far as the curse is found

At Bethany this month, we’re joining brothers and sisters in New Zealand and Australia in celebrating a Season of Creation.  The Season of Creation is an opportunity to celebrate God’s activity as the creator and sustainer of all.  We spend time praising God, confessing our sins as fallible caretakers of God’s world, embracing our kinship with God’s creatures, and proclaiming the good news that Jesus renews all creation.

Our texts for Sunday were a portion of the second creation story in Genesis and the great passage in Romans 8 where Paul describes all of creation as groaning, as if in labor.  

The most fun part of the day though, was singing Joy to the World after the sermon.  It’s always fun to sing a Christmas carol out of season and yesterday was no exception.  Hear the words afresh:

Thoughts on the texts after the jump…

***

This is my first time celebrating a Season of Creation.  I like it.  I like setting aside some time to give thanks for God’s work as creator, and to reflect on how God continues to sustain and nurture all of creation.  It forces a perspective shift, doesn’t it?  It brings new accents to the fore and highlights things we might not have noticed.

Take the Genesis passage, for example.  It’s from the longer narrative of the Garden of Eden.  You know the story.  God creates a garden and creates Adam and Eve and sets them within this garden, forbidding them from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  They decide, however, that they know better, and eat the fruit anyway.  And, as all choices do, this choice has consequences.

Because of their decision to follow their own way rather than God’s, they are alienated from God, from each other, and here we come to the third part in our text for today.  They are also alienated from the land.

I’d never really paid much attention to this part, to be honest.  What with the snake slithering around, and the nudity, and the fiery angels guarding the garden, I’d never really paused here where God says, because of what you’ve done, the land will be cursed.  You’ll have to work hard to get food from the earth from now on.  It won’t be easy, and there will be thorns and weeds.

This story, like the first creation story in Genesis 1, is an effort to describe what the world looks like: who are we, where are we, what’s our situation.  And at its core the most basic conclusion is something we all know deep down inside—things aren’t as they should be, as they were meant to be.  Things are broken.  There’s brokenness deep down inside of us that makes us willful, choosing things that bring us death rather than life.  And that’s where our reading of this story usually stops.

But there’s more, and reading this now, in the midst of the season of creation exposes that.  It’s not just us upright two-legged creatures who must wrestle with being broken.  No.  We read here that the land, too, is broken.  When we fell, we pulled the earth down with us.

It’s kind of a radical concept.  We usually think of goodness, wholeness, perfection, as being categories that apply to us, not to the earth.  Nature just is.  Sure there are apples that are more red and round than others, but overall we think of the land and all it brings forth as self-contained systems that more or less just work as they should.  That’s what’s behind the idea that if we were to just leave nature alone it would all be just fine, or that the more “natural” something is, the better.  God made the land good, and good it remains.

But the witness in Genesis complicates that picture.  It asserts that the earth too is broken, as well as our relationship with it.  And truth be told, I think we know this too, deep down in our guts.

We tend to blame it on our modern lifestyles.  We’re estranged from the land, we say.  We don’t know where our food comes from.  We don’t live by the rhythms of daylight and night anymore.  We don’t see the havoc our trash wreaks on the land.  All of these impulses point to the underlying sense that something’s not quite right between us and the land, something’s broken here.  When we fell, the land fell with us.

And then we come to the Romans text, which addresses the problem more explicitly.  Paul writes, all creation has been subjected to transience and futility.  Indeed, all of creation is groaning, in pain, as if in labor.

Creation is groaning, the land itself groans.  What a vivid, moving image.  And how true it rings right now as the earth shakes in new places and ever more violently; as fires rage across the dry southwest and the east coast floods; as drought threatens crops and drinking water dwindles; as the glaciers melt and the oceans rise.  Do you hear it?  The groaning?

But, and it’s a big but, the groaning that Paul tells us about is not in vain.  It is groaning as if in labor.  And here’s the other big surprise of the day.  Not only is our brokenness and the land’s brokenness tied up together, but our redemption is as well.  That’s the witness of Romans: God intends to redeem not just you and me and all the other two-legged creatures, but all, all of creation.  In Christ not only did God act to save us, but also the earth itself.

What does that even mean?  It’s such an unexpected idea that if it weren’t right there in Romans, I’m not sure I’d take it seriously.

It’s a crazy word of hope, isn’t it?  This land, this earth that God created, is not destined to be the same forever, to be broken in fundamental ways.  And our relationship with the land isn’t either.  We will not always be enemies of the earth.  Rather, God’s creative work continues; something new is being born.

We can’t see what that will be, can we?  That’s what Paul’s getting at with this hope business.  We’ve seen the first fruits in Christ and maybe in our own lives as we try to follow Christ—we’ve seen that life triumphs over death, that love gets the last word, that a grave need not be the end.  But we haven’t seen the whole picture.  We, like all of creation, wait with hope, with trust for the new thing that God is doing in our midst.  We live in this in-between time and we are sustained through all of this groaning by the promise that the groaning is not the last word.  There will be a new life at the end of it all, for us and for the land, too.

