June 7, 2015
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Part One: Because I Said So
Over the years, my relationship with vegetables has been, well, mixed? I invite you to consider your own relationship with vegetables. Now if you were to ask me whether I like vegetables, I would say, “Absolutely!” Because I really do. Mostly. With some exceptions. I definitely love the idea of loving vegetables, I mean to be a person who loves vegetables, so look, I do my best.
I do love spinach and eggplant, roasted red peppers, and seasoned asparagus. I will not turn up my nose at zucchini or broccoli, and if there has to be cauliflower in the California medley, you won’t hear me complain. Lima beans, though, I don’t know. About two summers ago, I had a particularly terrible experience with purple cabbage. I’m sorry to tell you that we’re still not on good terms.
It has helped me to grow up in a veggie-loving household. Beet tops and Swiss chard, spaghetti squash and purple potatoes, alfalfa sprouts spilling out of your sandwich. See it’s not that my mom required vegetables, it’s that she enjoys them. Her delight in vegetables is what made a lasting impression on me.
You can understand this distinction. At some point, we all have encountered those obligatory vegetables all boiled and sorry but required to be on the menu. At some point, I hope you have also encountered a tomato ripe and ready from the garden. Bite through its skin and let the sweet and sour hit the back of your teeth; the juice drips down your chin. See there is nothing required about this tomato.
Friends, today we are beginning our summer sermon series called “In the Garden.” See if you agree, but it seems to me that gardening has quite a lot in common with our faith. For one thing, they both take work every day. Both gardening and faith make you empathize with the hungry deer, and sit still in the sunshine, and get this Godmade earth all under your fingernails.
What I want to know is how do we anticipate what will grow? How can we possibly believe that the colorful picture on the front of the seed packet is what will come from the smattering of brown dots inside? Along with the hard work, gardens nudge awake our sense of wonder. Along with our diligence, gardens stir up our delight. On a good day, it could be that this is exactly what our faith does too.
On a good day, our faith digs up all those wormy, squirmy questions which refuse to be answered by the exasperated refrain that goes, “Because I said so, that’s why.”
Because I said so… If you have ever heard that said to you, or if you have ever said these words, then you know the next word is usually, “But why…?”
The story we’re about to hear traipses through the land of “Because I said so” and keeps right on going… It’s a story that proposes theories to explain why things are the way they are. So the trick in listening to this is to try and hear the hidden questions. Think of it like playing Jeopardy! The story gives us the answers, but what are the questions? For example, Why did God create human beings? Why are men and women different from each other? See what other hidden questions you hear answered in this story of the garden that gave birth to the world.
Part Two: Well, Because It Looks Like a Platypus, Don’t You Think?
This kind of story is called an etiology. It’s a made up account of how things came to be. Rudyard Kipling wrote a series of famous etiologies for children with titles like, “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin,” “How the Leopard Got His Spots,” and “How the Elephant Got His Trunk.”
As you could guess, there are some problems with these kinds of stories. For one thing, they can be used to justify unethical beliefs or practices. A person could hear this scripture and say, “See God wants people to be in charge of animals; therefore it is okay to mistreat them.” Of course, it is not. A person could hear this story and say, “See God created women to be helpers to men, so therefore they must be subservient” when that is not the case at all. A person could hear this and say, “See God designed men and women to be attracted to each other, not men with men and women with women” a conclusion which ignores the rich diversity of our human relationships.
The problem with etiological stories is when we forget that’s what they are. If we expect Genesis Two to provide a scientific account of evolution, or a historical account of a certain garden in the Middle East, or a theological account detailing exactly what God intends, then this story fails. It seems like a lie or a trick grown-ups play on children. It’s not what you’d call responsible truth telling.
On the other hand, the thing about truth is there’s more to it than its responsible telling. The story of how the world came to be in Genesis Two is inspired by God and invented by people, but that doesn’t make it a lie any more than Great Expectations is a lie because it didn’t really happen or Frozen is a lie because everybody knows real princesses are not in charge of the snow.
Our scripture might just as well begin, “Once upon a time, in the day the LORD God created the heavens and the earth… God made a person from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Can you even imagine?
Surely if you can believe those brown dots inside the envelope could one day turn into gold and magenta zinnias, then you can believe a made up story has real truth to tell about God. You could even believe that vegetables are not a boiled and sorry required side dish, but the crowning jewels of an eggplant, artichoke pizza. Maybe?
Now as the story goes, the LORD God rolled up his sleeves and plunged his hands down into the earth and planted a garden called Eden. Out of the ground, God made every tree grow, trees that are pleasant to see and good for making fruit, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The Bible tells us that not one, not two, but four rivers branched out from the river that ran under Eden. Israel was a dry land, so you know if you were going to tell a class of ancient Israeli kindergartners about this lush and living garden, you wouldn’t be five minutes into the story when one of them would raise her hand and say, “We know that rain comes and goes, how will this garden stay watered?” So glad you asked! That’s why there’s a river that runs under the garden.
God created the man to work in the garden, or you could translate it: God created man to serve the earth. And God tells the man he may eat from any tree except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a story we’ll hear more about next week. But this is when God discovers a problem. All along God is making things and seeing that creation is very good. Now God discovers the man is alone, and he should not be alone.
As the story goes, the LORD our God is not quite sure how to remedy this. She gets right to work making every kind of animal, surely one of these creatures will make a good partner for the man. The animals come and appear before the man, and he is put in charge of naming their species. Which is a lot to ask of a guy on his first day on earth, don’t you think?
I once saw this scene portrayed in an animated children’s movie. It was so strange! As I remember it, Adam sat very still in a field. All the animals sat around the edges hushed and reverent. Then one at a time, they dutifully walked up to Adam and stood in front of him until he pronounced the word “Giraffe!” or “Hippopotamus!” Then the animal, serious and pleased, would go back and take its spot in the crowd.
Don’t you want to know how he comes up with these names? Come on Adam really, how do you look at that thing and proclaim, “That’s a platypus!” Really? I mean what else would it be…
Finally, God has an idea. God makes Adam fall into a deep sleep, then ever-so-carefully without waking him up, God sneaks a rib out of his body. God uses that rib to make a human partner for the man. If you’re the one telling this story, you know one of those kindergartners is raising his hand wanting to know how God plans to make a woman out of a rib, but that’s a question for another story. Instead our scripture ends with the man and the woman in the garden. They are naked, and they are not ashamed.
Friends, see if you agree, it seems to me that the old stories in the Bible and the gardens we plant this summer might actually have a lot in common. For one thing, they take work every day. Both gardening and reading the Bible make us empathize with those hungry deer, and sit still in the sunshine, and get this Godmade earth all under our fingernails.
Both gardens and stories don’t just take work, they also take wonder. They don’t just need our diligence, they need our delight unashamed. They need us to laugh at the funny parts and not be afraid to get the juice from the tomato all over our chins. Gardens and stories harbor a certain beauty that conspires with the impulse of life. They teach us that pleasure awakens our sense of possibility.
There are four rivers that flow from this garden! You can put pansies on top of a salad and drizzle it with raspberry walnut vinaigrette, and taste and see the LORD is good! The faith that sustains us like daily bread is what gives way to new life and life abundant. All the world comes to life. Because you know, the LORD our God loves life. Amen.