This is the sermon I gave today at the First Unitarian Church of Hobart, Indiana.
“Give me your moldy, your stale, your sprouting potatoes. Bring me that wilted, pitiful bag of salad you really meant to eat this time. Bring me your bananas too brown and mushy even to make bread with. Bring me your grass clippings and fallen leaves. Give me the wretched refuse of your teeming refrigerator, yearning to rot free. Give me these, and we will make life itself.”
These words come from a sermon by Holly Anne Lux-Sullivan, the winner of 2011 sermon contest conducted by CUUPS, the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. The title of her sermon was “The Gospel of Compost.”
This morning, during the first hour forum, we heard from Aja Yasir, who has transformed her yard in Gary into an urban farm, based on principles of regenerative agriculture. I was inspired Aja when I first heard her, for the work she is doing, but also for how she places her work in the context of her relationships, with her family and with her community.
When I thought about what kind of homily that would be appropriate to follow Aja’s presentation, I thought about Holly’s sermon. I want to share with you my own “Gospel of Compost.”
I love compost. I love the smell of it, the feel of it, the piling up of yucky stuff to make something beautiful, sweet smelling, and delicious. The first time I ate tomatoes I had planted, watered, and fed with compost, I felt like I was communing Mother Nature herself, or that immanent presence we Pagans sometimes call “the Goddess”.
The miracle of compost is the miracle of life from death, of life and death co-existing—more than coexisting—needing each other. It is science and religion wrapped into one big dirty rich-smelling pile of rotting food and yard waste.
In the Bible, the gospels are where the “good news” of the Christian story is told, a story that ends with the permanent triumph of life over death. My gospel, my “good news “ story, is slightly different.
It begins with me telling you that I am not, historically speaking, someone who likes dirt. I was a fastidious child, almost pathologically so. I didn’t like messiness. Not on my dinner plate and not in my toy box. And definitely not on my clothes on hands. And though I grew to love wild nature, my allergies kept me indoors more often than not.
When Ruth and I bought our first house, we were super excited about having a lawn and landscaping. It’s only a quarter acre and nothing special, but it was ours. I loved working in the yard. At least the first year, and the second. But by the third, whatever the previous owners had been spraying wore off and the weeds attacked. The work doubled and tripled and it wasn’t so much fun anymore.
We tried growing a garden, but I quickly learned that our house was built on a pile of clay, mixed with gravel. I had heard about composting in my Pagan and environmentalist circles, and so we decided to try it.
I just wanted to turn my clay plot into something that would grow a tomato plant. What I didn’t realize when we started out was that composting is holy work, work that connects me to the earth in a very literal way. It connects me to my food (on both ends of the process) and to the whole natural cycle of growth, death, and new growth.
We didn’t know much about composting, except that we needed green/wet matter and brown/dry matter. At first, our compost pile was just a hole in the ground. We tossed our kitchen scraps into a big bowl. Carrot and potato peels. The parts of vegetables that we didn’t use, like the ends of celery, apple cores, and corn cobs. Moldy bread and extra spaghetti. Rotten lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes from the crisper. We’d scrape out plates into the bowl after dinner. That gave the compost its green matter, which provided the nitrogen.
Everything except meat and dairy (which attract pests). If it was plant-based, it went in. Even used paper towels. And in the fall, I added the dead leaves from our yard for lots of brown matter, which gave the compost its carbon.
And when the bowl was full, we’d take it out and dump it into the compost hole.
Microbes feed on all that stuff. Gradually converting it from kitchen waste into the richest earth you can find, full of nutrients that will feed plants.
It wasn’t long before we realized that we had some problems with our system. The first problem was the bowl was too small. It was stinky and it attracted gnats. So we got a bucket with a lid. Somehow, it became Ruth’s job to take the bucket out. I’m not sure how that happened, but I don’t really have an incentive to investigate the issue.
The second problem was our hole in the ground. We also didn’t really turn the pile as much as we should have. It still decomposed, but it was ugly. Especially in the wintertime, when our rotten vegetables would sit on top of the snow. It was an unsightly mess. We tried putting a cover on it. But eventually we invested in big compost tumbler, which we dump our scraps into and then spin.
Composting is an amazing and exciting process, albeit a slow one. Still I was surprised at how fast the pile shrank. We would fill the bin up with scraps multiple times over the seasons and it didn’t take long for the pile to shrink down again.
The next spring, when it was time to plant the garden, I opened the compost bin and what I shoveled it. What I found was amazing. There was an occasional half decomposed potato, but the rest of it looked amazingly like soil!
And then I dared to sniff it. There was a slight odor of rot. But there was something else. It smelled like … life!
We had made soil! I felt like Tom Hank’s character in the movie Castaway, when he first makes fire on the deserted island. But instead of exclaiming, “I made fire!”, I felt like exclaiming, “I made soil!” Technically, what we made was “humus”—the part of soil that feeds plants. We made life out of the stuff that we would have thrown into the garbage!
