Fifth Sunday of Lent, 2018
Spiritual Geography: The Landscape of our Faith
The Garden Click here for audio
Ephesians 3:14-21, Luke 10:25-28
Pastor Donna Buell
This morning we continue our series on Spiritual Geography: the landscape of our faith, exploring the metaphor of the garden, one of those cultivated landscapes where there is interplay between God’s divine gifts and our human response. There are not very many gardens in scripture, but the ones we find are quite significant, for they provide a framework for the story of God’s mighty acts of salvation. The story begins and ends with garden imagery, and scenes that occur in gardens frame the most significant turning point in that story, so I’d like to begin by talking about those biblical gardens.
In the beginning there is the Garden of Eden. In the second Creation Story, found in chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Genesis, we read that God has created the heavens and the earth but has not yet created any plant life. This is because God has not yet caused rain to fall on the earth, and there is no one till the ground. And so we are told that God creates a human being, breathes life into the being, plants a garden, sets limits around that garden, and then places the human being along with a companion in the garden to till it and to keep it. So in a sense, the original call of the human beings was the work of gardening. In this story, the Garden of Eden is a place where the earth and all its creatures are in right relationship with one another and with God. It is a place where everything God has made is mutually interdependent. It is a place of shalom, of wholeness, of peace. It is paradise.
But it isn’t long before paradise is lost. In this story, the human beings decide to overstep the limits God has placed upon them – they decide to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That’s what God gets for giving them free will, for they will something that is not God’s will for them. They will to be like God. They think it would be a good thing to know good and evil. But they are mistaken. Can you imagine what it would like to not even know good and evil?
With their transgression, the peace and harmony of the garden is shattered. Relationships become distorted and broken. Where once there was peace and harmony and intimacy, now there is sin and deception and exploitation; now there is guilt and shame and fear.
Gerrit Scott Dawson describes a conversation he once had at twilight. He asked a friend, “Why do you suppose this gloaming light always makes me so sad?” To which his friend replied without hesitation, “Because this is the time when God once walked the earth in the Garden with the man and the woman, and no longer does.” In the story of creation, the Garden of Eden was paradise. It was a place of intimacy between God and humanity and all creation. It was a place where God would come in the evening to spend time in and with that creation. And there are few more poignant moments in all of scripture than that evening in the story when God comes to the garden, looking for the man and the woman, calls their names, and finds them hiding in shame and fear behind a bush.
The intimacy that was once commonplace between God and humanity was lost, and the rest of the biblical story, in some ways the rest of the human story, has been an attempt to return to the garden, to regain that lost paradise. In fact, the scriptures end with the promised vision of paradise restored, the new heaven and the new earth. It is a garden-like image of the city of God, a holy habitation for the most high, which is described in the Revelation of John, chapter 21 with these words:
“I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God’s people,
and God will be with them;
God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more,
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
This vision of the new heaven and the new earth echoes the intimacy and the harmony found in the story of the Garden of Eden. And this vision is not simply a naïve hope of pie in the sky by and by. It is the promise of paradise restored because of the saving work of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And it is a vision of the future for which we are called to live and work and pray as followers of Christ.
The pivotal moment in salvation history that occurs on the cross of Christ is also framed between two garden stories. On the night of his arrest, following the last supper, Jesus went with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. And in that time of prayer Jesus submitted his will wholly to the will of God, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Reversing the actions of the first man and woman in the garden, Jesus willed God’s will for him, becoming obedient to God, even to the point of death on the cross.
And then, following the crucifixion, on the third day we again find ourselves in a garden. In John’s account, Mary stands outside the garden tomb, weeping, for Jesus’ body is not there. She sees a man in the garden, assumes that he is the gardener, and when he speaks her name she recognizes him as her Lord. He comforts her, and then he sends her forth to share the great good news that he is risen.
Jesus’ death on the cross is understood as that pivotal moment which opened the door to the restoration of our relationship with God, showing us the way back to the garden. And in our lives we are called to follow him, to seek God’s presence, to will God’s will, and to work for God’s kingdom, guided always by that vision of the new heaven and the new earth where harmony is perfectly restored. So those are the four gardens which frame the biblical narrative and give shape to our lives as people of faith.
A lawyer approached Jesus one day, asking, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In a sense he was asking, “How do I get back to the garden, Jesus? How do I live my life, so that I might dwell eternally in God’s presence, and in harmony with God’s will?” Jesus replied, “What is written in the law?” God gave us the law. The law provides instruction, it sets boundaries, it reveals God’s will for us. “What do you read there?” And the man answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” You know the answer, he told him. You know God’s will for you. Now you must will it for yourself, and you must act on it, you must live it out in your daily life. That’s what you must do. The rest is up to God.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” How many times have you heard me quote this greatest commandment? Many, many times, for indeed this passage has been at the center of our life and ministry and mission as a congregation these past three years. This love is comprehensive, involving the whole of our being. It’s an ideal that we strive for, and that we catch fleeting glimpses of now and then. And that love is not just about our personal relationship with God. Hand in hand with love of God is love of neighbor as self. If we love with the love God desires, then loving ourselves means loving our neighbors. They cannot be separated for we are all dependent upon God and we are all mutually interdependent.
