a sermon for Wilderness Sunday

Season of Creation texts Joel1:8-10,17-20; Psalm18; Romans8:22-27; Mark1:9-13
Common question: Why did the chicken cross the road?

Less common question: Why did Jesus go out to the wilderness?wilderness

I suppose some answer: it was to prepare for the rest of his ministry, seeing this time in the wilderness as a spiritual boot camp or something, that he had to go do his Ignatian exercises to visualize conquering the rigors to come, or that this tempting by the devil was spiritual weight-lifting to get him honed and toned and ripped, ready and rearing to go.

In a related but more substantial sense, some see this time alone in the wilderness parallel to native American (and other indigenous peoples’) practices of vision quests, a formative time of extraordinary experience in finding himself and coming back fully developed.

A totally different answer to the question “why did Jesus go out into the wilderness” is prompted by terms in the reading: he went because he didn’t have a choice; it says the Holy Spirit drove him out. Compelled him. Or directly in the original Greek, he was ek-balled, thrown out. It’s an interesting term, because when Jesus does exorcisms to get rid of the bad and unclean spirits, he is ek-balling them, throwing them out. But here the good Spirit, the Holy Spirit is reversing the process by ek-balling Jesus.

As Jesus gets exorcised from society, we could attribute wild explanations amid the Season of Creation and on Wilderness Sunday and looking for special meaning for non-human parts of the story. It could be, for all we attribute to civilization as marking positive progress, that instead city life contributes to our distance and separation from God, giving us false senses of security and misperceptions of what is good or right.

So, like a person is restored to wellness when an unclean spirit is thrown out, from this ek-balling of Jesus we might claim getting driven away from culture and back to the land, back to wilderness provides restoration of sanity, of spirituality, of our wholeness, healing us and our integrity, getting away from corruptions. We might also notice that out there in wilderness we have to face something so much more powerful and majestic than our small selves, which contributes to a better understanding of God.

That’s an easy view of wilderness, and one that Jesus also seems to have persisted in as the story continues. Later on, he’s not forced into the wilderness, but regularly flees up a mountain or out on a boat to pray, for quiet, to reconnect with God perhaps, or with his friends, to rest and rejuvenate when he’s drained by the demands of trying to love people. I like those reasons for “getting away from it all,” as we say, or maybe getting away from the constrained view of what our existence is. But more on that later.

There are also less “natural” explanations of why Jesus is driven to the wilderness. We might observe this is what baptism does to us: it gives us the assurance of connection with God, that you are called a beloved child of God, but then you’re also thrown out of your regular rhythms and are trying to muddle through what this promise means for life. Figuring out faith may persistently feel like a wilderness experience of being not-quite lost and not-quite in place.

That also points to echoes of earlier scripture. Jesus is in the wilderness 40 days. That number and location probably should make us think of the Exodus from Egypt and waiting to enter the Promised Land. This is exactly the image that John the Baptizer was also trying to foster, with the symbol of crossing through the waters of the Jordan River to live with renewed connection to God’s promise. Well, Jesus becomes the embodiment of the faithful experience: like Moses and Miriam and the people who spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness waiting for fulfillment, Jesus parallels that in his 40 days, embodying God’s commitment to bring God’s people into the promise, a sign of godly new beginnings.

Or maybe instead of the whole Exodus account, it’s a smaller portrait comparing Jesus to the prophet Elijah in the wilderness amid a drought, fleeing from enemies, being renewed for another mission, another sending back into society. In Elijah’s 40 days and nights out, he encountered God not in terrifying wilderness grandeurs of fires and storms and tectonic shifts, but in the sound of silence, while the ravens were with him to bring him food. (1Kings17:6, 19:1-17)

That prompts the next important direction this morning. I really cherish the detail about ravens bringing Elijah food because amid that same drought there’s a story about an angel that feeds Elijah. So I claim this gives reason to see black wise ravens as angels, as messengers and servants of God. That can feed into this gospel reading, too. Nothing says these angels are ladies with white wings and harps who show up to be deacons to Jesus, to be waitresses serving him some food. It could’ve been crows. Or raccoons.

