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Back to the Garden – 6/21/2015

Forty-five years ago, Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust/Billion year old carbon/We are golden/Caught in the devil’s bargain/And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden.” Those lines come from a song about the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, and the back-to-nature ambitions of the counterculture of the 1960s, but the garden we have to get ourselves back to is, of course, a reference to the Biblical Garden of Eden. Yesterday, while walking around Arts Fest, I happened to overhear a conversation in which a person only ten or so years my junior had to have it explained to them what an Atari system was, and its place in the annals of video game history. It was a reminder that what may be a cultural touch-stone for me might not carry the same weight for you. So I know that many of you have heard the story of Eden before but we live in an era when assuming biblical literacy is a losing proposition even for my more orthodox colleagues. When one is preaching to Unitarian Universalists, it’s always best to tell the story anew.

Eden is the second creation story in the Book of Genesis – there are two, remember – and in this one life begins in a place of verdant abundance, where there is no struggle, or death, or change. In Eden, humanity is formed out of the dust of the earth, and this is one of many ancient stories, from countless cultures, in which humankind has its origin in the land or soil. This is one of the many points on which the poetry and metaphor of scripture harmonize with the material observations of science: human beings are built of the same stuff as dirt. Your bodies, mine, and the soil that we walk on are each largely made up of carbon; we just happen to be particularly complicated arrangements of that element. But from that complexity, what beauty, what wonder is possible in the richly varied family of “sitting-up mud,” as Kurt Vonnegut called us all.

There is so much that is awesome, irreducible, and irreplaceable in even a single life. So when a life ends, however it ends, it is a profound loss. There were nine such lives lost this week that are on my heart this morning, as I know they are on many of yours. Their names are Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, DePayne, Clementa, Tywanza, Daniel, Sharonda, and Myra – nine black people murdered by a white man who sought them out because of his hatred towards people with their color of skin. The story of their deaths, awful as it was to hear, comes also with a sickly-familiar quality. Too, too, too many times in the last year has come the news of black lives being ended by racial hatred – or merely casual contempt. And the fact that this crime of terrorist hate was accomplished with a handgun only redoubles the despondent sense of normalcy in this entire affair.

In the story of Eden, the first human beings are expelled from the garden and its life of perfect ease. A judgement is pronounced against humanity: food and the stuff of life will no longer come freely to us; rather, we will have to toil and labor to grow crops, and make bread. So the hope of a return to Eden – which was millennia old before Joni Mitchell got to it – has often been a yearning for a return to ease and a freedom from the struggles of life. Fatigued and demoralized by heartbreak, there is always a temptation to turn away. But it is only some of us who, by dint of our social station or the hue of our skin, have the privilege to actually do this. To close the browser tab and open up Netflix or Candy Crush. To drown out the thought of how catastrophically ill our society is with work, or chores, or the innumerable other things that our terminally-busy lives demand of us. To distract ourselves from the pain of the world.

But if the color of my skin allows me to turn away from the suffering of others, the faith of my heart does not. No matter where I point my eyes, no matter how high I turn up the volume on anything other than the news, my religion will not let me ignore that the people who died in Charleston this week were products of the same planet as me, expressions of the same element as me, children of the same God as me. The metaphors are myriad; the truth is the same. Whenever there is temptation in our lives to disconnect from what is hard but real, it is our faith – our understanding of whatever meaning and value underlies the world as we perceive it – that can call us back into connection.

My interfaith colleague Pastor Viola Morris-Buchanan of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lynn, composed a ritual of lament in response to this week’s tragedy, to share with other people of faith determined to respond to it. She closed the ritual with these words:

“The struggle continues!  We stand against those who breed hate, ignorance, and violence; we work with those who preach truth and fight for gun control and public safety.  We are relentless in the struggle against racism, political and economic disenfranchisement.  We will not SLOW UP or BACK UP; we won’t GIVE UP or LET UP, until we are PRAYED UP and PREPARED UP, and have TAUGHT UP and ORGANIZED UP, for the cause of justice.”

The biblical Eden is spoken of as a place free of challenge or work. But I believe the gardeners among us can attest that this does not describe a contemporary garden at all. A garden is not naturally lush; its flowers and vegetables do not all spring up like clockwork, season to season, without any human effort or care. A garden is a place where hard-working and determined people may struggle against the forces of entropy and inertia in order to help foster miracles into being. And in that sense, friends, the garden is all around us.

Eric Garner, one of the other names on that too-long list of black lives lost in the past year, has been remembered for his final words: “I can’t breathe.” The gardener and author Ross Gay wrote this about Eric and his life a short while ago:

A Small Needful Fact


Is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec.

Horticultural Department, which means,

perhaps, that with his very large hands,

perhaps, in all likelihood,

he put gently into the earth

some plants which, most likely,

some of them, in all likelihood,

continue to grow, continue

to do what such plants do, like house

and feed small and necessary creatures,

like being pleasant to touch and smell,

like converting sunlight

into food, like making it easier

for us to breathe.[i]

The hatred which resides in the human heart is real, and as we have seen this week, it can do terrible things. Just as real are the structures and patterns and systems of hate, contempt, indifference, and greed: the forces within and among us which produce privilege and oppression. Which provide the means, again and again, to turn rage and fear into atrocity. It is up to us, as some of the many tenders of the garden we share as a species, to confront, undermine, and uproot these systems.

That means conducting a fearless and searching moral inventory of the racism and prejudice that lurk perniciously in our own hearts – to root out what we find there and to continue that work throughout our lives. It means joining together as a congregation to support each other in that internal work as we also partner with other people of good will to call out for justice and transformation in the public square. And it means cultivating the courage to confront the biases and ideas that undergird the racism baked into our society wherever we may encounter it: to interrupt the conversation and not let the stray comment, humorless joke, or other micro-aggression go unanswered. If all of this sounds hard, that’s because it is, and ought to be. From a garden full of flowers, to a single human life, to a reordering of the way we relate to each other as a society – almost anything of great beauty has a great deal of effort somewhere behind it. It is that effort, in fact, which gives such beauty its deep meaning.



[i] Ross Gay is a gardener and teacher living in Bloomington, Indiana. His book, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, is available from University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.

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