Rejoice O soil, in the God who made you, Fear not animals of the field, for God provides for you. Give thanks O people, for the God whose abiding love will never let you go. (Prayer by John Paarlberg)
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Jesus, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”
But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks 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.”
This is a day of infamy when war and destruction came to our land in the 9-11 attacks. Anyone who has watched recent programs about the attacks and the survivors cannot but be moved by the devastating impact this event had on the lives of so many people and on our nation as a whole. We can add the immeasurable loss of those who have lost loved ones, young men and women, in the wars in which we are currently engaged as a result of 9-11. This event is especially hard because it took place on our soil. Now multiple this tragedy in the wars being fought in so many lands around the world—on someone’s home soil with the immediate fears and threats and the loss of military and civilian life that persist daily. There is no way to take it in.
The OT lesson reminds us that violence and murder have been part of life from the beginning. Cain slew Abel as the result of a needless conflict between brothers. Violence multiplied and magnified so much that God decided to flood the whole place and start over. And, like our reflections on 9-11, there seems to be a curse on the ground itself that comes with the blood being shed.
The new ground zero memorial has opened this weekend. It appears to be a place of serenity to visit and to remember, filled with the presence of water and trees of life, dedicated not to a response of revenge or domination but to peace. It is a desire to turn from violence to peace, a desire to redeem the land from its curse and transform it into sacred ground.
Perhaps, that is a way to talk about the fact that Jesus spent three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Jesus was in the earth itself. And Jesus reverses the curse on the land. Instead of the land being defiled by a corpse, Jesus sanctified the land by his presence, even in death. And his resurrection is not just the rising of a human by himself but the beginning of what the New Testament talks about as new creation, a renewed creation, moving toward what the Book of Revelation depicts as a new heaven and a new earth—with the presence of God, with the river of life and the tree of life, a place filled with justice and truth and peace.
Paul too talks about such a reversal. Adam sinned and his sin spread to violence, murder, and war. Jesus reversed this cycle by instead spreading grace and love and by calling a new humanity to be people of peace who love their enemies, who show mercy, who provide for the poor, and who look out for the vulnerable—with a commitment to bring life rather than death.
And our commitment to this new creation is not only to each other as humans but also with all nature. We have desecrated and degraded our Earth in more ways than war and violence. We have treated it as a commodity to be exploited and abused for human needs and wants. In so doing, we are destroying the very support system upon which we depend for life and well-being. We need also peace communities for Earth-community—to be reconciled with Earth so that we treat Earth with respect and love. And this brings us to the Season of Creation.
Why celebrate a Season of Creation? To restore to our life and commitments the larger orbit of God’s whole work and our whole life. This season enables us to recover this dimension of creation in our worship, the central place where humans gather to express their love for God. Creation has been neglected in our worship. Our church year is based on the life of Christ (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter) and life in the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). Now it is time to have a season for God the “maker of heaven and earth” in which we celebrate the various domains of creation such as forests and rivers and land and wilderness.
We have focused so much on our human relationship with God and our human relationships with each other. Now it is time also to lift up God’s relationship with creation and our relationship with creation.
We have become aware of our Christian neglect of creation in part because of what is happening to these domains of God’s creation, because of the ecological state of the world, with the pollution of our air, water, and land. The Bible knows this degradation also, in terms of earth as God’s creation: “The Earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the heavens languish together with the earth. The Earth lies polluted under its inhabitants, for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant” (Isaiah 24:4-5).”
So, for us Christians, ecological issues are not ultimately “environmental” issues, but” religious” issues—about our relationship with God and our calling, as the Bible names it, to serve and to preserve Earth. And for us, care for creation is not an add-on but integral to our vocation as Christians. It is as foundational as “Love God, Love your neighbor, and Love creation.”
