Zacchaeus

 

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Image: Zaccaeus, by Joel Whitehead

 An old sermon (from 2001)…

Luke 19:1-10

Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus is a story that recapitulates all the great themes of Luke’s gospel: the anticipatory mercy of God, the joy in heaven when the lost are found, the moral precariousness of the self-made and the self-righteous, the necessity of deeds to authenticate righteousness – especially the divestiture of concentrated wealth and the just treatment of the oppressed.

It is also a charming story, filled with unexpected details that make it easy to imagine. We learn that Zacchaeus was short, that he ran fast to beat out the crowd, that he climbed a tree, and that it was a sycamore. We learn that, inexplicably, Jesus knew his name, and that on the spur of the moment he invited himself to eat and even to stay overnight at Zacchaeus’ house. When we hear that Zacchaeus responded without the slightest hesitation, we imagine him flattered, flustered, happy, hopping up and down like a child.

But he was no child. He was a grown man, but exactly what sort of man is hard to say. His name means “clean,” or “pure,” but his profession was anything but. He was a chief tax collector with jurisdiction over a prosperous region, raising revenue from Jews for the foreign occupier, a collaborator consorting with Gentiles. To ordinary people tax collectors were disloyal opportunistic extortionists, Roman lackeys. Religious professionals held them in contempt as the most impious of sinners. It would not surprise me to learn that even their Roman employers despised them.

And yet…

And yet, there he is, a tax collector running after the rabbi, eager for Jesus, going out on a limb heedless of possible scorn or injury, unconditionally responsive when Jesus calls him down, illustrating another of Luke’s great themes—that only outsiders and outcasts recognize the kingdom when they see it.

Now, there are outcasts and there are outcasts. Most of Luke’s outsiders, even the morally shaky ones, elicit our sympathy. Widows, possessed people, lepers, women about to be stoned—when they fling themselves at Jesus’ feet, beg for mercy, confess their sins, or clutch his hem in search of healing and a restored life, we feel the injustice, the pity and the pain of their ostracism.

But a tax collector? That’s a different animal. If Zacchaeus is as nasty a piece of work as his contemporaries assume, it seems like just-desserts that he should be shunned in polite company and blotted out of the Book of Life. We could be wary of Jesus’ apparent approval of him in the same way that we are often upset by the characters in his parables who get a lot more than they deserve: Why the favor shown to the prodigal brat and not to the older son? Why a full day’s wage paid to the man who worked only an hour? Why eat with Zaccaheus? Zacchaeus is the kind of outcast we would feel OK about leaving out there beyond the pale. He brought it on himself.

But is he really all that bad? Consider this: when the crowd begins grumbling about what a disgrace it is that the rabbi should lodge with a sinner, Jesus, who usually delivers withering zingers in response to such judgments, says nothing. Zacchaeus is the one who speaks. He delivers a vivid self-defense. And what he says precisely has long been a translators’ debate. It all depends on whether you render his verbs, which are in the present tense, as “future-present” or “customary-present.”

The more traditional approach has been to use the future-present. In this rendering, Zacchaeus has a converting encounter with Jesus, and because of it, from now on he will behave more justly. Meeting Jesus changes him, on the spot, from a bad man to a good man, concerned with fairness and the well-being of the poor.

But in many other gospel scenes in which conversions occur, there are always dialogues of repentance and forgiveness, requests for restoration from the supplicant, and the commending of faith from the savior. None of these typical exchanges happen here. So other scholars prefer to render Zacaaheus’ speech in the customary-present. When they do, what Zacchaeus claims is that all along he has been more generous, more scrupulous, and more self-aware than he’s been given credit for. His self-defense is a simple disclosure of fact: he has habitually given half what he owns to the poor—that’s 40% above the tithe—and whenever he discovers that he has been involved in a fraud, he makes a four-fold restitution—twice what the law required.

He makes this disclosure not as a boast to God, like the prayer of the Pharisee in the temple we read about last Sunday, but as a plea for vindication, a plea that Jesus answers by recognizing him, a rich man, as a true son of Abraham, ready for the kingdom with all his household. Here, then, is another characteristic Lukan theme: although it is indeed harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye, for God, all things are possible. Zacchaeus is living proof of God’s power.

