Why Are We Here? – Forest Sunday
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday in the Season of Creation (Forest Sunday), September 7, 2014.
Genesis 2:4b-22 Acts 17: 22-28
Many of you know I like to walk. One of the things I love about living here in White Plains is how easy it is to walk almost everywhere I need to go. I like walking after committee meetings because it clears my head and allows me to review the work we have just done and to finish with my thoughts before I get home to my family. I love to walk to the stores, and restaurants, and cafes in town because I get to see people, to say “hi” to strangers, and to get a bit of exercise. For me, walking matches the pace of a good conversation, and I have walked with many of you during times of discernment. I also find it to be the pace at which I pray, and I often pray while I walk. Long walks are great ways to ponder large questions.
I have this walking hat that has a turtle on it. I wear it to remind myself that the point of walking everywhere is to move slowly so I can experience life at a human pace, rather than as a race.
Another reason I love living here is that we live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, tucked between the Hudson River Valley and the Long Island Sound, and there are amazing places to walk and hike in nature just a short drive away. Taking a long walk in the woods is my favorite way to spend a Sabbath day.
Over the last two years I have been exploring the nearly 200 County Parks, wildlife sanctuaries, nature preserves, hiking trails, greenways and pathways in Westchester. I spend my Sabbaths scrambling over rocks and under a canopy of trees, following rippling rivers and resting by secluded lakes. Temperature changes rapidly as I change altitude, or move in and out of woods, or encounter hidden streams. It is a joy just to be outdoors. I usually walk alone, but not really. Forests are, of course, more than trees. They are habitats and ecosystems. I share these days with a diversity of birds, mice, snakes, spiders, squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, lots of deer, as well as the occasional fox and ever-elusive coyote. I carry a camera because there is always so much beauty: sweeping vistas of the river, migrating monarch butterflies, multicolored fungi, or the ghostly shadow of a rotting cedar all but returned to the soil. I come home tired, but always renewed, and often inspired.
Back in July I was tracing the path of the Old Croton Aqueduct that carried drinking water to New York City until 1955. In Westchester alone this is a 26-mile trail snaking through forests and sneaking through suburbs. Parts are dirt path and parts are paved for bikes. Somewhere south of Dobbs Ferry I found the words you see projected up on the wall painted on the asphalt beneath a crack through which green grass was pushing sunward: “Why am I here?” Or more inclusively, “Why are we here?” Or more generally, “What is the purpose and place of human beings in the world?
I had nine more miles to ponder these things before reaching the Bronx.
HUMAN NATURE AND VOCATION
The creation story we have read today was written to answer just this question. Of the two creation stories told in Genesis, this is the older. It embodies the questions and concerns of the hill farmers who were our first ancestors in faith, and it embodies their deepest values. It is also contains the Bible’s oldest ideas about trees.
The story begins by imagining a world devoid of everything important to those subsistence farmers who asked the question of human meaning and purpose.
- Absent are the pasture plants or “plants of the field” for the Israelites flocks of sheep and goats;
- Absent are “herbs of the field,” grain and barley, the staples of the Israelite diet.
- Absent are the rains to water these plants,
- and absent is a farmer to cultivate them.
“And then God formed a man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…and God planted a garden…and there he put the man he had formed.”
This is interesting because when the human beings are first mentioned in this story they are not thought of as primarily related either to God or other human beings but “in their intimate relationship with their environment.”
I need to pause to make sure you heard that. Human beings are first thought of in terms of their intimate relationship to their environment. And that environment is: a garden. And God put the man “in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Our first vocation, our first purpose is as farmer, farmer of the glorious garden God has created. This is not what we are usually taught.
Generations of Presbyterians, including some of you, were raised on the Westminster Confession of Faith that opens with the question, “What is the chief end (or purpose) of human life?” And the answer, memorized is confirmation class, is “The purpose of human life is to love God and enjoy God forever.” When Jesus is asked which commandment is greatest of all he provides the more inclusive “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and soul and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But here, in our oldest creation story, we find that our relationship with and responsibility to the earth comes first, that from the earth we receive both our human nature and our human vocation.
And what do we learn about human nature? In the words of Old Testament scholar Theodore Hiebert,
“Human nature and ‘plant nature,’ so to speak are closely connected because they both originate from the Earth’s fertile soil. God makes the first human (in Hebrew, adam, or Adam) from the topsoil of the arable land (adamah), and God grows the first plants from the same arable land. In the next episode … when the animals are created, they, too, are made from the same fertile soil that gave birth to plants and humans. [In this story], all of life shares a common origin in, and thus a common identity with, the earth’s fertile soil.”
This is the first thing we need to know about ourselves. We are kin to all creation. We are born of the same soil.
