Jesus and the Compost Pile
What do Jesus and the compost pile have in common? The promise of everlasting life!
My partner Ruth and I love making compost. The idea that our spoiled leftovers and our
cooking scraps can be made into new earth seems nothing short of miraculous. We used
to have a small farm with a herd of goats, some chickens (layers and broilers), large veggie
gardens, and fruit trees. Our compost pile then was gigantic, composed mostly of soiled hay
from the barn and droppings from the chicken coop, as well as garden waste. Our kitchen
scraps mostly went to the chickens, who conveniently pre-composted them for us into
In the winter, our big mound of compost would get covered in snow, and a small hole would
open on the top with steam billowing out, like a volcano, letting us know that living microbes
were at work transforming/transfiguring that “waste” into black gold—the rich soil–full of life
that we would use in the spring to feed/ nourish the new seeds and plants in our garden.
Nowadays we live in town and we make compost in a handy compost turner that lives in our
small greenhouse. We’ve gotten so into composting that we now have a compost
thermometer, like a meat thermometer but with an extra long metal spike that you can insert
deep into the composter to see how active your pile is. “How Hot Is Your Pile?” was a
joke on the box that the thermometer came in, which kind of grossed me out at first, but the
more I thought about it I came to appreciate the humor. After all, everything poops, right?
That’s how animals live. We eat, we use the nutrients from our food as energy to help us
work, love, think, and move, and then we excrete what we can’t use. The waste from all
living things can become food for another living thing. What is “dead” becomes the basis for
According to the EarthMatter website and its Compost Learning Center, animal manure
is high in the basic building blocks of plant nutrition--nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Chicken poop has a 1.1 percent nitrogen content, compared to .6 percent for cows, .7
percent for horses, and a whopping 2.4 percent for both goats and rabbits. Everyday
kitchen scraps and coffee grounds are also high in nitrogen. Human waste, believe it or
not, can also be composted quite easily into “humanure” by way of composting toilets and
outhouses, where air and other carbon-rich additives (ash, leaves, straw, etc.) are
added to help in the composting process. At our small camp we have an outhouse with
a composting toilet (one made for boats), where the human waste is mixed with peat moss
and ash. We empty that into another big dark plastic bin that composts for, maybe up to two
years, along with leaves and camp kitchen scraps.
I’m not trying to be rude or sacrilegious when I write about Jesus and the compost pile in the
same sentence. What I’m trying to do is make sense of Jesus as a very powerful
symbol of hope and renewal. A symbol of everlasting life. When I take communion and I
imagine partaking of the body of Christ (or the bread of life), or drinking from the cup of ever-
lasting life, (or the cup of blessings), it’s not the last supper that always comes to mind. What I
sometimes imagine is preparing a meal in my kitchen, say, an omelet. I chop the ends off an
onion and peel away the outer layers. I might also add part of a green or red pepper,
maybe even kale, tossing the parts that I can’t use into the compost pail on my counter.
The shell from the egg I crack goes into the compost pail too. In a typical day in my ordinary
house the compost pail gets all that and more, including the spaghetti and rice from weeks
ago that have started to grow mold, citrus peels, apple cores, rotten lettuce, bruised parts of
potatoes, chunks of moldy bread, coffee grounds, tea leaves, you name it.
Composting is a spiritually potent act. It’s also an act that honors the beautiful world we live in
by conserving the precious energy inherent in our world. The law of the conservation of energy
states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only converted from one form of
energy to another. When we compost we are helping to convert energy into another form; we
are renewing life. According to Energy-Shrink website, “Composting food scraps, plus all the
remaining organic waste from one US household, equates to removing 1.5 cars from the roads
or 75% of an average homeʼs energy use per year.” Wow, talk about transformation!
The Christian story is that God sent Jesus to dwell on earth among us as a
teacher—someone like us humans whom we could recognize and relate to. Then he was
killed. Then he arose from the dead. I’ve heard it said that Jesus’s resurrection conquered
death. Rather than conquering death, I prefer to think of it as revealing the myth of
death—nothing dies, everything is always reborn as something else. Even the eggshell from
my omelet will provide food for microbes and red wiggly worms that will create the soil that
will create the vegetables that will create new chickens and new eggs that will feed me and
those I love.
When John tells Nicodemus in the scripture from today that to “enter the Kingdom of God” one
has to be “born again,” Nicodemus seems incredulous. How can a person be born again,
he asks? That just doesn’t make sense. Jesus just repeats himself, and says, if I tell you
about earthly things that you don’t understand, how can you understand about heavenly
things? You’re not getting it, he seems to be saying to Nicodemus. You are being too literal. Try harder. Or
maybe, don’t try so hard. If you want to understand about “being born again,” if you want to
understand about “eternal life,” if you want to understand about the transfiguration of the
everyday into the holy, then you have to change your mind, change the way you think,
use your imagination and plug into your faith. Inside the literal there is always a miracle hiding.
The miracle is that by composting, we become a link in the circle of life. A circle is a sustainable
sacred shape, a loop; it never ends, it is ongoing, ever-renewed– it is everlasting. As we go on with our
weeks, may we all be on the lookout for the ways that the heavenly shows up in our everyday lives,
and the ways we can use our imaginations to integrate these understandings into our faith.
Sermon Given at Shorey Chapel, Industry, Maine
March 5, 2023