Sermon: Composting our way to Abundance

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

This sermon is the third in our Advent Series, “Embracing Our Chaotic, Fertile Reality,” which is based in prophecies from Isaiah as well as the wisdom of a modern-day prophet, adrienne maree brown, author of Emergent Strategy. 

Isaiah 35:1-10

There is so much beauty and abundance in this passage from Isaiah. They are words written for a community in exile, longing for home. It’s a vision of the fertile path that they will tread as they make their return. And they were not just words of hope for the Hebrew people in Babylon, they were words repeated generation after generation, reminding the people of the liberating way of life made possible by YHWH – the Divine presence dwelling with them. 

When we reroot these words in their context, among the people for whom they are written located in a specific geographic region, it becomes even more clear why Isaiah’s words were associated with the birth of Jesus/Yeshua in first century Palestine. 

The Jewish people were no longer in exile away from their home, but instead were enduring Roman occupation that was exploiting them and the land. The stories of God’s liberation in times past were rewoven to claim freedom from oppression in the present. 

In addition to the Isaiah passage, Mary’s song known as the Magnificat, is included for this third Sunday in Advent. Her revolutionary song speaks to the good news of Jesus’ birth as a radical reversal of power. Just as the desert will bloom and waters will break forth in the wilderness, so will the mighty be brought down and the lowly lifted up. 

The Sacred Path Isaiah speaks of is woven throughout the fabric of the stories passed down orally among the Jewish people. It’s good news for the land and for the people. The land will explode with fertility and the people will be restored to freedom.  

Isaiah’s vision and Mary’s revolutionary song were informing the imaginations of those who heard them. They were communicating both resilience in the midst of oppression and the abundant possibilities of the future. 

The contemporary prophet, adrienne marie brown, with whom we are dialog alongside Isaiah during Advent, unpacks these themes in her book Emergent Strategy, illuminating what they could mean for us, in this time. And I think this pairing of a contemporary prophet with a scriptural prophet could be a fruitful ongoing practice for us. It is a reminder that the stories from scripture are meant to be living… they are meant to be creative, adaptive narratives. 

They were passed down orally, adapting to the contexts of the storytellers throughout time as they communicated the truth of God’s active presence in the world. When the stories ceased to be shared primarily orally and were encased in text, their adaptive power was lost and they were easily co-opted by empires as tools of oppression. 

So part of the invitation I offer is to deepen this practice of bringing these stories from scripture into imaginative conversation with the contexts in which we live today. And furthermore, to learn the stories of the land on which we live. Just as the scripture stories are rooted in particular lands and ecosystems – what are the stories of resilience and relationship on the lands and in the ecosystems where we live? And what were the stories on the lands of our ancestors prior to colonization?

I think this rooting in place is a key part of our practice of resilience, of recognizing our web of relations with the living beings around us. We are not individual, autonomous beings, we are chaotic, fertile ecosystems of relationality. Indeed, we have more bacterial and fungal cells than we do human cells in our bodies and we’re breathing in the microbiome of our environment all the time.

In Emergent Strategy adrienne marie brown talks about resilience in terms of transformation and looks to the natural world as a teacher. Who in the natural world can teach us how to transform toxic landscapes into fertile soil? Well, mushrooms of course! They are an amazing natural example of resilience. They take harmful substances like toxic ash, petroleum, and lead and decompose them, allowing soil to be healed. 

The mycelium, the root system of the mushrooms, does all that composting work and the mushrooms that pop up are the fruit of their labor. This practice of resilience – digesting the toxicity – is what allows for the new possibilities of growth and abundance in the soil. It is a slow process of healing. Although it is proven that mushrooms and mycelia work to both cleanse toxicity and improve soil fertility, the process is too slow to be embraced on an industrial scale. 

The mycelia are the connective tissue of the forest, sending nutrients to the plants who need it. They’re like a massive web of wealth redistribution, making sure that all have what they need to thrive. 

When we experience pain or loss or trauma, what wisdom do the mushrooms and mycelia offer us? How might our root systems aid us in digesting such experiences? What are the practices of resilience that help us compost pain? What stories can we tell of beings (human or otherwise) who have faced and moved through challenges? How might a connection to the land on which we live aid in our healing? 

I am at the beginning of learning to answer these questions and am curious in how you would respond. I think this composting work is so crucial to our healing work – to grieve, to rage, to let go, so the pain can move through us and be digested by a larger web of connections and ultimately transformed into fertile soil incubating seeds of new life. 

This composting process is what lays the fecund foundation for the possibilities of abundance adrienne marie brown also outlines. She encourages us to let our imaginations blossom and fruit in as diverse an ecosystem as possible. 

She writes, “At the human scale, in order to create a world that works for more people, for more life, we have to collaborate on the process of dreaming and visioning and implementing that world. We have to recognize that a multitude of realities have, do and will exist… The more people who cocreate the future, the more people whose concerns will be addressed from the foundational level in this world.” 

This sounds like a potentially chaotic process, yes, and it is exactly what we need given the world we inhabit. To dream of possibilities that only work for able-bodied people or for cisgendered people or for white people or for college-educated people severely limits our collective brilliance. 

Just as the ecosystems around us are constantly adapting to changing conditions, cultivating resilience, and composting harmful substances, we are invited to join in. We are a part of this ecological web, just as we seek to carry its wisdom into our human networks of connection. How can this adaptive complexity inform our storytelling and dreaming about what is possible in our world? 

One way I’d like to experiment is with this understanding that the stories from scripture are meant to be living and retold in generation after generation. So here’s a retelling of Isaiah’s vision in vs. 5 – 6 of the joyful abundant return in conversation with adrienne marie brown… 

First from Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be unsealed. Then those who cannot walk will leap like deer and the tongues of those who cannot speak will sing for joy.” 

Now a retelling with props to Eli Reimer who helped me imagine. As the liberated community made its way back home, all the people regardless of ability were on the path rejoicing. Those who were blind had guide animals accompanying them every step of the way. Those who were deaf were carrying on joyful conversation in sign language with countless community members. Those who had limited mobility scooted along on a variety of vehicles and those who could not use their vocal chords had speakers that would verbalize whatever they wrote down. The healing they embodied was not in efforts for all to become able-bodied, but rather the healing was in their commitment to offer everyone the support they needed to flourish as a liberated people. 

This sounds kinda like the mycelial root system in the forest, offering nourishment to diverse plant life, as each has need. This is the Sacred Path, the way that leads to joyful, abundant life. Indeed this Way is right under our feet. 

So may we learn from our fungal relations how to compost our pain into fertile soil, and trust that the Spirit at work within us has the power to compost systems dependent on suffering and exploitation. May we open ourselves to the possibilities of new life that thrive in the midst of complexity. And may we become imaginative storytellers, spinning tales of abundant life in conversation with prophets and visionaries within our sacred texts and far beyond them. That which grows among us in the fertile, dark soil of Advent is definitely worth waiting for. Amen.