For this transition, we have to adjust our sense of wilderness. Just like we have a rather confined image of angels, it’s the same of wilderness. We picture large and foreign places—snow-capped peaks, acres of forest, caribou tundra, forbidding desert, remote island. Those and their inhabitants we see as wild. A crow or raccoon we see as not quite that. Though they may not be domesticated, not house-broken, they don’t count as wild. We draw this line that wild things and wilderness must be stranger, purer, further.

There’s a line that hangs around national parks: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” It might fit parks and wilderness designations, that if we set aside those areas, and in sufficient quantity (which premier biologist E.O. Wilson says needs to be ½ of the planet for the survival of our species*), then we’ll have preserved or saved the world somehow.

The thing is, though, that quote comes from Henry David Thoreau. Not so much a wilderness warrior like Teddy Roosevelt roughing it or John Muir who on his two little feet “walked away into the mountains with his old overcoat and crust of bread in his pocket,”** not some polar explorer or high adventurer, Thoreau is belittled for close proximity, that he only lived far enough away to make it home to see his mother. I read this week Thoreau’s specialty was to “focus on the human need for freedom in the beauty of ordinary places…The scenes he describes are on a smaller scale than most wilderness writers. He finds epic drama and wildness in the…overlooked corners of life, ants and mice, for example… Thoreau’s wild places…were his neighbor’s apple orchards and berry patches.”***

So today let’s expand our view of wilderness—or maybe I more precisely mean let’s contract it, to find it not just in the wild west and the great outdoors, but in the small weed cracking through concrete and the birdsong through a car window and in the day’s clouds and a houseplant. Those bits of wildness may be accessible and may be your preservation amid this world.

Beginning there also reorients another perspective: we’re so trapped into seeing wilderness as other. Again, the U.S. legally defines it as places “untrammeled by man.” But in this small world with its finite beauty and potential, we can no longer claim there are places on earth that are other, that are separate, unsullied, nor even that are bigger than we are.soc-a3-wilderness.jpg

In the Badlands, I wandered off into the official “wilderness” area, up slopes and down tight wash crevices, the sort of places we can imagine we’re pioneers, the first to set foot there. But everywhere I turned and stretched to climb, I found a piece of litter. The best find was this ballcap. There was no place that was isolated or inaccessible or pure.

Whether with our probing personalities or the proliferation of our pollution, there are few places we don’t find traces of ourselves. And as we change the climate, that soaks into soils and ocean deeps, into the wild diversity of coral reefs and under the bark of the forest. There is no place untrammeled by man. Nor are humans separate from the wilderness any place, even in urban life, as Houston knows: our weather cycles depend on ocean currents, the oxygen we breathe is breathed from the rainforest, we depend on the unexamined microbiotic systems in dirt.

So we need to see wilderness all around, because we’re connected to it. That was the meaning I took from the prophet Joel, who observed that all welfare—or its reverse in despair and suffering—are interwoven, the priests in the temple, the farmers and their cattle, and the burning trees in the wilderness. In Joel’s time, he was seeing that the sin, the fault, the failings of the people, and their lack of understanding in connection with God meant that there came a plague of locusts, seen even as a destroying army. In our time, we can easily frame this image as the repercussions of our burning fossil fuels, feeding the heat of Hurricane Harvey, hurting ourselves, our livelihood, and life far from us.

But I want us to hear today this connection is not only a matter of threat. As Jesus went to commune where the wild things are (and since, after all, there is no venue or site separate from his presence and love), I don’t want to leave you with the dire words of Joel, but pick up another better-known outlook from a prophet, seeing our bond with those same wild scenes, but looking toward God’s goodness. Here from Isaiah (35) are words of encouragement and hope, driven by the Spirit, for you and for the groaning creation that is waiting for you:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,

and rejoice with joy and singing.