Now tradition says that salvation is pure gift from God. It is not something over which we have control. We cannot make it happen on our own. We cannot earn it. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing for us to do. In response to God’s love for us, to God’s grace, to God’s promise of eternal life, we seek to cultivate that love in our own lives, so that loving God and loving neighbor become more and more the guiding principles by which we live our lives. And the life of faith is a continual effort to cultivate that love in our lives, and in the lives of our families, and in the life of our congregation, our community, and the world in which we live. Which leads us back to the garden, because the garden provides such a powerful and fruitful metaphor for that life-long work of cultivating love of God and neighbor as yourself.
Now I’m not a gardener. I’ve dabbled in it a bit. But I know that good gardening involves a lot more than dabbling. Plans must be made, ground must be prepared, seeds must be purchased and planted and watered, weeds pulled, plants thinned and pruned, and sometimes plants even need to be moved to a new place where they can receive the right kind of light and where their roots can grow freely so that they may flourish. And in addition to all these human labors, there are some things over which we have no control, the potential in the seed, and the realities of soil and climate and weather. The garden emerges from the marriage between the natural world and intentional human action. Intentionality, patient, diligent effort, tender loving care, these are all a part of creating and maintaining a healthy, productive garden. But even when a garden is allowed to fall into neglect, it can be reclaimed.
It’s a similar experience when we intentionally cultivate our soul’s garden – the garden of our faith. It is a life-long task. The more we do, the more results we see. And the more we do, the more we see that needs to be done. So we plant seeds of virtue in our lives and tend our soul’s soil, we uproot vices, and prune back excess, we add our human labors to God’s divine gifts, and together we harvest the fruit of righteousness. It’s about soul tending. It’s about cooperating with the Spirit as we, in the words of Paul, are being “rooted and grounded in love.”
The season of Lent is often a time when we focus, with more intentionality, on nurturing and cultivating the practices of our faith. And as Marjorie Thompson writes in her book Soul Feast,
“[Spiritual] disciplines like prayer, scriptural reflection, and hospitality have the character of garden tools. They help keep the soil of our love clear of obstruction. They help keep us open to the mysterious work of grace in our heart and in our world. They enable us not only to receive but to respond to God’s love, which in turn yields the fruits of the Spirit in our lives. “
One of the things I most appreciate about the Methodist tradition is John Wesley’s insistence that the practice of our faith cultivate not only a vital and personal relationship with God but also a commitment to reach out generously in response to the needs of our neighbors near and far. God has work for us to do. And so those garden tools need to include both inward acts of piety and outward acts of mercy. Yet far too often individuals and communities emphasize one way more than the other, failing to recognize how important they both are, and how important they are to one another if we are to be faithful to the commandment to love and serve both God and neighbor.
In the days to come, as we prepare our hearts and our lives to hear again the story of God’s amazing love made known in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I invite you to spend time reflecting upon the metaphorical garden of your own soul. How does your garden grow? In what ways does your soul’s soil need to be prepared to receive God’s gifts? What seeds need to be planted in your heart? What excess needs to be thinned in order to make room for growth? What weeds need to be uprooted? Where might you need to be transplanted in order to flourish?
And I encourage you to reflect, as well, upon the metaphorical garden of this congregation. ‘How does our garden grow’? What garden tools are needed to cultivate the soil of this congregation? What seeds need to be planted? What needs to be thinned or pruned or uprooted and replanted, so that through the interplay between God’s divine gifts and our human response, First United Methodist Church of Stillwater might bear a harvest of righteousness and share that harvest abundantly with its neighbors near and far? And what would each of us, as individuals in the congregation, need to do in order to contribute in a vital and faithful way to the fruitfulness of that garden?
The bishop has appointed a new gardener to till and to keep the United Methodist garden here at the corner of Greeley and Myrtle. And this new gardener will come with fresh eyes, with his own unique experiences in life and ministry, with his own particular gifts and graces, interests and areas of expertise. And he will come with his own vision of what is needed to tend a garden so that it might grow and flourish. Of course, he won’t be starting from scratch. He will be inheriting an existing garden, with its own particular growing conditions. Are you as curious as I am to see what fruitful work God will do among you with the help of your new gardener?
The garden is a good place to remember that God has work for us to do. So in the days and weeks, the months and years to come, let us tend the gardens of our souls and the garden of this faith community, that we may grow in our desire and ability to follow in the way of Christ, to seek God’s presence, to will God’s will, and to work for God’s kingdom, guided always by that vision of the new heaven and the new earth where the harmony of the first garden paradise will be perfectly restored.
And as we tend our gardens, may God grant that we may be strengthened in our inner being with power through the Holy Spirit, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith, as we are being rooted and grounded in love.
Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.