Zacchaeus’ disclosure of his generous and just practice was also surely meant as an act of hospitality: after all, Jesus is his guest, and the grumblers are ruining dinner. If Zacchaeus can correct their judgment of his own morality, maybe they’ll stop heckling Jesus about his choice of host. But I doubt he was able to accomplish that, especially if there were Pharisees in the crowd, who, fairly or not (and mostly unfairly), the evangelists depict as men devoid of irony who wouldn’t know a nuance or a compromise if one rose up and bit them, and whose notions of goodness and religious purity were not susceptible to the kind of truly human complexity we may have in Zacchaeus.

And it is human complexity in all its infuriating nuance that is on display here. Zacchaeus is a man carrying out one of those morally-dubious jobs, like designing missile guidance systems. Yet we cannot simply say that he is corrupt: the very thing he gets right in his life is the same thing God has put forward since the dawn of creation as the touchstone of authentic humanity and right worship: care for the poor and justice for the oppressed.

If “customary-present” is the better way to understand Zacchaeus’ response to the critics, it makes the story more familiar to us, and maybe even more credible. Zacchaeus is not converted on the spot—this rarely happens in human experience, and it doesn’t happen here. No, it turns out that he is neither villain nor hero. Neither consistently evil nor an exemplar of consistent virtue. But in a few important areas of his life, he is capable of acting like a man of God, a true son of Abraham, and the effects of his conduct on the world around him are humanly profound.

He is, then, like most of us, a compromised man in a compromised world, leading an ethically-ambiguous life in an ethically-bewildering human landscape. His name notwithstanding, he is unable to be pure in a world that is not pure either.

Like Oscar Schindler, a man not to be trusted with your money or your wife who saved thousands of Jews from destruction.

Like Mother Teresa, a woman supported by donations from organizations opposed to population control in India who gave dignity to the dying and hope to the sick and a new way of service to countless young people.

Like me, when I went to give a talk to some church leaders at the home of the congregation’s head deacon, a fifteen room house on eight acres in Sudbury, more house than any Christian should need or want, I remember thinking judgmentally as I pulled up to the front door, only to be greeted by seven adopted special needs children living happily inside.

This is Zaccaheus, complex and compromised in a complex and compromised world. Jesus loves him, accepts him fully just as he is, and glowingly commends him to Pharisees, to bystanders, and to us.

As I ponder his story, I find myself thinking about the anxiety, apprehension, anger, and frustration running rampant in our roiled-up nation and our war-torn world. We have great need of unambiguous prophets, strong and fearless, who will go way out on a limb and scout a new humanity, a different way, who will speak uncompromisingly the language of peace. But I am also thinking about the hideous consequences of true believing, whether it comes from “them” or from “us,” the frightening fundamentalisms of the right and the left, about the bloody dangers of replacing our first allegiance to human beings with ideology of any kind.

I am thinking about how difficult it is to be pure without being proud. I am thinking about the need we have for truth, and the fact that truth always comes to us unpackaged, in fragments, never unalloyed. I am thinking about the wisdom, the humility it takes to know that, and still to dare.

I am thinking about our communities of faith and witness, imperfect and loved by God; full of people with strong minds and wills, fierce convictions and bright visions; deep and faithful people who are also, at the same time, weak and needy, sinful (I begin with me), plagued by mixed motives and impure hearts, who live in a complex and ambiguous world with which we compromise daily despite our rhetoric of ethical excellence and moral purity, despite the high standards we often hold each other to and the judgments we make about each other when we fall short.

I am thinking about whether we should even try to come before God in any other way except in our frank human nature, full of our ambiguity; and whether, perversely, we should be relieved and even glad that it’s hard and even dangerous to be pure.

And I am thinking gratefully of you, First Church, for if any grumblers should question whether we are an appropriate house for Christ to lodge in, we also can, like Zaccaheus, say in our own defense that by the grace of God, in the midst of our compromises and sins, we do care for the poor and we do work for justice; that at least we know that that is the thing we should be trying to get right, no matter what else we may struggle with, fail at, or fudge.