4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

“Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God who will come and save you.”

6then the lame shall leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

7the burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water;

10And the ransomed of the LORD shall return with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;

they shall obtain joy and gladness,

and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

 

* cited in Terry Tempest Williams The Hour of Land, p359

** Greg Brown “Two Little Feet” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3-fh6cLvpo

*** http://www.wilderness.net/NWPS/Thoreau

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sermon for Pride Sunday

on Psalm139:1,13-18; Luke10:25-37

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It strikes me that this story—even more than most—prompts us to locate ourselves, to see our place amid the it and which character we feel like.

We take the point that we should strive to be the Good Samaritan and so reflect on experiences saying, “Yeah, I did pretty well. I stopped and was helpful in such-and-such situations.” Or we may disappointedly recollect when we passed by and didn’t help, seeing ourselves more like the deficient religious officials.

As we gather here for Pride Sunday, we may be prepared to assign the role of the beaten-up, hurting, injured person to the community of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersexual, and identifying in other ways as queer. We may think this parable sets out a fairly simple process, then, of reflecting on the degree to which we can count ourselves as allies vs. where we’ve been slow to relieve oppression and injustice, when we should’ve done more.

I won’t say that that’s a bad question, but I think it also oversimplifies this amazing story from Jesus. If we boil it all down to a message of “I should help more,” it isn’t very alive as a story, it doesn’t breathe much, doesn’t call to us. Continually looking for how we can be self-justifying experts (like the man who questioned Jesus) or wanting to be the hero ends up eclipsing other meanings. (I had to get “eclipse” in here somehow.)

So another way to read parables from Jesus is to ask where he is or God is in that narrative. For example, when a story includes a rich landowner, we have often presumed that was a stand-in for God. In this one? Would we presume that Jesus himself could be the Good Samaritan?

Well, one of my favorite authors, Robert Capon—a favorite for tweaking our understanding to have to reconsider the story afresh—says: “The defining character—the one to whom the other three respond by being non-neighbor or neighbor—is the [one] who fell among thieves. The actual Christ-figure in the story, therefore, is yet another loser, yet another down-and-outer who, by just lying there in his lostness and proximity to death…is in fact the closest thing to Jesus in the parable.” Have you heard it that way before? Capon insists that this means our usual title for the parable is “egregiously misnamed” and continues “that Good Samaritan Hospitals have been likewise misnamed. It is the suffering, dying patients in such institutions who look most like Jesus…, not the doctors with their authoritarian stethoscopes around their necks. [And] it would have been much less misleading to have named them Man-Who-Fell-Among-Thieves Hospitals.”* Maybe you can sense why I like Robert Capon’s playful challenges and reconsiderations. For a Jesus of compassion who is identified with the cross, a man of suffering and acquainted with sorrow, he almost must be seen as the victim in this parable.

But with that degree of probing, we also need to ask again who the Samaritan character is. While generally we church professionals like to complain about biblical literacy and grouse how little “people nowadays” know of the Bible, in this case it might be the opposite: It’s a bit unfortunate that this is such a familiar story, since “Good Samaritan” has merely become synonymous with “do-gooder.” Yet the point in Jesus telling this is that the Samaritan should’ve been the least likely person to help. As opposed to our era of too much sexual abuse where clergy are immediately suspect, for the original hearers, it would’ve been presumed that the religious officials were the good guys. In the updated version, they would be cast as more like a firefighter and a nurse.

In that way, I remember hearing a version of this parable maybe a decade ago (though I couldn’t find it again now) that had a Robert Capon-esque twist. The Samaritan unlikely to stop to help in that version was portrayed as a rich businessperson in the back of a big black limousine, behind dark sunglasses. What really made me go searching for it this week was more specifically that that loaded limo-rider had been pictured as none other than Donald Trump. Again, this was before Trump as president and so much of what we know now. But in the last week, when he hasn’t done well even to speak kind words for the hurting, it may be even more shocking and unimaginable that Donald Trump could be bothered to aid the victim.

