September 6, 2015
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Even Better Than a Prize
“In the day the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up— for the LORD God had not caused it to rain… and there was no one to till the ground, but a stream would rise from the earth and water the whole face of the ground— then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. The LORD God planted a garden in Eden… there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:4b-9).
This is a reading from the second chapter of Genesis; it’s how the Bible begins and how the world begins. We heard it last Sunday when Sylvia read it. Today our reading comes from the end, from the book of Revelation:
“The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more” (Reveleation 22:1-3a).
Notice the tree of life presides at the beginning and the end.
All through these summer Sundays, we’ve been exploring stories of gardens in the Bible. In the love poetry, gardens are the setting for pleasure and fertility; gardens encourage us to enjoy food and sex. The writings of the prophets invoke gardens as a sign of justice and generosity. In the New Testament, the garden of Gethsemane is a place of sanctuary where Jesus pleads with the Holy One and the disciples fall asleep.
In all of these examples from scripture, the garden is a place where the hard work of humankind and the wild grace of God get mixed up together. If you have a garden, maybe you’ve experienced this. Maybe you have felt the presence of God in the sunlight on the leaves or in the worms squirming through the soil. Human and Holy all mixed up together.
See gardens remind us what it is to be human. You might be frustrated with the weeds or delighted by the pleasure of the flowers in bloom. We might get blisters and sunburned. We might get our faces blissfully splattered from biting into the bright red tomato, that used to be orange, that used to be green. When it comes to being human, we have a lot to learn from the growing of the earth.
Gardens take our best vision and hours of work. And if only that were enough. Because you can plan, and plant, and pray, and maybe things will turn out, or maybe they won’t. Or maybe it will turn out even better than we thought. We human people cannot force the bunnies to go away, or the seeds to take root, or the rain to come, or the rain to hold off for a minute. Gardens illuminate just how little control we have, just how extraordinary is the grace of God.
To “conspire” means “to breathe with,” and that’s what a garden is — the place where we conspire with the power of God. Here on this patch of earth, we show up together to see what happens — it’s probably life, life growing, and abundant, and more…
Friends, this morning our scripture comes to us from the book of Revelation. Most of this book was written by a follower of Christ named John who may have written this from exile during the era when Christians were being persecuted. See there was anxiety about the timing of the coming of the new age. It was supposed to arrive but it hasn’t yet come, so how do we stay faithful until the end of the age, and what’s going to happen then? In order to encourage the churches, John wrote an account of this vision.
Now some readers interpret Revelation as an accurate prediction for events still to come. Another option is to appreciate this writing as inspired fantasy. Does that mean it’s made up? Yes. Does that make it untrue? No. This scripture gives us permission to imagine ferociously and encounter the truth of God in new ways.
You’ll notice the readings from both Genesis and Revelation feature the tree of life. In Genesis, this tree is planted in the garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve get kicked out of the garden, God posts an angel with a flaming sword to guard the tree of life so the people can’t get to it (Genesis 3:24).
In Revelation, we hear conflicting ideas about the tree of life. On the one hand, its leaves bring the about the healing of the nations. On the other hand, the Bible ends on a threatening note: “If anyone takes away from the words of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life…” Really?.
From the beginning and the end, it seems like this tree holds out on its branches the gift of life like a prize. And who doesn’t want a prize? Especially if that prize is eternal life…
You know prizes can be earned. We live in a culture that values earning, working hard, and getting what is deserved. You know prizes can be won. We live in a culture that values winning whether by luck or skill. We celebrate winners and expect them to keep winning and bringing home the prize. Prizes are real and tangible, not some vague feeling of accomplishment. You can smell the prize you won and put it in the bank or put it on the mantle, and you’ll always know you got it. No wonder it’s appealing to imagine eternal life as the ultimate prize.
But then what?
Once we get a prize, it’s great to have, but then it’s over, already won. Often, a prize is for some people, but not everybody. What kind of life from God is meant for some people and not others? If life is the prize, does that make God the judge with the clipboard—deciding which tomato gets a blue ribbon, which mother gets to survive breast cancer?
Friends, this notion of God the judge is too small for me. This notion of life as a prize is too small for me. The good news of Jesus Christ is better than this.
What if eternal life is not a prize for the blessed or the worthy. Instead, what if life is a promise?
A promise looks toward the future and it is already progress. Think of the vows we make. I promise faithfulness to my husband for as long as we both shall live, which is a commitment pointing toward the future. But in sickness and health, plenty and want, joy and sorrow — that stuff is everyday. The promise of life is coming one day, and eternal life is already here. Even in this world. Even in this week.
Even better, life is a promise that is not reserved for a select few; there is room enough for us to find our way back to each other. The leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. Now it’s not a question of your life, or my life, or who gets to live. Life is what we share with all creation, with the bunnies, and the rain, and the tomatoes. Whether we live or die, we are part of one another.
And there’s this. Usually when a person makes a promise, there’s an unspoken subtext that goes, I really hope this works out. “I promise I’ll show up!” And I really hope that works. I love imagining God joining us in making this wish. God calls us to live, then fingers crossed, “I hope this works!” Let’s show up together and see what happens. Let’s conspire with the LORD and breathe together and stand on this patch of earth ready to behold life —all extravagant and pulsing with glory.
Eternal life is the promise we share in the garden where the work of our hands and the wild grace of God get mixed up together. Life is the promise we share at this table where the work of our hands and the wild grace of God get mixed up together.
When we dare to get into the promise of eternal life, what happens is life gets bigger and more abundant. The fullness of life increases and expands. There is still death, but there is more than death. There is pain, and there is more than pain. Eternal life is what Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette calls “the biggest kind of life.” Its promise is here enticing us to conspire with God. Because God knows the world needs to come back to life. And so do we.
In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. The man became a living being. The LORD God planted a garden in Eden, and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made every tree —the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (paraphrase Genesis 2:4b-9).
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit… and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations… [So] let everyone who hears say, “Come.” Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift…” (Revelations 22:1-2, 17) Thanks be to God, Amen.
 http://revmolly.tumblr.com/ “The Biggest Kind of Life, Big Version” July 15, 2015.