Faith Matters - Gardens

There are many stories that frame and interpret our lives. There are sacred and secular texts that write and re-write us. They are the stories of our time and place, where we exist and where the most precious things are kept. They are stories about emotion and conscience, memory and intellect, sensation and intention. They are our stories. We are the performers, and we are the audience. The stories are frighteningly public. They are mercifully private.

Lent is an invitation to remember some of our garden stories. Outside the sanctuary, the days are getting longer, the winter solstice is past, the vernal equinox is soon to make her entrance upon stage, the seed catalogues are in the mailbox and the over-wintered bulbs nudge through frost and snow at the sun’s urging.

The strains of Mardi Gras fade and the band packs up their instruments for the ride home. Inside our place of worship, the lights are low. We sit and wait while Hosanna ashes are mixed, bread is broken and wine is poured. We have been here before. The colors change from green to purple. The pulpit voice is in earnest. The Psalmist calls to the Almighty on our behalf to “blot out my transgressions, wash me thoroughly from iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”

Lent begins as we are admonished to sit up straight, wipe the smiles from our faces and pay attention. We are dust and ashes true enough. We live on borrowed time. But we are also those who partake of the divine mystery by what is broken and poured. Once again here tonight, we are reminded that old futures are gone. We drink to that promise.  

We are invited to hear the Word of God from Genesis. We are reminded that in the beginning there was mystery, void, and silence. We are told how that changed when God speaks: nothing becomes something, something good. The right word changes everything. And there was a garden. And there was a choice. 

The words garden and choice are enough for those of us who have visited Eden before. Two words stand in for many. We remember well both the delights and dangers of that lovely place. A whimper. A separation. An eviction. Eden can prove an undoing. The first gardeners discover their nakedness and become strangers in a strange land.  

I accept an invitation to remain in this garden for while. I spent a few moments with the first Adam in Paradise. Standing before the one and only tree with consequences, he ponders whose way rules him. He chooses his own way and in his free choice he is turned out. He weighs one promise against another and rolls the dice. Like our first father and mother in the alpha garden, the apple does not fall far from the tree. We have no way to free ourselves from the bondage to our own will. My will be done. My address is east of Eden. It is why we need a savior. The first garden and the first parents are written upon my forehead in a black smudge. This is my story too.  

But the liturgy of the day is not through with us. Ashes are replaced upon the table, fingers are wiped clean and other things are taken to hand. As soon as I see the bread and wine I can taste them. Is it merely a foretaste of that ultimate foretaste? Wonder Bread and juice have a garden story to tell and they will have their way with me. I accept the invitation to visit that other garden.  

The second Adam spends his last night alone in that garden and ponders the same choice as the first. Sweating blood, he prays for some other way: too young to die. Like other men, he might well have dreamed of a wife and children. He could have imagined opening a carpenter shop with the tools his father left for him. Peter could teach him how to catch fish instead of men. Would it be such a terrible thing to change his mind? People do it all the time.  

But instead of holding out for better terms he opens his hand and the fruit falls harmlessly to the ground. The serpent slithers away. He lifts the cup to his lips and drinks. In the omega garden wine turns back again to water. History is undone. Inevitability is cancelled. The gates of the garden are unlocked and thrown open.  

There is a tree in both of those gardens. One tree grows in paradise. The other stands outside the city on a garbage dump. One tree promises knowledge, the other life. Paradise or garbage dump, apples or grapes, seem of lesser consequence than the choices that are made standing or kneeling in the shadow of those trees.  

We are adjourned from the Wednesday of ashes to the awareness of night air, unfinished business, and miles to go. The ride home is interrupted at the first stop light by a question opening the door and getting into the passenger seat: how will I choose between the trees that grow in my garden? It is so hard to tell those trees apart. One choice leads to what appears to be life and turns out to be death. Another appears to lead to death but really turns out to be life.  

We have been to Eden and we have been to Gethsemane. They are the same garden: our garden. It just depends upon how we choose. I gradually become aware of the smudge on my forehead. I become aware of the taste on my lips.  

God’s peace.

Chuck Johns  

By: Reverend Chuck Johns On 3/1/2009