"Walking in the Garden"

Sunday sermon from June 30, 2013
Texts: Genesis 2:4b-9, Philippians 2:1-13
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

It has been something of a momentous week in the life of our country. On Monday, the president announced ambitious new executive branch policies to combat domestic carbon emissions. On Tuesday night I stayed up into the early hours of the morning with several hundred thousand online spectators and watched a Texas state senator named Wendy Davis stave off the adoption of anti-abortion legislation using a brutal eleven-hour filibuster. On Wednesday, while I was fighting to keep my eyes open, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision cutting away sections of the Voting Rights Act; on Thursday, of course, the Court ruled against the Defense of Marriage Act; and, finally, on Friday, the Senate passed immigration reform legislation by a more comfortable margin than I think anybody is recently used to seeing from our congressional bodies. I doubt anybody here is happy with every one of these outcomes. But I hope you can take some comfort in the seriousness, the meatiness of the week we just had. So often our political landscape feels like the worst kind of theatrical fluff; I, for one, found it refreshing to be in a week where it felt like my time wasn't wasted and everybody's cards were on the table.

By contrast, at this point last year we were smack in the middle of a presidential campaign. Presidential campaigns, as I'm sure you know, are the principal breeding ground for theatrical fluff. Which candidate is more likely to be taken up in the rapture? That's a real poll question from May 2011. Which candidate's wife has the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies? That one happens every cycle, hosted by Family Circle magazine. It makes for great reading, of course, something different to break up the agonizingly long election process, but so much of the fluff seems entirely irrelevant to the question of who ought to sit in the Oval Office. After all, we're not electing a cookie-baker-in-chief; why on earth would it matter which recipe prevailed? But of course my favorite, and I still the gold standard for campaign fluff, comes from August of 2004, in the dog days of the Bush/Kerry campaign, when Zogby released a poll in which 57% of undecided voters claimed that they would rather have a beer with President Bush than with Senator Kerry. This despite the fact that Bush is and was a recovering alcoholic. This despite the fact that beer-drinking is not just irrelevant to the office of the presidency; honestly, it's probably counter-productive. Despite the very real sense that going to a bar and having a drink with somebody in no way reflects on his or her ability to make executive decisions and represent the republic at home and abroad. Nonetheless. The beer test.

Now, in the poll itself, the presumption is that the beer test is an index of likability: that is, 57% of undecided voters simply liked the former President more than his opponent. In fact Zogby followed with that exact question, and the numbers on likability were even higher -- Bush was in the 60's. But I think there's more to it than likability alone. Whatever you thought of Kerry, or think of him now, he never quite dodged the perception that he was just a bit out of touch with the needs and dreams of everyday people. Even though Bush came from just as wealthy a family, against all odds he did manage to hold on to a kind of folksiness that eluded Kerry from start to finish. I think it entirely possible that you could like Kerry a great deal and not particularly want to have a beer with him; it just didn't seem like the sort of thing he would do, or the sort of thing he would want to do. Beer is a pretty grounded thing. It's a pretty down-to-earth thing. And, no matter what you think of the man's legacy, and frankly, no matter whether you even like the man, Bush always seemed like a pretty down-to-earth guy. I'd have a beer with him.

Well, maybe a Dr. Pepper.

Did his being grounded or down-to-earth make him into a good president? Into a good ruler? Well, for that one you need a historian, not a preacher. But in a general sense it is the question asked by our text this morning, which more than anything is interested in the groundedness, in the down-to-earthiness, of leadership. We continue our summer reading of Genesis right where we left off, and today's story from the beginning of Genesis 2 finds itself stuck between two really big chunks of story. Just beforehand, obviously, is the story of the seven days of creation that we have been wading through ll summer; and just after today's text we emerge fully into the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, a story we shall now have several weeks to digest. But today we are a bit caught in the middle. Obviously on one hand it is the first scene of the Adam and Eve narrative; we have the introduction of the man who will be Adam, and of the garden of Eden; we have the identification of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But on the other hand the content of this text feels much more like the creation story that went beforehand: God breathes life into the dust to form Adam; God plants the trees to form Eden; the whole passage introduces itself by way of "in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens." So in some ways this is really a creation story. It's a sequel to the creation story we already heard. It's "Creation, Part 2."

