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Seeing As God Sees – Earth Sunday

September 8, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday in the Season of Creation (Earth Sunday), September 6, 2015

Psalm 33:1-9         Genesis 1:1-25

watermellon seeds

Do you remember spitting watermelon seeds when you were a kid? Taking a big bite out of a delicious, red juicy watermelon; moving the seeds to the side and then the front of your mouth; pressing them against the back of your teeth with your tongue while you swallowed the good stuff, and then curling your tongue around the tiny black bullet and blowing? If you had multiple seeds, it took skill to spit them one at a time while storing the others in your cheek.

In 1995, Jason Schayot set the world record for spitting a watermelon seed when he shot his an incredible 75 feet, 2 inches. From where I am standing, that seed would just clear the last pew (I measured it myself) and probably bounce against the back wall. “It’s a record that would be hard to beat,” writes Washington Post staff writer Jane Black. “But Schayot might not have much competition anyway. Within a generation, most Americans won’t even know that watermelons have seeds, let alone how to spit them.”

According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, only 16 percent of watermelons sold in grocery stores have seeds, down from 42 percent in 2003. In California and the mid-South, home to the country’s biggest watermelon farms, the latest figures are 8 and 13 percent, respectively. The numbers seem destined to tumble. Recently developed hybrids do not need seeded melons for pollination … which liberates farmers from growing melons with spit-worthy seeds.

Black concludes, “The iconic, black-studded watermelon wedge appears destined to become a slice of vanished Americana. If that sounds alarmist, try to remember the last time you had to spit out a grape seed.” [1]

I have been asking children all week whether they know how to spit watermelon seeds. At Nicole Freeman’s wedding rehearsal on Friday, on the playground after the first day of school, in the park near my house. Nothing. My own son remembers eating a watermelon with seeds in it “a couple of years ago.” How about you? When is the last time you spit a watermelon seed?

When I think about the poem that opens our scripture, that was intended to set the tone for everything that follows, three things stand out to me.

  • First, this story is about divine perception: we are told about God’s experience of seeing;
  • Second, the earth itself is the main actor, bringing forth all manner of life out of itself; and
  • Third, the world God makes is full of seeds.

Let’s take these in order.

First, divine perception. Now we are used to thinking about God making the world out of nothing, but at least in this passage there is God and there is earth, formless, yes, but the earth is there. And it is dark. So the first thing God makes is light. So God can see … the earth.

Seven times we are told “And God saw that it was good.” The world is good, yes, but “the goodness of the world,” writes Ellen Davis, “is presented not as simple fact, nor even as an authoritative pronouncement, but as a divine perception.” [2] The poem describes God’s experience of seeing, and we are invited by this text to try and “see like God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said that

God’s seeing protects the world from falling back into the void, protects it from total destruction. God sees the world is good, as created – even where it is the fallen world — and because of the way God sees God’s work and embraces it and does not forsake it, we live.

Can we see this way? That’s the question the text puts to us. Can we see the world in such a way that protects it from total destruction? Can we see the earth as the work of God and embrace it; not forsake it? It is a question of life and death.

Philosopher Erazim Kohák has suggested that the root of our ecological crisis is chiefly a failure in perceiving what is good, that what we need is not a new concept of the good but a new way of seeing the good. The best way to do this is to contemplate creation through/with the eyes of God. Go take a walk, work in your garden, hang a hummingbird feeder in your yard, watch any one of the great BBC shows about our beautifully diverse planet. Try and see as God sees. Over the summer I took a ten-week course on climate science at the American Museum of Natural History and was simply awestruck at the complex and interconnected patterns of ocean, ice, air and temperature, the delicate balances that make ours an inhabitable planet. I found my study an act of prayer, as in Psalm 33:

Let all the earth fear the Lord,

Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe.

This reading invites us to see the world as God sees it.

My second observation is that in this story, the earth itself is the principle, acting subject, second only to God. The earth is with God, and at God’s word the earth brings forth life.

“Let the earth bring forth … and the earth brought forth …”

“Let the waters bring forth … and the waters brought forth …”

And again, “Let the earth bring forth … and the earth brought forth …”

This is not God’s doing, but the earth’s doing. Beginning on the third day, “there comes into being the life whose true nature it is to create further life.” (Bonhoeffer again). Earth possesses a self-perpetuating fruitfulness, a sustainable fecundity, that perpetuates life.

Which brings us back to seeds. The created world is full of them. This is even clearer when reading the text in its original Hebrew. Ellen Davis tries to capture the word play about seeds in this translation of day three:

Let the earth sprout-out sprouts, plants seeding seed

Fruit trees making fruit, each of its own kind – with their seed in them – on the earth.

And it was so.

