Repentance, Blizzards and Gardens

[A sermon preached at Christ Church, Coboconk and St. James, Fenelon Falls on March 1, 2020. Text: Gen. 2.15-17; 3.1-7

In the chorus to his song, “The Future,”
Leonard Cohen sings:

Things are going to slide in all directions,
won’t be nothing you can measure anymore.
The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold
and it’s overturned the order of the soul.
When they say repent, I wonder what they meant …

I wonder if he might have been thinking
of a Kawartha Lakes snow storm.

Have you had that experience,
maybe even this week,
when the snow conditions are so extreme
that your visibility is pretty much zero,
and things start to slide.

You can’t see anything.
You can’t measure where you are on the road
in relation to the shoulder or incoming traffic.

Your stomach is doing summersaults,
and you simply don’t know which way to turn the wheel.

Your passenger shouts, “brake!” or “turn right”
but you have no idea if either of those are good ideas
because things are out of control
and you have no means of measuring the appropriate response.

Terrifying, isn’t it.

Well, Cohen is evoking something like that kind of
out of control, confusion and inability to get your bearings
in this song.

Except he is talking about moral direction.

Things are so confused, we are so blinded,
that we have no bearings, no compass, no orientation.

So when they say, “Repent,” Cohen confesses,
“I wonder what they meant.”

You see, to be called to repentance
requires some orientation,
some form of measurement.

You are headed in a wrong direction,
and the call to repentance is a call to reorientation.
Your life has been measured and it has been found wanting.
You have not “measured up” in some way,
and so you are called to repent, to abandon one way of life,
and embrace another.

But notice that Cohen doesn’t protest the call to repentance
with some sort of self-justification.
He doesn’t reply by saying that he has no need to repent,
because his life measures up, or he is on the right path.

No, the artist says that he just doesn’t know what
they meant, with their call to repent.

He can find no measurement
by which he could be judged.
He is so blinded in the blizzard
that he wouldn’t know what it would mean to change direction.

Now, my friends, Lent is a time of penitence.

Lent is a time of personal and communal self-reflection,
in which we allow our lives to be measured,
and we open ourselves to repentance.

If they say “repent”
and we wonder “what they meant”

then there can be no Lenten journey for us.

But repent of what?

Well, why don’t we go back to the beginning
and see if we can sort this out.

It all begins in a garden.
A rich and fertile garden flourishing in abundance.

A garden of delight and beauty.
A well watered garden overflowing with
a dizzying array of different kinds
of plants and animals,
trees and birds,
insects, amphibians and reptiles.

And into this garden the Creator
placed the human one,
the earth creature,
the one created in God’s image.

To this creature, the human creature,
is given the responsibility and privilege of stewardship.

Notice that the human does not plant this garden.
No, this garden was planted, lovingly shaped and tilled

by God, the Divine Gardener.

So it is not surprising that the creature created
in the image of the Divine Gardener
should be called to gardening.

We are placed in this gardened world
to till and to keep this garden.

Our most fundamental vocation as humans
is to cultivate and care for creation.

Another way to translate this would be to say
that we are called to serve and preserve or protect creation.

We are given no licence to exploit and destroy God’s creation.

Indeed, we fail in our very calling and identity
as humans created in the image of God
if we develop creation in ways that do not preserve
the gift of the garden;
if we forget that this is God’s garden, not ours,
and we act as if we can do whatever we want with creation.

And yet, the story gives the human creature
incredible freedom and permission.

“Look at this garden, Adam.
Take in its beauty.
Taste and see that it is full of good things to eat.
So go crazy.

Go and explore the exquisite joys of this world,
taste the amazing variety of foods available to you,
mix and match to see what tastes good together.”

Inherent in this call to till and to keep,
to serve and preserve, to cultivate and care,

is an invitation to wild culinary experimentation.

But …

But you must not forget that you are the steward,
not the owner of this creation.

You are invited to gardening in the image
of the Divine Gardener.
You are free to play, to experiment, to eat,
but not as if you are the Lord of this place.

You are created in the image of God,
but you are not God.

So … to keep things clear, there is one prohibition.

See that tree in the middle of the garden?

Don’t eat the fruit of that tree.

Climb in it, enjoy it’s beauty,
plant fruit-bearing shrubs in its shade.

But leave that fruit alone.
It is not for you to eat.

Why not?

Because eating from this tree will not bring life,
but only death.

Why is that?

Well … because I am God and you are not.

Notice that God doesn’t say that it is poisonous,
or that God will come and smite them, if they should eat of this tree.

Rather, it would appear that eating from this tree is a way of death
simply because it is in disobedience to the Creator of Life.

It is kind of like God is saying,

“I want you to trust me on this one.
I want you to honour that I am the Master Gardener
and this is my garden.

But, hey, don’t sweat it!
There is a whole world to investigate,
to love, to till, and to keep.”

So there we have it.

A vocation – called to be loving gardeners in God’s creation.
A permission – go and explore, enjoy and eat in this creation.

And a prohibition – don’t eat from one particular tree.
(Thank you, Walter Brueggemann)

Well, we know the devastating turn that this the story takes, don’t we.

But let me pause here for a minute.