What resources can we recover from our tradition to address these vital issues? As it turns out, there are plenty of resources—in our Bible, in theology, from our worship, and with our ethics. Just as we recovered justification and grace in the time of the Reformation, so now we can recover care for creation. The Bible has a vision that “all creation is groaning in travail awaiting the revelation of children of God” (Romans 5) who will redeem creation rather than destroy it. We may be that generation for which creation is waiting.
Lutherans especially have resources for this task. Luther wrote: “the gospel of God is not in the Bible alone but on the trees and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” This creation is groaning and waiting, even, as one theologian put it, waiting for the Lutherans!
What we need then is a theology that is down to earth! And what better occasion to reflect on a down to earth religion than “Land Sunday” in the Season of Creation.
Land Sunday. The challenge of Land Sunday is for us to have a change of heart and mind and body so that we see the ground underneath our feet as sacred ground and to treat it accordingly.
Seeing the soil as vital. It may have seemed strange to you to say in the liturgy for Land Sunday: “Sing, soil, sing!” It is difficult for us to imagine just how important land and soil was in the agricultural world of the Bible. Land was the economy. It was the basis on which people got their identity, where they got their life and livelihood. Cain named his punishment this way: “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face.” The relation to the soil they know, the land they worked, and the God they knew in and through the soil were all critical to their life.
More than this, they loved and respected the land. Every seventh year the land was to lie fallow so that it could be re-nourished. Every 49th year, those who had lost their land through fraud or poverty had an opportunity to get it back. They did not think the land belonged to them. “The land is mine” says the Lord, and if they as a people were to flourish, they needed to follow the guidance of the lord.
The land has intrinsic value. For the biblical world, land had integrity in its own right, totally apart from its value for human beings. It was not material to be exploited. Most of us humans in the Western world, apart from those who farm, have become estranged from land since the industrial revolution. We think of land as lifeless and property to be bought and sold, as a commodity to serve our economic need and greed. One poet observed that there is a great sadness about this estrangement since the time of the industrial revolution, even without us being aware of it. Interestingly enough, human health actually depends upon a close relationship with nature. Scientific studies show that when we are relating to a tree, the blood pressure goes down. A new therapy has a risen called “eco-therapy, which shows how mental and psychological health depends on a relationship with nature. We know that hospital patients and the elderly fare better when having the opportunity to relate to nature. Children who are isolated from nature suffer from what one author called “Nature Deficit Disorder.”
Earth is alive and soil creates. In the creation stories, Earth is alive and is a co-creator with God. God commands the earth to bring forth life. “Let the earth bring forth animals and plants and birds in great diversity and teeming with life.” And God made humans from the soil. In fact the word Adam is simply the male form of the word adamah, which means “soil” or “earth.” So humans come from arable land, the same soil that brings forth plants and animals. If we had translated ADAM literally to mean “Earthman” all these centuries, our view of humans and our relationship to earth might have turned out differently. Humans belong to the earth. We buy and sell and think the property is ours. But “the Earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth.”
We learn the same thing about the creative powers of soil from evolution. Life emerged from water and then land—plants and animals of every kind. And it became clear that soil was the fertile bed from which all these things came. In a sermon called “The Glad Soil Rejoices,” John Paarlberg notes that Charles Darwin (who originated evolution as a way to explain the origin of species) studied earthworms for 40 years. He was fascinated by them and he calculated that there were about 63,500 earthworms in each acre of soil in his native England. Those same worms turn over ten tons of topsoil (Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet, edited by David Rhoads).
But that is not all. He also quotes Annie Dillard, who wrote: “In the top inch of forest soil, biologists found an average of 1,365 living creatures: including 865 mites, 265 springtails, 22 millipedes, 29 adult beetles, and various number s of other creatures. Had an estimate been given of the microscopic population, it might have ranged up to two billion bacteria and many millions fungi, protozoa, and algae—in a mere teaspoon of soil!”
