On Eden, and exceptions…

On this mountain, the Lord All-Powerful
will prepare for all nations
a feast of the finest foods.
Choice wines and the best meats will be served.
Here the Lord will strip away
the burial clothes that cover the nations.
The Lord will destroy the power of death
and wipe away all tears…

At that time, people will say,
“The Lord has saved us! Let’s celebrate.
We waited and hoped—now our God is here.”
The powerful arm of the Lord will protect this mountain.

The Moabites will be put down
and trampled on like straw in a pit of manure.
They will struggle to get out, but God will humiliate them
no matter how hard they try.
The walls of their fortresses will be knocked down
and scattered in the dirt.

(Isaiah 25:6-12)

_

Maybe on your drive West across this state, you’ve seen signs for the Garden of Eden. If you detour less than twenty miles, just north of I-70 to a town called Lucas, you will come across this cement-sculpted paradise, what’s been called the most unique home for the living or the dead, on earth.

The giant trees, the creatures captured in mid-crawl or -swim or -flight, the Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, the all-seeing eye that peers down from the highest point on the property – it all took twenty-eight years to construct. Samuel Perry Dinsmoor began the project when he was 64 years old. He’d been a teacher, and a politician. He’d been raised in a deeply religious home, and those stories, that frame, that was how he knew to make sense of the world. And then he’d served as a nurse for the Union Army in the Civil War. And after that, like so many soldiers from so many wars, he didn’t really know, anymore, how to make sense of the world.

So he began this project of concrete, and wire, and native Kansas stone, and vision. He bought a lot in the middle of his small town and even when his neighbors tried to run him out he persisted, adding on to his creation until he became blind. On the west side of the property, he built the Garden of Eden, and on the north, he constructed his understanding of modern civilization. He said if anything is wrong about the north, he’s to blame. But if anything about the garden is wrong, visitors should blame Moses. “He wrote it all out,” Dinsmoor said. “I just built it.”

What does your Eden look like? How would you bring that scene to life, or fix it in stone? If you were to imagine a world without a hint of destruction, a reality in which God might say about every corner, every detail, “it is good,” and “it is very good” – what would that be?

I think it’s worth noting that our ancestors – their prophets, even, the poets, the ones charged with visioning a new way – they couldn’t do it. Our passage for today, that really is a grand, sweeping story of the fullness of redemption, some future day when sadness and sorrow and death will be no more – it’s a movement of beauty and rejoicing for all the world that comes to this screeching halt when they stop to remember, ‘Oh yeah – we hate our neighbors. So they can’t be invited. Let’s edit that original vision: all the world, except for Moab. Because, sure, we all trace our roots to Abraham. And yeah, their language is related to ours, and they have a patriarchal clan-deity, just like we do. But we hate them.’

‘Yes, of course we remember that it was in Moab that Moses climbed the mountain to show his people – our ancestors – the land of promise, the place they would call home. And we know that he died and is buried somewhere in Moab. Even still – even with that shared essential story – we cannot, today, imagine a day when we will not hate them.’

And if that’s the best the prophet can do, the people are in trouble.

Who are the exceptions to your Eden? Who can you not imagine sitting next to at a feast like that?

*

Some of you read the devotional I wrote a few weeks ago, about my neighbor. He’s alone in his house now, after his wife and their kid moved a few states away. They moved because he’s an addict, and she, and the kid, grew scared when he got a hold of substances, and when they got a hold of him. The person he became was not one they could share a home with safely. They came to tell us, my boys said goodbye to their good friend, and now only he remains, alone, in that house so close to us.

And I am torn between being angry at him for running off my boys’ playmate, and being a good neighbor to him, because surely he needs one. I’ve been trying to figure out how to invite him over for dinner. It seems like that should be simple enough but it’s taken on these monumental proportions in my mind. I haven’t summoned the courage yet.

And then this week things started to change at that house. By which I mean, a lot of traffic started coming by. Every afternoon, the driveway had a new rotation of cars in it. People would pull in, go around to the back of the house, come back usually just a few minutes later, and drive away. Some stayed longer. In my mind, they looked kind of nervous when they first arrived, kind of relieved, or more relaxed, as they were heading back out. And I imagined….

