Grace like compost

Karla Stoltzfus Detweiler shared this sermon with Willow Springs Mennonite Church on October 11, 2020. Take a listen– to the entire worship service, if you like, or jump to 15:28 to hear the scripture reading and sermon. Or read the summary below.

Scripture Text: Isaiah 61:1-4,11

I LOVE compost.

On a cool fall morning, it’s amazing to watch steam rising from a compost pile. That steam attests to the billions of microbes at work, turning unwanted leaves and discarded food scraps into wonderful fertilizer for our gardens.

God speaks to me through compost.

“See these scraps of vegetable peelings, these discarded teabags, these moldy leftovers?”  God says.

“Your messes, your sins, your mistakes are like these scraps. Seal them up in an airtight container, they will soon turn stinky and slimy.

But let me breathe on them,

Let me sprinkle them with water,

Let me mingle them with some wise old leaves,” God grins,

“And I will turn your scraps into crumbly, dark soil that’s teaming with life.”

Compost has helped me to learn to EXPECT and ACCEPT God’s grace for myself when I mess up. But sometimes the messes we find ourselves in are bigger than anything you or I, or our neighbors, or even our nation did alone.

Sometimes we find ourselves in a pickle like the year 2020. Our problems have piled up like tons and tons of scraps of fears and worries and grief.

Can we expect God to make compost out of COVID 19? out of global climate change? out of the racial tensions and political turmoil in our nation?

In Isaiah 61, the prophet addresses his people who had returned to their homeland and to their capital city, Jerusalem. They expect a glorious homecoming!

But instead of returning to the comforts of home, here’s what they face:

Depleted soils. Bad weather. Economic recession. Disputes with Samaritans over land ownership. Crumbling buildings. Political instability.

Does any of this sound familiar?

In the midst of all this turmoil, the prophet Isaiah promises that GOOD NEWS is on the way! The year of the Lord’s Jubilee is at hand!

God’s Spirit-breath is on the move, and Broken hearts will be healed… Captives will be set free… Ashes of grief are going to be replaced by garlands of flowers… Tears will be exchanged for gladness… Desperation will be transformed into boisterous praise!

How can Isaiah be so sure, so confident in the good stuff to come?

I’m convinced that Isaiah was a gardener, and he surely knew about compost. Isaiah trusted that was true for soil life was true for human life too.

He trusted that all those life-depleting struggles, when mixed with the breath of God, when watered by God’s own tears, when mingled with wise old leaves, would change into something that nourishes life.

“FOR,” Isaiah 61 concludes, “AS the earth brings forth its shoots, and AS a garden brings its seeds to blossom SO Exalted YHWH makes justice sprout, and praise spring up before all nations.”

Jesus quoted from Isaiah 61 to set his own ministry of grace and healing in motion. I like to think of Jesus as the Master Composter, who kept turning the scraps of human sickness and prejudice and sin into beautiful stuff.

From healing the leper to triumphing over violence and death at his resurrection, Jesus offered grace like compost for the transformation of oppressed individuals and systems of oppression alike.

Is it possible that God can take OUR ashes and exchange them for garlands of flowers? Can God transform the devastations of the year 2020 into something good?

As surely as compost happens, God’s grace abounds.

May we all have eyes to see and hearts to trust God’s grace that is always at work, in the soil, and in us.  AMEN.

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