Earth Day Weekend ~ April 23, 2017

Print Friendly

Dr. Norman Wirzba
Earth Day Weekend
Sunday, April 23, 2017


I was raised by German immigrants in western Canada. Many of these folks had been living in the Blood Lands, which is the region between Germany and Russia. They were mostly farmers. After the war, of course, their lands were confiscated, which meant that if they managed, they could get to western Germany and start over. And so you would think that these are people who would look for any other kind of occupation besides farming because, as you may or may not know, farming is hard work. It’s work that is not very well compensated. It’s not work that is much admired by the halls of power, ever. And so this was a golden opportunity for them to do something different, where they might enjoy something like a bi-weekly or a monthly paycheck and vacation days.

Many of them decided to move to western Canada because there were so few opportunities for them in western Germany. And when they came and settled in southern Alberta, many of them took up farming. And I wonder why, because it is such hard work. But, somehow, these are people who believed that taking care of animals, tending fields, growing food for family and community; that this was important work to do. And not just important work, but also good work. Our farm was in the shadow of the western Rockies, and all the years that I worked with my grandfather, we managed to get him to the Rockies only once.

I remember hiking with him, and we had gone up into this high pass where there was a mountain lake, absolutely gorgeous, and I said “Opa, is this not the most beautiful place you’ve been?” And he said “Oh, Norman, this is so beautiful, God does wonderful things, but when can I go home? I miss my animals.” This is astounding because these animals are the kinds of critters that kept him up at night and once, he got too close to a bull that nearly killed him.  He wanted to be with them because he felt it was where he belonged, and he knew it to be the place of his joy.

I’m really grateful for this farming community that raised me because they taught me so many valuable things, but I’m also deeply puzzled. Because our church was a church that was made up of farmers and gardeners, and if you had been around on Thanksgiving, which in Canada happens a little earlier, you would have come into a church, in which the altar at the front of the church was absolutely packed with food. Bushels of grain and corn, bales of hay, every vegetable you can imagine, even the meat that was grown on these farms made its appearance.

So these are people who are very much aware of how agriculture, gardening was their life. After the service we would go downstairs and have a feast that was beyond imagining, it was so good. When I look back upon this congregation, I’m astounded to think that in all those years I never once heard a sermon called ‘God the Gardener.’ I wonder, how could this be? A congregation of gardeners and farmers who never talked about how God is presented to us in scripture as a gardener and as a farmer.

Think of that most beloved Psalm, Psalm 23 begins ‘the Lord is my shepherd.’ Do we think of that image? Or think of Psalm 65 that was sung so beautifully by the choir this morning. You have to imagine God here as a farmer showing up in his overalls, with a bucket and a hoe, dispensing seed in the ground, watering its furrows and tending over a field in which there is so much produce that the wagons overflow and drip ripeness. A land of fertility and fecundity and flavor, so much that all the creatures praise God and clap their hands. Or think of how in the New Testament, in the Gospels, we find Jesus communicating the kingdom of God, the life of God in the language of plants, in the language of gardening.

I think, if you were to try to remove from the scriptures the imagery of gardening and farming, you would have a much depleted scripture. When you think about the fact that the Israelites spoke about God as a farmer and as a gardener, we should be astounded. Because in the ancient context in which these Israelites gave us the scriptures, they lived amongst peoples and cultures in which the creation of the world was done by a god who makes things through violence. So warrior God, who subdues and coerces and dominates, and this is a god to truly be frightened of, which is why so many of the people in these traditions were fearful of the god that brought them into being.

I think that sometimes as Christians, we believe in that sort of a god. We believe in the god who is distant, far away, up in the sky somewhere, mostly disinterested, mostly angry. So we worry about this god, when this God might smite us. Forgetting, as Julian of Norwich once said that God could never be angry for if God were to become angry with us we would die.

First impressions matter. Who is the God that we worship? Is it a distant God? Is it an angry God? If you read scripture from the beginning like every good reader does, we don’t find the warrior God, we don’t find the distant God. It’s no accident that when the Israelites wanted to give us the first impression of who God is, they give us a picture of God as a gardener, who is intimate with the world that God creates; who tends to the world that has been created.

