“In the Garden Again”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 27, 2016
University Baptist Church
Way back in the 1500’s a mystic by the name of St. John of the Cross penned these words about God whom he called his Beloved: “Mountains have heights and they are plentiful, vast, beautiful, graceful, bright and fragrant. These mountains are what my Beloved is to me. Lonely valleys are quiet, pleasant, cool, shady and flowing with fresh water; in the variety of their groves and in the sweet song of the birds, they afford abundant recreation and delight to the senses, and in their solitude and silence, they refresh us and give rest. These valleys are what my Beloved is to me.”
The story begins in the garden. Just like last week’s story was in the garden. That was Gethsemane, the garden to which Jesus went to contemplate his fate, where his disciples fell asleep on him three times, and the place of his arrest.
This garden was one outside of a tomb. A graveyard garden. A garden to which people went, not for recreation, but for mourning. It was a contemplative place, where you were expected to be left alone. That’s where Jesus first appeared. You know the story. Mary goes to the tomb to mourn and to care for his corpse. But the stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty. She runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple. They verify the story and then run away. Again. Just like they did at the crucifixion. Leaving Mary alone. Again. She sees a man she assumes to be a gardener who asks why she’s weeping. She says through sobs, “they’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they have laid him…if you have taken him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.” But he knows her. Jesus says, “Mary.” And so sets in motion a movement that would inspire generations to live in hope. And it all started in a garden. Just like creation started in a garden, so we encounter it again today. And look, it’s a garden here. The tomb is empty, and butterflies dance around the room as the fragrance of the flowers entices them.
It’s no ordinary garden. It’s a springtime garden, brimming with buds and new life; a springtime garden where you look forward to a harvest, those sweet berries, the rich greens full of antioxidants. The garden that is tilled and ready to plant. But what will we plant? That’s the question for Easter morning.
I’m afraid that we plant too much anger and fear and despair. It’s no wonder that we harvest terror, disdain, oppression, racism, sexism, and prejudice.
What might we want to plant now that we can harvest in the coming season? That’s the real miracle. That’s the real hard work. That’s the hope for our world.
The last church I served was called Dolores Street Baptist Church in San Francisco. It was founded back in the 1940’s by immigrants from Oklahoma and Georgia and North Carolina who came to San Francisco to work in the munitions industry. It was called the First Southern Baptist Church, back then. They had Rosie the Riveters with their southern stock and their devoted work ethic. As the city changed, so did the church. It was in the Castro neighborhood with its growing gay and lesbian scene. They became the leaders of the church, recovering from their southern fundamentalism around the songs and the church culture they loved. The church was active in the neighborhood and opened up a homeless shelter for Central American refugees, opened their building for 12-step groups and other congregations, forming a non-profit called Dolores Street Community Services. They developed sister church relationships in Nicaragua and Chicago. They even went to the protest en-masse at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories—protesting the modern-day munitions industry.
The Southern Baptist Convention had enough of this little renegade church and withdrew fellowship from them, which is like a denominational shun. This only emboldened the church. They must have been doing something right to incur the wrath of the Southern Baptist Convention. Luckily the fact that they had formed a secular non-profit shielded them from their programs going under as denominational funding disappeared.
One night, a guest was turned away from the homeless shelter. He was not following the rules and was making bullying and racists remarks to the other guests. The last thing he said was, “the Aryan Brotherhood is going to burn your church down.” Three days later the neighborhood watched the church go up in flames.
This was all before I got there. We established a program called the Phoenix Project to rebuild not only a church, but an interfaith community and center. But politics and approvals in earthquake country move at a tectonic rate. So we met in a storefront. Dolores Street Community Services re-established the homeless shelter in three different locations and provided housing and support for people with AIDS. Our storefront church even became a distribution site for medicinal marijuana. But looming over us was always this vacant lot on the corner of 15th and Dolores Street, full of opportunity and immense challenge.
Eventually, the old shell of the church got torn down. We saved one of the steeples from the old church and put it right in the center of the vacant lot. We painted it in rainbow colors. We then offered the lot to the neighbors. We brought in lumber and soil and created 30 beds for raised gardens. Some bore flowers, some vegetables. People bonded over compost and held garden parties in a reclaimed corner.
Of course, every Easter, we shared a sunrise service right there in the garden, singing those old Baptist hymns and reveling in the idea that something wonderful and creative can rise out of the ashes of our former lives.
So there we were churched and unchurched and dechurched gathered in a garden dreaming about what could come next. And realizing, that a part of it had already taken place. We had reclaimed the land, we had built community, and we had witnessed to the resurrection.
Now I wish this story ended with a thriving church in a new building. It didn’t. The Community Center that the church founded continues to flourish and homeless refugees are still housed in several sites around the city. The garden fell into disrepair as leadership changed. The church, too small, was sapping the best energy of the people. It eventually closed down a few years ago, those remaining handful of worshippers went into other churches where they could regenerate and recharge. The funds from the sale of the church lot helped endow organizations like the Alliance of Baptists, the Baptist Peace Fellowship and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. But all of us knew that something special had happened in that garden. And not an Easter goes by that I don’t think about the beauty of that garden and the hope and possibility that was awakened in the gardeners, even for a few years.