I am thinking how grateful I am, and I hope you are too, for this odd privilege of being accepted by a God who knows our dilemma, who shared our flesh, experienced our internal contradictions, was done to death by our compromises, and who loved us first, still loves us now, and will keep loving us to the end.

 

 

Saving Flesh

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“God will save God’s people on that day… They will sparkle in God’s land like jewels in a crown. How attractive and beautiful they will be!”—Zechariah 9:16-17

A good friend was in therapy for a debilitating situational depression. After a few months of treatment, there was less pressure in her chest, more songs she could listen to all the way through. But the depression was deep, and her progress was slow.

Each week she would walk to her appointment along the banks of the Charles River where on warm days Harvard undergrads lolled in various states of dress and undress, sunning themselves, tossing Frisbees, preening, laughing, and seducing each other with unapologetic sensuality.

All this she would see through a lusterless haze. Everything gray, everyone blurred, voices muffled and distorted, underwater. And she couldn’t bear them, those children, their youth and their joy. The pleasure they took in their bodies cut her. Their flesh was repulsive, a blasphemy.

Then one day she saw them, and they gleamed. Their light didn’t sting her eyes. Their laughter made her own heart sing. Their flesh was so beautiful it made her cry. And she loved them, loved their bodies and their joy, loved their life, their lust, their immodest abandon. She almost fell to her knees, adoring.

On the day she loved their bodies, she knew she was well. She knew she was whole when life in the body—in every body of every kind—became for her a parted sea, a burning bush, a holy of holies. She knew she was saved the day all flesh made manifest the Glory.

 

In the Aftermath of Horror…

In December of 2005, in the aftermath of the great Indonesian tsunami, I wrote a reflection entitled, “No, Not Now.” I’m thinking similar thoughts  today, as we awaken to the mind-numbing carnage of Nice. I post it below in a condensed and edited form, prefaced by a bracing quote from an essay  by theologian Rowan Williams that Jason Goroncy recently called attention to on his blog, jasongoroncy.com (July 13, 2016). Williams is speaking about the character of Christian moral discourse in the public arena, but I take his assertion as apt for Christian speech and practice in general.

Here is Williams:

‘The weightiest criticisms of Christian speech and practice amount to this: that Christian language actually fails to transform the world’s meaning because it neglects or trivializes or evades aspects of the human. It is notoriously awkward about sexuality; it risks being unserious about death when it speaks too glibly and confidently about eternal life; it can disguise the abiding reality of unhealed and meaningless suffering. So it is that some of those most serious about the renewal of a moral discourse reject formal Christian commitment as something that would weaken or corrupt their imagination. It may equally be that a Church failing to understand that the political realm is a place of spiritual decision, a place where souls are made and lost, forfeits the authority to use certain of its familiar concepts or images in the public arena’.

—Rowan Williams, ‘Postmodern Theology and the Judgment of the World’, in Postmodern Theology: Christian Faith in a Pluralist World, ed. Frederic B. Burnham, 106–07.

And here is the reflection from 2005:

Watching the news coverage of the tsunami, I saw a stunning piece in which a reporter is interviewing several survivors, some of whom lost their entire families. They tell their stories, some with unnerving stoicism, others wailing and striking their heads with flat hands. Suddenly, a muzzein starts calling the faithful to prayer, as if reminding the whole flooded world that no matter what, God lives, and that to pray is just what one does, what one must do, for everything to make sense.

The reporter asks the men if they’re going to the prayers. Some nod, yes. Some get up to go. But one man, who has just told us that twenty-four members of his extended family are dead, shakes his head. Through a translator he says, ‘No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray.’

When I heard the muzzein invite everyone to come to the good God and find salvation, my stomach lurched. My mind filled with age-old Big Questions. What is it that one could possibly pray for in the midst of such misery? And why would one ask anything of a God who stood by and did nothing while it unfolded?