Yet that’s a representation of what Jesus’ story is depicting! The least likely one. The one you were sure would’ve wanted nothing to do with you. The one who, from any of our prejudices or presumptions or preconceptions, certainly would’ve passed right on by. But he stopped, inconvenienced himself, set his own interests and ambitions and profitability aside: he cared.

In still starker terms, the Bible conversation at Capital Brewery on Tuesday suggested a parallel that it’s as if an African American were injured in Charlottesville, and the person who came to help were wearing a swastika. The instant response to that offer of aid wouldn’t be gratitude but would be “get away from me.”

So, beginning to come back around with different conceptions in trying to recast this story to fit with Pride Sunday, we might have to say that the LGBTQ+ person is not the one injured. Instead most of us in the broader straight community might have to recognize ourselves as needing assistance, needing help, with the surprising (but I hope not offensive) shock that the gay or lesbian or otherly-gendered person is the one to offer aid. Extra surprising, because not only are we injured, lacking in goodness and righteousness, we are also the robbers who have caused the damage in the first place.

See, as we keep turning this story around, I believe today it’s not the most helpful so quickly to presume the LGBTQ+ community is the victim needing us straight folk to work up our do-gooder muster and come to the rescue. Instead maybe we should see the injury that we’ve caused, but also that we are in need of healing. Even though it should go without saying at this point, we’ll reiterate anyway: a non-conforming gender identity or non-heterosexual orientation is not the problem. That is not what needs healing or fixing or redemption. Instead, the queer community in our country, in this congregation, in many relationships has for so long born the load in giving with patient endurance and tireless persistence to bring the rest of us along as they offer us the vision that justice is worth struggling for, to redeem us from hatred, to help us value—each of us—our God-given identity, to help us see that our inherent worth isn’t because we match some societal standard but comes always and simply as a gift and blessing from God who knew us and held us from the time we were formed in the womb.

With that, I want to call your attention to one last parallel in the story. Just as we ask which character we are, let’s ask where the story itself is now, where we are on the road. Martin Luther King cleverly used to talk about the “Jericho Road Improvement Association” and said that acting as good Samaritans is only an initial act but “One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that [people] will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”**

On this Pride Sunday we pause to lament that it is not safe passage still for too many people—not safe passage into bathrooms or locker rooms, into public places and places of employment, recruiters’ offices and doctors’ offices, courtrooms and nightclubs, in encountering the words of the president and the words of family. And obviously way too many churches are the Jericho Road when for every possible reason they should have been sanctuaries, places of safety, refuge, support, good news, and love. That is what God intends and people need, but we have robbed that.

The actual Jericho road in Palestine is still a scary and intense place. Now closed off by a so-called security fence that’s also known as the apartheid wall, this ancient highway descends from Jerusalem up in the mountains, winding down to the lowest place on the face of the planet, 800 feet below sea level. From the air conditioned comfort of our bus, the travel group last fall experienced the modern version of this steep and rocky road, twisting sharply through sparse desert, bleak with parching heat. It was not easy to travel, this forlorn, precipitous, treacherous route.

Today, in our humid August weather, we also have the opportunity to travel figuratively what has been a dangerous road. We as a congregation march in the Madison Pride Parade maybe not to show how good we are, maybe not bearing much direct risk, but also to show we need healing, as the surprising Samaritans to confess that we Christians have far too long caused the problem and made the road harmful and fearsome. We march realizing that the Jericho Road needs improvement for all life’s travelers. We go down that road as witnesses expecting to encounter suffering and difficulty.  And that is why we will certainly find our longing and hurting Jesus today on the walk, and with him the amazements of healing, of reconciliation, and of overwhelming joy.

* Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, p212

** in “A Time to Break Silence,” A Testament of Hope, pp 284, 241

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a wedding sermon

for the Wedding of Colleen and Roanna

 

This is a rather formal event for in some way being a formality. Neither does it quite fit the traditional definition of a shotgun wedding, though there’s some element of that pressure and being under the gun here.

Which is to say that I’ve been reflecting on why we’re here today, what we’re doing, what this is about.

In the most basic regard, that might actually be a question about location. See, we know that you need to have a lawful signature on a piece of paper stored in a government building. We know that the previous way you’d been registered and officially partnered together is going away and so you need this new-fangled thing: a marriage license. Although for the question of why, we might first think to answer about insurance and legality. But for the simple sake of that signature, this could well have happened downtown in an office room. That it’s here instead extends the why question also to involve “where.”

As I told you Roanna and Colleen, I’d identify the central part of a wedding usually as the exchange of vows, those promises of love for each other. And though that captures some of the insurance sense of things with the standard promise of “in sickness and in health,” still after seventeen years (or so?), it doesn’t really seem like you two would need to do that formal promising. You’ve already been practicing those commitments and dedications of giving yourselves to each other in love for a long time, so this would seem like something not so new and doesn’t seem like exchanging those words will really change your relationship.

I suppose I also have to concede that even though I define the vows as the central moment of a wedding day, there’s probably at least as much validity in the popular notion that weddings are about parties, about getting the family and friends closets to you and dearest around to celebrate. So there’s strength to that explanation for this day, since something like your love for each other is indeed deserves enjoyment and to be praised and enlivened with good music and your relationship is well worth toasting.

We could also do well to notice that festivities and celebrations were where Jesus hung out. Though we don’t often think of him as a party animal, that was sort of the reputation he had in his own time, that he wasn’t one to avoid a good time. Particularly, we could observe that the only story about him at a wedding wasn’t to lecture on how to love or what is right or wrong, but simply as the beverage service to make sure the wine kept flowing. That Jesus!

While we’re on that track, we could—and should!—say that a very worthwhile reason for this wedding is because this is exactly what God wants. God is pro-love. God is in favor of your love. God celebrates your love and nurtures and sustains your love and accentuates your love. God blesses your love for each other, Colleen and Roanna, and God enables your love with God’s own love. As your Bible readings declare and proclaim for us, when we think of love, we’re envisioning godliness and practicing what God’s will is for our lives. You two bear God’s presence for each other, and then also extend God’s goodwill to our lives and to the world. The rest of us depend on your love as sharing God’s love for us.

And though that’s the message I am most eager to announce to you today, I feel it also needs to be paired with another word. As a straight white male and an official of the institutional church, I want to apologize. We or I must confess that part of the circumstance for this wedding and this moment here, once more on the “why” of today, is that places like this and people at least sort of like me for far too long have warped and controlled church and society to say your love was not right. I’m so sorry for that and am also very grateful, because you still asked me to be here today, because you are rightly faithful and you recognize and you continue to show us—through 17 years, in this moment, and on into the future—that you are engaged in the godly work of love, that your love is not only for each other but also makes our lives better, and, yes, God encourages your love, celebrates your love, and God blesses your love.

So thank you, Roanna and Colleen, and congratulations. Now let’s get on with this formal stuff to the heart of the day so we can party.

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sermon for Land Sunday

on Genesis3:14–19,4:8–16; Psalm139:7-10; Romans 5:12–17; Matthew 12:38-4020170806_100140[1]
As good as vacation was—and I’ll say more in a minute—I lament not being here with you last week.

Partly that’s just because I never like to miss. What we do here together is so important and so meaningful and so worthwhile that it’s hard to be away from your lives and our community and the growth of big bluestem in the prairie. I particularly missed being gone for the start of this Season of Creation. I would’ve loved to have been here for Larry Henning’s forest reflections and trust that you were well served by the Spirit’s work through his good words.

