Season of Creation 2A: Land Sunday
Genesis 3:14-19; 4:8-16
Living in south central Nebraska, one comes to know the seasons by their distinctive signs. Every March, for example, the Sandhill Cranes utilize the barren corn and soybean fields along the Platte River as a staging ground on their migratory trek to the Alaskan tundra, so for about a month or so we have the delight of watching these magnificent birds socialize in their enormous flocks. Soon after that the songbirds arrive, the spring winds begin to blow, and then it's time to start sowing seeds in the ground. Summer comes too late and leaves too soon, but for at least four months out of the year we are blessed with blue skies, warm temperatures, and – if the rains come – green pastures
Recently we have moved into a new season of the year. Yes, the beloved Huskers have taken to the football field in Lincoln and there is much enthusiasm accompanying the first blood sacrifices offered up to the gridiron gods. But off in the more sparsely populated corners of the state the corn has begun to be harvested, and soon semi-loads of the grain will be hauled off to the nearest elevator, which – if all prognostications are accurate – will be unable to hold the entirety of the year's bounty. Consequently, huge mounds of corn will be piled up in every small town like massive cheddar-colored sand dunes. Over the next several months some of it will be sold to feedlot operators looking to fatten their cattle, but most will go to the new economic hope of this region: ethanol.
And so all around us in this state we see testimony to an absurd human cycle that nature would never claim as her own. We expend vast amounts of water, petroleum-based chemicals, and gasoline, not that the world may be fed, but so that we in the so-called First World – and especially in the US – can remain addicted to our need to consume the earth's fossil fuels. As in the past, we have insisted on placing more hope in our ability to meet the problem head on by finding a better technological fix instead of adjusting our moral compass and modifying our consumptive habits. Anyone who has worked with compulsive personalities can see the pattern here: "We don’t have a problem. Really, we don't! We can quit any time we want!"
And still the record grain harvests roll into the elevators every September, right on schedule.
As with any addiction, there are innocent victims – most often family members – who must suffer the consequences of a menacing obsession. In this case, the human toll is certainly tragic – people the world over are bypassed on the food line just so that we can fill the tanks of our SUVs – but the detrimental effects of our wanton behavior can also be felt on the land, our primordial home.
A few years ago I was on a service project with a group of students in Denver and ran across a disturbing story in the local paper, "The Face of Prostitution: ‘Book’ Rewrites Attitudes." The article related how over the last several years an undercover vice detective had been collecting arrest photographs of women picked up on prostitution charges and then recording these in chronological sequence. Three examples of his "before and after" snapshots were published, in horrifying color, just below the headline. What I saw in the paper that morning were human faces that had been transfigured over time into visages of desolation.
The first photo depicted a young woman who might likely be found walking the halls of any small town high school. Her hair was cut, even stylish, her clothes were clean, and her eyes seemed to reflect that glimmer of hope so often associated with spirited youth. In the next image – her second arrest – she was faring less well, sporting a black eye and looking like she could use a good night’s sleep. The third photo was worse, and by the fourth, I was left staring at only a shell of a person, someone who had endured untold beatings and abuse from controlling pimps and johns, to the point that only the faintest vestige of life was left in her sallow flesh and cadaverous eyes. At this stage she was completely addicted to drugs; the hopeful high school senior had spiraled into the depths of despair.
Driving home from Denver that day I had the opportunity to reflect on what I had seen, and this along perhaps one of the most agriculturally rich sections of I-80. It was early April and on the horizon I could see little plumes of dust rising up from tractors in distant fields, and everywhere there were mobile tanks of anhydrous ammonia being filled for an eventual application on the land. This prairie earth, once so rich in nitrogen but victimized by years of abuse, was now as barren of the element as any plot on the moon, so what was needed this spring, as with every spring, was a little help – a booster. "Just a little something to keep you going."
And suddenly it all seemed very clear to me: what I had seen in the Denver Post that day was being played out on an ecological scale right before me. If this landscape had had a face, I'm sure it would have been as cadaverous as the one that stared out at me from the morning's paper. Had it eyes, their emptiness would have haunted me. What I saw on that trip back to Hastings was the tragic effects of addiction. Not only have we as Americans become grossly dependent upon the highly processed products of agribusiness – whether these be ethanol or high-fructose corn syrup – but the very land itself has for the last thirty or so years suffered a kind of chemical addiction. I realized then, more poignantly than ever, that today's industrial agriculturist, whose technological toys and chemical know-how have become the pride of so many prairie states, is really nothing more than a kind of eco-pimp doling out "a little help" here and there in order to keep his property putting out, as it were.
