To Till and Keep the Earth
A sermon preached at St. Brendan the Navigator Episcopal Church, Deer Isle, MaineFirst Sunday after Easter, Year C, April 24 2022 Celebrating Earth Day (April 22)
Creator God, who formed us from the dust, and breathed your Spirit into us, we thank you for this life and for your living Word that empowers us. We humbly pray to you that while we live we may dwell in harmony with each other and with the whole of your beautiful creation. And when we return to dust may we enter together into the joy of the Risen Christ, in whose name we pray. And so may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be blessed by you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. Let’s begin our reflections for this celebration of Earth Day by looking at the front of today’s bulletin. You see there a very striking image: our planet earth encircled by a crown of thorns. Take a moment to look at it. To breathe with it. What does that image say to us? Well, we are not so far on the other side of Easter that we have forgotten the Passion of Christ and the cruel events that culminated in the death of Jesus on the merciless instrument of Roman torture, the cross.
Here it is not the brow of Jesus cruelly tortured by having a mock crown if sharp thorns pressed down on it until it bled, it is our beautiful blue planet, our fragile island home. It is suffering. With Paul we hear it, surely, all around us: the groaning of creation.
I could easily spend the rest of my time with you cataloging the way that God’s good creation is groaning, how the crown of thorns is making it bleed. I could talk about the polar bears whose ice floes are breaking away and casting them adrift. About the fires that have started early this year to engulf forests and threaten woodland homes. I could catalog the warming of the waters of the gulf od Maine and speak of the salmon and the lobsters trying to adjust and adapt to their new reality. I could make you weep with the pacific islanders who are witnessing in horror the inexorable rise of the ocean with every tide, watching the salt waters begin to flood their fields and inundate their homes. I could spend a lot of time not only categorizing all the ways our beautiful world is threatened, but castigating our government and ourselves for how slow we have been to comprehend what is happening, and how little we have done as yet to mend our ways and heal the planet.
But this image of the earth surrounded by a crown of thorns has more to tell us than all that. Because now by God’s grace we have come to the first Sunday after Easter and for us the crown of thorns has been transformed, because Jesus is Risen! Alleluia! Death, torture, disaster, extinction itself, is not the end. New life is promised. Gerard Manley Hopkins said ir in his beautiful poem God’s Grandeur: there lives the dearest freshness deep down things. I come here this morning not to make you feel guilty, though God knows we are guilty, but to give you hope. Because without hope we will be able to do nothing, heal nothing and without hope that dear freshness will not have a chance to flourish. So I want to share with you the hope I find in the texts I chose to read to you today.
The verses from Genesis 2 are the second version of the Creation story that we have. If you were at the Easter Vigil last week you heard the first version in all its glory, starting out with the creation of light. This story of creation is different: more focused on the creation of humanity, or “man” as the translation has it. In the Hebrew it is very plain that the being created out of the dust is neither make or female, but both. If they were not both, how could a part of their body become Woman? What the Hebrew scripture says is that Adam was made out of Adamah. Adamah means earth, soil, dust. Adam from Adamah. I always think a better translation for this would be God created the human from the humus, or the earthling from the earth. The name Adam is is not a man’s name, though we made it so. It means we are created from the earth and to the earth we will return, thanks be to God. God made us from the earth, and gave us a place on earth to live, a beautiful place watered by rivers that nourish, form boundaries, and are ways to travel beyond where we started into the whole wide world. If you have three days I might be able to tell you more about the rivers mentioned in this passage, but but that’s not for today. What I want to emphasize is God’s purpose for us in this garden of Eden: to till it and to keep it.
So we were given this earth not just to enjoy it plucking fruit from trees and living in a primitive way, the tilling God wants implies agriculture, civilization, art, making things. For this is the creative nature we have, made in God’s image. We have to make, we must till, cultivate, use our gifts to find nourishment from the environment. But the tilling is only half of it. We also have to keep it. In our restless creative activity on the earth we are also put here as guardians of its beauty as students of its complex relationships, as stewards of its amazing wealth and beauty. To till it, and to keep it. We’ve done pretty well with the first, not so well with the second.
But, friends, here’s the hope: we have not done well, but we are always given another chance. Because the crown of thorns, the suffering of Jesus, his death on the cross, and the groaning of creation, is not the last word. Self-giving love triumphed over death, and Jesus rose to new life. We can rise too, and we can bring the whole of creation with us into that new day.
Part of understanding what this new day is like depends on our understanding of our relationship to the natural world, to God’s creation. In both the word Dominion. It’s a troubling word to us. We don’t like the idea that we are dominant. The Roman Empire was domination. Domination expressed itself in the crown of thorns and the cross. We don’t want to dominate creation like that. Although we have acted that way for sure.
But Jesus is very clear in every one of the Gospels: the world’s way of power is not his way. The Gentiles lord it over one another, he says, but you are not to do that. You are to wash each other’s feet, give the shirt off your back, and lay down your life for each other, and for all of God’s creation. The root of the word domination is Dominus, which is translated, Lord. The lordship of Christ is the Lordship of self-sacrificing love, and this is the only kind of domination that is expected of us who follow Christ, whether in relation to each other or to the creation itself.
If the dominion we are to have over the animals and over the earth is Christ’s lordship, is Self-giving love, then we ourselves must be willing to go to the cross for the sake of the planet. We must sacrifice. We must learn to live simply, as the saying goes, so that others may simply live. That’s the only dominion we are given.
Being called till the earth and to keep it, we are called to love it as when a couple marrying vow to Have and to Hold. To cherish, protect, honor, nurture, support, sustain it. And we neglect to do so at our peril. We stand condemned. When the people at the end of Mark’s gospel – the second, disputed ending which we rarely read in church— gospel don’t believe, they are condemned. This doesn’t sit well with us, as everywhere else the message of Christ is not about condemnation but about forgiveness and new life. But this condemnation isn’t the harsh judgment of a punishing God. It’s just a statement of fact. If you don’t believe that the climate has changed because of the way you live, fine, you are free to not believe that. But you will suffer the consequences anyway. It’s the same with not believing in the possibility of resurrection, Fine, call it empty superstition, laugh it away as irrational and wrongheaded, But then you will have to deal with the consequences of living without hope and without a spirit of empowering love. In this spirit, of love, of faith, of hope Jesus sends us out to preach the resurrection, not only to all people, but to all creation. We are taking this seriously in the Diocese of Maine and in a minute I will read you what our dear Bishop Thomas Brown had to say to us about this on Earth Day.
When we look again at the image of our planet within a crown of thorns, we see that we can indeed offer hope to the suffering of the planet. For we are on the other side of the Passion of Christ , we have seen with the women the empty tomb, and we too have been amazed, perplexed, and at last filled with the joy of knowing there is life beyond death, and new life is victorious always over the grave. Death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory? We are more than conquerors through him who loves us, who died for us and raises us to new life with him. And we can raise this tortured planet to new life with us, if we are faithful and attend to the Spirit of God always breathing on us and through us. Believe this, and go forth to proclaim this good news with your lives and actions every day, proclaim it to the whole creation.