This past week was a week that put everything into perspective. I don’t know how you feel today, but I’m a little exhausted. I’m exhausted after watching my friends who live in Houston and other parts of Texas deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. I’m exhausted after watching way too many news reports of the devastation Hurricane Irma brought a week later. I’m exhausted after praying for and worrying about friends who were at ground zero when Irma hit Florida. I’m exhausted after preparing our own house for tropical storm winds and the possible loss of power and water. I’m exhausted after checking in with friends and church members, to see if they were okay and if there was anything I could do to help.
Somehow, I suspect that you are as exhausted as I am. It was a very emotional week. We know that the clean up from these dual hurricanes will take months and even years for some people to make a full recovery.
If there is anything positive that comes out of natural disasters such as these, it is the gift of perspective. They remind us that family and friends are far more important than houses and possessions. They remind us that, in spite of us being a deeply divided nation, we can come together, and work together, to help our neighbors in need.
They also remind us that we humans have a false impression that we can own, tame and develop the land. We can do with it whatever we want to in the name of progress and prosperity. Truth be told, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma remind us that the land is a gift from God. It’s on loan to us, at best. We may divide it up in parcels and sell it to the highest bidder. But, trust me, it’s not ours! Mother Nature will claim it back whenever and wherever she pleases. This is a humbling fact that is hard to ignore after witnessing the devastation we’ve seen over the past two weeks.
This Sunday is the Second Sunday in the Season of Creation. It’s theme is Land Sunday. The timing of it could not be more perfect. The reason why I say this is that there is a big difference between how we view land as modern Americans and how the Bible views land. Like I said before, we see land as something we possess and develop. We exploit and commodify it in any way we please as long as it does not violate the laws of our nation. Even then, we will violate these laws if we can get away with it!
Not surprisingly, the Bible gives us a totally different perspective of what the land means to us and how we should interact with it. This morning I’d like to give you four major characteristics of the land that appear in the biblical tradition.
The first of these is seeing the land as the mother of life. In the second story of creation, which we explored last week, God sculpts the earth creature (adam) out of the soil (adamah) and breathes the breath of life into it. It’s a play on words in Hebrew. In English we would say the human is formed from humus. This is a profound statement because Genesis is telling us that we are literally birthed from the soil.
The same is also true of the flora and fauna that God created. They are also birthed and sculpted from the soil. The sense of this is preserved in words we say every Ash Wednesday and every funeral I’ve ever presided at: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s the humble realization that when we die we return to earth, either by cremation or by natural processes. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We are earth creatures, sculpted from the land, whether we care to admit it or not.
This spiritual and physical understanding of where we come from has been embraced by old indigenous cultures since the very beginning. But for whatever reason, we Christians seldom claim our earth creature-ness. We focus on the observation that we are created in the image of God and leave it at that. We focus on our connection to the divine and ignore our connection to the land.
This sin of omission results in us doing with the land whatever we please. It results in all kinds of abuse and misuse including pollution and over-development. Yet Genesis 2 is very clear. The earth is our mama. She is the stuff we are made of. When we remember this fundamental truth, I believe it has a profound effect on the way we view our relationship with the land as well as the flora and fauna which inhabit it.
The second characteristic of the land that appears in the Bible is the abundant sustainer of living beings. In the same creation story from Genesis, God created a garden which was nourished by the soil, sun and water. It was named Eden which means “land of pleasure.” This garden had everything that was needed to sustain the life of the earth creature. The only job the earth creature had was to “till and keep it.” [Gen 2:15]
In other words the Hebrew is telling us that our relationship to the land is one of care-taking, protection and preservation. It is a beautiful image of our relationship to the land. Genesis 2 makes it clear that the original garden contained everything that was needed to sustain our lives.
God told the earth creature that it could eat “Of every tree in the garden” with one exception: “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” It was such a simple command. Easy to understand. Easy to follow. The earth creature had literally inherited paradise. All that was left to do was sit back an enjoy this garden of delights.
But we know the rest of the story. Humans were not content with paradise. They wanted more. They thought they were missing out on something. They thought they could improve paradise. And so they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2 tells us that this destroyed paradise.
The result of its destruction is that our relationship to the land was profoundly changed. It was no longer the land of pleasure. Our first lesson tells us that it’s fertility was diminished. Weeds and thistles lessened its bounty. Humans had to work harder to provide enough food to feed their families.
When some people hear this story, they think that God is punishing human beings for their sin. However, I see it differently. Their disobedience to God, took on a life of its own. It had a snowball effect. They were foolish to think that their actions would not dramatically impact their lives and the lives of generations who followed.
Yet, I do see grace in this story. In Genesis 3, God makes clothes for the humans because they realized they were naked. Although it’s not said directly, I suspect that God taught them how to survive in this changed landscape. God taught them how to farm in soil that was full of weeds and less fertile.
There is so much we learn from this Biblical perspective of the land. It reminds us that we are not often content with paradise. We are not easily satisfied with what God has provided for us. We always want a little bit more. We always want what we do not have. This basic human instinct has resulted in our abuse of the land and its resources. I don’t have to give you any examples of the ways we do this. You are all aware of them already. On this Land Sunday, we are reminded that the land was given to us as the abundant sustainer of all living beings. If we treat it well and care for it lovingly, it will produce enough food to feed everyone.
The third characteristic of the land that appears in the Bible is the altar for worship of our Creator. The land is the primary location for worship in the earliest tradition of Scripture. In Genesis 12, Abraham journeys to the land of Canaan. There he encounters the oak of Moreh, which in Hebrew means “teacher” or “oracle giver.” It is under this tree that God first tells Abram of his future in this land. It is here where Abram builds the Bible’s first altar.
This reminds us that the land is God’s original temple. We try to prove upon it with fancy buildings filled with fancy things. But the truth of the matter is that nature is God’s preferred temple. Those of us who have visited holy places such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the glaciers of Alaska, and the redwood forests know that this is true. And so, the land, remind us of our connection to God. It is a holy place that we often treat in ways that are less than holy. Perhaps, if we spent less time indoors and more time outdoors, our relationship to the land, and to God, would change profoundly.
The fourth and final characteristic of the land that appears in the Bible is the place we call home. Genesis 3&4 narrate how humans abandon their symbiotic relationship with the land, the garden, and trade it in for the engineered landscapes of the city, and eventually of the empire in Genesis 11. All throughout the Old Testament we read stories of our feeling of homelessness, which is brought about by human alienation from the land, and attempts by God to bring the people back home to it. When in exodus, dispossessed people are promised land. When in exile, they are promised a return the land. In short, the Bible begins with the story about a garden-home that is lost, and ends with the story of that garden-home’s restoration.
Revelation 22:1-3 gives us a beautiful description of this restoration. It’s something we will study toward the end of my Sunday School class on Revelation: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more.”
In this fourth Biblical characteristic of the land, we see that it is God’s desire to restore our relationship to creation. But we do not have to wait until the end of the age to begin this process. We can pledge to ourselves and to each other to do the holy work of strengthening and renewing our relationship to the land. We can change of understanding of it from something to be possessed and exploited; to its original intent as the mother of life, the abundant sustainer of living beings, the altar for worship of the creator, and as the place we call home.
What will we do today, tomorrow and the next day to begin the healing and reconciliation that needs to happen between us and the land? It’s a question we need to ponder because our very lives depend on it! Amen.
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck [The Biblical understanding of the land comes from the Season of Creation commentary. I am grateful for the idea that made this sermon come alive!]