The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Gardening without fear

Posted by Ron George on September 4, 2011

The Gleaners, by Jean-Francois Millet (1857)

The preacher reminded me today that Adam was a gardener from the beginning, something I’d overlooked for years of reading Genesis 2. Well, I’ll be damned, I thought this morning as I double-checked the pew Bible: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (NRSV) It does say that in the Bible. I’d passed right over it because the next sentence is about the meaty topic of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. My cut-to-the-chase attitude had led me past key matter for today’s sermon.

The preacher’s point was that the famous curse in Genesis 3 — “By the sweat of your face / you shall eat bread / until you return to the ground, / for out of it you were taken; / you are dust, / and to dust you shall return” – was not about making work a curse but about its becoming a pain in the butt. The Hebrew idiom about sweat refers to the anxiety of not knowing the fruits of one’s labor, the uncertainty of human life in general and the risk that one’s labor is for naught.

Theologically, after the Fall, work is associated with anxiety, because, as Jesus and every Galilean farmer knew, some seed falls on rocky ground and some among the weeds. Our anxiety is about whether there will be enough of a harvest to keep us alive, something biblical tradition seems to claim was not a problem in God’s Garden. (Keep reminding yourself that we’re not talking history, here, but myth – something true conveyed as a story to those who believe.) Jesus famously taught that we’re not to worry about what we shall eat, drink and wear and not to be anxious about tomorrow, which will take care of itself. Live one day at a time? Moment to moment? That’s certainly not a prudent way to approach life, but it seems to have been Jesus’ way, as he relied on the substance and charity of others to support his ministry and cohort of disciples. Will that work for everyone? One way or another, perhaps, but my instinct is to say no; unless, we’re truly all in this together and that the sweat of our brow is dedicated to the common good. Everyone is productive in community some way, but not everyone is productive in material ways.

La cacciata dell'uomo (The Hunted Man), by Fabio Panichi (2009)

The pastor’s point? Jesus delivers us from the sweat of our brow. We’re called to faith in God in Jesus’ name to be delivered from one of the more elemental spirits of our age – anxiety, fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear that makes us grasp after material things that don’t save us, as if anything will. Deliverance from anxiety, from fear, is deliverance from that which makes us least likely to live life to the fullest, or so the preacher might say. Deliverance from anxiety, in a sense, delivers us from ourselves – our selfishness, which leads to all of the deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.

The preacher said something about the truth of the Garden being that God was in charge and we were not; however, given our disobedience, we are now in charge of our own gardens to make of them what we can. We have, and we’ve made quite a mess of it. We’ll continue to make a mess of it unless we turn to Jesus, who calms our fear with the ironic message that those who lose their lives will save them.

The question, as always, is whether we buy that message; and the clear evidence of our society and culture is that we do not, for we are anxious about what we shall eat and what we shall drink and what we shall wear and whether our 401K plans will weather financial panic and economic storms wrought by levels of avarice and concupiscence seldom seen in human history. We are – and ought to be – anxious about whether human greed and self-absorption will finally, literally, destroy the earth that we claim was created by God. We are anxious about all kinds of power and those who wield it and whether devalued humanity – those who are not powerful – will survive the exploitation of their labor by those whose God is the bottom line.

It’s hard not to be anxious in America these days, to let go and let God or any one of dozens of bromides that paper the walls of Christian bookstores and Sunday school rooms. Most of it sounds like whistling in the dark or past the graveyard or any one of dozens of bromides concocted by cynics, naysayers and prophets of doom. It’s hard to understand why the most religious – and Christian – of all nations, by far the wealthiest nation in human history, has managed to squabble itself into becoming factionalized, rapacious and morally inert – except when the chips are down. Our society’s greatness shows when we rise to the occasion; for example, when working-class women and men step up, put aside their differences and pitch in to help victims of natural disaster; but then we go back to business as usual, in which polarized politics, brutal market ideology and the nation’s self-serving oligarchs make of us an anxious, fear-driven nation of sheep.

I do wonder, sometimes, what Jesus would have to say about all this. I doubt that his lilies-of-the-field approach has much throw-weight in today’s culture; unless – and this might have been the preacher’s point – Christians actually take their teacher seriously and find ways to translate his self-sacrificing ideals into practical ways of transforming one soul at a time to become a gardener without anxiety in God’s Eden, a wildly diverse world of promise and hope.

Frankly, it’s an unlikely outcome; but then, so was the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.


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