This past Sunday our church celebrated the addition of ten new children to our congregation. We wrapped the little ones in blankets and gave the toddlers stuffed sheep. We thanked God that these kids were present in the world. We also affirmed our intention to love them and to nurture them in the faith. Then we ate chili. Our scripture readings for the day took us to Luke 13:1-9 and to Isaiah 55:1-9. The question for us, then, was what these texts had to say to our particular congregation on a Sunday when we were doing such a particular thing—blessing and celebrating the arrival of children. Here is what I shared . . . This past week I had a song stuck in my head. It wasn’t necessarily a current song or a terribly significant song but, as these things do, it became the soundtrack for my week. And this annoyed my family. Part of the annoyance was probably because I’m not much of a singer, part of it was probably because I couldn’t remember anything close to the whole song, and part of it was probably because it was one of those angsty alternative rock songs from when I was in high school. Those of you in your thirties might remember the British band Radiohead—maybe some of the parents of the children we celebrated. If you were a fan of Radiohead you might remember their 1995 album “The Bends,” and just maybe you might remember the single “Fake Plastic Trees.” The song’s opening lines go something like this:
Her green plastic watering can / for her fake Chinese rubber plant / in the fake plastic earth / that she bought from a rubber man / in a town full of rubber bands
Apparently there was a lot of fake landscaping in London’s Canary Warf. The song was influenced by that and by the music of Jeff Buckley. The refrain is simple. It goes like this:
It wears her out, it wears her out / It wears her out, it wears her out
I think Radiohead was trying to give a sonic rendering of the anxiety created by our thin, plastic, artificial culture. Here little seems original and little seems genuine. Most of it seems like a cheap, make-believe knock-off of a real life. I don’t know if the celebrated writer David Foster Wallace listened to Radiohead, but it would seem to fit. In 2004 David Foster Wallace wrote a piece for Gourmet magazine, called “Consider the Lobster.” It’s an excellent essay. One of the reasons it’s so good is that Foster Wallace gives both a lively and detailed description of a cultural tradition, in this case the Maine Lobster Festival, and probes a deeper question that the commercialized and plasticized event obscures—the question of whether or not lobsters suffer when steamed alive.
I don’t want to get too theoretical here, but I think these two cultural artifacts (“Fake Plastic Trees” and “Consider the Lobster”) help us understand the context in which these children will grow up. Modern families are tempted—maybe even expected—to be plastic. They are expected to be well-put-together on the surface, to have a glossy sheen, even if it means they are pretty shallow. We can see through this however. When you’re actually in a family (who of us hasn’t been?) you see through it. The trees are obviously fake because they bear no fruit, they never get brown, they never age and they’re never effected by pests. In actual families, as in actual friendships, the challenges are real. If it wasn’t for the constant work of the marketing industry the plastic expectation would quickly dissolve.
The reality is that parenting wears us out—life wears us out. But it isn’t the aesthetics that wears us out; it’s the actual stuff that gets covered over. There are many angsty-falsetto-using songwriters that can help us deal with the aesthetics by pointing out life’s ironies. Far fewer can help us work with the stuff beneath the plastic veneer: the real questions, the real hurt, the real worry and the real anger. To work that stuff we hope for a word from the Lord, and we look to a different sort of lyricist—the prophet Isaiah.
Our reading came from a section of the biblical book of Isaiah scholars refer to as Second Isaiah. We read Isaiah 55:1-9. The opening verses tell us about a place or an economy where we can get wine, milk and sumptuous food for free. Such an arrangement is good news to parents indeed! I guess kids might like the idea too but part of being a kid is not having to worry too much about the expense of food. You just sit back, cry and take it all in. For little ones food that doesn’t require a monetary exchange wouldn’t be anything new. There’s a clue in that ignorance.