You have to imagine the scene: upon coming into the Garden of Eden, you would not see God on a throne, you would not see God on the clouds; you would find God on God’s knees in the soil. Playing with soil, holding the soil in the cup of God’s hands, and then not flinging the soil about, but kissing it, by breathing into it the life that becomes you and me. And the life that becomes the plants, and the flowers and the shrubs and the trees, and all the animals of the land, and all the birds of the sky. All of them are soil animated by God’s breath. Which is to communicate that every breath you take is founded more intimately and profoundly in the breath of God circulating through you.

God has fierce intimacy with the world that God creates. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that, as human beings, we are above the ground, but the naming of the first human being as ‘Adam’ is a warning to us never to forget the ground, the soil, the atoms, from which we come, on which we daily depend for our food, and to which we shall return upon death. It is true that God loves you and me, but before God loves you and me, God loves the soil. Because soil is that incredible, mysterious matrix, out of which all terrestrial life comes and returns.

Have you thought much about soil? We don’t think too much because we have, as a generation of people, become those who have decided to flee from the ground for pursuits that are much more important. In our forgetting of the soil, what we have done is we have also lost touch with this most mundane, practical, and intimate expression of the presence of God in our world. We have become people who in forsaking the ground have also turned our backs on the place where God’s love is first and foremost at work.

Soil is no simple thing. It is the place of hospitality – the place where life and death are welcomed and there nurtured so that yet new life can emerge and grow. Imagine if for even a short while the soil were to cease in its hospitable work. As Walt Whitman said, “We would be overcome by the stench of dead bodies on the earth if not for the soil that welcomes this death and transforms it into the basis for new life.”

God loves the soil, God takes care of the soil, and God takes care of all the life that comes out of this soil, which includes you and me. The care that God exercises with the soil is not an abstraction. We have much to learn from this work that God does because God is present to the soil daily, intimately in the mode, first of all, of presence and attention. Forget the idea that God is distant and far removed and uninterested in the life that is happening here because as the gardener, God is daily attending to the garden. If you are a gardener, you know exactly what is being talked about here because there could be no successful garden, no delicious fruit, if as a gardener you decided to walk away, to become negligent.

Gardens thrive because they are places where the love of God can be met with our own love and attention. So that in becoming present to these gardens, we become the kinds of people who can enact the kinds of care, the kinds of nurture, the kinds of protection, and, yes, the forms of celebration that emerge from the garden in the forms of a ripe tomato, a delicious raspberry. God doesn’t walk away from the garden, and, importantly, in our reading from Genesis, God takes this first Adam and says, ‘You come work in the garden too. Learn to take care of the garden.’ This work of caring for the ground and for the plants and the animals that will grow there, this is not a punishment. There is no sense here that gardening work is evil or sinful or even a response to sinfulness.

The work will be hard but it is the work that God does every day, every moment. We are better served by thinking about this garden invitation to us as an invitation to learn to live in the ways that God lives with us. By coming to participate in God’s gardening ways with the world, we will come to understand who God is, what kind of a world we are in as a place that needs our care, our attention, and our love. And that we might also then come to think of ourselves differently as soil creatures, animated by the love of God.

We are living a grand experiment in human history and we have no idea how this is going to end. It’s an experiment in which more people on this planet than ever before think we no longer have to bother with soil. We are freed of all of that. I think the story that we have in Genesis is a reminder that our identity from the beginning and always is an identity wrapped up with soil. And that our vocation always, even if we ourselves do not become full time farmers or gardeners or professionals, in the work that we do, we cannot ever forget the health and the fertility of soil, and must work for its health in whatever we do because this is godly work.

The work of gardening is not ever done at a distance or in the abstract. God gardens by being close, by touching. If you are a gardener, you know exactly what I mean when you take that young seedling and you place it in the ground. And through the closeness of touch, you bring the soil around those roots and you gently water them. Not too much, not too little. And you continually bring your hands into proximity, into intermingling with the life that is struggling to thrive.

God has gotten dirty with us by entering into our world in the most basic forms of healing and nurturing and befriending touch. What Jesus asks of us is if we want to touch back. Do you want to turn your body into the form of touch that in coming into the presence of soil and plant and animal and fellow human beings our touch becomes the kind that brings life that brings fertility – that produces beauty? God is constantly asking us to touch. Are you interested?