They Went Out to a Garden
Readings for Sunday, May 6: ACTS 10. 44-48, 1ST JOHN 5. 1-6, JOHN 15. 9-17
Good morning to you all. I wish to say thank you to Fr. Gahler for inviting me to speak to you this morning as homilist. It is a singular honor to stand in this church, the oldest congregation in our city and surely a timeless reminder of the life of the gospel lived in faith. Thank you for still being here!
I will say a few words about connections to place; then take a few moments to open the Gospel of John for today; say something about the events around this gospel, tell a story about my own visit to the Holy Land, link to a garden; link to a larger garden.
Coming from a Catholic tradition, I agree with the episcopal writer Mark Jacobs that Anglicanism has a kind of mediating and conciliating temperament, always seeing if there is a way for people to live together in relative harmony even in significant disagreement. I trust that principle is alive here at Trinity-St. Paul’s!
I understand many in the congregation trace family back to the West Indies and to Africa. Because we will dwell a while on the beauty of life on this planet, I know that people from the Caribbean and Africa have an immediate sense of the abundance of life and the richness she offers. I have visited our brothers' ministries in Dominica, Antigua, St. Lucia and Grenada. My several journeys to Africa included Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and S. Africa.
John's gospel, today, we know, describes a portion of the Last Supper. The long, loving discourse of rich teaching has always been hard for me to absorb I think because it does not resemble any dinner talk I know. The last supper starts in Chapter 13 and does not conclude until the close of Chapter 17. Over 150 verses, almost entirely the words of Jesus. We hear about the washing of the feet, the betrayal of Judas, Peter's denial, "a new commandment," "let not your heart be troubled," I am the vine, the world hates you, you will be persecuted, I must go so that the Spirit can come to you, a long priestly prayer for unity, "sanctify them in the truth." That they may have my joy made full in themselves.
Today, we are looking at only a small slice of those 150 verses in John and a little bit looking ahead to after the meal. I notice some things and I will bring them forward this morning with the hope we can open some path to more understanding by sharing. This was the final night with his beloved disciples. We are in Chapter 15 today. The arrest and questioning by Caiphas takes place in Chapter 18.
At the supper, of course we know that Jesus had yet to endure the agony in the garden that was the prelude to his suffering and death the next day. But yet, here he is teaching his last lesson, in a sense, and saying very explicitly that "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete." He tells them he chose them and he loves them and they must love one another. His final message to them before he must die. Can we imagine what he might mean by his promise to them of his "joy"? How is he able to talk of joy at this moment? I think we might do well to remember "joy" was so clearly in his message even while he was in great suffering. We can surely imitate him in sharing joy despite inner pain.
After supper, John describes Jesus and his disciples going to "a garden beyond the stream of Cedron." We know this place today as the Garden of Gethsemane. It appears to have been a familiar place of respite to Jesus because we learn later that Judas knew Jesus would be there to be arrested. Genesis began in a garden. Jesus brings us back.
I had the good fortune to visit the Holy Land some years ago with a Brother who took me one afternoon to the church of Peter Galicantu, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. This is the ancient site of the house of Annas, father-in-law of Caiphas, the High Priest. Peter Galicantu ("cock crow," in latin) is the name because it is where Peter denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. It is where Jesus was held before he appeared before Pilate the day of his crucifixion. The excavations at the house revealed several hidden cells in the lower basement areas. The red rock had been exposed and some dungeons were visible to visitors.
We understand that this may have been the last place Jesus spent a night alive before the Passion.
A small lectern stands in one side of a tiny cell. On it is a copy of psalm 87 – a lamentation psalm – "Lord I cry to you, incline your ear to my call for help…" We may suppose Jesus may have had recourse to this psalm in these last hours. The visit moved me and has stayed with me these many years.
When you come out of this dungeon to the sunlight, there is a path down the hill with ancient stepping stones going back to Jesus' time. You can see the path all the way to the Garden of Gethsemane, just across a small valley, so it is likely the path taken by his guards to bring him to Caiphas. Putting ourselves in proximity in this fashion changes the dynamic for me.
