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Earth

Rev. Kate Layzer
Sun, May 18

The Fifth Sunday in Easter

Text: Genesis 2:5–25

 

For my meditation this morning, I would just like to reflect a bit on the richness that is the second chapter of Genesis—the Bible’s book of beginnings. Sometimes I think we can get so caught up in debate about whether the stories of creation in the Bible should be taken as science that we miss the theological reflection that is going on in every carefully crafted verse and image.

Genesis isn’t science, of course, and isn’t trying to be. It’s a form of storytelling that casts light on who God is, and who we are, revealing us to ourselves and inviting us into a deepening relationship of faithfulness and trust with our Creator. As we engage together as church in issues of stewardship of the earth, as we take in more and more bad news about the accelerating human disruption of nature, it’s helpful, I think, to keep returning to these foundational stories, and to keep taking them into our hearts to ponder and sit with—for what they say about us and our vocation in the world, but even more for what they say about God, and God’s way of being with us.

What Sheehan read so beautifully this morning is the second distinct creation story in Genesis. In the first, you remember, God speaks each element of nature into being by the peaceful power of the Word—punctuated by the refrain, “And God saw that it was good.” That account is immediately followed by a second creation narrative, and this one comes at the story in a very different way.

“In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth…”

and then comes this almost casual aside: “and there was no one to till the ground…” in Hebrew, no adam, human, to till the soil, adama.[i] The words for soil and human belong to the same root. Just as in English the word human comes from humus, soil. 

So there’s a vacant position. HELP WANTED: Someone to till the ground. The world lacks an on-site caretaker. God couldn’t just engineer tilling into the system somehow? Or is it part of God’s purpose to create a world that needs care and attention? It seems this is to be a world with room in it for involvement and participation—very unlike the self-regulated world our Enlightenment forebears liked to imagine, with God off at a distance, observing. It’s incomplete; it’s dynamic. And it needs us.

“Then the Lord God formed the human, adam (or as we say, Adam), from the dust of the soil, (adama) and blew into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. …And God planted a garden…”

It’s very hands-on, isn’t it? Unlike the God of Genesis 1, who speaks and things happen, the God of Genesis 2 likes to get her hands dirty! (I’m just going to go with “her”—it’s less stressful than worrying about whether God has a male gender.)

So much is packed into a few words: the space built into creation for participation and evolution; our human oneness with the earth; and of course God right there in the middle of everything, hands in the dirt—active, involved, loving the mess—loving the stuff of creation, loving the dynamic incompleteness of it. This is a God who will remain deeply involved as history unfolds. She will not turn away in disgust, or stand at a distance to keep from being polluted by what goes on in this world she has made. Or hesitate, in the fullness of time, to become earth herself, being born in human likeness, as we are made in hers.

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Or in Everett Fox’s translation, “to work it and to watch it.”

The position of caretaker has been filled. We are to be the caretakers: gardeners and shepherds. While in Genesis chapter 1 God directed humankind to “fill the earth and subdue it,” Genesis 2 understands a different kind of relation: one of belonging, nurturing, and getting our hands dirty, in a reflection of our Creator.

“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’”

The first creation story was punctuated by the refrain: “And God saw that it was good.” Now God looks at Adam’s solitary state and declares that it is NOT good. Something is wrong. We are not yet complete. And so God acts to create partnership in community. “I will make him a helper as his partner.” There is no suggestion in the Hebrew of a subservient role for women. Man and woman are to be complementary.

“So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman.”

Let’s set aside for a moment what we’ve all been told about the message of this story—that men are primary and women derivative. What if it’s actually trying to say something else? What if the point of the story is not that the woman is an afterthought, but that the man and the woman are made of one clay?

God could easily bend down and take a second handful of earth and make woman. But she doesn’t. She goes back to the original lump. Which means that in the imagery of the story, Adam and Eve and their children and grandchildren and all people everywhere are from that same original lump of clay. One with each other, and one with the earth from which we come.

