At the Edge of the Garden


Rev. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

May 19, 2019

Texts: Psalm 103; John 20:11-18

        Even for those of us who are not gardeners, gardens capture our imagination. It is no surprise that Scripture places human beings living first in a garden. When the most ancient of our species moved from wandering as hunter gatherers and settled into places, they created gardens. The remains of the world’s oldest city Catal Huyuk located on the Anatolian plain in modern day Turkey was established around 7500 BCE and it had a garden.

       When the ancient Egyptians built a mortuary for Metuhotpe II who reigned around 2100 BCE, they designed a garden. The palace at Knossos in Crete dating from the thirteenth century BCE had a garden, mixing fruits, vege-tables and flowers much the same way that Thomas Jefferson designed his gardens at Monticello.

      What is it about a garden that so enthralls us? The nature writer William Longgood stated it well: “More than anything else, a garden is a portal, a passage into another world, one of your own thoughts and your own making; it is whatever you want it to be and you are what you want to be.” In other words, we become creators while recognizing that we are created, that even we have limits. Anyone who gardens knows that weeds always pop up where you least expect them. Gardening has always had sacred associations and not just in our Judeo-Christian tradition.

       Buddhism has the Pure Land of the West, a garden where the soul goes before attaining nirvana, the pure state of being. And for those of us who had space only for pots, we have our hero in plant hunter Francis Masson who brought back a palm to Kew Gardens, England, in 1777, which, by the way, is still thriving. It is little wonder that we often meet God in a garden.

         But in today’s world, we often stand at the edge of a garden, caught up in our hurry-up lives, getting here and there, not thinking about the way that gardening forces us to stop, to recognize our limits in a gentle way. Sometimes Nature has a not so gentle way of telling us that she is in charge.

         The cyclones in East Asia and the torrential downpours in our own Midwest serve as Nature’s warnings that we best heed. There is perennial floodding in Miami and now St. Louis faces the annual flooding of the Mississippi. And it’s not like the annual flooding of the Nile at all.

         The Arara, an indigenous tribe in Brazil, stand at the edge of their garden as they fight the planned construction of the world’s third largest dam. The Belo Monte Dam would flood 160 square miles of forest and dry up the Xingu River, forcing the relocation of more than 20,000 indigenous be-cause they would have no river for fishing, their main food source, and no way to travel in the deep interior since the river is also their main source of transportation. The Brazilian government seeks to provide hydroelectric power to the rapidly growing cities of Rio de Janeiro to the north and Sao Paolo to the south. Hydroelectric is cheaper and cleaner than coal, to be sure, but how do we balance the environment with our expanding need for energy? And not just in Brazil, either.

         I remember going to Wilkesboro, Pennsylvania, in 1966 with my husband Bob as we were looking at colleges where he might be teaching. Wilkes College was really lovely but the coal dust was everywhere from the mining communities in the area. I noticed that there were few gardens there. I sug-gested that we might consider New Haven instead.

         Standing at the edge of a garden forces us to think about how to balance nature and the limitations she enforces on us and our desire for growth and development. In 1972––that’s more than forty years ago––the Club of Rome pub-lished a study called The Limits to Growth. Back in the 1970s when our demand for energy was much less than now and when we warned about global warming, this report predicted what would happen should we not re-examine the lifestyle we were all heedlessly plunging into.

        We are standing at the edge of the garden and if we want that garden to thrive we must reorient our thinking. As a new report to the Club of Rome states, we must look be-yond short term, incremental changes and look at our planet as one ecosystem that is being degraded. We are grossly overusing the resources of Mother Earth. The Native Americans who lived here long before our ancestors came understood the importance of a proper relationship with the earth. Moreover, we need to develop a framework that is more equitable and sustainable.

        The Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen almost ten years ago showed the difficulties of a divided world wherein the rich live off the poor. And the current pinheads in Washington have decided that the United States should not join in an agreement to limit plastic. It’s a real shame that they don’t choke on those microfibers rather than the crea-tures of the sea and air.

        We as Americans will have to learn to share in a real way, not just by handing out our used clothing and pittances to the developing world but by radically altering our lifestyles. Consumption cannot be the basis of our economy as it has been.

          Just look at how economic growth is being framed: it’s getting better because we are spending more on items we do not need. There must be a better way to address economic issues. We cannot sustain ourselves at this rate. We will have little, if anything, for our children and grandchildren and if that future has any meaning, then we must address these issues with imagination or there will be no gardens left.

         On that Easter morning after she realized the tomb was empty, Mary Magdalene stood in the garden that was near the tomb. Her eyes were blinded by grief: the grief of losing a man she had followed and loved, grief at not being able to have closure through the burial customs, grief at not knowing what would happen next.

         Some of the most beautiful gardens I saw in Finland were at the gravesites of soldiers who had died in the 1939 war trying to protect their homeland against the invading Russian army. Unlike many of cemeteries here in America, these gravesites and many others are surrounded by carefully tended gardens.

        The gravesites bordered by strips of slate or granite have flowers planted at the headstones. They provide a tranquil place to remember the ones we have loved and lost. I imagine that in its day the tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea must have been like that.

        As Mary stood in the garden, she must have stood among iris and corn poppies, narcissus and cyclamen, lupine and birdweed, all plants native to Judah. The fragrance of spring must have been all around her as it is for us.

        As in this morning’s story, it is often a voice that brings us out of our immediate grief into a time for healing. It must have been the same for Mary in the story, the voice she recognized enabling her to live an Easter faith. For us, too, it is often a voice of caring that gives us the ability to move beyond where we get stuck in an old way of thinking or acting.

        Much like Mary at the tomb we do not know what will happen next. We are living in an age of what I will call en-forced fear. We are told we must be fearful of this or that, certain types of persons, certain types of situations which in the past may not have caused much anxiety.

         There are real things and situations that should cause us to take action, to be sure, but not to stand as by a tomb, uncertain and fearful. This past week saw the results of environmental activism in the denial of a natural gas pipeline that would have cut right through the Raritan Bay. Our gardens are not just in our own yards but are all about us, needing protection from the greed of developers and corporations.

        We need to think about how to respond to the issues we face here in Middletown along the shore, in the wetlands, the issues we face in our state in terms of priorities, and in our Nation in terms of energy and sustainability. Each one of us can do at least one thing to open the portal of the garden door where God enters into our lives and gives us meaning.

         Let us pray: We are humbled, O God, by the limits we face as human beings in the face of the power of your creation. Enter into our minds and souls, Holy Creator, to enlarge our imagination to find solutions to environmental degradation and create a more sustainable world where equity and justice exist. Amen.