Objet de Regret

Ancient Testimony ~ Luke 13: 6-9

January 25, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Vita Sackville-West was a great gardener. You will know of her in different ways: as a poet and a novelist; as the sometimes lover of Virginia Wolfe; as the sometimes lover of her husband, Harold Nicolson; and as the weekly garden writer for the Guardian for several decades. Her garden at the family estate that she could not inherit, because she was a woman, is well known as being one of the most perfect gardens in the world. How did she keep it so perfectly? Whenever a plant underperformed or blossomed lightly, she pulled it out. She was a great yanker of plants. When other gardeners learn of Vita’s gardening habits, we cringe. Most of us have a large plant hospital and quite a few eyesores sitting around. We find it hard to yank something out if it blossomed only twice when the nursery advertised thrice. Not Vita. Vita took one look at a fig tree that was not figging and declared, “Off with its head!” Just to think about her mercilessness scares me. I do love a beautiful garden but not so much as to be ruthless about it.

Another gardener I know founded one of the largest food distribution systems in the country, near Key West, Florida. One day she saw a dumpster outside of a big farm, filled with crooked neck squash that were too crooked to go to market. The squash were about to be dumped—not even composted, just dumped. Eileen walked up to the farmer and said she’d take the too crooked crook necks for free—then he wouldn’t have to pay the dumping fee; he was thrilled—and from that day developed a 2000-ton-a-day contribution to the food banks of South Florida and beyond. All the food that wasn’t pretty in Vita’s way, all the food not good enough to go to market, went to the poor so they could eat from the less than perfect garden.

One woman was ruthless and knew one kind of beauty. Another woman was entrepreneurial and knew a different kind. Each is a hero in terms of the agricultural parable of the fig tree we just heard.

Each reminds me of the story I recently heard about a state-trooper-come-parish-pastor, in a place near here. Apparently, after his first year, he issued letters of transfer to four of his leaders. Right in the middle of the service. The letters, which he read out loud, said, “It is time for you to move on. You are no longer doing this church any good.”

Vita would understand. Eileen would be horrified. This state trooper wanted a beautiful, perfect garden. He didn’t want a church.

The parable of the fig tree is an unusual parable. Usually Jesus tells stories that have immediacy and urgency about them. Now is the time, he will say. Now is the day of the salvation. This is the day the Lord has made. Instead of immediacy, this story is about delay. It is also about manure, what some people call holy shit, the stuff of which compost is made. Holy shit is a holy shift. It is about strategic delay. It is about resurrection. It is about waiting for life to emerge out of death and decay. In this story, the farmer wants to know what to do with his fig tree, which is not figging. I daresay some of you have the same question about your jobs or your relationships. A lot of trees are taking up a lot of soil in a lot of places and not paying for it in fruit. The farmer is advised to manure it and give it another year. Then, if it can’t learn responsibility in one year, you can cut it down. Vita would disagree and would already have chopped it up into kindling. Eileen would have composted it with rotten tomatoes, the ones she couldn’t turn into stew for the poor.

What are we to do with the sometimes-conflicting values of beauty and justice? What happens to the vegetables not good enough or strong enough or beautiful enough to go to market? What are we to do with the interesting conflict in the new president’s inaugural speech? Are we to be even more responsible? Are the poor to be even more responsible? Are Mei and Joe—who have to not only work 14 hours a day in the restaurant they own but also fear deportation and separation from their children while doing so—supposed to be more responsible? I so wish the new president had found a way to speak to the people who are fruiting and fruiting, and fruiting some more, without reward. I so wish the new president had spoken to those who are overusing the soil and think they have a right to more nourishment than others. These are the people who wouldn’t think of buying a too crooked crookneck squash or a tomato that didn’t have the right roundness. They don’t just go to market, they go to high-end markets. I have to imagine he was advising more responsibility for everyone, but especially for those using too much soil. He could not possibly be saying that to those who can’t find manure. That would be too mean.

The message of this parable, in its strategic delay, is indeed about the timing of responsibility and results. It is also about getting over some things and hanging on to others. Whatever your objet de regret is, the decision is how to get it some manure so you can be sure you have given it the best chance. If it still won’t fruit, you say goodbye.

I titled this sermon with the flirty French language, “Objet de Regret,” because of a story in the New Yorker right before Christmas, with the same title. It was a story about Christmas presents and what not to buy. We were advised not to buy each other things we don’t need, especially things on sale that we don’t need. It turns out that the deeper the discount, the less desirable the object. The more expensive it is, the more likely it is to fig for us. Fewer and finer is better than more and cheaper. There were some pretty funny stories about things bought at yard sales or thrift stores that were really cheap—too good not to buy—but bordering on the absurd. I am sure none of you has things like that lying around your apartment, but I can tell you Grace House is littered with things that looked good on the lawn or the shelf. Vita Sackville-West would have long ago deposed them. Eileen would live happily amid their clutter, wondering when their time would come. And Jesus would give them a year, after manuring them.

If you have a relationship that stands in the middle of this rhythm, consider how ugly a perfect garden can be, especially if it is mean. And then give the relationship some manure. You are enough of a consumer already; you don’t need to be a consumer of relationships.

If you have an idea that needs dusting, take it outside and dust it off. You may need to get rid of it. You may need to manure it. You may also need to keep it. Consider just for a second the oppositional form of politics that most of us here grew up with. There is a right and a left, a right and a wrong. Never the twain shall meet. I daresay the new president is manuring that idea off for us. Can we change? I wonder.

Or consider that oh so popular idea that the U.S. is the world’s sole remaining superpower. What if that is not true? What if it is taking up too much soil? What would it mean to live without that idea hanging around, leeching the soil?1

The parable applies to personal relationships, to objects that we have lying around, even to the way we use space and closets at Judson to store old stuff, to big ideas and to little people. It’s about learning when to hang on and when to let go. This rhythm is a daily pattern for each of us. Getting wiser and more manured on these matters will change our lives and make them more beautiful and more just.

One more story. I watched a taxi driver completely ignore another driver who ran him off the road. The taxi driver smiled and all but thanked the other driver for his aggression. I asked what was going on. He explained that many people are like garbage trucks. They run around full of garbage and frustration. As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it and sometimes they’ll dump it on you. You don’t have to receive it nor do you have to be a garbage truck yourself. Sometimes you can strategically dump.

Vita had a perfect garden. Very few of us do. We have neither the heart nor the heartlessness for it. Instead, we have the manure. Let’s spread it around, give it a year, and see what happens. Amen.


1 Columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., has this to say about the potential for change with a new president: “What should fall is another illusion, the idea that the United States is the world’s ‘sole remaining superpower.’ This notion weakened us because it suggested an omnipotence that no nation can possess.” (“Coming Soon: The 21st Century,” Washington Post, 30 December 2008, A15)

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