Sermon: God’s Economy of Compost

22 March 2015 — Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: There was one of those disgusting-yet-fascinating stories in the New York Times this week about a problem for many sewer systems across the country: disposable wet wipes. These wipes have long been used for babies, but sales have shot up in recent years as manufacturers began marketing them to adults too. These wipes claim to be flushable, if by “flushable” you mean “will go down the toilet and clog up the plumbing somewhere.” New York City has spent more than eighteen million dollars in the last five years to clean out wipes from the wastewater-treatment equipment. On top of that is what homeowners and landlords have had to pay to remove wipes from clogged plumbing on their property. Sanitation officials blame manufacturers for misleading marketing, manufacturers blame consumers for disposing of wipes improperly, and the city is now considering a ban on advertising wipes as flushable.[1]

It struck me that this story was not only about wet wipes and the proper disposal thereof. It was pointing out an unspoken attitude of modern society. And that is: “Use it, throw it away, and who cares what happens to it after that.” We’re encouraged to buy things and discard them as soon as they’re broken, or old, or a little bit out of style. Don’t hold on to last year’s model; get rid of it and buy the new version. Our economy depends on our stuff being disposable, on our being able to throw away anything and everything. But this assumption has hidden costs. Almost every week at Trinity School’s chapel, students pray that the Pacific Ocean garbage patch won’t get any bigger, and the children’s concern has made me pay more attention to the amount of plastic that ends up in the water. It’s a lot. The Pacific and Atlantic both have large patches of garbage, mostly plastic, floating just below the surface, slowly releasing pollutants and killing birds and fish who eat it. Wet wipes––made of polyethylene plastic, not paper––cause backups large and small in the sewers, but at least they are caught before they are discharged into waterways. Not so with the plastic microbeads in facial scrubs and body washes, which are too small to be filtered out at wastewater treatment plants. Microbeads end up at the bottom of lakes and rivers where they choke out plant life and cause fish to starve. Nobody, not manufacturers or consumers, thought about this when these products were introduced. Use it, throw it away, and who cares what happens to it.

Not only does this attitude of disposability not work so well for our planet, there’s a risk that we internalize it, and we may start to believe that human beings are disposable. People are fine as long as they are shiny, new, flawless. But when people get older, maybe a little slower or creakier, we sometimes want them to retire and make space for this year’s model. When people are struggling with physical, mental, or emotional challenges, we sometimes lose patience with the accommodations they require and want them to move along. When people have failed––and we all do fail––too often we think they are broken-down, useless, good only for throwing away. Sometimes we think those things of ourselves. We’re finished; we might as well give up.

But God’s economy is different. God’s economy runs on compost. Compost begins as garbage––apple cores, carrot tops, eggshells, coffee grounds, leftovers of dubious freshness, moldy half-eaten remnants of salsa, grass clippings, dead flowers. With a little water, a little air, some helpful bacteria, and time, all those scraps and waste decompose into rich, life-giving soil. Spread some compost around a newly-planted seed, and the seed cracks open, perhaps painfully, so that a new shoot will emerge. In time, that shoot will reach the end of its life, wither, die, and be turned into compost, so that it gives life to another seed. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain,” Jesus says, “but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” One grain of wheat produces a wheat plant, which produces dozens of grains of wheat. Dying is necessary for that fruit to be borne; the grain has to fall to the ground to be planted, and the wheat stalk has to be cut down at the end of the season. But it isn’t thrown away with no thought. God cares what happens to garbage, because God has plans for it. With compost, garbage goes on to create more life. Nothing is wasted; everything has a purpose. And the cycle of compost never ends. It always makes more of itself in the endless giving of life.

At this point in his ministry, Jesus is in Jerusalem. He is on his way to the cross. The plot to end his life has been set in motion, and in John’s telling, Jesus knows the next chapter in the story: his death. Yet because God’s economy runs on compost, Jesus knows that death is not the end. God will use his death to create more life. His grain of wheat will fall to the earth, his wheat plant will be cut down, and he will become compost, in a manner of speaking. His death will give life to countless millions of people, creating the rich, fertile soil that makes new seeds crack open and sprout.

If God can make use of the death of God’s Son, God can make use of our disappointments and failures, too, to give life to us and to the world. Compost needs four ingredients: green, brown, air, and water.[2] New scraps, old garbage, air, and water. We have plenty of raw material at hand. For green, there are our freshest pain and failures, the wounds that haven’t stopped bleeding yet, the disappointments so raw we can hardly bear to look at them. For brown, there are the things we have carried for years, the old hurts, the guilt and shame we’ve wanted to put aside, the wounds that never quite scarred over. For air, there is the breath of the Holy Spirit moving over the world and making all things new. For water, how about the leftover water from our baptism? Mix it all together, give it time and bacteria, and all that waste and garbage will become life-giving, nutrient-rich soil.

What new seed will be nourished in that soil? What will crack open and send out a new shoot? That is God’s promise, that the moldy leftovers and mistakes and pain in our lives will turn into life. Sometimes the seed breaks open with an almighty crack, demanding our full attention. Other times, it is so subtle we hardly notice it. Either way, it happens, and the new sprout flourishes and grows strong.

In a world that views everything as disposable, Jesus proclaims that God’s economy is different. In God’s economy, worthless garbage leads to new life. Mistakes and failures and pain become compost, rich soil that nourishes a seed. To God, nothing is disposable, nothing is wasted. And when we make compost with our own lives, we take part in God’s work of redemption.

[1] Matt Flegenheimer, “Wet Wipes Box Says Flush. New York’s Sewer System Says Don’t,” New York Times, March 13, 2015, (accessed March 18, 2015).
[2] I owe this imagery to Jerry Campbell.

Lent 5B: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

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