Text: Genesis 2: 4b-9, 15-23

You may have noticed we heard only a portion of that story that begins in the second chapter of Genesis. What we heard might be thought of as just the set-up for the steamy drama that follows -- you know, how the crafty serpent enters the scene, talks Eve out of what she knows, and so she picks the fruit of the forbidden tree, tempting Adam with a bite of the apple (did you know there’s never any mention of an apple!) and the next we know they’re hiding behind fig leaves having suddenly become embarrassed by their naked bodies. And on the story goes, having become known as the “Story of the Fall” …as though it was an explanation of how evil came into the world, establishing this powerful linkage between sex and sin … all of which are messages that have been laid upon the text over time.

In part it’s what happens when the first part of the story is overlooked in favour of getting on to the so-called real action. So this morning we take some time to linger with the first two scenes, noticing what comes to light when we slow it down and consider with carefulness the details that are by no means incidental to the rest of the story, let alone to the unfolding of our lives.

So what is there to notice?
Maybe you heard it … or saw it -- that before God forms the human creature there is the earth … as yet no plants, no growing things, for as the story goes, God had not caused it to rain upon the earth and there was no one to tend it … but there it is, fertile soil, full of potential ready to nourish life.
First there is earth.

And then we hear, “and the Lord God formed the human being from the fertile soil.” This is where attending to the Hebrew language allows us to see all the more … to see the “family resemblance” that’s intended here between the soil and the human creature. We catch a little bit of the connection in English through the words human and humus (human is formed from humus) --but in Hebrew there’s even more. The word for human being is adam; and the word for fertile soil adama … both words are related to adom, meaning ruddy. So picture the brownish red earth, that thin rich loam covering the hill country where the early Israelites settled … and so even more you see the relationship … the brownish-red skin tone of both the people and the earth … adam made from adama. [1]

It’s hard to miss it, isn’t it … our primal connection with the earth, with the soil. This is what’s at the heart of this story … our story; this is what we are given to know: we are creatures of and with the earth.

Just hearing myself say those words, I have this flash of when I was a kid living in Alberta. And even though I loved the snow of winter, there was the absolute thrill when the snow melted enough to expose the grass; there’d be water flowing in the street, worms along the curb-side, and we’d get to abandon our boots for shoes. There was joy -- no other word for it! -- there was joy in reconnecting with the earth that had been hidden for a long time, deep under the snow. You can hear something of the same experience in this poem by Wendell Berry where he writes …

Through the weeks of deep snow
we walked above the ground
on fallen sky, as though we did
not come of root and leaf, as though
we had only air and weather
for our difficult home.
But now
as March warms, and the rivulets
run like birdsong on the slopes,
and the branches of light sing in the hills,
slowly we return to earth. [2]

I wonder how you may have known that connection with the earth, with the soil, in a visceral way? …that sense of how it is we belong to the land.

As the Genesis story moves on, in the very next breath, we have God breathing this earth creature into life, with God’s own breath. So not only do we have this picture of God on hands and knees in fertile soil, creating the human creature, but we have God breathing into this creature the breath of life … you can’t miss it … this is God coming close with care … and not just as close as breath … but imparting God’s own life-giving breath. Just as the earth is of God, so we are of God --gift of God’s giving.

And then we hear: “God planted a garden in Eden … and there God put the human creature.” Even though twice we hear it -- that God placed the human creature in the garden-- I wouldn’t have thought to pause here before, until I came upon these words of Ruth Valerio, an ecologist, activist, mother, writer, Christian (all beautifully wrapped into one!). She says “it’s easy to think that place is trivial, incidental to who we are, but I want to say that it isn’t. We are not disembodied beings; we are located. Place is a central part of what it means to be human.” And then she quotes Simone Weil, “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. Uprootedness is by far the most dangerous malady to which human societies are exposed.” [3]
I think about how that speaks to the crisis facing refugees …and the crisis facing people who have no place to call home.
I think about how that speaks to our increasingly urbanized world where our direct connection with soil is harder to come by … where pavement and concrete cover the land; and our food comes from grocery shelves, so much of it wrapped and waxed.
“Uprootedness is by far the most dangerous malady to which human societies are exposed.” So here we are on the brink of ending our life on this planet we call home. “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”

It seems God gets that about us and so God places the human creature in the garden … to till it and keep it, we’re told. In fact the Hebrew word for till could also be translated “work” … not only to work on or with the soil, but to work for, as in serving the soil’s needs. The word for keep is the same word used in relation to a flock or a brother … as in to care for or protect; even more often the Hebrew word for keep is translated as “observe” … so to behold! … to watch and learn from, and to uphold. So not only is the human creature placed in the garden, but we are given by God a vocation … to work and serve the garden, preserve and observe it. You can’t miss it, can you --this call to be in touch with the land.

