Back to the Garden

Text: Genesis 2-3 (Adam and Eve banished from the Garden)

Ten years ago today, I began full-time ministry. On Tuesday September 1, 2009, I stepped into the office at Knox United Church in Didsbury Alberta for the first time. I had been appointed as a supply minister and a student intern there for ten months, and in doing so, I fulfilled one of the requirements for ordination. During those ten months, I replaced Knox United’s minister, the Rev. Nancy Nourse, who was on parental leave following the birth of her second child.

I loved my time there; I learned a lot; and I overcame some of my fears about ministry. I figured out how to preach week after week, how to walk with grieving families, how to preside at funerals, how to baptize infants, and how to integrate into a congregation in a way that seemed to work.

Ten years ago, Knox United was a busy place. There were often 100 people in attendance on a Sunday morning. It had a Sunday School of around 15 children. It also had both a junior and a senior youth group. The organist was a delight. And I felt embraced by the community.

Part of it was the time. Obama was in his first year as President of the United States. The world economy had begun to recover from the Great Recession of 2007/08, which meant that Alberta could look forward to a rebound in oil prices. The political and cultural scene in Canada seemed relatively stable.

My experience in Didsbury confirmed what I had sensed when I delivered a eulogy for my father at a memorial in 2007, and which had been the catalyst for my decision to pursue ordination. That eulogy was a rare occasion in which I had spoken from the heart and felt heard. In a life filled with frustration about unacknowledged realities in family and society and an inability to communicate in personal relationships and in political reform movements, my father’s memorial felt different. I talked about matters of deep concern – loss, fear, and faith – in a way that seemed to touch a chord with my siblings, my extended family, and the rest of the people who gathered that day at Trinity United Church in Cobourg Ontario.

In 2001, after I had started attending church again at Kingston Road United in Toronto, I had sensed that the Way of the Cross was a place where a community could confront painful truths and wake up to reality. For me, the Way is about struggle, pain, and defeat in the face of natural and social evils and about how accepting these tough realities can help us move beyond egotism and closer to Love. Participating in that church, I experienced how people with different experiences and attitudes could meet one another: at the depths of loss, the heights of love, and in confrontation with things we like and don’t like about our situation.

Many of the Sunday gatherings at which I presided in Didsbury ten years ago felt similar. Often, I was able to be myself – a left-wing intellectual engaged with world affairs and broad cultural trends, digging deep into my own personal life, and reflecting on events in the community in relation to passages from the Bible – and still be heard. This was a revelation, and so after those ten months I returned to Toronto for my final year of course work confident in the decision I had made to become a minister.

After that final year of training, I was ordained in 2011 and settled in Borderlands pastoral charge in Saskatchewan. This was a different experience than my ten months at Knox United because Borderlands was so much smaller than Didsbury. Then, I was called here to Mill Woods United in January 2014.

I have enjoyed my years here even though the work has not always seemed to flow as seamlessly as during those ten months in Didsbury. I believe some of my struggles are related to another anniversary that I am marking today. In November 2016 when the current occupant of the White House was elected in a shocking upset, I gave myself until Labour Day 2017 to digest the implications of his presidency. If by Labour Day 2017 he was as intolerant, misogynistic, racist and ignorant as he had been during the campaign and yet retained enough support to be secure in his role as the most powerful person in the world, I imagined I would have rethink pretty much everything — see Back to the Future from August 2017.

Given that the latter scenario was the reality two years ago, I decided to just breathe and to remain engaged in life and ministry in this community of faith.

Now it is two years later, and I continue to struggle with the conclusion that we are living in a new age — an era of escalating fear, racism, sexism, dishonesty, and violence – and one that shows no sign of ending soon.

During my sabbatical this spring and summer, I had hoped to find a way to be more centred and balanced despite the success of President Trump and his racist allies — people like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Boris Johnson in England. I found some of that balance, through a silent guided retreat in June and in daily contemplative practices. But with news stories coming from multiple world capitals this summer telling of ever-more ludicrous lies and ever-greater racism and sexism, keeping my feet underneath me is an ongoing challenge.

It is church wisdom not to tackle too many distressing events on a Sunday morning, especially in a city as blessed as this one. While we may be shocked, amused, or puzzled by the latest outrages from Washington, Moscow, Brasilia, or Budapest, they don’t seem to have a big impact on our life here.

Now if you are a person who is choking on smoke from Siberian or Amazonian forest fires; or if your family members have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to flee slavery in North Africa; or if you are a child separated from your parents in a detention camp in the southern United States; or if you are a black family mourning the death of a loved on at the hands of a white supremacist or a frightened police officer — then you can’t escape the consequences of having leaders who are anti-science, anti-refugee, and anti-democratic. But here in Edmonton, most of us have yet to suffer much from such leaders. So, we may agree with church wisdom and hope that ministers like me will not dwell too much on the world’s woes.

