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Return to the Earth – Land Sunday

September 14, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 14, 2014

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Psalm 139:7-12         Genesis 3:14-19; 4:8-16

Today is the Second Sunday in the Season of Creation, and today we worship with the land. Therefore:

     We invite the countryside to worship with us,

         the wildflowers and mushrooms, swirling grasses and goldenrods.

     We invite the farmlands to sing with us,

         wheat fields, orchards and vineyards; hayfields, gardens and wetlands.

     We join with all the fauna of the fields in praising God:

         horses, sheep, and cattle; grass snakes and grasshoppers, eagles and crows.

     We invite the ground to stir deep below:

         life-giving microbes restoring the soil, beetles and worms preparing our food.

     We celebrate the song of the soil itself:

         the substance out of which all life, plant, animal, human, is created

          and to which we owes our survival. [1]

“Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy,” declares the psalmist. “Let the fields exult and everything in them.” (Psalm 96:12).

Ah, if only they could!

Biblical scholar Ellen Davis notes that “more than sixteen centuries ago, St. Basil cited as an already long-established fact the “ruthless cruelty” of humans that prevented “the voice of the earth” from rising to God in song.”[2] Instead, the sound of creation is an anemic chorus, all because human beings have transgressed our proper place on earth.

God created human beings as kin with all creation, made of the same stuff, the same soil, as the animals and plants. God put the first human beings in the garden and charged them to farm it and keep it, to serve it and preserve it.[3] Yet they acted as though there were no limits, they took what should not be taken, they ate without regard for where their food came from, transgressing limits set by God and nature, and then denied they had done it. Therefore the land that had been a blessing for human beings instead bears a curse. It does not yield what it used to, but instead shows the marks of a land degraded, all thorns and thistles. And human beings must toil to receive what was once so abundant. In anger, the farmer Cain kills his brother, the shepherd Abel, and from the ground Abel’s blood cries out to God. Cain is cursed to live as an alien from the land, wandering on the earth, a fate that he says is more than he can bear. “Today you have driven me from the soil, and I will be hidden from your face.”

Can we see the face of God in the soil of the earth?

It is not easy. Human beings have today transformed between one-third and one-half of the earth’s surface, reducing total primary plant life (what the earth’s natural systems would annually sustain) by more than 40% by eating it up, cutting it down and paving it under. We have destroyed four-fifths of the world’s natural ecosystems, taking what we wanted and neglecting or destroying the rest. In just the last century, the transformation of the land has been the primary cause of species extinction, both plant and animal. We mock our Creator who called us forth from the soil and charged us with serving and preserving the earth.[4]

Though we have a divine commission to farm and keep the land, 97% of us have no practical experience of agriculture, and so do not realize how “unacceptably destructive to the environment” and unsustainable modern agriculture is. Instead of serving the needs of the earth and learning from the land, today we have industrialized our food supply, introducing machines, fossil fuels, chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers (which contaminate our water supply), and placing the control of production and marketing in the hands of large agribusiness corporations. We depend upon the cultivation of massive, genetically-modified monocultures, making crops more vulnerable to pests and diseases, all the while depleting and accelerating the erosion of our most valuable resource, topsoil. [5]

“We take the soil for granted because it is there, it is everywhere,” said Dr. Wangari Maathai. [6] Yet in Iowa alone, a recent report called Losing Ground reports that farms lose nearly 100 tons of precious topsoil per acre per year, 97% of it preventable through simple conservation methods.[7] Half the soil we have lost has been lost in the last 150 years.[8]

“We think that diamonds are very important,” added Dr. Maathai, “gold is very important, minerals are very important, we call them precious minerals, but they are all forms of the soil. But that part of these minerals that is on top, like it is the skin of the earth, that is the most precious of the commons.”

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None of this can be sustained; we know this. In order to survive, we will have to change its basic approach to the production of food and learn to be stewards of our soil. In the meantime, “All creation is waiting eagerly … groaning in labor … for the Children of God to appear and return to the ground, to take up again our first vocation to care for the earth.