My ‘good’ theology failed me. It didn’t work to affirm that God isn’t responsible when plates collide and the sea floor rises and displaced water needs somewhere to go. It wasn’t enough to assure myself, in C. S. Lewis’ words, that God is not a “cosmic sadist” or a “spiteful imbecile.” I needed to be able to say something more affirmative than that, to be able to say not only where God was not, but also where God was.

And I couldn’t. At least not honestly. In the face of all that carnage, everything that came to mind—God was close to the suffering, weeping with them, for example—was repulsive. Each pious thought left me emptier than the last. It was not until I heard that poor man say, ‘No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray,’ that my soul untensed. What he said rang true.

There are times when we are unable to bear the thought of God, unable to pray or give ourselves to God in trust, unable to accept that there is any moment but this awful moment, unable to feel that anything that exists outside our loss, unable to believe that anything that can be done but to endure it.

And I began to think that if we are not at least that honest, our piety will shield us from reality, our prayers will make nice, and our faith will separate us from our own humanity. Whether we contemplate the ravages of a tsunami, the cruelties of war, the carnage of a mass shooting, or the intimate catastrophe of a loved one’s betrayal, what matters is not so much our particular beliefs about God, but rather our capacity to be in our truth and allow every question to rise, even if for some of us that means that what used to pass for faith in us is lost, and what replaces it is a permanent open-ended question.

I have no quarrel with people who turned to God that day as one who saves. But I found greater relief and blessing in one grieving man’s refusal to worship God ‘now.’ I also found relief and blessing in his implicit refusal to rule it out for later. Above all, I found relief and blessing in his simple confession that it isn’t up to him to know how and when and whether the conversation between him and God may be renewed. All he knows is that it isn’t now. Not yet. Now he does not have it in him to pray.

We Christians often overwhelm the great human questions—those vast empty spaces and terrifying silences—with hope-filled murmuring about God’s love and confident declarations about God’s abiding presence. We’re people who count the resurrection as the core of our faith. For us, hope is second nature, nothing is impossible, death is not the end. But there are times when Easter comes too quickly, when we get Jesus off the cross and into glory with unseemly dispatch. Perhaps, as Anthony Padovano once observed, this haste is why Easter is doubted by so many.

There are times when the God of the lilies of the field and our carefully-counted hairs must repulse us. Times when, in the face of the vulgar horrors of our world and the intimate tragedies of our hearts, an all-caring God is inadequate. Times when light is premature, when it hurts our eyes and does not heal. And we need to allow this, to say so, to avoid facile accounts of the inexplicably tragic, to construct a Christian lexicon that’s more serious, less evasive, and harder to pronounce in the face of vast unrelieved pain, unrepentant cruelty, and truly senseless suffering. Sometimes, to be human, we have to say no. ‘No, not now.’

The Enneagram, the Myers-Briggs, and Other Idolatries

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When Myers-Briggs devotees ask me ‘what I am’ on the scale, I say I don’t know. Eyebrows go up. Haven’t you ‘taken the test’? Yes, four times, because two employers, one working group, and an ordination committee required me to. But I’ve always had a hard time recalling what ‘I am.’ In part that’s because every time I take it, the results change. Apparently I’m a moving target.

When the Enneagram people ask me ‘what my number is,’ I also shrug. I’ve never done it. When I admit this, they look a little sorry for me—Richard Rohr teaches it, for goodness’ sake!—and proceed to tell me what they think my number is. I guess they’ve had my number all along, which I find amusing when I don’t find it annoying.

What I have taken are those Facebook tests that tell you what country you should live in and what character you are in Hamlet. I get Fortinbras a lot. Who knew? They’re silly, of course, harmless, and pretty much always wrong, but I take them anyway, for fun. But more ponderous inventories and assessments like the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram? Those, I confess, I resist.

It’s not that I’m incurious about who I am, or afraid to find out: I once had my palm read in a cave in southern Spain. And it’s not that I’m disapproving of the way such tools become all-explaining constructs for some people, in the same way that the labyrinth colonizes some folks’ entire approach to spirituality. It’s true that I pedantically fret about reductionist distortions of the spiritual life and can be querulous in conversations about it too (see, I know at least that much about myself); but I also know it’s not up to me to decide what people should find ‘powerful’ for their lives, and I can let my wariness go.