I both agree and disagree. Although the world’s rush towards dictatorship, environmental destruction, and war seem far away, I believe we are all in peril — if not yet physically, then morally. Today, nearly three years after the Trump’s election victory, opinion polls show that more than 40% of Americans still support him. This suggests that a substantial minority of Canadians, including those of us in the United Church of Canada, are also open to fear-based racism, nationalism, and violence.

Most of the world’s racist dictators are supported by religious leaders: by Evangelical pastors in the US, by Orthodox Patriarchs in Russia, by Catholic bishops in Hungary, by Shia imams in Iran and Syria, by Sunni imams in Saudi Arabia, by Anglican priests in sub-Saharan Africa, and so on.

Those people of faith who strive to offer hospitality to the stranger, who welcome the leadership of women and queer people, and who work for a world in which all people enjoy abundance, are in the minority; and there seems to be no easy path on which to win the struggle for these values. But at the least, we can try to keep our hearts above a rising tide of immorality and to maintain our focus on sacred values even while many around us are succumbing to fear and hatred.

We are living through a social revolution, I believe. And in this revolution, the partisans of hope, faith and love have not won many battles. This is a tough reality. But on the Way of the Cross we learn that it is in accepting tough realities that we can best experience grace and love. This is something I experienced at my father’s funeral, and it is a teaching I continue to trust.

Now, I may be wrong in the assessment that we are living in a new and revolutionary age. The phrase “seldom right and wrong again” has often come to my mind over the years. But if I am right and a revolutionary struggle between fear and faith is underway, then we could use sources of inspiration. So in that vein, I now turn to another anniversary that many of us celebrated this summer: the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival of Peace and Music in a farm in New York State from August 16th to 18th 1969.

Kim and I watched a PBS documentary on the event a few weeks ago; and it filled us with some of the joy and hope that characterized that gathering of more than 400,000 young people 50 years ago.

In a moment, I will screen a music video of Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock;” and on other Sunday gatherings between now and December, I hope to work on services that look at different aspects of today’s crisis with inspiration from the lyrics of her song. As with those lyrics, these services will touch on topics like walking with fellow pilgrims, continuous learning, transforming war into peace, and a communal turn towards love. These are values that can help us engage the tough realities of our lives and enter a new life of love, just like the many people at Woodstock who seemed to have stumbled into that new life, if only briefly.

So, before I say a few words about today’s Bible reading from Genesis, we will screen a video montage of photos from Woodstock set to Joni Mitchell’s mournful and hopeful 1969 song. And a warning that the blurry images includes a few bare bottoms . . . just as in Eden, I suppose, before Adam Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil . . . (watch video on YouTube)

In my last sermon on April 28, I reflected on the creation story from Genesis 1. Today we have picked up where I left off by hearing excerpts from Genesis 2 and 3. And when I finish the “Back to the Garden” series in the Fall, I hope to reflect on the last verses of the Bible in which the author of Revelation imagines a return to the Tree of Life at the end of the age.

The story in which Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden is one of the Bible’s toughest ones. In a few short verses it raises the issues of female subjugation; the pain of childbirth; the necessity of toil; and our painful awareness of death. The book of Revelation also presents many painful visions, most of which I dismiss. But I appreciate how its author includes the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden in his final chapter. Perhaps this is why early Church Fathers gave Revelation its pride of place in the Bible as its final book.

Genesis says that we are forced to live East of Eden. Revelation suggests that after millennia of pain, we will be able to return to the Garden and taste the eternal love associated with the Tree of Life. These two stories, I believe, trace the arc of the Way of the Cross, which we are all fated to travel.

Waking up on the Way of the Cross can be painful, and there is a part of us that wants to remain asleep. But there is another part of us that understands how facing reality connects us with our Loving Source. This is the part of us that is most open to hearing the stories of the passion of the Christ and the call of Jesus to take up our cross and follow him to his fate. This is a part of myself that I stumbled upon while eulogizing my father in 2007 and which led to my decision to pursue ordination. And it is the Way I pledge to follow in this new era of fear and racism.

Today, humanity finds itself in another tough moment. In the face of problems like war and climate change, leaders who use fear to bolster nationalism and racism are blocking humanity’s ability to tackle them.

Nevertheless, our tradition and our deepest instincts call us to remain awake and unafraid. Regardless of the nature of our political leaders, this is the only moment we have to appreciate beauty; the only moment we have to weave solidarity; the only moment we have to love our neighbours; and the only moment we have in which to taste the fruit of the Tree of Life and its eternal love.

Today’s news headlines reveal the challenges facing us. Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” reminds us of what is possible. And the first and last books of the Bible encourage us to journey on in faith, hope and love.

Friends, I believe that we have been swept up into a revolutionary struggle between fear and faith. I pray that we may stay awake to both its difficulties and its joys and be able to embrace one another as children of God, fellow pilgrims who are walking along the road, just trying to get back to the Garden.

May it be so. Amen.