Norman Wirzba: The gardening way of God's keeping
God often is presented as father, judge, potter, redeemer or companion. How would believers’ thinking and speaking be transformed if God was described as a gardener?
April 26, 2011 | 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?