In Matthew 18 Jesus says that to enter the kingdom of heaven we need to become like a child. Isaiah is describing that same world order. The prophet communicates the life of abundance offered by God in evocative culinary terms. To paraphrase, God says, “Listen, and really live. I’ll covenant with you like I did with David. I’ll love you with a steadfast, sure love. It’ll be a love that won’t be turned off, one that you won’t be able to shake. I want you to show the world what life can be like.” Actually, David wasn’t much of a witness. As the commentator Brevard Childs suggests, Isaiah is using God’s covenant with David to point beyond him to a world order—a new economy a new kingdom—where God’s compassion and covenant of peace is evident to all (p.434ff).
At its best the love we observe of a parent for a child is like that. The way parents care for their children can be an icon of God’s care for us. Like a mother, God draws us in, warms us, soothes us and feeds us. All of this before we can hand over any cash. A word from the Lord then, at a time when we celebrate these children, might just be that God cares for us deeply and warmly, like a loving parent, like a parent that loves a child and wants the best for her.
I have to admit that I’ve been so shaped by the exchange economy that I sometimes tell my kids that I expect to be paid back when I’m an old man. I tell them that they’ll have to push me around in a stroller and change my diaper while I try to kick them. I’ll embarrass them in public. I tell them that I might even bite. Thankfully God’s love is the love of a better economy. In a world that’s plastic on the outside and so very messy underneath, God’s love is slow soul food served up hot and without cost. When we tuck into that it enables us to love, to give and to forgive in the real world—the very one that wears us out.
That’s a good word from the Lord at a time like this but it’s not the only one. We can’t forget the gospel passage from Luke 13:1-9. My guess is that when we read it the thing that struck you immediately came from the first paragraph: “unless you repent, you will all perish.” Yikes! Not very celebratory is it? It’s a little hard to see how that fits with the celebration and dedication of new lives. Yet I think there is a word from the Lord there too. Let’s leave the second half of that striking phrase up to God, who perishes and who doesn’t, and let’s focus on the first part, the call to repentance.
It’s easy to see Lent in the word ‘repent’ but hard to see the gospel. Or to put it a different way, it’s hard to see the good news of Easter in repentance. Here’s the reality though: parents and caring congregants will make mistakes. Those of you that affirmed your intention to love your child and to nurture them in the faith of Jesus—good luck. You will fail. You will. You aren’t good enough. You just aren’t. Nobody is. But it’s precisely in that recognition that repentance becomes good news. You don’t have to grope around and try to show how what you did was really okay or explain that because of your own childhood you couldn’t have done anything differently. No—you can repent. In the power of God’s Spirit you can do something new. That’s what the Christian life, with all of its weird and wonderful practices, is about.
Repenting means that we change course. Even tired, self-doubting parents can do that. The gift of God, and the gift of God’s Spirit at work in the world, is the knowledge of our need to repent. It is also the opportunity to do so. Imagine if we were doomed to merely be products of our environment. Imagine if our congregation couldn’t but pass along the mess that we inherited to the children in our midst. Imagine if we couldn’t repent. Jesus says we can.
Jesus turns next to a story to explain things, a good, punchy little parable. Imagine this: there’s a land-owner going on a property tour with his gardener or his farm-hand. Part way through the land-owner points to a fruit tree. He says (let me paraphrase), “Look at this tree. It’s been here for three years and it hasn’t given us anything. It’s just sitting here taking up valuable soil. It’s useless. We should cut it down and get something in here that can do the job.” It would have happened too, except the farmhand steps in and says, “Hey, let’s give this tree some more time. I think I can do something with this. Let me dig around the thing and add some manure. Let’s see what happens.”
As I understand it, ‘manure’ is a rather polite translation of the Greek idiom ‘ballo’, which is actually a verb that means to “put out,” or maybe to “excrete.” Parents, and the rest of us, Jesus is like the optimistic farmhand, you are the tree covered with excrement. Good luck! You haven’t perished yet, which means that you have a chance to make some corrections and produce some fruit, maybe the fruit of the Spirit. As the Spirit moves you, then, get on with it! There are many things that I wish for the children of our congregation, but one of them is simply that each of them would be able to see an important adult in their life admit a mistake, repent, change course and produce some fruit. That would be a blade of hope cutting through the plastic. It would be a blessing.