As the eminent biologist E. O. Wilson said, “A healthy soil literally breathes and moves.” It is alive. And absolutely everything on this Earth—plants, animals, human civilization—exists because of the mere six inches of topsoil that covers much of the land areas of our planet.
The land is gift to all living things. The land is a gift, because everything is freely created by God. Yes, it is gift to us, but it is also gift to the cattle and the goats and the birds. As Psalm 104 declares, God made the grass for the cattle, the trees for birds to nest in, and mountain crags for the goats—so that all things might receive what they need in due season (Ps. 104).
And as we know from evolution, Earth was gift to other animals long before us. God has been loving soil and all the living things that have emerged from it for about 3 of the 5 billions of years of Earth’s history. Long before humans appeared, God was loving and delighting in all of nature. It is somewhat ironic that we humans show up in the last few minutes—and we think it’s all about us!
Yes it is a gift. It is given for our delight and our use—but not us to misuse or to abuse. And our privilege comes with a commission—to care for the Earth. We humans are called to have dominion. But this does not mean to “exert domination.” Rather, it means to assume responsibility for the well-being of Earth. In the creation stories, we were not created first and then Earth given to us. Rather, Earth was created first and it was good in itself in God’s eyes. Then we were created to tend this garden. In the second creation story, we were created to serve Earth. The words usually translated “to till and to keep” we now know mean “to serve and to preserve”—to serve as slaves serve a master. This mandate places us not over creation but as servants working as God’s agents to assure that the well-being of earth—so that all living things may thrive as God wishes them to multiply and fill the earth.
The soil praises God. As the Psalm says, “Let all creation is praise God.” Or “All creation! Praise God!”
Let the heavens be glad and the Earth rejoice. And let them say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king.’ Let the sea roar and all that fills it; Let the field exalt and everything in it. Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the lord” (I Chronicles 16:29-34; Psalm 148).
That is a great line! “Let the field exalt!” This means, as Paarlberg says, that “the very soils beneath our feet are, in their own way, choirs of creatures singing their insect hymns, michrobial chants, and fungal anthems in praise to the God who made them.”
They are our partners in worship. Rejoice, soil. It is not that the soil has a special voice or language to praise God. Rather they praise God by thriving in doing what they were created to do—produce plants and animals. That’s what praise is: thriving
And the Good news is proclaimed to the soil so that they will thrive.
Do not fear, O soil;
Be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!
Do not fear you animals of the field’ for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
The tree bears its fruit
The fig tree and vine give their full yield.
Then this soil is glad and rejoices and praises God! This means, as Paarlberg says, that “the very soils beneath our feet are, in their own way, choirs of creatures singing their insect hymns, michrobial chants, and fungal anthems in praise to the God who made them.”
God is in the soil. Think about that. God is in the soil—in the tree, in the flower, in the vegetables, in the weeds. The Bible declares that “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory.” And the Psalm for today asks “Where can you go on earth to escape God. God is everywhere.” That is glorious good news.
Martin Luther said that “The good news of the Gospel is in the bible alone, but also on the trees and in the flowers and cloud and stars.” This is foundational to Lutheran theology. Luther said that God is, in substance, in every creature and in everything. He said that “the entire fullness of God is in every grain of wheat, without remainder.” And in every leaf without remainder. Look at nature and see God present there! Luther said that after we are justified and no longer preoccupied with ourselves, we see the world differently. We see God there. We know that God is working for good in all creation.
That means God is not just up. God is also down—in, with, and under all things, not just in the heights but in the depths, the ground of our being, the bedrock on which we stand, in the marrow, the firmament of our lives. When we think of God as “up,” we imagine God as whispy and ethereal, not earthy. We should pray to God “down in” things.