Here’s the next question, though.  And I’ll put it bluntly: so what?  So what if the earth is broken like we are, and so what if it’s going to be made new?  What does that have to do with us, with how we live, and what we live for?  It may be interesting that Genesis describes the world as cursed, and it may be neat to read Romans talking about the redemption of all creation, but so what?  What difference does it make?

Let me suggest this as a possibility: it’s a matter of perspective.  Having the right perspective matters.  How we see things makes a difference, and bringing things into focus, seeing them as they really are is often the first step in repairing a broken relationship.

Think about it, with a friend for example.  If my friend is short with me on the phone, how I understand that encounter makes a difference.  If I assume that she’s just being a jerk and doesn’t care about me at all, well that’s one conclusion.  If I assume she must have had a really bad day, that’s another matter entirely.  And if I consider the possibility that I’ve hurt her feelings or offended her, that’s yet another situation.  And each suggests different ways to repair the breach.  Putting the disagreement into proper perspective is the first step back toward a relationship.

Perhaps it is similar with the land.  Having the right perspective about our earth and our relationship toward it is a first step.

If we view the earth as just the backdrop while we’re the ones who God really cares about, the only ones who count, well that’s one thing.  It’s another thing entirely to consider that the land—the earth and trees and waters and all of God’s creation—is itself part of the play, that the land is within God’s concern, that it all counts, too.  I think that is a core assumption in both the Genesis and Romans text.  We’re not the only ones who matter.  The land does too.  And we’re all connected.

Viewing our earth through this lens, the biblical lens, changes the perspective, and that shift in perspective is the first step back toward healing and wholeness.

And then there’s the other thing it offers: hope, a way forward.

Our broken relationship with the land can be tremendously overwhelming.  How on earth are we going to do enough to slow the melting of the glaciers or the dying of the fish or the erosion of top soil or the disappearance of drinking water?  How can we possibly tend all of the land that God’s placed in our care?  That sense of being overwhelmed and powerless paralyzes us.  We feel like tiny little fish swimming against the flow of a mighty river.  And for what?

And here’s where the good news comes in and shifts the perspective, pulls the camera out and gives us a wide angle shot.  Contrary to how we may feel, to what we might be able to see, we are, in truth, part of God’s mighty, on-going work of redemption in Christ, a work that promises to renew all of creation, from the very bottom of our hearts to the very edges of the cosmos.

Our care for the earth is not a misplaced, starry-eyed dream.  Far from it.  It’s part of the life of discipleship; it’s part of Christ’s work in the world even now, perhaps now more than ever.  In theological circles folks sometimes talk about the cosmic Christ, meaning Christ post-resurrection who is at once within our hearts, and also made incarnate in the church, and still reigning in glory over it all.  Isn’t that a cool phrase?  The cosmic Christ?  It makes clear that there is nothing, not one little thing, in all of this vast creation that is outside of the redeeming, healing, saving reach of Christ.

And we, as followers of that cosmic Christ, are called to have similarly broad love.  Out here, on the western edge of this continent, when we talk about land, we have a sense of how very vast land can be.  God’s love for the land is even more vast than the farthest horizon, mightier than Mount Ranier, deeper than the sound.

As God’s children we are called to witness to, to make incarnate God’s on-going love for the land.  We’re called to ask what is God’s will for this earth, and how can I live in accord with that will.  Asking those questions is not a matter of being a tree-hugger or a particular political affiliation.  It’s a matter of following Christ, in whom the redemption of all lands has begun.

And though sometimes the task seems utterly too much, we have hope.  We have hope in what we have not yet seen.  We have hope in the renewal of this earth. We have hope that the groaning is not in vain but is part of God’s labor to bring about a new heaven and a new earth, as well as new hearts within us each.  And we have hope in what scripture has promised us.  Throughout our Bible we are told of God’s intention for the earth.  This is the promise on which we stake our hope, the perspective within which we labor, the end for which we strive:

In the beginning God created this land, and it was good.  In the beginning, God made the land to nurture people and made people to care for the land.  And throughout scripture we are told that when God’s will is done the land will flourish, the mighty rivers will flow strong and true, the land will bring forth abundant food, food for all to eat, the hills will bloom and the trees of the field will clap their hands.  The fertility of the land will be such that the poets described it as flowing with milk and honey.  The more cautious said only that in the day of the Lord, we will each sit under our own vine and fig tree and none of us will be afraid.  Yes, come the day of the Lord, our relationship with the land will be restored once and for all.

Until then we labor, we toil by the sweat of our brow, but we do not labor in vain.  We do not work and pray and eat sustainably and cut our carbon emissions and recycle and all the rest in vain.  We do it with hope, strong hope, resting on God’s promise that as far as that curse is found, the curse from way back in Genesis, as far as that curse is found, so far will God’s mercy extend.  We live with the land in such a way that bears witness to the new creation God has begun, the new creation that even now is groaning, crying out, laboring to be born.  Thanks be to God.

by Sarah W. Wiles
September 11, 2011
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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