This is a story, you know.
It is a myth.
It isn’t a historical account of certain events

at the founding of the world.

Rather, it is a story.
But it is a true story.
A foundational story.

A story that tells us
where we are – in God’s good gardened creation,

who we are – gardeners, called to serve,
love and respect this creation
and … what’s wrong.

What’s wrong.

All humans know that there is something wrong with the world.
All humans have to account, somehow, and usually with a story,
for how the world got out of kilter,
for how the world became a place of such violence and exploitation,
for how life became so alienated and full of enmity.


And so Genesis spins a tale
of slippery communication,
distrust and disobedience.

Enter a conversation between
a snake and a woman.

Wait a minute, you say, snakes don’t talk!


Well, in this story,
and frankly in pretty much all origin stories,
throughout history, non-human creatures talk.

Indigenous peoples believe that they still do,
it is just that we have forgotten how to listen.

So suspend your disbelief and enter into the story.

The snake and the woman have a conversation.
The man, you might want to note, is on the scene,
but is totally passive,
never enters the conversation,
and never attempts to correct things
when they get screwed up.

The serpent asks,
“Did God say, ‘you shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman replies correctly,
that they have the freedom to eat from any tree in the garden,
but not from the tree in the middle of the Garden.

But then she adds, “nor shall we touch it.”
Hmm, why add that?

Seems like there is some slippage going on
in this conversation with this slippery creature.

The serpent then contradicts God, “you shall not die”,
and then adds an explanation to why God gave this prohibition,
where God had decidedly offered no explanation.

Why this prohibition?

Well, explains the snake,
God knows that if you eat from this tree,
your eyes will be opened,
and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

And this is curious.
You see, the serpent is right … sort of.

Their eyes were opened, but only in shame.
They would be like God, knowing good and evil,
but they were already like God, weren’t they?

They were already created in the image and likeness of God.
They were already called to till and keep the garden,
just as the Divine Gardener had cultivated and cared for this garden.

And they already had eyes that were open to see
the beauty, diversity and richness of the gardened creation.

But in that decisive moment,
before she took the fruit and ate,
what did she see?

Well, what does the story say?

“So when the woman saw that the tree
was good for food (which it wasn’t)
and that it was a delight to the eyes (which it likely was),
and that the tree was desired
to make one wise (which it decidedly wasn’t!)
she took of its fruit and ate;
and she also gave some to her husband,
who was with her, and he ate.”

And what happened?

Did they die?
No, their eyes were made open
and they saw that they were naked.

Did they die?

The natural intimacy of their relationship to their own bodies died.
And with that something in their relationship with each other died.

Something in their relationship with the garden died.
And something in their relationship with the Divine Gardener died.

So what happened in this story?

What is going on in this radical act of culinary indiscretion?

Well, this is the first declaration of independence.

In this act of disobedience,
humanity breaks trust with our Creator,
presumes to have ultimate authority in the garden,
replaces the call to till and keep
with the arrogance of to take and destroy.

Instead of cultivating and caring for the garden,
humanity takes the posture of control and ownership.

What happens in the garden?

Our vocation is destroyed.
We do not measure up to being the gardeners

that is our calling.

But more happens.

Remember, humanity is placed in a garden of delight.

This is a garden of desire.
Beautiful things to behold,
wonderful food to be eaten,
good creation affirming work to be done.

But when that which was prohibited was desired,
when that fruit was desired as something good to eat,
when we desire to live in independence from our God,
then our desires are deformed, distorted and misdirected.

And that, my friends, is a definition of sin.

Sin is misdirected, distorted and deformed desire.
And this whole story of the garden is a tale of such sin.

It all began in a garden.

The Divine Gardener put humanity in a garden
to till and to keep.

We are placed in a garden that is not our own,
and we are called to live by the rather simple rules of the Garden.

But we see that our story begins with humanity refusing to
live by the rules of the Gardener.

So what happens?

Well, we’ll see as we proceed through Lent how this story unfolds.

But I’ll give you a sneak preview.

While Eve, and her rather passive husband refused
to live in the garden by God’s rules,

we will see during Holy Week that God will enter into another garden,
and will submit himself to humanity’s rules.
These will be rules of betrayal and death.

(Thank you, Robert Farrar Capon)

And while we stretched out our hands
and took the prohibited fruit
from the tree in the middle of the garden,
Jesus will be taken to another tree,
on the very margins of the city,
where his hands will be stretched out and nailed to that tree.

That’s where this garden story was going all along.

You see, this story was always going to result in death,
God’s death in Jesus on the cross.

But because the God of Life is never finally
subject to the power of death,
there will be another garden on Easter morning.

And there will be a woman
who will confront a man who she will mistake for the gardener.

Life defeats death … in a garden …
and the gardening of the new creation begins again.

When they say repent, I wonder what they meant.

Well … Genesis will tell you what they meant.

Repent of our misdirected desires.
Repent of our deceptions.

Repent of our arrogance.
Repent of our addiction to control.

Repent of having abandoned our calling.

Repent. Till and keep.
Repent. Cultivate and care.

Repent. Serve and preserve.
Repent. And be the gardeners of creation that you were called to be.
Repent. And come back into the embrace of the Divine Gardener.

Amen.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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