It wasn’t long before I was almost physically incapable of throwing an apple core in the trash. It didn’t matter that I was in my car, I would bring it home and put it in the compost. If I found solid food or paper towels in the kitchen trash, I would rescue them and put them in the compost bucket.
And when I emptied out the crisper of vegetables we hadn’t eaten quickly enough or had to throw away some unidentifiable formerly edible substance in an abandoned tuperware container, I felt less guilty knowing it was going in the compost pile.
Over a few years, the soil in our garden went from being a block of clay to a rich, dark matrix for plant life.
I felt more connected with the earth than I ever had.
Not that it was all magical. As my daughter Katya will eagerly tell you, sometimes we let the compost bucket sit in the kitchen too long and it stinks when we open it to add more to it. And the pile of rotting food in the bin can be overwhelming, especially in the heat of the summer, before we have added many leaves.
But I had started to look at disgusting things in a new way. Ruth helped me in this regard. One year, we went to Florida to visit my dad. We went to the beach, which I always love. Ruth and the kids like pulling interesting things out of the ocean. But this trip was a little unusual in that everything they pulled out was … disgusting. It looked like a collection of props from the movie Aliens, all tentacles and slime.
I wish I knew more about aquatic flora and fauna, because words fail to describe some of the things they discovered, both living and dead. A spiney purple sea urchin, its three horned beak opening and closing slowly. Some kind of grey slimy tubular thing, plant or animal I couldn’t tell you. A small, overturned insect-like crab, its legs still stretching in the air. A blood-red sea weed that reminded me of something from Speilberg’s remake of War of the Worlds. (We returned everything we found to the ocean.)
Then Ruth pulled out this (still living) giant clam out of the water. It was covered in a profusion of the remnants of various life forms. It was repulsive.
“That’s disgusting,” I told her.
Ruth held it up to me smiling and said, “This is your Goddess.”
“It’s the slimy side of her,” I responded, wrinkling up my face.
“This is life,” she replied.
It’s strange when a seemingly mundane moment is transformed into a sacred one. I looked at my wife standing part way in the ocean, holding a huge shell, and I heard her speak the words of a Pagan priestess: “This is your Goddess. This is life.”
Looking at all the slimy things Ruth and kids pulled from the sea that day, I realized what an illusion my nice, neat world is. And that included my neat, neat spirituality. Even among Pagans like me, there is a tendency to romanticize nature. We like to find divinity in the parts of nature that are aesthetically pleasing, and gloss over the messy, stinky bits. But Pagan mythology actually teaches us that the pretty side of nature and the seemingly ugly side, are two faces of the same Goddess. The grossness and the vitality of the nature are one and the same.
Much like the ocean, compost is not all niceness and prettiness. Just like life, it is messy, frustrating and sometimes disappointing.
Compost reminds me that, after I die, I will live on … in the things that eat me. There’s lots of ways to recycle your body nowadays. Like a lot of people, I think, I’m enamored with the idea becoming a tree. I want to be buried with as little artificial stuff as possible separating me from the soil. I want my body to decompose and return to the cycle of life and death. I want to become compost. That is the only kind of afterlife I believe in.
Composting has also taught me a lesson of more immediate and practical importance. A lesson about the messiness of life. Like most people, I’m sure, when I think back on my life, there are certain experiences that I wish hadn’t happened. For a long time, I would have wished them away, or willed myself to forget them, if possible. Until recently, I was struggling, for the first time in my life, with serious depression and anxiety. There was no romanticizing it. It was ugly and messy and humiliating and long.
But I’ve come to think that experiences are the compost of a person’s life.
I can’t make bad experiences disappear. We think we do this when we throw something in the garbage. But we are learning, as a civilization, that nothing really ever disappears. And the things we throw away can have a way of coming back to haunt us. And as much as I would like to forget some of my experiences, far better, I think, it would be to find a way to compost them. To turn those experiences I would like to forget into qualities I would like to have, like patience, compassion, and wisdom.
Turning the bad into the good, death into life, is a long, slow, and sometimes painful process. It takes hard word, patience, and also, a fair amount of grace—that unpredictable and uncontrollable quality of life. And it takes a willingness to plunge in a get messy.
One of my favorite quotes comes from a John Osborn play, Look Back in Anger, which was turned into a movie in 1959, starring Richard Burton. What the protagonist, Jimmy Porter, says about love, I think applies to life in general:
“It’s no good fooling about with love. You can’t fall into it without dirtying up your hands. It takes muscle and guts. If you can’t bear the thought of messing up your nice, tidy soul, you better give up the whole idea of life and become a saint, because you’ll never make it as a human being.”
Ours is a religion for human beings. It is a religion of life. Life, with all its sweat and triumph, joy and defeat. In life, as in the garden, we make holy compost out of life’s experience. And we use that compost to feed and nurture new life. It’s usually messy. Often it’s beautiful. Sometimes it’s both—sometimes messy and then beautiful in succession, and occasionally messy and beautiful at the same time.
This is my gospel, my good news. It is not story of the permanent triumph of life over death, but of the eternal interconnectedness of life and death, of joy and defeat, of loss and fulfillment. This is the gospel of compost.