Princeton University Religious Life

And We've Got To Get Ourselves Back To the Garden

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
April 16, 2017
John 20:1-18


A very happy Easter to all of you!  It is a glorious day in every way – warm sunshine, the earth coming alive with millions of colorful buds, and yes – the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which summons us all together in this magnificent chapel.  The long winter of our disobedience, our evil towards one another and to God, it is over; Christ rises from the dead and he takes us with him.  While we are yet sinners, Christ opens wide the doors of heaven today, and our lives and our universe are not the same.  Four hundred years ago George Herbert wrote the words, “Can there be any day but this, though many suns to shine endeavor?”  No – no Easter is its own day, singular in its accomplishment of our salvation.

This past week I got to see a dear friend of many decades, a retired professor now living on the west coast.  She said, “To me, Easter means we get to start over.”  Yes we do!  We started in the Garden of Eden – along with all living things – and Christ’s resurrection brings us back to the Garden.  From the Garden of Eden through the Garden of Gethsemane to the Garden of Resurrection, we find ourselves now in a place of grace, of salvation, overseen by a gardener who is no common laborer (as Mary thinks when she seems him standing there) but Jesus the risen Messiah.  I realize that the younger people among us today may not recognize the title of this sermon, “And We’ve Got To Get Ourselves Back To the Garden,” as a line from a song performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and written by Joni Mitchell.  My dear Chapel colleagues have been hoping that I will perform this refrain for you all now but for your sakes I will not!  If you’d like to see the broader citation of this lyric it is chiseled in stone on the side of the yin/yang sculpture right over there in the Murray-Dodge courtyard, a gift to the University from (who else?) the Great Class of 1969.  I don’t know if Joni Mitchell is a Christian; I do know that she is an environmentalist.  The garden of which she wrote was a reference to Max Yasgur’s farm, where Woodstock took place.  Mitchell once said, “I see the entire world as Eden, and every time you take an inch of it away, you must do so with respect.”

An Easter belief is certainly that the entire world is Eden, for the resurrection of Christ returns us there.  He gets us back to the Garden.  We get to start over.  But the blessed garden in which we now live is different, because we are different.  The resurrection garden is not one of ignorance but of knowledge, not one of innocence but of real world experience of evil and grace.  It is no less blessed a garden.  We ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – that was back in Eden.  The scales of ignorance fell from our eyes.  We now know things, and there is no going back.  We know right from wrong; even if we choose the latter, we know.  We know what we are, what we have done, and what we are capable of – the good and the bad.  Over the millennia humanity has engaged in so much inhumanity; we’ve killed and enslaved one another, we do it today.  From genocides to lynching trees, we know that we know how to do evil very well, just as we also know how to do good – the massive and tiny works of love that we show to the people we love and to people we will never meet, but whom we know to be – as all people are – children of God.  We ate that whole apple!  We know we’re naked.  This morning we know also that we are redeemed.  We live with full awareness of our sin as we reach for heaven.

There was another tree in that first garden whose fruit we did not eat – the Tree of Life, from which we would have gained immortality.  If I were a first resident of Eden I think that this other fruit might have tempted me more than the knowledge of good and evil.  In that place absent of suffering, why not live forever and be none the wiser!  But on Easter we do get our taste of the fruit of the Tree of Life.  Christ buys our immortality by opening heaven.  Perhaps the fruit of the Tree of Life would have guaranteed the endless use of the bodies we now inhabit.  Christ’s resurrection does not mean that our bodies live endlessly; we are reminded of this every time we lay a dear one in the ground.  Chris’s resurrection does bring us an eternal life of the soul (at least) in a graced state that we the living can barely begin to imagine.  We return today to a garden whose Tree of Life stands right in the center of our lives.  It is a cross from which branches sprout and fruit is so abundant that the boughs reach down to the ground.  Everyone may eat of it – come and fill yourself!  Come daily!  Come everyone on Earth!  This tree is planted and flowering for you, that you may have the life that really is life.

Just as the Tree of Life, refashioned after Christ’s resurrection, is still very much in our garden, so indeed is the serpent.  In fact there are many.  They are the manipulators – the individuals and initiatives that try to make people choose against their own self-interest, as did Adam and Eve, and the serpents do this to service their own self-interest, that they may grow in some form of power or resources, that they may be somehow enriched.  As we live in the beautiful but real Garden of Resurrection, let us work together to unmask the serpents, to show them for who they really are, manipulators who coerce the unsuspecting to give away their own inheritance in the name of rightfully exercising their authority.  The manipulators, then and now, are purveyors of “fake news.”

The Garden of Resurrection is God’s place of blessing for all people, a place that Christ invites us to help him cultivate.  What does a garden with room for all look like?  For the refugee?  The undocumented?  The opioid addict?  Christ died and rose for all.  Does this garden have a home and safety for all who need it?  Does this garden have treatment centers for the many thousands of people who have lost their lives to substances and are begging for help?  Does this garden place people over profit, grace over judgment, mercy over all?  Christ submitted to crucifixion so that no one should ever be crucified again.  How can we let it continue?  Just as Jesus was betrayed, we are to stop all betrayals.  Just as Jesus was scapegoated, we are to stop all victimizing.  As Jesus was tortured, we are to stop torture.  Sadly, there are some in national leadership today who say that we should return to waterboarding.  From the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden the crucified and risen Christ proclaims, “No!”

When we say NO to death in all its forms, to inhumanity, we testify with Christ to the garden of salvation that is for all people, a life that really is life that is not saved for the afterlife, but purchased by Christ for us in the midst of our crazy earthly days.  We are to say YES to Christ as we recognize him in the gardeners standing in our midst, for the holiness of Christ dwells in every person, and so he told us that when we serve especially the lowliest of people around us we are serving his very self.

Christ told us also to love one another, as he loved us (what the Church calls, “the Love Commandment.”)  Many people are not feeling the love right now, not from Christians, not from policy-makers, not from a brutal world.  It is a brutal world – it is also the Garden of Resurrection, God and Christ’s rebooted universe, and all our work is to serve as testimony to that fact, that un-alternative fact, that real news; we call it the Good News.

It is Easter!  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and he takes us with him.  Our hearts soar heavenward with the knowledge that heaven indeed is our new inheritance.  The first garden of our disobedience becomes the garden of our new life.  The Tree of Life provides our food, our daily bread, for eternal life. “Can there be any day but this, though many suns to shine endeavor?”  No, there is no other day like Easter, no other news that could ever gladden the heart such as the news of our redemption, of life eternal.  The thanks we are asked to render is to cultivate beautifully and well the garden we inherit, joining Christ as growers of the seeds of mercy, the fruit that is love.  Can there be any other calling than this?  No, not in any other imaginable scenario of goodness and blessing.  How bathed we are in miracle, in grace.  How privileged we are to be sisters and brothers of the risen Christ.  Happy Easter!


Sermon School Year: