Back to the Dirt

Genesis 1:26-31; 2:1-15

When I was a kid, almost every summer we would travel back to Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas to see my aunts and uncles and cousins.  One of the things that was always a treat when we were at my grandparents’ dairy farm in the Ozarks of Arkansas was the fresh vegetables from my grandmother’s garden.  The soil in that garden was a rich, black humus the color of chocolate cake, and it produced the juiciest tomatoes, the fattest cucumbers, the most savory okra, and the sweetest sweet corn I’ve every tasted.  Those vegetables spoiled me, and I’ve been disappointed with grocery store produce ever since.  

My grandmother and my aunts were expert vegetable gardeners.  They knew when to plant, when to weed, and the perfectly ripe moment for picking.  Their skills brought the vegetables to the table.  But it was the soil that made them delicious.

Genesis tells us that God formed the first human out of “the dust of the earth.”  The Hebrew word for “human,” adam, is derived from the word for earth: adamah.  The word we translate as dust, ‘afar, can mean any loose dirt.  I like to imagine that the “loose dirt” we’re made of is not dry desert dust but the dark, chocolate-cake soil made rich and fertile from eons of composting as the ground organically recycled the fallen leaves and stems of earlier seasons and renewed itself.  I like to imagine that we humans were made from humus.

Humus and human come from the same root word in Latin.  Our language itself gives us a clue that we are intimately connected to the earth.  In recent generations, though, we’ve often lost sight of that connection.  We have separated ourselves from the earth in far too many ways, and that separation has affected both our health as a species and the health of the world.  

Humility is another word that comes from humus.  Douglas Kindschi, the Director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute wrote: “Fully understanding who we are requires the realization that we are part of the earth, the soil, the humus, to which we will return.  It is only by God’s grace that we have life.”  We didn’t create our species.  We didn’t create the amazing world that sustains us.  If we all disappeared tomorrow, the planet wouldn’t miss us; if anything, it would breathe a sigh of relief.  It is only by God’s grace that we have life.  We need to be humble enough to remember that.  When life is over, the stuff we are made of will return to the earth.

Did you know that the smell of humus elicits a physiological response in humans?  Breathing in the scent of Mother Earth stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin.  That’s the same hormone that promotes bonding between a mother and her child.  It’s the same hormone that helps us bond with our dogs and cats and other pets.[1]  Clearly, we were made to feel a bond with the earth, but it’s hard to keep that bond strong when we live our lives primarily indoors and cover so much of the ground with asphalt and concrete.  I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we all went outside once a day, scooped up a big handful of humus, and deeply inhaled the aroma of it.  Maybe we would treat our planet a lot better if we did that—if we reminded ourselves in some physical, ceremonial way that we are bonded to the earth.

“Being human,” said Richard Rohr, “means acknowledging that we’re made from the earth and will return to the earth.  We are earth that has come to consciousness.”  We are earth that has come to consciousness, but we have been destructively unconscious in the way we have been treating the earth.  We take the earth so much for granted.  We forget that the very ground we stand on is a mystic wonder of theology and physics and a biological and chemical marvel.  It is the stuff from which life arises.

One afternoon when the philosopher Brian Austin came home from hiking with his family, he found himself contemplating the mud that was stuck to his boots and he realized that “the mud, still glistening with the mist that makes dust come to life, harbors mysteries as magnificent as the mountains.  From that mud, from its carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and assorted metals, a child can be woven.  The atoms in that mud, the same kinds of atoms that comprise my children and you and me, have existed for billions of years…This mud is spectacular, and we believe that God made it so.  This mud is rich, pregnant with possibility…To see ourselves as made of the same stuff that rests under our boots as we journey a mountain path is no insult to human dignity, no affront to the image of God in us; it is rather a reminder of the majesty of inspired mud, a reflected majesty that gives us but one more fleeting glimpse of the blinding brilliance of the maker of the mud.”

If we are going to repair the damage we’ve done to the earth, we need to learn to love the mud.  And the dust.  And the clay and the sand and the stone and the water.  We need to relearn how to love all the plants and animals—“the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle and all the wild animals of the earth, and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  We need to relearn how intricate, complex, balanced and beautiful our amazing planet really is.  We need to cherish more deeply the air that fills our lungs, the water that cleans us and quenches our thirst, and the dirt that feeds us.  We need to rekindle our sense of wonder.  

If we learn to listen to Genesis in the right frame of mind and heart, those first two chapters have a lot of wisdom that can help us restore our relationship with this beautiful world.  In those first two chapters there is a lot we can learn about God, about ourselves, about the earth, and about our relationship with God and the earth.  Genesis tells us that this world was made for us and we were made for this world.  Genesis tells us that we were made in the image and likeness of God, but that the stuff we are made of comes right out of the dirt.  We like the idea of being in the image and likeness of God—but we get carried away sometimes and act like we are God.  We need to pay more attention to the part about the dirt.