And so we begin to see this beautiful reciprocating relationship woven into God’s creation … where we are critical to the care and well-being of the land, and the land is critical to our nourishing and flourishing in body, mind and spirit.

I wonder if you’ve heard of Clarence Jordon … that farmer, New Testament scholar, Baptist minister, co-founder in the 1940’s of Koinonia Farm, an inter-racial farming community in Georgia. Not only was it the place in which bold and loving relationships were formed and strengthened; it was a place under threat of violence by the Klu Klux Klan and others. In one of his sermons Clarence explains why he hasn’t yet left the land that is this farm. Listen to this

“Fifteen years ago we went there and bought that old run down eroded piece of land. It was sick. There were gashes in it. It was sore and bleeding. I don’t know if you ever walked over a piece of ground that could almost cry out to you and say ‘heal me, heal me.’
I don’t know if you feel the closeness to the soil that I do, but when you fill in those old gullies and terrace the fields, and you begin to feel the springiness of the sod beneath your feet, and you begin to feel that old land come to life, and when you walk through an old pine forest that you set out in seedlings, and now you see them reaching for the sky, and you hear the wind through them; when you walk a little further over a bit of ground … and you go on over a hill where your children and all the many visitors have held picnics and you walk across a creek that you’ve bathed in the heat of the summer and men say to you “Why don’t you sell it and move away?” they might as well ask, “Why don’t you sell your mother?” Somehow God has made us out of this old soil, and we go back to it, and we never lose its claim on us. It isn’t a simple matter to leave it.”[4]

What would it mean for us to stand our ground … to know ourselves placed, planted, grounded, connected … that we might live out our holy calling to protect and preserve, to learn from and to love this land?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been delving into the writing and the spirit of Robin Wall Kimmerer. Here’s one more excerpt … 

“I sat once in a graduate writing workshop on relationship to the land. The students all demonstrated a deep respect and affection for nature. They said that nature was the place where they experienced the greatest sense of belonging and well-being. They professed without reservation that they loved the earth. And then I asked them, “Do you think that the earth loves you back?” No one was willing to answer that. It was as if I had brought a two-headed porcupine into the classroom. Unexpected. Prickly. They backed slowly away. Here was a room full of writers, passionately wallowing in unrequited love of nature.

So I made it hypothetical and asked, “What do you suppose would happen if people believed this crazy notion that the earth loved them back?” The floodgates opened. They all wanted to talk at once. We were suddenly off the deep end, heading for world peace and perfect harmony.

One student summed it up: “You wouldn’t harm what gives you love.”

Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a scared bond.

My daughter Linden grow one of my favorite gardens in the world. She brings up all kinds of good things to eat from her thin mountain soil, things I can only dream of, like tomatillos and chile. She makes compost and flowers, but the best part isn’t the plants. It’s that she phones me to chat while she weeds. We water and weed and harvest, visiting happily as we did when she was a girl despite the three thousand miles between us. Linden is immensely busy, and so I ask her why she gardens, given how much time it takes.

She does it for the food and the satisfaction of hard work yielding something so prolific, she says. And it makes her feel at home in a place, to have her hands in the earth. I ask her, “Do you love your garden?” even though I already know the answer. But then I ask, tentatively, “Do you feel that your garden loves you back?” She’s quiet for a minute; she’s never flip about such things. “I’m certain of it,” she says. “My garden takes care of me like my own mama.”[5]

This sacred bond we share with earth … it is a given … we are of the same stuff. It is time we remembered that … it’s time we restored that bond. It’s time -- because we don’t have much more time. And besides, it’s always time to love … and to find ourselves deeply loved in return.

[1] Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture - an agrarian reading of the Bible, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2009, p.29.

[2] Wendell Berry, “Return to Earth” 

[3]  Ruth Valerio, “Where Are We?” May 3, 2013; http://ruthvalerio.net/tag/theology-of-place/

[4] Clarence Jordon, sermon excerpt, cited in Making Peace with the Land, by Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Intervarsity Press Books, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2012, p. 81.

[5] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweet grass - indigenous Wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teaching of plants, Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013, pp 124, 125.