But what do we learn about human vocation? Our purpose? The reason we are here? Well, according to Genesis
“the first mission God gives humans is to care for the world’s plants: God put the first humans in the garden ‘to farm it and to take care of it’ (or as we read this morning, ‘to till it and keep it’). Thus the original and most fundamental human work is to care for the world’s plants.”
I can unpack that a little more. I have learned from biblical scholar Ellen Davis that the Hebrew word we translate as to farm or to till is not an agricultural word at all but a common word usually translated as to work, in the sense of “working for someone … as a servant, slave or worshipper.” Now, if we are thinking agriculture we might imagine ourselves in February turning over the soil, working the ground into furrows for planting. But that is not exactly what it says here. Imagine instead what it would mean for humans to work for the soil, to work for the earth, in the sense of meeting its needs first. Perhaps that is why the other common meaning of this word is to serve, as in to serve the earth first. Now, that is closer to what this story says about human vocation: to work for the earth.
This is made clearer by looking at the second word we have translated as to keep, in the sense of keeping a flock, a family member, or a household. It means to care for over time, to nurture and preserve for the future; thus our terms housekeeping or caretaking. But this word may also mean to observe, in the sense of paying attention to and learning from. Scientists observe the workings of the world, ethicist observe moral guidelines, lawyers observe the dictates of justice and farmers observe the rhythms of nature. Moses uses this word both ways, instructing the Israelites to “keep God’s statutes and commandments” which includes “observing the Sabbath.”
Why are we here? According to this story, “The Lord God took the human and set him in the garden to work it and serve it, to preserve it and observe it.” For me, this means that a commitment to earth-care is not an add-on to the spiritual life, but the basis for the spiritual life. It grounds, literally, everything else.
Once humanity has been placed in the garden, we might expect God next to make all those other things that were absent, all those things that were essential to the ancient Israelites: the pasture plants and grains and rains that defined their precarious life. But we would be wrong. Instead, God makes trees; in fact God makes a veritable forest. “In the fertile land, God grew every tree, those with a beautiful appearance and those with delicious fruit, and also the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good an evil.” Most scholars believe these trees stand in for all plant life, but it is interesting nevertheless that the forest is the archetype for the garden rather than what we usually think of as a cultivated, subsistence garden.
Now the Bible knows that this forest has instrumental value; it produces delicious fruit to eat. The Israelites also knew that forests are good for nuts and timber and fuel, though they did not yet know paper. Today, however, we know that “Life as we know it is impossible without forests.” This is why the destruction of the worlds great old growth forests is cause for alarm: they are the lungs of our plant and they house the greatest diversity of animal life, and the destruction these ancient forests contributes to climate change. Part of serving and preserving the earth is respecting our limits … “you shall not eat from certain trees…”
But the Bible also knows that the forest has spiritual value, something completely apart from meeting our physical needs. Trees are beautiful in appearance, with a majesty, integrity and value all their own; and, if we observe them, they can help us understand our place in this world.
In her poem “Foolishness? No, It’s Not.” Mary Oliver put it this way.
Sometimes I spend all day trying to count the leaves on a single tree. To do this I have to climb branch by branch and write down the numbers in a little book. So I suppose, from their point of view, it’s reasonable that my friends say: what foolishness! She’s got her head in the clouds again.
But it’s not. Of course I have to give up, but by then I’m half crazy with the wonder of it – the abundance of the leaves, the quietness of the branches, the hopelessness of my effort. And I am in that delicious and important place, roaring with laughter, full of earth-praise.
John Muir has been described as “the most celebrated celebrator of nature in America” and as the “Father of our National Parks.” He described the great forests of earth as Nature’s Temple.
Today is Forest Sunday, a day when we remember that the first garden we were called to till and keep was filled with trees, and our purpose was to care for this forest. Like the forest, we are made from the same soil, but unlike the forest God has placed us here to ensure its well-being. Faithfulness to God begins with our upholding God’s first command to us. What would it mean for us today to remember our first vocation and to work for the forests? How might we work for the forests in worship, in our work and school lives, and within our families? How might we work for the forests in public policy and in international treaties?
As we take communion this day, we remember we are made of the same stuff as every creature on the earth, and that the bread and the vine which produced this sacrament, grew from the soil, the rich soil from which God shaped us and to which God appointed us. And this table is an open table, a place where all are welcome to taste and see that our God is good. In our sharing, may we remember our first vocation and renew our ancient commitment to work for the forests.
 This and much that follows is drawn heavily from Ted Hiebert, “Forest Sunday” in Norman Habel, et al, Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary. (Fortress, 2011). See also Hiebert, The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel. (Fortress Press, 1996).
 The following exegesis is drawn from Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
 Translation by Theodore Hiebert.
 Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings. (Penguin Books, 2012).
 Meditations of John Muir: Nature’s Temple. Compiled and edited by Chris Highland. (Wilderness Press, 2001).