Genesis: 2:7-10, 15; Revelation 21:1-4, 22:1-5
This morning we were going to start our service with John Henson’s hymn ‘Summer suns are glowing’! Hmm! Well, in spite of flash floods, threatened dams, high winds and cancelled festivals, it is, supposedly, British summer time! To be fair, over the last couple of months we have been blessed with a number of days in the sun and I, for one, have tried to make the most of it. Amidst the usual magnificence and mayhem of ministry, I’ve grabbed the time to be awestruck by apiaries with John, fascinated with farmyard animals at the Royal Welsh Show and perambulated the park with the Monday ramblers. And today, given the summertime lull, I thought you might allow me to share with you three particular garden delights that I’ve recently enjoyed.
The first occurred in a garden in Treforest. On the last day of July, I had the pleasure of accompanying regular visitors Viviane and Robert round to the house of the one of the Syrian families – that of the Al-Numeiris. They’re forever inviting anyone and everyone round for dinner and a cancelled meeting meant that I could once again take them up on their kind offer. So we ate a very hearty meal in their back garden, doing our best to decline the 20th round of food without being rude and enjoying good conversation and laughter with all. It was after this that they invited us to look around what they call their ‘farm’ – two allotment plots that they bought and worked on for the last couple of years.
From the outside, it certainly didn’t look much, reflecting the state that the garden was in when they first purchased it – a wasteland of overgrown weeds, brambles and fly-tipping…and yet when we entered the allotments themselves, what we saw was heavenly horticulture.
Chickens were clucking and cherries ripening, vegetables were blooming and grapes growing sated on the vine… everywhere you looked life was to be found and all this from a chaos of nothing! As we sat and surveyed their farm – produce pushed in our hands to take and share with others – their pride and joy rippled all around us. A perfect little Eden.
The Saturday previous, a number of us from both here and Castle Square enjoyed a good few hours in another stunning outdoor setting
– Sophia Gardens. [click] Within these gorgeous grounds, we took our seats to watch the Everyman Theatre’s stunning production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Here we asked ‘What’s the buzz’ with the disciples, heard Caiaphas declare that ‘Jesus must die’ and reflected on not knowing how to love him with Mary before being taken to the Garden of Gethsemane and ending on a hill outside Jerusalem. As Jesus was taken down from the cross, tears were shed and as we left the Gardens, discussions were had about whether the empty cross was a symbol of hope or desolation.
At my third recent garden visit, any tears that were shed were those of laughter. Miara – who spoke here so movingly of his time in Penrhys last month – came to Pontypridd with his wife Rebecca, daughters, Hannah and Seren, and friend Sharon to enjoy an afternoon in Beverley’s wild back gardens. Around a table under the trees, friends from four nations shared an unhurried time of fellowship. A meal was shared, hide and seek played and prayers prayed. In the sweetness of the wine, the scent of the flowers, the cwtch from a friend, the singing of songs and the sight of dappled sunshine, the divine presence could be felt. It was a beautiful day.
So – an allotment in Treforest, a public park in Cardiff, and a lost garden in Pontypridd – I’ve enjoyed some wonderful afternoons in gardens these past few weeks. And you might think I’m sharing these occasions with you because I’m already in the relaxing, holiday mode. You might well be right! But I also believe that these three occasions have their parallels in the story of God.
Take my time with the Al-Numeirs, for example. In an unremarkable plot in Treforest, they took the chaos of a wasteland and turned it into their own slice of paradise, life pulsating all around them. Sound familiar? If it does, it’s because our origin story takes place in a such a garden. In the book of Genesis, we’re told of God’s first creative act as God took a wasteland of nothingness and transformed it into a land of life and love. Our green-fingered God planted a garden in Eden where chickens might well have been clucking, cherries ripening, vegetables flourishing and grapes growing sated on the wine. Then, like the Al-Numeiri family, God just had to share this bounty with others…so we were created, invited in and encouraged to get gardening.
And just as our story began in a garden, so we’re told, it will end in one. We’re told that in the world to come, when God move among us and wipes away every tear, we will dwell by a fresh, clean river next to rich, flourishing trees which produce sweet fruit and whose leave will be for the healing of the nations. Could it be that as I sat in a sunlit garden in Ponty, sharing a feast with friends from three from three continents, I caught a glimpse of what was to come? Could it be that as we ate, drank, laughed, prayed and played together, God was in our midst and we got a taste of the New Eden that awaits us?
Which leaves our final comparison…the Sophia Gardens outing. Well, you don’t have to be a Biblical scholar to guess where I’m going here! Because, just as our story begins and ends in a garden with God, we can only begin to understand God’s love for us in yet another garden. One of the various omissions of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar is that Jesus is crucified on his own. According to our scriptures, Jesus rarely got to be on his own and this was as true in death as it was in life, with one criminal on a cross on either side of him. We’re told that one of these men mocked Jesus, the other begged Jesus to remember him. ‘Truly,’ Jesus told that man, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. Over the years theologians have debated, as they are want to do, exactly what that the exchange was all about. Did Jesus literally mean that in a period of twenty four hours the man would be in paradise? Was the promise of heaven or of something else? Did the man believe in Christ as Saviour or is Jesus’ offer of eternal life not dependent on our beliefs? Well, apart from the fact that theologians need to get out more, all we can be certain of is that the word ‘paradise’ that Jesus used derived from the Persian for walled garden. So when Jesus wanted to offer hope, comfort, compassion to a man who was in pain and agony, he gave him the image of a garden and promised to be with him there. And sure enough, when Jesus was to rise again…when God showed us that peace was stronger than violence; life stronger than death; that nothing could ever separate us from the love of God…it all took place in a garden!
So what does all this tell us? Well, whether yours is replete with roses or wallowing in weeds, we are a gardening people. Ours is a gardening God! Perhaps then some of us might hear an invitation to simply go out and enjoy God’s garden. To give thanks for the beauty of bees, the wonder of wisteria, the joy of juicy tomatoes. To take the time to seek out the glimpses of paradise that are all around us; to breathe in God’s Spirit just as we first did in a garden in Eden. Or perhaps some of us might need to hold on to that image of the garden to come. That within the storms of life, when floods or famine decimate our own backyard, we can hold on to Jesus’ promise of paradise; we can recall that vision of the new Eden where fruit trees blossom, leaves heal nations and God dwells with us in a place where there will be no more death, no more mourning or pain. Or, perhaps, you might remember the garden of resurrection, the place where Mary thought she bumped into a gardener but instead met the risen Christ, showing us – once again – that with God, no person, no situation is beyond hope. For God can take seeds of hatred and turn them into a harvest of love…and calls us to do the same! For we’re called to be God’s fellow gardeners. To be Eden-apprentices, partnering with God to turn the wastelands of our world into pastures of peace. Now is the time to find your wellies, grab your rake, lose yourself amongst the birds and the bushes and there find God. Let’s go gardening! Amen.