The passion story takes on more immediacy. For example, there are some questions about the path of Jesus during the carrying of the cross through Jerusalem. The competing narratives complicate things for the believer. But Galicantu seems less problematic. There was only one Caiphas and the path from the garden of Gethsemane is clear even today so we can be fairly confident we are in the real place.
So, he chose a garden after the Supper. And, we can see those places still.
And, now we shift to the largest garden we know. The four-billion-years-old garden of our home planet. This is a large concept and so we try to use models to help our thinking. What if the four billion years were compressed to a single day? Let's imagine a narrative that I borrow from Richard Rogers, a writer who knows about life on the planet:
"Say the planet is born at midnight and it runs for one day. First there is nothing. Two hours are lost to lava and meteors. Life doesn’t show up until three or four a.m. Even then, it’s just the barest self-copying bits and pieces. From dawn to late morning – a million million years of branching – nothing more exists than lean and simple cells. Then there is everything. Something wild happens, not long after noon. One kind of simple cell enslaves a couple of others. Nuclei get membranes. Cells evolve organelles. What was once a solo campsite grows into a town. The day is two-thirds done when animals and plants part ways. And still life is only single cells. Dusk falls before compound life takes hold. Every large living thing is a latecomer, showing up after dark. Nine p.m. brings jellyfish and worms. Later that hour comes the breakout—backbones, cartilage, an explosion of body forms. From one instant to the next, countless new stems and twigs in the spreading crown burst open and run. Plants make it up on land just before ten. Then insects, who instantly take to the air. Moments later, tetrapods crawl up from the tidal muck, carrying around on their skin and in their guts whole worlds of earlier creatures. By eleven, dinosaurs have shot their bolt, leaving the mammals and birds in charge for an hour. Somewhere in that last sixty minutes, high up in the phylogenetic canopy, life grows aware. Creatures start to speculate. Animals start teaching their children about the past and the future. Animals learn to hold rituals. Anatomically modern man shows up four seconds before midnight. The first cave paintings appear three seconds later. And in a thousandth of a click of the second hand, life solves the mystery of DNA and starts to map the tree of life itself. By midnight, most of the globe is converted to row crops for the care and feeding of one species. And that’s when the tree of life becomes something else again. That’s when the giant trunk starts to teeter."
Jesus went to a garden as he was leaving us. He had a profound sense of his destiny and he sought consolation in a place full of plants.
We know that the natural world here is facing many difficulties. We have been challenged not long ago by our Catholic Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si = On Care for Our Common Home; the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew has made common cause with Francis to engage these faith traditions in a mutual effort to awaken their followers to the responsibility to care for Earth and her creatures as stewards of creation.
The garden Earth is in danger and only the human can make things better now. We must re-invent the human if we are to respond in time to our predicament. We need to find our way to the garden to connect again to our creator's gifts. We need everyone to change everything.
Often the task seems too hard. We can be led along by talk of a technological fix. But we need to return first to the garden, to the real, to the living organisms of our planet home. Where Jesus went for time to pray to his Father. Where the connections had been arranged by his creator hand.
Thomas Berry has some encouragement for us – why we can still have confidence we can change things: "Here we might observe that the basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through the earth. If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun, and formed the earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture.” (Thomas Berry, “The New Story,” in The Dream of the Earth, 137).
Thomas Berry saw our environmental predicament and described it as of our own making. He knew that the Great Work of our time was to restore this garden and doing that would require the re-invention of the human. The relationship of human to earth must become a mutually enhancing relationship. We are all challenged to learn and to do our best to rescue our part of the garden. Jesus went to the garden as his last free choice before he was arrested. We can ensure there are still gardens when we are gone. God bless.
Thoughtful observers remind us we must guard against the human tendency solve our problems with technology. For many, God is primarily available as a solution of last resort and so we try other solutions first. Noting that our preference for idols, and thus religion as solutionism, is deeply ingrained, some say that modern technologies, which are solutionist in design, function as ready-made modern idols:
The primary goal of the makers of the idols, or New Gods (in their software and hardware avatars), is to ensure that we continue to turn to the idols for solutions to our problems, and never to suspect that there are problems they cannot solve, or, what would be far worse, that there are matters of value and meaning in human life that cannot be described in solutionist terms.