Had I been here, I would’ve probably done some explaining for you like this: the Season of Creation was developed by a Lutheran theologian in Australia intending to fill a gap with the usual lectionary, which can leave us thinking much too much about people. It’s not even theological at that point; it’s anthropological, not God-centered but people-centered. We close ourselves inside these doors, thinking about Jesus as fully human but not as fully creature of earth. We ignore that God’s work is almost infinitely more vast than us. As Psalm 8 declares, when we look up at the unfathomable cosmic distances it’s awesome that God could be mindful of us and relate to us and care for us, but God does! We need that promise, need it in the context of our small spot amid a creation that delights God and is delighted by God. It’s so faithfully vital for us, so vitally part of this faith. Without this locale and cosmic setting, our faith wouldn’t begin to be what it is. God wouldn’t be who God is. It’s not an add on, not just that we pause from other things to think about creation and nature and the environment for four weeks out of the year.

And yet, amid my excitement about celebrating these weeks of the Season of Creation and finding them so core to what we should be always understanding, still this week comes as a shock. Instead of setting out to explore the gift of land, of the amazing diversity of how it encounters us, how it is formed and re-formed, instead of the delights and the blooming desert in Isaiah or the quaking earth of Elijah or the fertile soils of the Promised Land or even the stuff that inches out to be separate from the waters in the beginning and is seen as good, instead I come back from vacation to a curse and a struggle. A double whammy from the book of Genesis. Gee, thanks Genesis.

It’s not just me being thrown into this on my return from vacation. The whole story could feel that way. Life had barely begun in the Garden of Eden. We would’ve preferred more time to lounge around in paradise before the problems, but that’s not the function of the story. I would contend it’s less of an origin story and more intended to portray the current state of things. It’s not trying to cast blame back to some prototypical Adam and Eve, but is simply addressing the realities we already know to be true, the struggles we regularly exist amid, voicing that things just won’t go right in our relationships. As it’s set up for us on this Land Sunday, the main focus is what our relationship to land ought to be, but also where that’s gone wrong.

The question about curse, then, traveled with me on vacation through all kinds of lands. For the most obvious, I was last at Badlands National Park. With a name almost verbatim declaring curse, there’s wide and long agreement on the badness of these lands. For hundreds of years the native Lakota referred to them as makoshika: land of bad spirits, or bad land. French trappers concurred with the name les mauvais terres. Park service publications say these names “invoke visions of a harsh and inhospitable landscape, where dangers lurk down every canyon.” While they do warn of rattlesnake bites (which I won’t overemphasize as connection to the serpent in Genesis), the broader set of safety concerns amid the Badlands listed includes thirst and sunburn and stubbed toes and slippery-when-wet slopes and getting lost.

None of that seems awful enough, though, to account for the curse in Genesis. Those lands aren’t bad just because they offer extremes of dehydration or risk of fall; these difficulties in the Badlands paradoxically highlight their endurance. We go to the difficult-to-traverse Badlands specifically to traverse them, to wander the trails, to strain our muscles and bruise our knees. Our nation hasn’t thrown them to the trashheap but has especially set them aside, saving and conserving them as a nationally celebrated location, drawing a million visitors per year.

But our relationship to these lands is also in portrayed by my favorite historical phrase about Bryce Canyon National Park from its original white settler: “it’s a helluva place to lose a cow.” Our stock phrase is that it’s a good place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. We are stuck with some view of land, then, as its utility or profitability to us. If farming can’t easily happen in the Badlands, that is precisely what makes them “bad.”

This tension is still sharper in Utah, with over a million acres of land set aside as wilderness, a term defined in law as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” (Again, we’ll leave aside for today the connections to Genesis’ curse of that sexist language that doesn’t say anything about how long women might stay in wilderness.) We’d have to admit that the wild lands of Utah and elsewhere, though rich in beauty and sometimes fragile in ecological value, are mostly set aside because they weren’t viewed as useful to us otherwise. Basically, they didn’t have farms on them.