Did you notice that phrase in our reading today? In chapter three, God’s response to Adam and Eve’s transgression, by far the most attention is given to the land. With human beings alienated from God and from one another, the earth is the first to suffer, “cursed is the ground because of you,” says God. But then God says,

By the sweat of your face

you shall eat bread

until you return to the earth [adamah],

for out of it you were taken;

you are dust,

and to dust you will return.

We usually associate these words, our return to the earth, with our graveside services. On Thursday morning, George P——- and I buried the remains of his beloved wife Beth in The Shepherd’s Fold, our memorial garden. We had committed her life to God’s keeping several months ago, but were only now ready bury her body. George knelt down and gently placed the urn containing her ashes into the ground. He kissed his own hand and placed it on the box as we recited, “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our sister Beth and we commit her body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” And we each took handful after handful of the cool, brown dirt and filled the hole until what remained of Beth’s body was blanketed in soil and buried in the earth. It was a powerful reminder of our origin and destiny in the soil, and of our connection to the earth throughout life. We are reminded of this as well each Ash Wednesday when I touch your forehead with the burnt remains of the previous years palm branches and urge you to humility in your mortality.

But there is something else going on in this passage from Genesis. The words “until you return to the earth” have less to do with mortality than they do with changing our direction and being reconciled with the earth. The word “return” here carries the meaning of repentance, as when God says “Yet even now, return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” (Joel 2: 12) Here God says

By the sweat of your face

you shall eat bread

until you return to the earth [adamah],

for out of it you were taken;

you are dust,

and to dust you will return.

Because we tend to think of The Fall and Original Sin as something that began with Adam and Eve and was passed inevitably down to us, we miss that right here, right at the moment of fall, God is providing a way back – a way for us to return to the earth. Caring for the earth is not only our vocation; it is also a means of our reconciliation – with God, and one another, and all creation.

In the next generation, after Adam and Eve, Cain invents gratitude. God had not commanded the building of an altar or the offering of first fruits from the harvest, but Cain the farmer does so, and Abel follows suit.[9] Only with Cain’s anger, jealousy and violence does sin enter the world – the word “sin” is used here for the first time – to prowl around, always waiting to destroy or degrade even our best efforts at reconciliation. Returning to the earth becomes systematically harder with each generation.

But this promise of reconciliation continues, through the prophets and in Paul’s words where he writes,

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God: for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit; groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. (Romans 8:19-24a)

It is in our hope, in creation’s hope, that God meets us and saves us. The actions our congregation is taking to support the People’s Climate March, the cultivation of our community garden, the sponsorship of our CSA where we actually get to meet the farmers who grow our food) are actions taken in hope. None of them are definitive; they are acts of hope through which we begin to return to the earth. And we are promised that God meets us, God wants us to return, and God saves us, even during the worst times – times that would threaten hope that we can do anything – and God hopes in us in return.

So this morning as we think about our ravaged land, I invite you to consider as well how we are living out our hope amidst uncertainty, challenge and fear. How hope is not about what has already been accomplished or proven, but rather hope is about having trust to stand up, to cultivate new ways of being, and to insist upon the well-being for the earth and all its people. So this morning, let us put our hope in the earth, let us put our hope in the speaking of truth to power, let us put out hope in one another, and let us put our hope in God.

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© 2014, The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

White Plains Presbyterian Church

[1] This litany is adapted from the Season of Creation: http://www.letallcreationpraise.org/season-of-creation

[2] Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. (Cambridge, 2009). P. 54

[3] See my sermon from last week: https://revgeary.wordpress.com/2014/09/07/why-are-we-here-forest-sunday/

[4] Cited in Ellen Davis, p. 54.

[5] Theodore Hiebert, The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel. (Fortess Press, 1996). p. 148.

[6] In Dirt: The Movie. Directed by Bill Beneson et al. (2009).

[7] http://www.ewg.org/losingground/

[8] http://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/soil-erosion-and-degradation

[9] I thank my colleague in the Greenfaith Fellow Program, Patricia Tull, for this insight. I commend her book Inhabiting Eden: Christians, The Bible, and The Ecological Crisis (WJK, 2011) for a similar working out of this passage.

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