This sermon on Genesis 2:5-15 is being offered to the Brooks-Howell Retirement Community this Earth Day, April 22, via Zoom by NCIPL & Eco-Justice Connection Program Coordinator, Sarah Ogletree.
In the Garden of Eden, at the place where four ancient rivers claim their beginnings, humanity also takes shape. We are told in this creation account that humanity comes into being through the dust of the Earth, the soil of this place, and the very breath of God.
After the human is formed, Genesis 2 recalls God’s planting of trees that nourish both body and spirit through their fruit and their beauty. We learn too of the trees of life and knowledge located in this oasis and place of emergence. And after orienting us to the landscape, the geology and geography of Eden, Genesis 2:15 names that the human is placed by God in the garden to till it and keep it.
We learn in this passage that we are connected, from our earliest beginning, to the land and the Divine. In this passage, we are placed with purpose to till and keep. This account of creation offers us a glimpse and a reminder of our identity as people of God and Earth. People with a mandate of care for the whole—young and ancient rivers, microbes, and all communities of life. In this passage, we find that our connection to the work of ecological justice begins at our beginning. Earth has always been sacred, and we have always had a role to play in loving and safeguarding each other and the places that hold and sustain us.
It is my hope this Earth Day, that remembering our beginning might help us remember our responsibility. The mandate of creation care is in our bones and our breath. Remembering is our starting point. And so, who are we—the people of God and Earth? Let’s go back to the text.
In Genesis 2:7, when the Divine creates the human from the dust of the ground and the breath of their lungs, we are offered the foundation of our identity. As my mentor and friend at Wake Forest School of Divinity Fred Bahnson would say, this is where we learn that we are “soil people.” God molds us, shapes us, from living communities of soil—from mud and moisture and all that lives therein. This is a vital aspect of who we are. The word for man or human in Hebrew is “adam.” The word for soil is “adamah.” We are the adam from adamah. We are made of soil stuff and star stuff. We are made through Earth with God.
We are also made in God’s image. The concept of the imago dei, our being created in the image of God, has powerful implications for the work of ecological justice and who we are called to be. If we are made from soil, and we are made in God’s image, then God inhabits Earth. God too is connected to the life of this world and this place… This idea is beautifully depicted through a poem by Scott Cairns in which he imagines the making of humanity. He writes,
God lay back, running His hands over the damp grasses, and in deep contemplation, reached into the soil, lifting great handfuls of trembling clay to His lips, which parted to avail another breath. With this clay God began to coat His shins, cover His thighs, His chest. He continued this layering, and, when He had been wholly interred, He parted the clay at His side, and retreated from it, leaving the image of Himself to wander in what remained of that early morning mist.
Friends, we are the image of God wandering in that early morning mist. We are the animated soil. This genesis, our genesis, calls us to see ourselves and know each other as the imago dei beautifully and wonderfully made within the web of life, within the ecosystem, as a part of the creation that we are called to love and protect.
Now that we know and remember who we are, let us consider how we can live faithfully into this identity by turning to Genesis 2:15. In this verse, we are told that the Lord God placed the human in the garden to till it and keep it. These words in Hebrew are “avad” and “shamar.” If we look more closely at their roots, we find a mandate of creation care and climate and environmental justice.
First, biblical scholar and theologian, Ellen Davis, of Duke Divinity School notes that a more accurate interpretation of avad within the context of Genesis 2:15 would be “to preserve.” The word avad is used throughout the biblical text to evoke notions of service—and particularly serving God. A similar revelation takes place when considering the word shamar. Davis translates this term as “actively guarding or protecting.” The Lord God took the human and placed them in the garden to preserve and protect it. Davis tells us that this call to preservation and protection in Genesis 2:15 is our first human job description.
I love this. I love grounding our vocation as humans, people of God and Earth, in the protection and preservation of creation—in the protection and preservation of us all. We are called to protect all creatures—human and non-human. We are called to preserve the land. We are called to challenge systems that oppress, degrade, harm, and kill. We are called to the work of imagining, and bringing into being, a world that is just and compassionate and beautiful and sustaining. The work of preserving and protecting is hard and holy work that demands that we step boldly into the work of justice. It is a vocation that calls us to truth-telling and radical love.
We cannot preserve and protect this world without caring, and advocating for, our natural systems. We cannot preserve and protect our communities without coming to know, value, and understand our rivers and forests. We cannot preserve and protect without fully embodying our identities, without knowing the feeling of soil beneath our fingernails and celebrating birdsong. We cannot preserve and protect the creation without acknowledging that we belong to each other—that all of us within the web of creation are connected; that our lives, and health, and wholeness are deeply intertwined.
Beloved, we cannot preserve and protect creation without acknowledging the sin of systemic racism and the reality that it is our Black, Brown, Indigenous, and impoverished neighbors who feel the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation first and worst. We cannot ignore the ways that women are disproportionately harmed by the impacts of climate change. We cannot ignore how people with different abilities are harmed by a world in which the services they need are harder to access—a world that will become more and more of a reality without courageous, just, and equitable climate action.
We cannot ignore these realities, we cannot be silent, and we cannot fail to act. Through our vocation of preservation and protection, we are called to individual and systemic actions that shape our world for the flourishing of each other and all of God’s creatures. We are called to work for racial, economic, disability, and gender justice because the work of preservation and protection demands that we care for each other tangibly. Our calling to preservation and protection is a calling to challenge and upend systems of white supremacy and values that emphasize profit over people and place. We are called to the way of the gospel and to the building of authentic relationships and beloved community.
Feminist poet and essayist, Audre Lorde, said that “there is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.” Aboriginal artist and activist, Lilla Watson, told us that our liberation is bound up with each other. In the work for ecological justice, in the work of preservation and protection, we must act with and for each other and the fullness of the places that sustain us.
I want to offer a way for us to ground these ideas, and one way that I believe we can do that is through adoption of naturalist Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic.” Published in 1949 as the finale to A Sand County Almanac, Leopold’s “Land Ethic” essay is a call for moral responsibility to the natural world. At its core, the idea of a land ethic is simply caring about people, about land, and about strengthening the relationships between them. Importantly to our conversation, a land ethic expands the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of Earth: soils, waters, plants, and animals, or what Leopold called “the land.” The relationships between people and land are intertwined. Care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. The land ethic is the moral code of conduct that grows out of these interconnected caring relationships.
This expansive definition of community is central to our work and who we are called to be. In order to care for our communities with ethics of preservation and protection, we must know them holistically. We must adopt a land ethic, and in the vein of Saint Fancis of Assasi, we must come to call the moon our brother and the sun our sister. We must come to know each other as family—seeing in each other’s eyes the reflection of the Divine and a vital part of the creation to which we belong.
The work of intersectional environmentalist, Leah Thomas, builds on Leopold’s vision and our calling as people of faith. She explains intersectional environmentalism “as an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people and the planet.” This, friends, is what is what it means to preserve and protect.
Going forth from this place on the 51st anniversary of the first Earth Day, it is my hope that we will remember our identity as people of Earth and God. It is my hope that we will recommit to our vocation of preservation and protection. It is my hope that we will remember that we need each other—that we belong to each other. It is my hope that this work of remembering will lead to prophetic and just action for the goodness of all. As we engage in efforts for creation care like gardening, composting, and energy efficiency, may we join our voices in a chorus of morality to hold our leaders accountable to the equitable environmental action we so desperately need.
May we preserve and protect the garden we belong to and the many communities that contribute to its thriving. The world we desire—built of love, and hope, and justice, and welcome—it is waiting for us. May we imagine that world, and create it, together.