Planet Earth Sunday

sermon on Genesis1; Psalm33; John1:1-5,9-14
planet earth

It’s one way of talking about this enormous thing, to say that it is well ordered and in harmony, that each part has its place and time, that all of this is good and doing what it ought, that there is fullness and intention about creation.

With Genesis, we’ve been warped for around a century to think it’s primarily trying to convey a timeline of seven days, and that that’s the detail trying to assert itself over against some other as the Bible talked about this enormous thing of existence on planet Earth. But let’s hold as most important the harmonious order and blessedness as what Genesis is trying to help us comprehend of creation: It is good.

Another way of talking about it, of course, is a story where the planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago, consolidating out of interstellar dust of a solar nebula, taking shape with gravity and volcanoes and tectonics, gradually over eons and eras, epochs and ages. It comes out of an even more enormous story, three times as long, across the expansive scale of an expanding universe. It resolves that we may in the end not be unique or alone, but we are rare: one planet with breathable oxygen and liquid water, in a Goldilocks zone of neither too hot or cold. Is this one also, then, a story about good order coming out of former chaos? Maybe. At any rate, it is another way of trying to help us understand this enormous planet.

Sure, it’s a different way of talking about this enormous topic of trying to comprehend planet Earth. Actually much of any overlap between the two versions could almost be a surprise, other than that they’re both trying to understand it all. For one example, the word “planet” doesn’t even appear in the Bible, since at that time they thought all of this was fairly well established and didn’t know we could be wandering through a solar system and so on. But neither was their perspective entirely limited; in the language of the heavens and the earth, they were still trying to comprehend the enormity of everything, as much as they could understand.

On the other side, we may appreciate the greater knowledge of the scale of a globe in orbit and delineated fields of study, but that approach is still limited in scope or capability since the audacity to claim or label or attribute or value “good“ is not a scientific category or term, much less themes of blessing and God.

So in the beginning of this Season of Creation with planet Earth, there’s something about trying to wrap our minds around incomprehensible enormity. The Bible talks about the “ends of the Earth” as the term for what is incredibly distant and different, but still as if we could eventually get there if we knew the right direction to point our camel or if we trusted our boat. We now talk about the core and mantle, seismography, atmospheric and oceanic currents, as if we could go there or know where they were going. By one measure, 99% of species that have existed have gone extinct—over 5 billion. By another estimate, there are 1 trillion species existing right now, and we have identified .001% of them and hardly know where or how to look.

Explorations, vacations, and learning may enrich us, but what finally do we do with this Incomprehensible enormity? Well, one thing is to shrink the planet to our scale. I only partly mean the scale model of globes and maps, though those do help us understand. More, I mean that I personally comprehend the planet Earth better by driving north. I got to do that this week, where at about Black River Falls it feels more like my neck of the woods, eventually on to where my dad and I fitted together some pieces of the Earth to build our cabin. The opposite for me is driving south and at about the Illinois border I feel out of place, the flatness feeling featureless, not its own problem but for me making the Earth less comprehensible. The deepest in my soul is at about Shell Lake heading north, where trees get bigger and thicker and the clouds are somehow the right white puffiness, or when winter hits, all imprinted on my identity (or so my hunch goes) from my Spooner birthplace.

In spite of that knowable location to feel secure amid the incomprehensible enormity, I’m not ready to concede our mobile society suffers from rootlessness, that we’re just tumbling weeds across a vacant landscape, at risk without connection to place. We are still and always earthlings from the earth, adams from adamah, humans of the humus, still and always part of this creation, amid the web, inextricably linked, no matter how well we recognize or comprehend it.

Nor, clearly, am I trying to say people shouldn’t move, that migration is unacceptably against our nature or that people would be best to stay in the place or country where they were born.

Maybe the two enormous stories we’ve been considering actually commend immigration to us, that there are reasons and explanations for why not only people or birds or whales or monarchs move around the planet, but also those air and water currents and cycles, and on bigger scale erosion and deposition, forming and dissolving the very rocks and whole continents, and the spinning planet Earth itself. We can explain but not control this far-from-stationary existence.

The Genesis story, meanwhile, encourages us to understand that our stations and movements are for good, in service of life, as a part of the whole. It may seem to be described as more ordered and ruled and domineering in Genesis—that everything is in its place, there are prescribed times of night and day and season, that the moon shouldn’t shine at day and a penguin ought to be in the air as a bird and so is in the wrong place if it’s swimming. It was written by priests, guys who liked classifying and defining and knowing what’s what, like the scientist who tries to explain and categorize her research.

So it’s left to the rest of us to live in the overlaps, the gray areas, the reality of life that can’t be fully explained or ordered or comprehended, that doesn’t fit easy descriptions or precisely narrowed categories.

But rather than that just returning us to our own small corner of creation, that we do the best we can to make sense of our individual lives, identifying the place we like, where we feel we fit in, ignoring all the distinctions and complexities for others, rather than being relegated to such a weak resolution, as if that’s the best we can do or understand and that the enormity of the whole thing is too much, let’s turn to the even more enormous—to take the complex incomprehensible gray areas, the uncertainties of life, of more than we can possibly know, even the unclear distinctions of good and bad and what really is our place and infuse that with the presence of God. That’s really when we lose track of being able to explain.

Yet this is the trustworthy message of Scripture: the glory and presence of the Lord fills the earth, spreads across and through it all. We are never separated from God’s love, least of all when we feel most overcome and defeated, uncertain and lost. The point of talking about the “ends of the Earth” in the Bible is that even as far away and different and unknowable as that might be, it is not out of God’s reach. There is nowhere to go apart from God.

You can bet that if the Bible’s authors had known planets or galaxies or space travel or paleontology of dinosaurs facing an asteroid or quarks and neutrinos or even something so obviously part of creation as the band at a biergarten as Karen Schwarz pointed out, then those authors would’ve included those among the certainties of God’s blessing for goodness.

If they could have comprehended your life more clearly, directly because the promise seems so incomprehensible, they would have more clearly offered assurances of God’s blessing and goodness for you.

Instead that’s why you come for sermons, for this weekly updating, confronting the latest incomprehensible complexities and disorder of your life—or sometimes the predictable routines—the stuff you see as good and the stuff you struggle with as not good at all, your explorations and investigations, all met with the renewed reassured promise of God’s goodness and blessing not only at the center of a solar system or layered across a planet or in generic life cycles, but specifically for you and with you. God loves Illinois as much as the northwoods, junkyards as much as wild canyons, you as much as the saints of old, even if in different ways, as unfathomably incomprehensible as that might be.

And that is also the place of faith, receiving the incomprehensible, receiving this one who comes for enlightenment, to dwell with you. You know it in Jesus, the Word who became flesh and lived among us, and you know it as he now is present in this Word, becoming flesh and living again in you.

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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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