And the earth sprouted-out sprouts, plants seeding seed each of its own kind,

And trees making fruit with its seed in it, each of its own kind.

Where we read “Let the earth bring forth vegetation,” the Hebrew writer makes up words, “sprout-out sprouts” and “seeding seeds.” Later, the poem will distinguish seeds cultivatable or harvestable by humans from all other “greenery” which is intended for the animals. Seeds are not only the key to the earth’s sustainability – they’re the key to humankind’s sustainability as well.

watermellon seedless

We now live in a world where the seedless watermelon has trumped the seeded watermelon. Why? Convenience of course. There are no pesky seeds to work around while eating, to worry about kids choking on, to have to pick out of salads. Meanwhile most of the watermelon has begun to taste like mush – nothing like the sweet, crisp fruit of old. Mark Twain once wrote that watermelon is the food of angels. Can you imagine angels eating a seedless watermelon?

What is convenience for us means dependence for the farmers. Dependence on the seed companies of course – Monsanto, ADM. Every year the farmers have to buy seeds from the seed companies. It’s not like 30 years ago where seeds were kept and used by farmers. And these practices in all kinds of plants greatly affect subsistence farmers the hardest; making them more dependent on multi-national agribusiness and threatening the food sovereignty of their communities and nation.

Some of you may remember that after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 that many people were displaced at a time when small farmers were already having difficulty meeting the population’s food demand. Monsanto, the US-based agricultural and bio-tech corporation, offered the Haitian government free GM seeds through USAID, the government agency providing U.S. economic and humanitarian assistance. GM or genetically modified, means that the seeds may have been genetically altered, with genetic material from other organisms incorporated into the plants. The Haitian government rejected this offer so Monsanto and USAID then offered free hybrid seeds that the government agreed to distribute. Hybrid seed is produced by artificially cross-pollinating plants to improve certain traits in the plant.

While the Haitian government said, “yes,” The PC(USA)’s long-term mission partner in Haiti, The Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP), was gravely concerned. MPP is Haiti’s largest grassroots movement and is composed of small farmers. Because hybrid seeds only reliably produce crops for one season, small farmers would be required to purchase further seeds from Monsanto for subsequent plantings. Further, because corn is wind-pollinated, the donated corn varieties were a potential threat all of the native Haitian varieties. Farmers with fields of native corn varieties would not be able to harvest pure seeds, if any of their neighbors planted the seeds donated by Monsanto. Finally, the seeds themselves were designed to be planted by machines and were coated in a chemical that is dangerous if handled. Haiti’s farmers plant by hand.

The MPP held a march and protest where they burned these hybrid seeds – and the PC(USA) sent a church representative to accompany them. Then a leader from the MPP came to the US and the PC(USA) helped him meet with representatives from USAID to describe why becoming dependent on Monsanto was a sure path toward the destruction of Haitian small farmers, their seeds and the ability of Haiti to feed its own people.

Just this morning there was an article in the NYTimes detailing how Monsanto and others have been recruiting academics to greenwash bioengineered food in a lobbying war in Washington. “The push has intensified [reports the Times] as the Senate prepares to take up industry-backed legislation this fall, already passed by the House, that would ban states from adopting laws that require the disclosure of food produced with genetically modified ingredients.” Apart from sowing confusion about the health and safety aspects of GM food and fertilizer, and serving as an end-run around informed consumers, the article never even hints at the kind of issues raised by small farmers and farm labor – issues of dependency, bio-diversity, and exploitation of crisis like the Haitian earthquake.[3]

The interesting thing about this passage from Genesis is that it provides us the opportunity to think about the world before us; the world before we came to be. It was a world designed by God with the ability to reproduce and sustain itself. And then, later in the passage, human beings were placed in this world as one among the creatures.

Too often, seduced by convenience, we have failed to remember our interconnectedness with creation. Bent on extracting resources for our ease, climate change is showing us now that we have extracted the resources we and our planet need to survive. This passage from Genesis asks us to imagine: what does God see now? And it invites us to notice, to see, the patterns of life before us – the ones that give life and the ones that rob us of our future.

Today, on this beautiful weekend, I invite you to see as God sees. And to imagine what we must do as a part of creation, to preserve the goodness that our earth was meant to embody. For as Psalm 33 sings, “the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.” The earth is a sign of God’s loyalty to us, to life. May we return that loyalty in how we care for the Earth. Amen.

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/31/AR2010083102643.html

[2] My observations, and most of the quotations in this section, are taken from Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Forward by Wendell Berry. (Cambridge, 2009). The Bonhoeffer quotations are from Creation and Fall.

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/06/us/food-industry-enlisted-academics-in-gmo-lobbying-war-emails-show.html?_r=0

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