The passage ends on this poignant note: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”

And we know that all that is about to change.

Made by God for a purpose; made from earth and inseparable from it; made for community, of one and the same clay. Just two chapters into our Bible, these foundational truths about humankind already contain a note of warning. If we forget who we are, the story seems to say, or who made us, or for what purpose; if we forget our need for each other, or our integral connection to the earth to which we belong, the whole creation will be at risk.

Indeed, the very next story is about a smooth-talking serpent. In the space of a single chapter, a few seeds of mistrust artfully sown in the soil—the adama—of the human spirit infect every level of human relation: our relation to ourselves, expressed as shame, our relation to God, expressed as fear and a desire to hide, our relation to each other, expressed as accusation and blame, and tellingly, our relation to creation itself. From this point on, our participation in nature will bring suffering along with the joy: childbirth pains to the woman, toil, thorns, and thistles to the man as he labors for bread. It’s not so much a punishment as an organic connection. Insofar as that things aren’t right with us, they are wrong in nature. Sin brings forth suffering.

The Bible will return to this theme over and over. Creation, as the Apostle Paul puts it, “groans” with us in our captivity to sin, as the gifts God bestows on us for the sake of the whole are squandered for selfish purposes. There will be no healing for Creation until humankind is finally set free. Only when peace with justice comes to God’s holy mountain will the lion finally lie down with the lamb.

Perhaps there’s more poetry than practical science in such imagery. But it is poetry that contains profound practical insight.

As we witness the unfolding effects of our actions on the earth, from the melting of the polar ice sheets to the annihilation of bees, the truth expressed in Genesis is plain for everyone to see. There is no separation between human beings and nature, or between this nation and that, or between this continent and that island. Or between our generation and those to follow. We are all in this together.

We know that now, but we put off taking action, because those of us in positions of privilege are still able to fend off the effects of global change. We can turn up the heat or the air conditioning; we can pay more for coffee or peaches or fish. And if those cable TV “debates” between climate change believers and climate change deniers stop being entertaining, we can always switch over to sports.

It’s not callousness, I don’t think, so much as a feeling of helplessness. The problems are happening on too massive a scale for us to feel as if we can make a difference. And on an individual level there’s truth in that: This harm wasn’t made by one of us, but by collective action over the course of many years. Individual lifestyle changes here and there aren’t enough: It will require collective action on the same scale to begin the process of healing.

And this is where the church has a clear mission and a spiritual tradition to draw from. We meet on common ground with activists everywhere when it comes to recognizing human responsibility for the earth; compassionate concern for the suffering unleashed by human actions; a willingness to speak and act prophetically for the common good; and a readiness to envision a world radically transformed by principles of justice and love. (Doesn’t that sound like us?)

The garden we are planting today in the stairwell under the skylight is a small gesture, but it symbolizes our commitment to be part of this transformation. One step at a time, we are changing the way we do things, from the way we invest our funds and power our building to the ways we teach and engage with and learn from our children—drawing from deep, longstanding traditions of community as we go.

This is our work as church: to cultivate a way of being in the world that emphasizes our connection to God, to one another, and to the earth. We have a vocation from our Creator to till and to keep, to work and to watch over this community way of being in the world. A stairwell garden may seem like a small thing, but it’s an act of love, a sign of our determination to help and to heal—and invite others to join us.

Many people are saying that it’s too late, that humankind has waited too long to change course. And it’s important to be realistic. We can’t stand aloof from reality: We must be willing to be with it and to get our hands dirty and to face what is—not what we wishfully imagine.

But this is God’s world, not ours. We can either believe that—we can either love and trust God—or we can despair. It’s either one or the other. Every day that we wake up is a day to cultivate God’s planting of faith, hope, and love in our hearts, and to live accordingly.

May God bless us and help us, and with us, the whole earth. Amen.

 



[i] Hebrew word study comes from Everett Fox’s translation in The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books 1995.

 

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