Nor am I put off because  there’s no scientific basis for the assumptions these tools rest on and the explanatory conclusions they deliver, although quasi-scientific claims are routinely made for them. The Enneagram also purports to be an ‘ancient’ tool, which for mystery-starved Protestant progressives lends it a great deal more authority than science ever could. I find this deference to the ancient supremely ironic in people who aggressively eschew dead white men and most expressions of tradition, but hey. In any case,  I’ve given my heart to lots of scientifically unreliable things, like Christian faith and the Red Sox, so the Enneagram gets a pass from me on this count, too.

And it’s not that I don’t understand that, as some fans of the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram insist when I launch another tiresome critique, they’re only tools meant to help us in circumscribed ways, not the be-all and end-all, etc. You should do it, get inside it, learn from experience, let us explain it to you correctly, then you’d see. The truth would dawn. That’s sort of a gnostic argument when it comes down to it, and I don’t care much for gnostic arguments. Besides it’s just not true. I do get it that they’re only tools. But I also get that many facilitators and experts who fuel the monster self-knowledge industry are not so modest. Their ardor makes ‘only tools’ seem like existential necessities with unassailable validity, and skeptics like me would recognize that if only we would trust them when they say so.

No, what makes me a resister is more philosophical, I guess you could say, or maybe more theological. When push comes to shove, I’m just not very interested in the particular kind of self-understanding these tools offer. I don’t think self-knowledge has all that much to do with being able to unearth and describe particular personality traits or styles of being in the world. What I want is to know myself, not dissect and explain myself. For me, self-knowledge is a comprehensive thing, the sort of knowledge about my human nature that gives my soul stability, a capacity to be neither excessively enamored of its gifts nor abjectly shamed by its lacks, neither preening about its virtues nor shocked by its sins.

When I seek this kind of self-knowledge, I find I’m hardly ever preoccupied with the activity of knowing myself in particular detail. I don’t spend a lot of time negotiating the slalom course of interior self-investigation and segmentation because (as somebody once wrote, I can’t recall who) “knowing yourself is not the same as being interested in yourself.” I’m hoping instead to acquire, over a lifetime, a tacit consciousness of my human finitude and contingency, a deep background awareness of incompleteness and belovedness, a gounding knowledge to accompany me and shape my being and acting in the world.

In this sense, self-knowledge is a discipline and a gift. And what this sort of self-knowledge knows is not ‘things about me,’ but something richer and more encompassing: namely, that my human status vis-à-vis God, my neighbor, and the world is a sheer mercy.

Then there’s this truth: Even the most useful instruments for discovering the self, the shape of our personalities, and the contours of our human style obscure as often as they illumine, because human beings are necessarily elusive and hidden. We are always more than we know. More than anyone knows. And in the same way that ‘God’ cannot be nailed down, neither can we. It’s not for nothing that we were made in the divine image, so dark in its glory, so bright in its enigma. We can’t explain ourselves to ourselves, and no one else and no instrument, scientific or magical, can do it for us, either.

Trouble often comes when someone thinks they have us figured out, or when we think we know what makes another person or class of persons tick. Sometimes the trouble is trifling; sometimes it’s as big, nasty, and dehumanizing as patriarchy, racism, and, well, you name it. There’s nothing silly or wrong (despite my skepticism and occasional mockery) in knowing all kinds of things about ourselves. And I don’t doubt that there are tools  that can help in that enterprise. What I doubt is that there’s genuine wisdom to be had in it. I think there’s genuine wisdom in knowing what self-knowledge knows: the whole self cannot be known.

This truth often causes us pain. We all long to go in, to cross the threshold, to know and be known fully. It’s hard to be turned away at the door by the mystery of unknowability. And yet there’s also invincible freedom and dignity in living inside the truth that we can be captured by nothing and no one—not even ourselves.