And the most striking thing about "Creation, Part 2" is that the character of God is altogether different. It's like they made the sequel and recast the protagonist, and the new guy is a lot more down-to-earth than the original. You will remember the character of God from the seven days of Genesis 1: God who exists before the foundations of the earth; God who but speaks and the waters part and the earth appears; God who seems to reign above all things and transcend all things and rule all things. But in the sequel, God creates not by the power of his speech but by the power of his breath. Here, God forms Adam by scooping the dust out of the ground; here, God works the earth to plant the garden that Adam and Eve will inhabit. There's a striking difference. If I were to ask you where the God of Genesis 1 was hanging out while creation was happening I suspect you would have a very hard time answering the question, because it's not something the text really considers. God is just kind of "out there," infinitely removed from us and infinitely different than us. But here in the sequel it's quite obvious that God is much closer to home, that God is wandering through creation just like us. The key verse actually comes later in the Eden story, when Adam and Eve hear the sound of God "walking in the garden." The ten-dollar word for this is anthropomorphism; it means that the key difference between Genesis 1 and its sequel is that God has taken on these dramatically human characteristics. But the net effect is a kind of scriptural whiplash, that we have gone from the holy, exalted, creator-and-ruler-of-everything to a character who is, to put it simply, much more down-to-earth.

And this is all academic unless we ask the question, "Why?". Why do we have two creation stories, or, at the very least, two characterizations of God within the same story? Conventional scholarly wisdom suggests that these may in fact be two different texts from two different time periods in Israel's history, knitted together into what you now have before you. But, to echo something I said a few weeks ago, that's not the answer to the question "Why?" At best, it answers the question "How." Granting that these may be different texts stitched together, why was it important for Israel to hold those two different versions of God in juxtaposition? Why is it important for us to hold these two characters -- the transcendent and the down-to-earth, the God who speaks the power of creation and the God who plants and walks the garden, the God who talks the talk and the God who walks the walk -- why and how do we hold them side-by-side?

I want to spend our remaining time this morning offering two broad answers to that question The first answer is to observe that these two characters of God seem to correspond with the two primary ways in which Israel fulfills its obligation to the covenant. Put simply, just as God both talks the talk and walks the walk, so too Israel is called to a life of worshipful song and praise and also a life of work and service and sacrifice. It's no surprise that Israel held to the image of a God who wielded the power of speech over creation, since Israel's life of worship was so bound into the spoken word of prayers and poems and proclamation. But it's probably even less of a surprise that Israel also held to the image of a God who planted and gardened and walked alongside them, since Israel's very survival depended on its cultivation of the soil, and since its covenant with God had no end of provisions for how that cultivation should happen. Israel understands that its theological identity is not one of these things or the other, but rather both of them, both talking the talk and walking the walk, both in proximity and collaboration.

I think we need to hear this, because I think it is all too easy for us to conclude that our life of Christian covenant can be contained within one or the other of these descriptions. It's really easy to sing a closing hymn and hear the words of benediction and then walk out the door and let the echo of those words slide off of you on the way to the car and forget, and you walk through the six other days of the week, and forget that God has called you not only to a life of song and proclamation but also to a life of service. It's easy for all of, myself prominently included, to forget that the path we walk through the week ahead says just as much about our Christian journey as do any of the words we use on Sunday morning, no matter how loud we sing them. It's a tough, broken world out there. In our homes, in our community, in our country, around the world, the cries of hunger and pain and injustice are real, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed, and it's easy to feel terrified, and it's easy to feel like giving up. In fact it's quite easy to spend our days talking about all the good we're going to do. But we can't just talk the talk. We have to get out there. The shape of what we do may change over time, but not the claim upon which we do it, the claim that God is out there walking in the garden, that the worship and witness of this living God doesn't end when the music stops, that we, too, have to walk the walk.