Many, of course, would say that the Judeo-Christian tradition has more than its fair share of guilt to claim in all of this. After all, doesn't our most ancient mythology – the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden – provide the lens through which countless generations have understood the complexities of the human condition? We live a cursed existence, do we not, in which the enmity between the woman and the serpent, or the antagonism between men and the land, are regarded as essential truths? Small wonder, then, that those of us who were created to be caretakers – husbandmen, if you will – end up being little more than exploiters. Isn't it a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Those who would make such claims, however, seem not to have thought too critically about the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. This is not surprising given all the attention that has been given over the years to the notion that Jesus is a "personal Lord and savior" and little else (for what else is there?). While this oft-heard mantra may be true, it does more harm than good in obfuscating the more important insight that Jesus' ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection have implications that are not only personal but also cosmic in proportion. Paul alludes to this when he speaks of Christ as the Second Adam, one whose incarnation heralds the beginning of a new creation. Just how closely this parallels the original work of God in the Garden – when Yahweh drew Adam out of the earth and breathed the breath of life into his lungs (Gen. 2:7) – has been under-emphasized throughout the history of the church.
It is here, I think, that we should consider the curious statement that Jesus offers to a group of scribes and Pharisees shortly after they press him for a sign, some clear indication that he is in fact the expected messiah. Jesus, disturbed at their insistence, suggests that the only portent they will receive is one that their lack of faith will prevent them from truly comprehending:
An evil and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth (Matt. 12: 39-40).
In the heart of the earth. In other words, in the womb from which the original Adam was drawn by the Creator – as if to say, God must also raise the Second Adam from the very earth itself so that creation may begin anew, redeemed and reconciled to God. We tend to place so much emphasis on the crucifixion and then on the resurrection of Jesus that this three-day sojourn in "the belly of the whale" is all but lost on us. But descent into the abyss is indeed significant, for it is here that the Second Adam, the prototypical caretaker of the new creation, is formed, and it is from here that the redemption of the cosmos – not just humanity – begins.
I learned yesterday that one of the early prophets of the "Christian green movement" (if we can call it that), H. Paul Santmire, has written a new book, entitled Ritualizing Nature. From what I can gather, Santmire argues in this work that the church, if it is to be truly aware of its responsibility for the care of creation, must introduce into its worship new rituals that will accentuate this unique calling in a meaningful way. Reflecting on this in light of the lectionary text for this week, I began to wonder about the possibility of a "green sign of Jonah" – that is, a means of enacting in a symbolic way our own rebirth from the earth into a life of commitment to the health of our biotic communities. How often do we have the opportunity to incorporate the soil -- which we have long taken for granted, if not abused -- into the communal life of the saints?
Though I would never go so far as to suggest that we set aside the ritual of baptism, a sacrament so central to the Christian tradition, I do wonder what possibilities might lie in a kind of "baptism in dirt," that is, in enacting in a deliberate way our own essential connection with the earth and the landscapes of which we are a part. In so doing we might begin to realize and affirm that the new creation, which we claim to profess in word and deed, began not in the early light of a Sunday morning resurrection appearance, not in the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, but in the rich, dark depths of the womb from which we were all formed, and to which we will all someday return.
From dust we came, and to dust we shall return – why are we only reminded of this important truth well after we have passed from this world? Perhaps we would do well to get our hands a little dirty now and then in the context of our Christian worship, and thus in the whole of our spiritual lives. Focusing only on the beginning and the end seems to devalue the real stuff of life: the troubles that arise between women and serpents, sweat and bread, seeds sown and brambles grown, as well as their sweet resolution through the mystery that is God's faithfulness.
But those who have sunk their hands into the dirt a time or two, who have planted seeds and nurtured their growth for a season, know that dust is an unlikely source for the life of one reconciled to God. Arid and lifeless, it is the final resting place of the fallen Adam, but this does not mean that we should claim it as our own. The earth, by contrast – moist and rich, teeming with life – is the primal home of the Second Adam, and thus the seedbed of a new creation. It is the ground of our very being as Christians. But how to make this evident and ritually significant in our individual and communal lives: this is the question. And this is our task. We need always to be reminded that between dust and dust, between ashes and ashes, and between crucifixion and resurrection, lies the good red earth, the material source of our spiritual lives and the place where we might still be forgiven of our many ecological transgressions.