During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is The Curious Garden, by Peter Brown.
Scripture: Genesis 2.4-9, 15
Life outside of Sunday Morning
In the youth group, we have been seeking ways of discovering how faith really does matter in life outside of Sunday morning. Part of that process has been actively listening to the youth as they voice things that they wrestle with, things that don’t make sense, things they are afraid of or feel ill-equipped to deal with, and things they see as pressing issues in their lives now and in their future.
Perhaps because of the one-two punch of extreme flooding followed by extreme heat, there have been some animated conversations about creation, and ecology, and pollution, and climate change.
What are our responsibilities with the climate and the environment—as humans?—as persons of faith in God and Jesus?
How are we to be good stewards of this world?
These concerns were among the top of our youths’ list. And whether or not you feel the urgency they do about these issues, they are not not issues that going away. And these questions about creation care are not political questions—they are faith questions that are worthy of being wrestled with by people of faith.
Whether or not you choose to believe the 97% of climate scientists worldwide who are convinced that the earth’s climate is warming, it is impossible to ignore the vast changes to the ecosystems of the world that have transpired even in the last couple decades.
Some areas of the globe have experienced more and more intense periods of drought;
Others, more and more intense storm systems;
Others, more wide-ranging and destructive wildfires.
We see that fisheries are collapsing;
That many species have been driven by changes in climate and habitat to occupy areas they never previously occupied;
and that thousands of species are going extinct when the biomes they occupy simply disappear.
That these things are happening is not up for question; they are fact, agreed upon by right and left alike, by both those pro- and anti-science, by those of faith and no faith. The only doubt anyone can inject into the conversation is about the cause—the explanation why these things are happening. But these changes are accepted as factual by all.
They impact our species’ ability to produce food…… and our friends’ ability to work and provide for their families……
These realities impact the homes of millions of people worldwide…… and the health of those who live there……
To say nothing of the things we lose along the way:
the species of plants and animals that could have had medical benefits
historic sites and scenic areas
unique biomes created with purpose by God
and perhaps (ultimately) even our ability as a species to survive in certain parts of the globe that were once teeming with abundant life.
These are simply the facts and the concerns they bring. So what then is the response of those aligned with the heart of God?……of those who have committed to discipling the Way of Jesus?
Once upon a time, in a time long past and a land far, far away—God began cultivating a patch of land we have come to call “Eden.”
Genesis 1 tells of God’s considered purpose and order in bringing all things into existence. First, spaces are carved out of the “formless void”—spaces that will enable the existence of purposeful objects and life forms: the sun, moon, and stars; birds in the heavens, and fish in the seas; an incredible variety of land-dwelling creatures. All of this is brought into being and God declares it “good” and then “very good” [Genesis 1:31]—words that in Hebrew mean not just good, but:
This Hebrew concept of goodness is intrinsically bound up with that of shalom/peace. To be good is to be at peace with all around you. It is to be one with other things/people in a way wherein your wellbeing is connected to theirs—to be beneficially interdependent and supporting of each other.
This is the way God describes not just the first human beings, created male and female in God’s image [Genesis 1:27], but “everything that he had made” [Genesis 1:31]. Creation is very good. Very purposeful. Very appropriate. Very much to be desired as it is. Very much at peace with itself…… in balanced harmony with itself……
This is the good creation that God has made.
And this goodness of creation is something the first human is tasked with maintaining. In Genesis 2:15, we learn that God places the first human into the garden of creation with a purpose. And what is that purpose?——”to till it and keep it.”
Now, being that we reside in a community shaped by farming, I suspect we are all at least passingly familiar with the concept of tilling the soil—or “working it” as the NIV translates. You don’t just grow crops by scattering seed willy-nilly anywhere and everywhere—that’s part of why Jesus’ parable of the sower grabs our attention so effectively.
Soil must be prepared in order to ensure the seed has the best opportunity to thrive and to be productive. Working the soil involves turning it—breaking it up so there is room for roots to grow and nutrients to be absorbed. Perhaps there are rocks or other things that need removed; or perhaps nutrients that are lacking, so fertilizer has to be worked into the soil. Then there are the inevitable weeds that threaten to choke our plantings by consuming these nutrients; they must be dealt with as well. And of course, it may be that what the soil needs for productivity to happen is a rest—the opportunity to lay fallow for a season. All of these realities are tied up in the concept of working the ground in Genesis 2:15.
