Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached on March 20, 2011, at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C.
For so many of the psalms, understanding what they are about depends upon our getting ready to enter into them. The words of the psalmist are not simply bits of information that help us learn something that we didn’t know before. They are, rather, invitations to enter deeply into the world and ourselves so that we can more clearly see how God is at work in the middle of our pain and joy, our frequent confusion, even our desperation.
The psalms operate at a visceral and elemental level, at the raw points of our lives where we are encouraged to see and then come to grips with the deepest fears and yearnings of our hearts. Reading them, we are invited to let our lives be enfolded and transformed by the meaning they communicate. If we are attentive and honest, we may find God in surprising places. We may even be astounded by the God we find there, and thus introduced and called into a faithful life we never thought possible or important.
Psalm 121 begins with a profound sense of human need. It doesn’t say what the particular need is, perhaps suggesting that we don’t often appreciate the nature and extent of our own need. All we know, when we are honest, is that we need help.
Notice how often the psalmist says that God will keep us. The God who holds us close and protects us does not slumber or sleep. Instead, this God watches over us constantly -- is our protective shade by day and night -- so that no evil can strike us. God keeps our life, watches over all our movements so that we do not come to ruin. God does this because God is the maker of heaven and earth. We can count on God to help us, and know that his help is precisely the kind that we most need, because the Lord created us. As our creator, God’s desire is forever that we flourish together and be well, sharing in the divine nurture that makes this world a place of so much beauty and joy.
It is tempting to see God’s keeping and God’s constant watch over us as cause for worry. For a variety of reasons, many of us have come to believe that God is deeply angry and disappointed with us. Thinking about how badly we can make a mess of our lives and the life of the whole world -- consider how today’s global economy seems devoted to a systematic destruction of the earth’s habitats and communities -- it makes good sense to believe that God does not want to protect us and lead us into abundant life. Maybe we are wondering if God has again reached a tipping point like the one recorded in Genesis 6:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (5-6 NRSV)
But to settle on an angry or vengeful God is to miss the pathos in God’s disappointment and frustration. God’s grief wells up not out of anger but out of a love that exceeds all our comprehension. This is why God says after the flood that never again will he destroy the whole world. Watching it once was simply too painful. We can only imagine what it must be doing to God now to watch the destruction of the earth at our own hands. We have to imagine God keeping our life and our world as a mother holding her child who is deeply wounded and slowly dying. The water that flows now is the rain of tears rather than the rain of destruction.
If we want to understand this God, the one who loves us despite all our wrongdoing, we need to recover a rich sense of God as the creator and sustainer of our lives. This is not as simple as it may at first seem, because many of us operate under a very shallow understanding of God’s creativity.
The standard picture of creation is that a long time ago God made the heavens and the earth. It was all very grand and beautiful, but essentially God’s work is now done. Nature operates according to its own laws, only sometimes these laws are interrupted so that God can re-enter the world and perform a miracle. This picture of God and creation is deeply flawed, because it assumes that for the most part, God is unnecessary in our world. It does not at all acknowledge the psalmist’s insight that “the Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore” (Psalm 121:8). We need a richer and more biblically faithful rendering of God’s relation to the world.
Fortunately for us, we have one: right near the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 2. Listen: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden …” (8), or, as St. Jerome translated it, “the Lord God planted a paradise of pleasure (paradisum voluptatis).”
How many times have you heard God described as a gardener? I have sat through many sermons where God has been presented in a variety of ways -- as father, judge, potter, redeemer or companion. I have yet to hear one where God is described and developed as a gardener. This is a bit puzzling. After all, we are early in the biblical story, trying to figure out who this God is that creates the world.
We know that other images and settings could have been used to demonstrate God’s character (the Babylonians, for instance, preferred warrior imagery). But the Israelites set the foundational stage by naming God the gardener of the world. First impressions matter! Viewed biblically, God is the first, the best, the essential and the eternal gardener. The day God ceases to garden is also the day we all perish. I have never heard a preacher say that, but it is true.
So, hear it again: God the Gardener. Picture it. What do you see? Enter into the paradise of delight. What do you smell? What do you taste? What do your fingers touch?
There is a good chance we won’t know what to imagine or sense. Many of us do not have gardens, and so lack a daily acquaintance with the work of planting, weeding and nurture. Do we know the patience of waiting and hoping for new life to emerge and flourish? Have we felt the pain of vulnerability associated with a creature’s disease or death? Have we tasted the delectable flavor of a freshly picked raspberry, or been overwhelmed by the fragrance of a lilac in June?
Should we not be more astounded by a world that tastes incredibly good? How many of us, perhaps aware of degraded or collapsing ecosystems, believe that the world we are in really is a “paradise of pleasure”?
Several years ago I entered into gardening work with fairly romantic notions. I envisioned multiple neat rows of lettuces, carrots, peas, beans and tomatoes growing steadily into their succulent, ripe potential. In my gardening vision there was no room for blights or bugs, and no danger of stray dogs or soccer balls. Rain fell when I wanted it. Days were uniformly pleasant, never too hot or too cold. My job was simply to plant, admire and pluck.
I remember in particular my first attempt to grow strawberries. I grew especially excited as I saw the berries form on the stem, gradually turning from green to pink and then red. Imagine my horror, then, when I arrived on the morning of harvest only to discover that slugs and ants had already helped themselves to what was supposed to be mine to enjoy.
