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