None of these tools can deliver in any lasting way what they seem to promise (or what some people infer, correctly or not, that they promise): namely, that with numbers and letters in hand, we can understand each other more fully, get along better, make compassionate, or at least practical, accommodations for our differences, and not judge someone because they are a 2 or an INTJ. In my experience, discovering, sharing, discussing, even laughing about our ‘scores’ has rarely forestalled or resolved tension and discord in staff meetings, impatience and dismissive judgment among family members, or the facile excusing of ourselves from the obligation to grow up and behave better.

This failure isn’t the fault of the tool so much as it is a flaw in us. Same old story: we want what we can’t have. For at the core of our lives is a mystery whose entire scrutiny belongs only to God. Self-knowledge is given to us as we’re led to glimpse and embrace the nature of our creaturehood as God fashioned it and knows it, that simple human being most of us spend a lifetime evading even as we’re busily taking personality inventories to tell us who we are.

To seek self-knowledge is to enter a lifelong path of attention, faith, and surrender. It’s also to accept that no effort of ours will ever lead, or is meant to lead, to the kind of detailed understanding we crave when we sit down to take those tests. It will not hand us the keys we think will unlock us and explain us and make things better. That sort of knowing is fine as far as it goes, but to pursue and prize it is to settle for a lot less than we deserve. It may even be a kind of idolatry, depending for grace on gods that can’t bestow it. But to thirst for that larger self-knowledge is to concede divine sovereignty over our enigmatic lives. It is to worship the living God.

 

A Service of Holy Communion for Earth Day/Creation Sunday

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Each Man Shall Live Under His Own Vine And Fig Tree (1967), by Ronen Koresh

 

Invitation

[Words in bold indicate the congregation’s part.]

Once upon a time, God made a garden,

and every creature lived in it happily with God.

We took long walks with God in the cool of the evening,

humans and snails, kangaroos and spiders, kitties and larks.

And when we all sat down with God to eat,

the curling vines gave up their fruit,

the tall gold wheat gave up its grain,

and we ate delicious bread

and drank from a cup of blessing,

singing songs under stars ‘till morning.

And the grateful creation was at peace.

 

Ever since, whenever we honor the earth

by eating and drinking with heartfelt thanks,

God walks with us again.

God sits with us and eats.

Our tables become the garden,

the whole creation sighs with peace,

and we see again how life was meant to be.

 

Come, now, everyone, to this table,

to the garden God planted in the East, in Eden.

Come, taste and remember,

taste and see how good God is.

 

Communion Prayer

Let us pray.

Thank you, Creator God,

for sharing your life with us

in every good thing of this world.

Thank you most of all for Jesus,

who sat us down to eat and drink

good bread and good wine,

so that in tasting how good they are

we could remember how good you are.

He is our East, our Eden,

our Garden of peace.

In him we find the fullness of life

you desired for us from the start—

walking together, sharing food, living in peace.

Send the Spirit to his table now

where he still sits us down,

where we still remember you.

Bless the bread and the cup,

fruit of the earth and work of our hands.

May they become by your grace

the taste of Eden in our hearts.

As we eat and drink together,

let us see more clearly

a vision of life as you meant it to be.

Consecrate us to the ministry of making it so,

by sharing earth’s goodness with all,

in reverence and hope, with justice, and joy.

 

Sharing Bread and Cup

Dear friends in Christ,

this is the bread Jesus blessed and broke

and gave us to share in remembrance of him.

 

This is the cup Jesus blessed and poured

and gave us to drink in remembrance if him.

 

Eating and drinking together,

we remember his death,

we rejoice in his rising,

and we wait for him to come again,

to judge in mercy,

to welcome in love,

and restore all creation,

to the praise and glory of God.

Amen!

 

Thanking God, Blessing the Earth

[As we sing the closing Song, inflatable globes (or small earth beach balls) will passed through the pews. When one comes to you, please hold it for a moment, thank God for the world, and give the earth your blessing. Then pass the globe along to others.]