But it is considerably broader and different than just that too. The Hebrew word that appears here is the same root as the word “servant”……and in Greek translation, the word “deacon.” The human (in this story) is placed in the garden to serve it. And serving the soil—serving the land……serving the earth—this is a much more expansive concept than simply “working it.”
To serve the land requires prioritizing its wellbeing above that of your own wellbeing.
To serve the earth recognizes that your wellbeing is tied to that of the wellbeing of the planet—to care for it is to care for yourself.
To serve the soil forces us to get dirty for the wellbeing of God’s good creation.
The other half of this God-given commission dovetails into this. God places the human in the garden of creation “to keep it” [Genesis 2:15] It may well be sufficient to think of “keeping” creation as not losing it.——But as things stand, we have lost a considerable amount of it, and we continue to lose more.
Just like the first half of the commission, the Hebrew language is both more specific and more expansive at the same time. In Hebrew, to “keep” something is less about having and more about maintaining. Guards in the Old Testament will do this to protect a city. People at risk of losing something will do this to preserve what they find valuable. God calls on the people of Israel to do this in order to maintain their covenant with God, and the people call on God to do this to survive when they face threats both without and within.
To “keep” the good creation of God is to maintain and preserve its goodness and balance—the very things that (not many verses before) God commended creation for.
Taken together, the tasks of serving the earth and keeping it involve both maintaining its goodness and promoting its growth. Yet neither task seems to have been taken very seriously by the faithful of God over (at least) the last few hundred years.
The Command Continues
Which is strange, in a way. You will not find anywhere in scripture that suggests this responsibility was ever rescinded by God or that it was fulfilled along the way.
As a contrasting example: The command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth [Genesis 1:28] seems to have been fulfilled by God at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 [vv.8-9]. We don’t get another instruction about such expansive multiplication until Jesus tells his followers to do that—and then, not through biology but through disciple-making [Matthew 28:19-20].
Yet this God-purposed vocation to till the earth and keep it continues to be fulfilled by faithful folk throughout the biblical story—even after it gets hard [Genesis 3:17-19].
The ground continues to be tilled.
Trees continue to be tended.
Animals continue to be shepherded
There even continues to be concern for the soil itself [Leviticus 25:4-5]
Throughout the story, and all the way to us today: We are inheritors of that vocation to care for the good creation of God.
So what are we going to do about it? Are we going to be the boy—or the girl—who sees a need for a gardener? Are we going to reclaim the God-issued directive to care for creation and promote life in it?
Even if you become convinced of this responsibility and discern the leading of God to reclaim the role of “gardener of creation,” it can be hard to know where to start.
Let’s be honest—regardless of what call we may discern to embody the counter-cultural Kingdom of God, it’s hard to know where to start. The problems are so big. The implications are so wide reaching. The issues are so intertwined.
It is here that our children’s book stands as a helpful call to the kind of simplicity of mission that we discussed in Sunday School last week, and which has come up in the sermons a couple times in the past month.
Liam—the boy in the story—saw a problem: “the plants were dying. They needed a gardener.”
And though he did not yet have the skill set he needed or a sustainability plan that would “solved the problem” completely, he decided to do what he could. In one practically microscopically small area of this world-wide problem, Liam began watering, pruning, and tending a few plants.
Along the way he learned, because he wanted to do better.
And as he diligently persisted against all obstacles, Liam not only began to feel like he was competent in his task, but he was also able to see that his actions were producing results. That handful of plants he began caring for began to spread further and further away.
There were, of course, setbacks along the way. And Liam had much to learn. But eventually it was not just his garden that was expanding, it was his mission. Others, seeing the goodness of what Liam was doing—even if they never met him in person—were inspired to take up the responsibility to become gardeners themselves.
This is a pretty solid game plan for changing the world:
whether you are taking up the call to care for God’s good creation……
whether you are inspired by the scriptures to affirm the image of God in people who look and sound different than you do yourself……
whether you are hearing loudly the biblical mandate for justice, especially for those that society is structured to disadvantage……
or whether you are just trying to make the world a more compassionate place.
How do we do it?
We will start small, and we usually won’t really know what we’re doing. But that won’t stop us from acting, so we will do what we can where we can.
We will embody our convictions humbly yet boldly; knowing that we have much to learn, yet confident that we are attending to realities and people that are dear to God’s heart.
Our confidence will be such that we do not need others to join us for us to be certain we are doing the right thing. And yet we will be eager to share the work with anyone interested in doing the same.
And so eventually, slowly, over time and space, we will see everything change. It can’t help but change—not if the Lord of Creation is at work through us.