Jesus appeared in a garden after all on Easter morning. And for a while we saw Jesus in that garden. For always, when someone was hungry, they could find fresh produce at the community garden. They could find community where death and destruction had once been. They could see flowers and enjoy this sights and smells. People experience that at the UBC gardens as well.
Karen Swenson reminded me the other day that sustainability does not mean that something goes on forever. The feeling that happened there is sustainable. That goes on and it inspires us to take the next step.
Jesus didn’t stay in the garden, after all. He told Mary to meet him in Galilee. New life might start in the garden, but it lives to sustain us beyond the garden. That’s the Easter miracle.
A handful of us have spent Monday evenings during the Lenten Season reading and discussing Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. And you would think it was all about global warming and our need to be good stewards of the earth. It had that, but it also said that the way we look at the environment is indicative of how we look at our world and our relationships with each other. He celebrates beauty and diversity in nature and decries GMO’s and boring urban planning. He says that we need to repent of our consumerist tendencies. For it is an individualism that contributes to the breakdown of society.
Here’s what he says about the new lifestyle that we need to embrace: “The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which is turn becomes a seedbed for collective selfishness. When people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs. So our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.”(Section 204)
We are in this together and we need each other, just like the land needs diversity of plants and organisms. We need each other to push us into being better people. We even need people like presidential candidates saying ludicrous things to hold up a mirror to our collective psyche as a nation.
The Easter miracle is not Jesus’ rising from the dead, but our rising because of it. Yes, that was an amazing and redemptive moment outside the tomb, but it will mean nothing unless we too rise up.
What the resurrection showed was that the world’s mightiest weapons of mass destruction are not the final answer. In fact, the answer comes in the resurrection when we leave the garden.
It comes when we the people decide to live by a new reality.
It comes when we no longer settle for business as usual.
It comes when we say in the words of Isaiah that “the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and the fatling and the calf together and nation shall not raise up sword against nation and neither shall they study war any more.”
Resurrection happens when we remember the words of Amos who bitingly said, “I hate your solemn assemblies and the singing of your tunes, but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”. Then I’ll have something to be happy about.
Resurrection comes when we like Jesus said “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.”
Resurrection happens when Peter quotes God in Acts 10 and says, “What I have made you shall not call unclean.” While he did this, he undid most of the restrictive Torah laws. Tell that to the North Carolina legislature who quotes Leviticus as justification for their condemnation of a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person.
Resurrection happens when the early church carved out its niche in the midst of warfare and famine and persecution and survived.
Resurrection happens when people read the Bible for themselves and discover new meanings, new beliefs, new truth about God and the world, which is what every church-based liberation movement did from Martin Luther to the Anabaptists to the Civil Rights movement to even the Black Lives Matter movement.
Resurrection happens when we don’t take the racist and sexist and homophobic comments and policies of candidates and lawmakers sitting down. Resurrection happens when we find our own voices and proclaim a better narrative.
Resurrection happens when people see the clear teaching of scripture as one of love, compassion, justice and mercy to all of God’s people. This teaching always trumps restrictiveness, because it embodies resurrection.
Resurrection happens when someone experiences the process of recovery from addiction.
Resurrection happens when we plant a garden—a literal garden and a figurative garden of hopefulness, of helpfulness, of joy in the midst of despair.
We have committed to live as Easter people, resurrection people who see the big picture of God’s ultimate plan for the world. And it is good. It is filled with love, mercy, justice and compassion because that’s who God is. Anything that doesn’t focus on love, mercy, justice and compassion and uses the name of God to do it is practicing deception. Resurrection happens when people rise up and live in a new way, never settling for business as usual, always pushing us toward a higher plane, always a little bit uncomfortable until that great day comes where the blinders come off all of our eyes and we see our enemies as our long lost sisters and brothers.
It’s Easter. We experience the resurrection story through word, through song, through story, through majestic music and flowers and pretty colors. But none of it means much of anything unless we leave here somehow changed, somehow risen above the mundaneness of our existence, somehow risen above the ways of the world, somehow risen to walk and talk and be a new person. That’s when Easter really happens.
So how about it? What are you planting in your garden? Who do you see next to you? What is that supposed gardener encouraging you to do? Never underestimate the power of people who have experienced a resurrection. They tend to change the world. And that’s our task. And the way we change it is to first change ourselves.
One last thing. When we arrived at our sister church in Leon back in January, we were greeted with open arms and cheers and hugs and tears. They showed off their worship space to us, their patio with new tiles, the repairs they were doing on their classrooms in preparation for school to begin. We asked about the tiny portion of their patio that was fenced in with pretty white plastic barriers. Inside were flowers and tiny trees that were starting to sprout and local things of beauty. They told us that they were so impressed by the gardens that we had at our church, that they wanted to make one too—to remember us, but also to remember the Creation and Easter stories that started in the garden.
My friends, as you plant your garden or enjoy the ones around you today or in the days to come, consider what God has planted in you. Consider what you will plant, so that others might enjoy the fruits of your labors. Jesus came back on Easter, not to take all of our pain away or to wave a magic wand, but to give us the hope we need to rise up once again.
And so we say Christ is risen. And our continuing work for love and beauty and peace says, Christ is risen indeed.