Song “Blue Boat Home” (Peter Mayer) Tune: HYFRYDOL

 

 

 

Once in a Garden: Meditation for Earth Day/Creation Sunday

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The tree of Life, allegory with birds perched on branches. Mosaic pavement; 4th century CE

The first gift God gave humans was to make us from clay, to give us kinship with dirt. God named the first earthling adam, meaning ‘human,’ from the root word, adama, meaning ‘soil.’ To be human is to be grounded, in the earth. And when we remember that we’re dust, when we know our place, we become wise. And that’s a great gift.

The second gift God gave humans was breath, kinship with God, a sharing in God’s own life. The adam is related to God by breath, and every breath the human draws is full of God’s own desires. The earthling resembles God in this way: he’s drawn to beauty and full of appetites.

Which is one reason God gives adam another gift, The Garden, “beautiful to look at and good for food.” In the Garden, he could satisfy his desires, especially his desire for God. For God lived in the Garden too, strolling in the cool of the evening among rocks and plants and streams, with kitties, kangaroos, earthlings, earthworms, bunnies and bears.

And that was the way it was, once in a Garden—shared life, companions and kin, creatures all, made-in-the-shade of the Tree of Life that grew in a Garden near Eden, in the East of God’s new and wonderful world.

Now, it wasn’t all play and no work for the human. The world outside the Garden was perfect, but unfinished. Help was wanted: an on-site tiller of soil, someone who would care for the earth. God made the world with room in it for involvement and participation, for evolution and improvement. That’s why God made the earthling, the first gardener.

You’ve probably heard that God commanded Adam and Eve to ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’ To multiply and have dominion. And God does say that, in one story. The Bible has two creation stories, and in the second, God doesn’t say ‘fill and subdue,’ but till and care. The first story leads to possession and mastery. But the second story leads to belonging and participation. In this story, the humans have work to do, but it’s joyful work, because when they care for the earth, earth cares for them, too.

Then the story takes a sad turn. A smooth talking serpent appears and plants seeds of mistrust in the human heart. And that mistrust becomes a wedge. It splits things:

Humans had never felt shame in being naked; now they do. Their relationship with their own bodies is broken.

Once they’d walked with God; now they’re afraid of God and try to hide. Their relationship to God is broken.

Once they called each other ‘my own flesh and blood’; now they turn on each other in accusation and blame. Their relationship to other humans is broken.

God closes the Garden and sends the humans into the world outside. There they discover that their relationship to nature is damaged too. Participation in the world now brings suffering as well as joy. The story says that’s a punishment, but it’s not really. It’s just that we’re so deeply connected to the world that when things aren’t right with us, they’re wrong in nature too. And nature won’t be right again until we are.

But even with all its hardships, the world was still wondrous. Yet it never fully satisfied us like the Garden did. We planted garden after garden ourselves, hoping to sense God’s footfalls in the grass, to see flowers that don’t fade, to hear God speak to the heart. But nothing we made was like what we lost.

The story goes in many directions from here. For Christians, it goes to Jesus, God’s Child. The story says he came to find and stay with us who’d become so lost and lonely. He left his own Eden with God and took an earthy body, just like ours.

But by then, we were so practiced in ignoring our kinship with creatures and God that when he came to us in human flesh, breathing the divine breath, we did to him what we were doing to each other.

We treated him like a foreigner, even though he stirred a deep memory when he told stories of gardens and seeds, trees and birds, lilies, and harvests gathered into barns.

We said we didn’t know him, even though he ate, drank, sang, and danced with the happy abandon of one who knew what life was like in the Garden.

We regarded him as a stranger, even though we heard the accent of Eden in the way he talked and felt its cool breezes in the way he lived.

In a cruel twist, when we seized him, it was in a garden. And when killed him, we buried him in one too.

The ancient creeds say that as soon as he died, he descended to a gloomy place where for eons long-dead ancestors were waiting for the Messiah. Jesus “harrowed” them. That’s an old word for raking. Like a harvester, he raked them up and gathered them into his new life. Later, back at the garden tomb on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene saw him, but she thought he was a gardener. She wasn’t really wrong.

