Sermon: Sunday 10 June 2012

Trinity 1, attended by the Gild of Freemen

The Very Revd Vivienne Faull, Dean of Leicester

I want you to try to imagine it is summer – a glorious summer evening, the temperature becoming comfortable after a long hot day, a cooling breeze beginning to blow.

The man and the woman heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.  The sound of the Lord God walking.  Later the Hebrew scriptures will give us other examples of the Lord God walking to and fro amongst his people, but always in his tent sanctuary as they journeyed to Israel.  Later on God needs a tent for a sanctuary.  Here the whole garden is the place where he walks.  The whole garden is his sanctuary.

The man and the woman, known to us as Adam and Eve, are in paradise created by God the Gardener for their enjoyment.  The man and the woman have each other company.  If they are thirsty they simply to go down to the river and have a drink.  If they want something to eat they only have to stretch out and take some fruit.  Except there was one tree they had been told not to eat from.  But they couldn’t resist metaphorically playing on the railway lines of Eden.  And now they are afraid and hide themselves from God.

As the scene becomes a sort of trial God the gardener becomes the questioner.  Where are you?  Who told you?  What is this?  ‘I was afraid’ is the answer given by Adam, and an answer which will also be given by Abraham and Isaac and by all those who can’t trust in the goodness of God.  The speech of the indicted couple is significant, because it is all ‘I’: I heard… I was afraid… I was naked… I hid…. I ate…I ate…  Their preoccupation with the Gardener, with his calling his permitting, his prohibiting, has been given up.  Now the preoccupation is ‘I’.  Life has turned in on itself.

But the intimate relationship with God is not immediately broken.  At the heart of this morning’s reading is an extraordinary dialogue, the first in the Bible between human beings, and one of the most remarkable for its simplicity and directness.  It doesn’t occur to us to call it prayer, as we think of prayer as something much more complicated than this, but here is serious engagement, and deep conversation.  Perhaps that is what prayer in Eden is like.  We get glimpses of it in the prayers left by children on their own prayer board in St Dunstan’s chapel:

Dear god, my grandma is in heaven.  Have you seen her? Kirsty

To God Hello. Darren

To god thank you for having me, love Rachel.

But the man and the woman are not children.  They are, if anything, in the middle of a rather difficult adolescence and they are learning the consequences of their actions.

And so in the next scene in the story they are evicted.  The God who has formed them and walked with them now drives them out from the Garden into an environment of pain and sweat and the distortion of desire and where kings and priests will take over and will claim for themselves the privilege of entering into the presence of God.  The man and the woman in Eden have no special status.  All they have is their humanity.  Inside Eden that is enough.  Outside it is not and God will increasingly be a distant and even dangerous figure.

But that is not the only consequence.  For the very first time God sets a boundary around the Garden – and not just a simple low fence, but a significant, fortified boundary, with a cherubim and a flaming and turning sword.

The creation of that boundary fascinates me.  Human beings revel in establishing boundaries for all sorts of complicated reasons.  There are several cathedrals with closes which are used to commercial advantage, or locked at night to protect the social and spiritual life of the community.  I was at Canterbury yesterday and saw it in action.  These Cathedral Close spaces are ambiguous: lovely on the peaceful inside, but to those excluded a sign that the equality of Eden has long gone.  Unsurprisingly these cathedrals are regarded simultaneously with affection and with resentment by their local communities.  And perhaps something of the same is to be found in the history of the Freemen.

Your history began with creating a commercial boundary, giving special rights over competitor businesses.  It continued in the 19th century when 600 acres of land was enclosed for the use of Freemen and their widows, giving control over an area which had previously been open to all.  In the 1960s Freemen’s Common was sold and the proceeds used to buy Freemen’s Holt, which, having visited it myself, and as those of you who are residents will know, has at least some of the features of Eden, with its 36 well designed bungalows, community hall, allotments and fishing river.  Like a Cathedral Close, it is a gated community.  So, like greater cathedrals, there is an ambiguity which those responsible need to note.

One of the inspiring aspects of the way Jubilee was celebrated in local communities was in the breaking down of boundaries.  People emerged from the enclosures of their homes, excluded traffic, rolled out the bunting, set out the tables, the jelly and the ice cream and created new common ground on the streets.  Well that was if your party was on Monday.  Those partying on Sunday had to be even more adventurous and one of the most moving stories came from Edgbaston, a part of the Midlands where the hedges are high, the gates electronic and no doubt some wish there were cherubim and flaming swords at the end of each leafy road.  Yet in the pouring rain one householder was so determined that the party would continue that she invited the street into her home.  By teatime on Sunday 300 people were crammed in.  There wasn’t room for an Adam and Eve to walk to and fro, let alone God, and I guess the next day that the house was a fine old mess, but I sense that there was a profound sense of returning to Eden in that home a week ago.  As the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his sermon at St Paul’s of the rebirth of a recognition that ‘we live less than human lives if we think only of our own good.’

All this talk of gardens and boundaries has particular relevance to Leicester Cathedral where, together with the Bishop and Diocese, we are developing designs for Cathedral Gardens, a new public space to link the Cathedral and St Martins House, and bringing life back into this part of the city.  In thinking about the brief, we had to consider how to enable the place to be safe, by contrast with perceptions of the current Precinct which many people are wary of, especially after dark.  More than that, we hope for the Garden to be a place of gatherings, small and great and where new relationships can be formed.  In the early days we considered erecting high railings with lockable gates so that the space could be protected.  But soon we were convinced that it must be the design of the whole, the routes through the space, the furnishings, the creation of a focal points using water or sculpture or even special trees which would give the best chance of establishing the garden as, in the broadest sense, sacred space.  A special place where people of all sorts can find restoration for body, mind and spirit.  Perhaps even a place where people may hear the sound of the Lord God waking to and fro, and so know that they, and we, are on Holy Ground.

© The Very Revd Vivienne Faull

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