In a mild rage I went to my lawn and garden center and purchased a bottle of poison. Before applying it -- and in a rather unmanly fashion! -- I read the directions, which said (in effect), “Do not allow children or pets near the sprayed area for three days,” and “Burn all clothing that comes into contact with this ‘pest management solution.’” This was no solution. It was an act of war! The green bottle I held in my hand defined me as a “gardener” who bullies, burns and sprays a way through life. Does God garden with Roundup?
Without realizing it at the time, I had come to think of gardening as a form of shopping, and my garden as a store. I wanted to have fruits and vegetables without having to work with plants. I wanted to enjoy the good taste of food without having to care for a garden that makes it possible. In other words, I wanted all the garden had to offer without having to “till and keep” it. I did not want to participate in God’s garden-keeping of the world by being a faithful and patient gardener myself.
As food consumers, we expect that the stores will be filled with cheap produce, all beautifully packaged and without blemish. We elect political leaders who promise that those stores will stay full. All we have to do is show up, perform the credit card swipe, and then carry home the goods. What could be easier and more convenient, but also more ignorant?
So, hear it again: “And the Lord God planted a garden …” The God we worship does not purchase the world. God plants it, and in planting it, keeps it. Eden is a “Garden of Delight” precisely because we find God there, on his knees, hands in the dirt, fashioning the first adam out of the ground. God can be said to keep us because, like a gardener, God holds the soil of our lives in her hands, rolls it between her fingers, sensing and promoting the soil’s vitality and freshness.
This God is intimate with soil, always attuned to it, breathing it in and out so that whatever enjoys life has it only because God desires it. And not just human life. “Every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food…” (Genesis 2:9) and “every animal of the field and every bird of the air…” (19) are created “out of the ground.” God the Gardener enters into the dirt, moves gracefully and tirelessly among its root and flowering structures, and is its life-creating, inspiring, sustaining and fulfilling breath. Recall here the horticultural imagery of Psalm 65:9-13:
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
The God we worship dwells among us as a gardener who holds the soil of our lives in his hands, showers it with rain and blesses it with fruit that gladdens our hearts and satisfies our stomachs. This gardening God never slumbers or sleeps, because there is simply too much to do and too much beauty, fragrance and good taste to enjoy. This God is the provider of grain who then also in the body of Christ becomes our bread so that together we can enter into the life of communion, practicing the generosity and hospitality that mark God’s own gardening work.
I have taken to wondering how our thinking and speaking of God would be transformed if we appreciated, however inadequately, God’s gardening character. Would we any longer be able to consider God as absent or distant, perhaps even uninterested in our affairs? Would we obsess with worry that God is forever angry, always looking for opportunities to strike us down? Would we not need to rediscover our God as delighting in the goodness and beauty of what he has made, and ever vigilant and responsive to the world’s pain?
Listen for a moment to the great Czech writer and gardener Karel Čapek, who writes in his lovely book “The Gardener’s Year”:
I will now tell you how to recognize a real gardener. “You must come to see me,” he says; “I will show you my garden.” Then, when you go just to please him, you will find him with his rump sticking up somewhere among the perennials. “I will come in a moment,” he shouts to you over his shoulder. “Just wait till I have planted this rose.” “Please don’t worry,” you say kindly to him. After a while he must have planted it; for he gets up, makes your hand dirty, and beaming with hospitality he says: “Come and have a look; it’s a small garden, but -- Wait a moment,” and he bends over a bed to weed some tiny grass. “Come along. I will show you Dianthus musalae; it will open your eyes. Great Scott, I forgot to loosen it here!” he says, and begins to poke in the soil. A quarter of an hour later he straightens up again. “Ah,” he says, “I wanted to show you that bell flower, Campanula Wilsonae. That is the best campanula which -- Wait a moment, I must tie up this delphinium ...”
And on it goes. God the Gardener has his hands in the dirt -- is lost in a kind of revelry, really -- because the garden is so lovely and so interesting that there is no other place that God wants to be. It can be a Sabbath delight because it is a place that has been made fragrant and delectable by him. For God the Gardener, time disappears into an eternal now.
Listen again. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Is this verse not an invitation to participate in God’s own gardening work in the world, work that nurtures and enjoys the gifts of creation? Is it not an indication that our most fundamental vocation is to exercise the detailed care, and know the particular delight, of a Brandywine tomato or a Cascade Dawn raspberry? Is it not the revelation that our identity rests in the image of God the Gardener? In this verse we find the invitation to join in God’s keeping of us by becoming keepers of each other.
We know that for the most part we have refused our divinely appointed identity and vocation. Speaking from my own experience, I often choose a comfortable chair and a good book rather than go out in the heat to weed the wire grass that is a plague upon the earth. I neglect the study of soils and plants, which means that I don’t know how to take care of them as I ought. I like my food cheap and attractive, even though I have learned that its cheapness comes at a high cost to agricultural workers, animals, fields and waters. Meanwhile, the garden of creation languishes under our assault and neglect.
But God continues to dig and plant, water and weed. In the psalmist’s words, “The Lord is your keeper; … the Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life” (Psalm 121:5, 7). That we are here today is the proof of that. The good news is that he takes the refuse of our mistakes, sloth and belligerence and turns them into compost that can fertilize his garden kingdom of life.
When we take flight from the garden, shirk our gardening responsibilities, God remains faithful and merciful, hands in the dirt, delighting in a world made delectable and beautiful, always inviting us to join him in the gardening work that heals and sustains the world. Hear the words of the psalmist: “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8).