Genesis is the Bible’s first book. It recounts the first creation. Revelation is the Bible’s last book. It promises a new creation when time ends. The new earth, it says, will be like a jeweled city with walls and towers, but in its center God will plant a Tree of Life, just as God did once in a Garden.

The Tree will yield a different fruit each month, and its leaves will be medicinal for the nations—for all people, no matter who. A Tree of diversity and healing, a Garden undefiled. It’s hard to imagine. We hide guns in our gardens. We bulldoze thousand-year olives. We delude ourselves, thinking we can demean, ignore, unhouse, and kill each other, and exploit water, earth, air, and animals, and suffer no lasting harm.

But now, as we witness the effects of our self-delusion, the truth scripture teaches is stark. In disappearing ice caps and disappearing bees, in bad water and very sick children we see plainly that there’s no separation between human beings and nature, between this nation and that nation, between this continent and that island, between our own generation and those to follow. We’re in this together. For better, and for worse.

Some people say it’s too late for the earth, too late for us. But although earth has been entrusted to our care, it’s still God’s earth, not ours. We can either believe that or we can despair. It’s still God’s creation. We can either trust God or despair.

I think we won’t despair. I think we will read and study and pray the Garden story, over and over. I think we’ll speak to each other about Eden and the earth, about creatures and God and divine breath, about Adam the gardener, and Jesus, the new Adam, the harvester of life. I think we won’t despair because we have this great green story and in it, a mission and a calling.

I think we won’t despair. I think we’ll ponder how to invest our money and how to reduce our footprint and how to organize and how to protest and how to vote. I think we’ll do all those things and more.

And it won’t seem like much against the odds. But each small thing we do will be a kind of remembering. Each small step a re-connection of broken kinship, an act of love. Small thing by small thing, we will become ourselves a Garden, an oasis, a taste of Eden, at play and at rest as God intended for us and every creature under heaven. Small thing by small thing, by endless grace and persevering response to grace, God’s glorious will for the earth and for all creation will shine and shine again.

You Shall Love the Lord Your God…

 

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You can’t claim to love God if you hate your neighbor, says the first letter of John; love of God is proved in love of neighbor. Nothing in all scripture is truer. But nowhere does the Bible say that neighbor-love is all there is to keeping the Great Commandment. We’re also commanded (first and above all else, mind you) to love God, and love God explicitly. Love for God is inseparable from neighbor-love, but it’s also distinct from it.

The progressive Christian habit, however, has been to collapse God-love into neighbor-love. If you love your neighbor, you’re already loving God—that’s what it means to love God. There’s no urgency (or need?) to love God any other way. Inseparability becomes substitution, and the result is what Jesuit ethicist Ed Vacek calls the “eclipse of love for God.”

Thinking about this scary phrase some years ago, I tried counting the sermons about loving God I’d heard in progressive churches. I couldn’t recall any. I realized that I myself had preached only one. I think you still have to strain to hear the sound of sustained progressive reflection on loving God explicitly and with everything you’ve got. In our wing of the church, Vacek’s eclipse is a near-silent one.

A pew-mate of mine once noticed this hush. After sitting attentively through yet another hortatory sermon about Christian obligation to the neighbor and social justice action in the world, this faithful old layman leaned in my direction and sighed, “You know, Mary, I think I know by now what God wants me to do. What I’d really like is to know is who is the God who wants me to do it?”

“Who is the God who wants me to do it?” This wasn’t a question about book-learning or theological concepts. It was a question about intimacy, a question about mystery, a question about prayer, a question ultimately about surrender; it arose straight out of a heart that longed somehow to love as well as to obey.

The habitual evasion of this question makes for an earnest, vague, and potentially joyless Christianity that aims only to make the world a better place, or else. Surely Jesus hoped more for the church than to be the delivery system of an incessant moralism that has us believing our world is so bad and our causes so urgent that the exhaustion, outrage, and bitterness we feel are justified—even a badge of honor. Surely Jesus showed us a God we could love, not the one we often project, who is as wired, anxious, workaholic, self-righteous, and unhappy as we are.