We could pause to say this has been an exceptionally long trend. This is mostly how the Bible parses land, as well: that there’s desert that isn’t a place for people but is a haunt of jackals and ostriches (eg, Isaiah 34:13). On the other side is good land, even Promised Land, with orchards and fields. We’ve simply gone on to transpose that sense into our setting. Here in “God’s country,” with the rich loams of the Midwest as garden to feed us, we figure we must be amid promise and not curse.

More ambivalently, Utah’s land is not farmed or dwelt in, not humanized, so it can be set aside as wilderness…right until it can’t. Then we fight over land’s meaning. I’ve been reading Edward Abbey describing Glen Canyon as the most beautiful ever* with all the animals that called it home, until we decided we could have our use for it, which was to destroy it under a reservoir and the beautiful canyon was dammed and damned. And we cherish Arches National Park and Canyonlands, observes Terry Tempest Williams**, until we find that there is natural gas we could mine under the park, and then we’re eager to get rid of the wilderness designation and make use of the place.

The point is to question cursedness. Instead of anything inherently making locations bad lands—the topography or soil quality—it’s about our relationship and when we try to claim away from it instead of preserving and caring for it as it is. Amid the struggle—these thorns and briars, we lose sight of the land as good and focus only on what we can get out of it. It’s not just western abuses, but how our corporate farming practices are extractive industries pulling life from the soil. That’s not God cursing the land. It’s us.

And then we finally pull our own life from the soil, extracting ourselves from the ground where we, too, were meant to be planted. That is such a fascinating detail in the account of Cain and Abel. Even when he’s dead and gone, Abel’s blood can cry out from the ground. Something of his life remains there in place. But Cain is displaced. Genesis is compressing generations of human development (or, as we usually call it, progress), where the lifestyle of the nomadic herdsmen goes away and the farmer comes to dominate, but then the farmer leaves the land and—in the last verse—moves away. The ultimate point in the reading is that he’s gone to the city, from rural and land-connected to urban and separated from God. Again, this is the pattern we still see. Ultimately in cultural conversation, it’s not a struggle between Wisconsin agriculture and Utah wilderness. Both are derided in the popular term “flyover country.” They’re diminished, as if only the cities are the place of culture, the place for humans, while the land—all land—is oddly separate and remote and problematic. That is the final characteristic of the curse: not only are our relationships with each other broken down, between genders, in families. The ground cries out as our very relationship with it is lived out as a struggle, as something to be overcome, as we see it not as garden gift but as curse, as something to get away from.

For the good of life, we need to realize our humanity with and in the humus, connected and dependent, as earthlings. But instead we’re quite literally uprooted. This has implications for our sense of place, for governmental policy, for the food we eat, and on and on. That’s huge and dire and I’ve said terribly little of good news.

Even though the readings leave us here, we know this isn’t the end. If we speak of curse without getting to redemption and reconciliation, our Christian message is incomplete. For brief forecasts of that blessing beyond condemnation, we might take it as actually good that “to dust you shall return,” that you aren’t forever estranged but in your end are reconciled with the earth and recycled and recreated. Maybe in the words of Jesus’ burial we see a godly replanting, that life is meant to be in and of earth for good, even then of God putting us back in our place, that God kills the curse and redeems death.

Finally, then, is the place of God in Genesis. I want you to notice that although all kinds of relationships—with neighbor and with creation—are seen as struggle, as broken down, as accursed, that is not a description of relationship with God. The relationship with God is not described here as cursed. Though Cain may stray and find himself in a place where the relationship is strained, and God’s presence feels further, God will not cut you off. Jesus comes to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found.

(Hymn of the Day: Joy to the World)

* The Monkey Wrench Gang, p64

** The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, p253-299

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