So that's the first answer. The second goes like this: Genesis holds these two versions of God in such strange juxtaposition not only because neither of them can encapsulate what we are called to do but also because neither of them can encapsulate who God is. For Israel, the arc of the covenant or the Jerusalem temple are real and literal houses for the Lord, which means that Israel worshipped a God who spoke the words of creation but who had also walked with them across the wilderness. And for Christians, this is at the very center of what we believe. Listen to the words of today's reading from the letter to the Philippians: that Jesus Christ emptied himself to be born in human likeness, in human form, and that therefore God exalted him with the name that is above all other names. For Christians, it's should come as no surprise to open scripture and find God walking around in God's own creation: in fact it is the centerpiece of the story we tell, that, in Jesus Christ, God not only talks the talk but walks the walk. That the God we worship is quite literally a down-to-earth sort of guy, a man who took the cries of hunger and pain and injustice and bore them upon his body and bore them upon his soul and bore them into the very essence of who God is, so that when we feel overwhelmed, God knows what it's like. And when we feel terrified, God's been there before. And when we feel like giving up, God gets it.

In this ever-broken world, being human is no easy task. But God quite literally knows what it's like. More than that: God wanted to know. God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son to come walk in this garden and find out what it's like. Which means that the real Gospel here isn't that Jesus is so down-to-earth that you would want to go have a beer with him. I take it as given that, if only out of sheer curiosity, most of us would go have a beer with Jesus. The real Gospel is that Jesus wanted to come have a beer - or a Dr. Pepper - or a meal of bread and wine - even with us.

As we said, it has been a momentous week in the life of our country. Lost among the big headlines of the week was a story I almost missed, namely that Thursday was the last broadcast of a weekday show on National Public Radio called "Talk of the Nation." Now, I've been a longtime NPR listener. It tends to be the default station on my car radio, to be overridden only case of Atlanta Braves baseball. But I also get why NPR doesn't always rub everybody the right way. It can be a little snooty. It can be a little condescending. Some days NPR leaves me feeling better-informed about the world, and other days it leaves me feeling embarrassed for all the things I don't understand. But "Talk of the Nation" was different. "Talk of the Nation" was an afternoon call-in news show. Its host, Neal Conan, was different. Neal had a way of making every caller, no matter how bizarre their question, no matter how unconventional their politics, no matter how out-of-bounds their disposition, Neal had a way of making every one of them comfortable. He was the most down-to-earth voice at what can be a very pie-in-the-sky sort of network.

Several months ago NPR announced that it was canceling his show to make way for more traditional news programs during the day, and I am not alone in counting this a serious loss. Because when the President announced a new plan for global warming, Neal could talk to the people and find out what it was really like. When Wendy Davis went on her landmark filibuster, Neal could talk the people and find out what it was really like. When the court struck down part of the Voting Rights Acts, Neal could talk to the people and find out what it was really like. You knew that for two hours every weekday afternoon NPR wasn't just a voice from on high. You knew that for two hours every weekday afternoon "Talk of the Nation" was a place where the lives of real people were heard and claimed and loved for who they were. You knew that, whatever crazy thing you had to say, that Neal wanted to listen to and to learn from and to laugh with you. You knew that when Neal spoke, it wasn't just talk. Of course it's just a radio show. But imagine the power of God wanting that very same thing: to listen to you. To laugh with you. To love you, to love us, all of us. To call us to a place where the lives of real people are heard and claimed and loved for who they are: here, in this sanctuary; here, in this household of God; God has been here before. God knows what it's like. So that when God speaks, it's not just talk.