And one afternoon, a mom pulls up. She’s got a kid in her car. I know this because I’m at my mailbox, and I see her get out of her car, totally frazzled, and open the door to the backseat, but walk away without her kid. He’s still strapped there in the carseat. He starts kicking and screaming. I’m torn, because I don’t want her to leave her kid, and yet, I’m not sure I want him to witness whatever it is she’s sneaking around to the back of my neighbor’s house for, either. …

But she hears, and comes back for him, and as she’s unbuckling him she looks over and sees me. She says, “Oh, hi! What do you think of what your neighborhood has become?” And I thought, “Is she really asking me this?” And then she said, “It’s so nice of him to offer this… I mean, we didn’t really know where to go… Before, we’ve had to go so far…” And I must have looked confused, or, more likely disapproving, when I said, “Oh – I didn’t know he was – offering – uh….”

And she said, “Oh, do you not know? The monarchs are here! They’re right here!” And she told me that, for some reason, those majestic butterflies on their migration had chosen my neighbor’s tree to gather in. And he had been talking about it around town. So every afternoon, photographers and butterfly enthusiasts were coming over, to witness this beauty. And he was leaving his fence gate wide open, so people could come right in.

And in my wildest imaginings, I would not have come up with that.

*

But why not? Isaiah 25 is wild imagining, too. It is situated in a series of prophecies, of verses called the “little apocalypse.” That title means it is full of dreaming, full of the fantastic. And even still, it is limited by what the people think they know; their imaginations are captive to the worst of their suspicions, the hatreds they inherit, the prejudices they don’t even hear weaving their way in, poisoning the feast they propose.

What they said was, “We imagine a world where all people come together to celebrate who God is and what God has done – all people, that is, except this neighboring tribe we have a complicated history with. We’ll just assume that in the end, we’re right, and they’re forever punished.”

And what we say is, “We imagine a world where all people live together in a secure and sustainable peace – all people that is, except the ones we’ll have to kill to achieve that peace. Because while their violence is abhorrent and untenable, ours is qualitatively different – it is necessary, and honorable.”

Hear that difference? Oh, wait – you don’t, do you?

Try this: what we say is, “We imagine a world where all people have access to the same freedoms, rights, benefits, and justice – all people, that is, except the ones for whom securing those rights would mean rethinking some of our own privilege, of course.”

Now do you hear it? Still no, huh?

Isaiah is our prophet, and we don’t do any better than him. We can imagine an idyllic beginning. Maybe not think that’s where we come from, exactly, but in our mythology, in our dreaming, we can get back to an Eden in which there was no violence, no harm, no disease – just life abundant, shared and celebrated. But we cannot get to there from here in our present-day. We have fallen prey to the criticism that says that kind of vision is nothing more than naivete, that kind of imagining could never take root in the real world. We have let cynicism about what is curb our dreaming about what might be, and in so doing we have limited ourselves and our world and our God.

*

Just a few years ago, a team of five moved to Lucas temporarily, and they lived in two small houses across the street from the concrete Garden of Eden. They came because some roots had started to push through the stone, some of the sculptures had seen better days. They came because the Garden of Eden is famous – because even though their permanent homes were scattered as far away as Minnesota and California, they knew who Dinsmoor was. They knew he spent two and a half decades shaping stone into a representation of humanity – naked and unashamed. Blessed and good. On the west, an original vision and on the north, a current reality.

Maybe they each knew something of his struggle – maybe each of them had tried, also, to understand the current reality through the original vision. Maybe the reason volunteers were willing to spend their time shaping a new set of antlers or ears for the deer in the garden is because they were hoping to hear something new, also, from setting these two scenes side by side.

Because – forgive me for how obvious this is, but – Dinsmoor did not invent the Garden of Eden. He just saw a world so distorted from that original story that he tried to build what it might have once been like. In the war, he saw such horror that the only response that made sense to him was to offer his imagination and energy to the crafting of an age-old vision where life was abundant.

And maybe this is our role, too. It’s not that our prophets from long-ago failed us – it’s that they only got us most of the way there. We don’t need a brand-new vision because really, you can’t get much better than an enormous feast with wine freely flowing and food enough to satisfy all who hunger and the whole crowd joined in celebration of a world in which death has had its last day.

We don’t need to start over. We just need to start cooking. We just need to set the table. And we need to head on over to wherever or whoever our own Moabs are, to hand-deliver a sincere invitation to join the feast.

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