust theology of the compost testifies that we can’t do it alone, but we need others—a single worm can’t do much, but in community, there’s tremendous power. A robust theology of the compost testifies that we who have been told by society that we are worthless can act in the confidence of the knowledge that we are worthy. A robust theology of the compost testifies that God urges those who have been shamed not to shame but instead to love—because in our acts of love, we participate in preparing the soil in which God’s reign of love and justice can take root.”[1] (end quote)

And this is the news we need in 2020.  It’s why I’m campaigning to call 2020 the year of the compost.  This year, in which we are filled to the brim with the scraps of what we had planned and hoped for. This year, in which the news seems to have gotten as bad as it can get, only to then get worse.  This year when we are collectively waking up to so many systemic problems, compromised institutions and witnessing so much broken humanity.  This year is a year so many of us would collectively like to throw into the compost pile and forget.


But the theology of compost teaches us that it is precisely what often looks to be unusable and messy which turns out to be the most capable of transformation.  When things are uncomfortable and hard and upside-down is often the same moment God is creating something new, something we couldn’t previously imagine.   Jesus once shared a parable about good soil – the kind of soil which will bear good fruit – and you only get good soil from dirt and matter that’s been mixed up and gone through some stuff.


Like Sarah said last week, our faith asks us to hang on when it gets hard, to hang in there, to be convinced that God has a blessing for us in the struggle.  And our faith, again and again, promises, and makes good on the promise, to make us new, to transform us, to create beauty in the mess, to bring justice and love out of pain and struggle.  There is so much possible in the compost pile.  And even when we doubt ourselves and each other, may we trust that God is a master composter.  That God can make beautiful things out of scraps.  That God can make beautiful things out of us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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