Sermon: Sunday 6 July 2014
The Revd Canon Michael Rusk, Honorary Canon
‘And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.’
Well what a day you had yesterday with the opening of Cathedral Gardens. You must have slept well or else you are skilful at disguising the signs of exhaustion. I met someone yesterday evening who had helped out all day. All I can say is: if you want to know what it is like to be truly shattered, forget about tracing today’s Tour de France route in Yorkshire. Just volunteer to do five hours of Messy Church!
Among the many words that the Greek language borrowed, there was one that first emerged in the writing of the historian, Xenophon. Writing in the 4th century before Christ, Xenophon borrows a Persian word – paradeisos – and uses it to describe the magnificent enclosed royal gardens for which Persian kings were famed. He writes of a ‘great paradeisos full of wild animals; of a paradeisos full of trees’. In time the word became simplified as paradisos, was adopted as paradisus in Latin and so came into the English language as the word paradise.
The Iranian-American journalist Hooman Majd, in his remarkable book about modern Iran, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, writes this:
‘What Iranians, no matter what their racial makeup, share is a deep cultural tie to the walled garden, figuratively and literally. The four-walled Persian garden, pairidaeza in Old Persian (pairi for ‘around’ and daeza for ‘wall’), has existed since the time of Cyrus the Great, more than twenty-five hundred years ago, and not only inspired the future grand gardens of Europe but gave its name to our definition of heaven: “paradise”.’
And he adds: ‘My own childhood pairidaeza was my grandparents’ home in downtown Tehran. The garden was where my brother and I lived during the summers, playing all sorts of games, trying to climb a pine tree, or taking a dip in the small pond in the centre.’
In the book of Genesis, we hear that ‘the Lord God planted a garden in Eden.’ Before the King James translation what the Lord planted was paradise. What is perhaps most surprising to modern ears is what is found in the Latin Vulgate: it might not be the best translation of the Hebrew, but it is extraordinary. The Latin Vulgate reads: plantaverat autem Dominus Deus paradisum voluptatis.
‘Paradisum voluptatis’ – yes, you heard it right: ‘the Lord God planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning wherein he placed the man whom he had formed.’ ‘A paradise of pleasure’ – ‘paradisum voluptatis’. John Wycliffe, in case any of you might get the wrong idea, called it a paradise of liking.
But let us stay with that paradise of pleasure – an enclosed space where you feel secure; where your senses are delighted with the sight of flowers and trees; your ears are filled with the sound of birds and the tinkling of water; and where the rich, sweet scents of the garden intoxicate you with their myriad different smells. A place of rest, relaxation, of eating, and, yes I suppose when Eve joins Adam in the garden, love-making. This is what God gives humanity. And it is what we are trying to get back to, for we all know, that life isn’t like that and that is because we have been locked out of paradise and it is quite a job getting back in.
But getting back into paradise is what Christian faith is about: Jesus tells the penitent thief, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’, and through His death and resurrection, Christians believe that paradise is restored. The place of our Lord’s burial is a garden tomb. The place of resurrection is a garden: this is where the risen Lord is first encountered.
Now the implications of this for Cathedral Gardens and for us in our own lives are significant: First, play more! Cathedral Gardens have been created by a huge amount of hard work, but they have not been created for work. They have been created for relaxation, for whiling away the spare half-hour, for doing nothing except watch the world go by. They have been created for play. But why play? Well, it is scriptural – God has created you for paradise and do you think you work there? Secondly it is good for you. Experts in the theory of play recount a story about Hudson, the Canadian eskimo sled-dog. Tethered, he wasn’t able to escape from the hungry polar bear who had dropped by for an early lunch. But this is what happened (and this is a true story with photographic evidence): ‘As the polar bear closed in, Hudson didn’t bark or flee. Instead, he wagged his tail and bowed, a classic play signal. The bear responded to the dog’s invitation… the two wrestled and rolled around so energetically that at one point the bear had to lie down, belly up! After fifteen minutes, the bear wandered away, still hungry but seemingly sated by this much-needed dose of fun.’ This is from a book by Stuart Brown entitled Play, how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul.
Cathedral Gardens offers a great opportunity to do just this: to shape the brain, to open the imagination and to invigorate the soul. So don’t rush through Cathedral Gardens. Rather permit yourself some leisure time: it is good for you!
Secondly, note that this paradise of Cathedral Gardens does not have enclosed walls – well I admit that there are walls on three sides but the point is that this is an essentially open place where all are welcome. This, I suggest, is a deeply Christian response to the concept of the enclosed, walled gardens of the pairidaeza. This openness, this vulnerability poses the question of what do we have to do, how do we have to be, if we are to offer security, well-being, delight in a public space, in a city, so that all can flourish and all can be valued? A radio programme last week spoke about how volunteers had rescued an historic park in Bradford from closing and had created such a community ethos that vandalism has become a thing of the past.
To offer a garden without walls – a garden which is the antithesis of a gated community – is to recognise that this paradise is for all. And that is a costly thing to live out, particularly when all of us are so infected by the ideology of market capitalism, of winners and losers, of the deserving and undeserving. Pope Francis is quoted recently as stating, ‘I can only say that the communists have stolen our flag. The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the centre of the Gospel.’ Make no mistake about it: to create a city, a public square, a faith community where one’s concern is to create a paradise for one’s neighbour is immensely costly. Quite simply it requires sacrifice. John Henry Newman, thinking of Gethsemane, points the way: ‘and in the garden secretly, and on the cross on high, should teach his brethren, and inspire to suffer and to die.’
Thirdly, think about the importance of the gardener. The gardener is the person most intimately connected to the garden yet sees and uses it differently. The gardener creates the garden for the enjoyment of others and finds immense fulfilment in that. Cathedral Gardens will need to be lovingly tended. The gardener in gardening will be aware of what has died and what needs to be pruned and cut. The gardener is skilled at tending the new shoots of life and enabling plants and flowers to flourish. But it is easy for the gardener to go unrecognised, to be incognito. A few years ago Alan Smith, a skilled amateur gardener, was busy gardening at his aunt’s home when a neighbour looked over the fence and said, ‘I like what you are doing. You can do my garden too.’ ‘I’m afraid I’m too busy,’ Alan replied. ‘Too busy? What do you have to do?’ ‘Madam, I’m the Bishop of St Alban’s. I am afraid I don’t have the time to do your garden!’ To which the disgruntled neighbour responded, ‘Well if you are the Bishop of St Alban’s, I am the Queen of Sheba!’
In the Easter story, Mary Magdalene mistakes the Risen Lord as the gardener. But was it such a mistake? Think of that image: Christ the gardener – can you see Him there, standing unobtrusively as your gardener, working quietly to pull out the dead wood of your life and giving space, light and water to the new shoots of promise that He sees in you? Is not Christ the Gardener a fitting image for the Lord of life and death, the creator of the heavens and the earth? The Risen Lord, the gardener, tending the world, your world, patiently, lovingly, knowingly. This is the One who opens to you the garden gate to Paradise; who calls you by name and invites you in; who yearns for you to know security and love and who is there to bring you into the dance of eternal life linking hands with others around you. So when you are strolling through Cathedral Gardens, pause and look out for Him. He will be there but may come to you incognito. But when you meet Him, you will know. And if you follow, you will be guided into a paradise of wonder and delight.
Lord God, let us hear the sound of your walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. Reveal yourself to us and draw us and all humanity to your paradise of joy and peace. Amen.
© The Revd Canon Michael Rusk
 Stuart Brown, Play, London: Penguin Group, 2010, p.21-23.