Genesis tells us to make ourselves at home—to be fruitful and multiply and fill up the earth.  Well that job’s done.  It’s full.  But we keep filling it up more which is hard on the earth and hard on us.

Genesis tells us to subdue the earth, to learn how the earth works so we can use its rhythms and systems to produce what we need in due season and with due care.  But God didn’t tell us to completely subjugate the earth, to bleed out its resources until its life-generating abilities are depleted.

Genesis tells us to have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.  But God wasn’t telling us we could erase their habitats, destroy them in their dens, and hound them to extinction.  We were given permission for a certain amount of domestication, not for eradication.

We share this beautiful world with all the rest of God’s creatures.  It belongs to them as much as it does to us.  They, too, are made from the stuff of earth and stars.  God’s life is in them as much as it is in us.  The earth and all its creatures (including us) belong to God.  “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,” says Psalm 24.  “O Lord, how manifold are your works!  In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures,”  says Psalm 104.  Your creatures.  We may have “dominion” in the sense that we are the species most capable of manipulating our environment and impacting all the other living things on the planet, but that greater ability means we have more responsibility to take care of the species that don’t have any way to protect themselves from us and the changes we make.

If we’re serious about doing a better job of living in harmony with the earth and all God’s creatures, this is where Genesis can guide us yet again, especially if we pay closer attention to the original language.  Genesis 2:15 tells us “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it;” that’s how it reads in the New Revised Standard Version.  The word that’s translated as “till” is ‘ovd in Hebrew.  It means to work or to serve.  The word that’s translated as “keep” is shomr.  It means to watch over or to preserve.  So let’s try this translation:  “The Lord God took the humans and put them in the garden of Eden to care for it, watch over it, and preserve it.”  We were made to care for the earth.

Sometimes we say that God has called us to be good stewards of creation.  That’s a good idea as far as it goes.  The concept of stewardship is good for reminding us that the earth belongs to God and not us.  But the idea of stewardship also has some problems.  When we think of ourselves as stewards, we tend to see ourselves as somehow set apart from and above creation instead of seeing ourselves within creation.  Stewardship depicts the relationship of humans to other creatures as vertical with us above and them below.  It depicts us as caretakers of creation, which is good, but it doesn’t acknowledge all the ways that creation cares for us!  We need to remember that we are creatures, too.  We need to remember that we are also embedded in and interconnected with the earth and all God’s other creatures.  We are part of the community of creation.

Archbishop Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury said, “As people of faith, we don’t just state our beliefs — we live them out. One belief is that we

find purpose and joy in loving our neighbours. Another is that we are charged by our creator with taking good care of … creation. The moral crisis of climate change is an opportunity to find purpose and joy, and to respond to our creator’s charge. Reducing the causes of climate change is essential to the life of faith.”[2]

Reducing the causes of climate change is essential to the life of faith.  Frankly, we’ve reached a stage where reducing the causes of climate change is essential to life.  Period.  As UN Secretary-General António Gutteres said recently, we’re living in a 5-alarm fire.  As people of faith, we need to do whatever we can to put out the fire and repair the damage.

One of the great theological ideas that Saint Francis reawakened in the church is the understanding that Christ is revealed in creation.  Luther was thinking along these same lines when he said that Christ is in, with, and under the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the eucharist, but Francis was thinking of Christ’s presence even more broadly and deeply.  This is another reason why care for the earth is not just a nice idea; for followers of Jesus, it’s an imperative.  We have been called to see and experience Christ not just at the table and the font, not even just in the community of faith, but in all the world around us.  

Franciscan theologian Ilia Delio describes Christ in creation this way:  “Where is the risen Christ?  Everywhere and all around us—in you, your neighbor, the dogwood tree outside, the budding grape vine, the ants popping up through the cracks.  The whole world is filled with God, who is shining through even the darkest places of our lives.  To ‘go to church’ is to awaken to this divine presence in our midst and respond in love with a yes: Your life, O God, is my life and the life of the planet. We have an invitation to go to church in a new way, by praying before the new leaves budding through the dormant trees or the wobbly flowers by the side of the road pushing through the solid earth… [With Francis of Assisi], we too can sing with the air we breathe, the sun that shines upon us, the rain that pours down to water the earth.  And we can cry with those who are mourning, with the forgotten, with those who are suffering from disease or illness, with the weak, with the imprisoned.  We can mourn in the solidarity of compassion but we must live in the hope of new life. For we are Easter people, and we are called to celebrate the whole earth as the body of Christ.  Every act done in love gives glory to God: a pause of thanksgiving, a laugh, a gaze at the sun, or just raising a toast to your friends at your virtual gathering.  The good news?  “He is not here!”  Christ is everywhere, and love will make us whole.”[3]

Love will make us whole.  Love of God.  Love of our neighbor.  Love of ourselves.  And love of the earth.  Richard Rohr once said, “The only way I know how to love God is to love the things that God loves.”  Well, in Christ, God has already shown us how much God loves the world.  It’s time we showed our love, too.  In Jesus’ name.

[1] This idea is beautifully expressed in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific  Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

[2] Season of Creation 6, Introduction by Archbishop Justin Welby

[3] The Hours of the Universe: Reflections on God, Science, and the Human Journey; Ilia Delio, OSF, Ph.D., as quoted in Daily Meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation

Our Down-to-Earth God

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. –Luke 2:9 (NRSV)

It’s funny how you can look at something a hundred times or more and then one day someone will point out something you hadn’t noticed and the whole thing looks different to you.  That happened to me last week when a colleague pointed out one simple word in Luke’s Christmas story that had always just flown right by me.


The angel stood before them.  On the ground.

In all the years of reading or hearing this Christmas story I had always imagined this angel and the subsequent multitude of the heavenly host hovering in the air.  I think the Christmas Carols taught us to picture it that way.  Angels we have heard on high.  It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth.  

But that’s not what it says in the Gospel of Luke.  The angel stood before them.

If you were a shepherd in a field on a dark night, it would be pretty unsettling to have an angel appear in the air above you making announcements, but at least if the angel is in the air there’s some distance between you—a separation between your environment and the angel’s.  But if the angel suddenly appears in front of you standing on the same ground you’re standing on, shining with the glory of the Lord… well I think my knees would turn to rubber.  And then imagine what it feels like when the whole multitude of the heavenly host is suddenly surrounding you and singing Glory to God.

Angels in the air feel slightly safer than angels on the ground.  If the angels are above, that means that they came from above.  It means that heaven is “up there” somewhere.  But if the angels appear standing in front of us or behind us or around us, what does that say about heaven?  Could it be that heaven, the dwelling place of the angels, is not just “up there” but also here, with us?  Around us?  Could it mean that the angels of God are standing near us all the time and they simply choose not to show themselves?  Or that we’re just blind to their presence? Could it mean that this ground we walk on and build on and live on is also part of the dwelling place of God—so holy ground?

The angels didn’t bend near the earth.  They stood on it.  

We have this tendency, we humans, to want to separate the material from the spiritual, the divine from the physical.  We are such binary, black and white thinkers in a universe that’s full of colors.  We want to put borders on oceans.  And we certainly seem to want a border between heaven and earth.

We seem to be most comfortable when there’s a little distance between us and angels, a little distance between us and God.  That seems to be the way most people talk about it, anyway.  “Put in a good word with the man upstairs,” they say.  And then there’s that song: “God is watching from a distance.”

But that’s not what Christianity says.  That’s not what Christmas says.  The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.  In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  Not from a distance, but right in front of us.  As one of us.

We have trouble seeing the presence of God, seeing Christ in creation.  We have trouble seeing Christ in each other.  We even have trouble understanding Christ in Jesus.  How can Jesus be both divine and human?  We struggle to wrap our minds around that idea, so we have a tendency to make him either all human or all divine.  We picture that baby in the manger with a halo, and it doesn’t cross our minds that he might need to breastfeed and need his diapers changed.

“We need to see the mystery of incarnation in one ordinary concrete moment,” wrote Richard Rohr, “and struggle with, fight, resist, and fall in love with it there. What is true in one particular place finally universalizes and ends up being true everywhere.”  In other words, Christ is present everywhere, in, with, and under everything.  Including you.  And me.  And all those people we’re inclined not to like.

That, in the end, is what Christmas, the incarnation, is all about.  Christmas is God’s way of teaching us that there never really was any distance between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human, between the spiritual and the material.  Christmas is God proving once again that Christ is in, with, and under all the things we think we oversee and all the things we overlook.  Christmas is angels standing on the earth to sing to shepherds and surrounding them with the glory of the Lord to remind them that they, too, are spiritual beings immersed in a human experience, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said.  

Christmas is God’s love made visible.  Pope Francis said, “What is God’s love? It is not something vague, some generic feeling. God’s love has a name and a face: Jesus Christ, Jesus.”  I would add that, if you open your heart and your mind to it, God’s love can have your face, too.

Christmas is earthy and concrete.  It needs to be fed at a mother’s breast.  It needs its diapers changed.  It cries when it’s hungry and shivers when it’s cold.  It looks out at the world with new eyes and tries to see and understand.  Christmas wants to be loved and to give love.  

Christmas is our down-to-earth God made manifest.  Yes, gloria in excelsis deo, glory to God in the highest, but glory, too, to God on earth where the angels stand to sing to shepherds, because the Spirit of God is in them, too, and God loves them like crazy.  Just like God loves you.

My prayer for you this night is that you would enter deeply into the concrete, down-to-earth, human and divine mystery of incarnation.  May your eyes and ears be opened to the angels who stand upon the earth and minister to all God’s children.  May you come to see Christ incarnate in all creation so that you are always standing on holy ground.  May you dispense with artificial borders in your heart, in your mind, and in this lovely world.  And may you come to see yourself and all the others who share this world with you as spiritual beings immersed in a human experience.  May Christ be born anew in your heart.  In Jesus’ name.