When my wife Sandy got cancer, she was overwhelmed by the number of people who were praying for her, and she was deeply affected by those prayers. She recalled her experience of an aspen stand in the Rocky Mountains. Our guide explained that aspen stands were the largest living things on Earth because they were all connected in the root system (aspens reproduce not from seeds but through the root system). The guide explained that when it was dry, the trees down near the stream at the bottom of the hill will send water up through the roots to the trees without water at the top of the hill. Sandy said she felt like a dry tree at the top of a hill receiving nourishment through the root system from others in the community. God is down, in the root system, in the soil.
Soil is sacred ground. Take all of this: the soil has value in its own right, the soil is co-creator with God, the soil praises God, God is in the soil. All of this means that the soil beneath our feet is sacred ground. Such sacramental theology is central to Lutheran Theology. It means that we are called to have reverence for the soil. Reverence is the right basis for our use of the Earth. If we have reverence for something, we will use it wisely. We will treat it with care. We will not exploit or mistreat it. We will make sure it thrives. We will preserve it.
We interact constantly with the soil. We can’t help it. We have to breathe and eat. As we sit here together, scientists tell us, we are exchanging millions of cells from being next to each other, touching each other, breathing the same air in and out.
More than this, we are continually interacting with the trees around us. The carbon dioxide we breathe out goes to ground; earthworms and beetles aerate the soil so it can get to the roots of the trees; which then transform it into oxygen; which trees emit so that we then are able to breathe. The soil is involved in that.
The soil is also involved in everything we eat. The soil brings forth plants. We eat the plants and so do the animals we eat. We eat what the soil has produced and it becomes us. We are what we eat. This is so well expressed by a poem by Judith Morley.
By what miracle
does this cracker
made from Kansas wheat,
this cheese ripened in French caves,
this fig, grown and dried near Ephesus,
turn into me?
my cells, organs, juices, thoughts?
Am I not then Kansas wheat
and French cheese
and Smyrna figs?
Figs, no doubt, the ancient prophets ate?
As such, you cannot define me as a person without including the food I eat, the soil and air and water and sun that nourish the plants and the whole universe that supports these things. We are all interrelated to everything! All is in sacramental interrelationship.
If we are what we eat, then also the sacraments we share this day become the body of Christ as us—our eyes, our hands, our voice, our thoughts.
What do we do about our relationship with the soil? We can have reverence for the soil. We can care for the soil. I say more, we can love the soil like God does! Love it and enjoy it. If you love it, you appreciate it, respect it. Notice it! Take off your shoes and walk barefoot on the earth. Dig in it. Inspect it. Root around in it. Learn what it creates. Love it.
One Texas pastor said. It is not enough to say we “care” for Earth. We care for our cars. But we “love” our children. We love them no matter what. Let’s love nature so that we will not let anything bad happen to it. Let’s love it no matter what.
We will not save what we do not love. When we love earth, we will walk easy on it. We will touch the earth lightly. We will not want to use pesticides or herbicides and weed killing fertilizer on our lawns. We will want to use safe cleaning products that do not leach toxins into the ground. We will plant rain gardens, buy organic food locally produced so that we encourage farming that preserves the health of land and our health. We will advocate for land-friendly policies, earth-friendly mining, extraction, and logging practices, a lowering of our use of carbon-based fuels. We will want to do no harm and to show love for life. As we do all these, we will be practicing resurrection—living and acting to restore Earth.
So, make a commitment this day to have a love affair with the land, with the soil. It will bring new life to you and deepen your relationship with God. To express all I have said, I close with a song written by Linda Bronstein. It is our admonition to love the land.
Take off your shoes, you weary ones.
The Earth is warm. The grass is sweet.
The Lord who spread the heavens out
Will wash with sunshine tired feet.
Take off your shoes uncertain ones.
The Earth is firm. Support is sure.
With every step you touch the Word
In whom all things are held secure.
Take off your shoes you doubting ones.
The earth is holy. Walk unshod.
In every tree and stone and brook
Is burning bright the fire of God.
Take off your shoes. The earth is yours,
And you belong to all you see.
So let your heart embrace it all
With love’s unbounded energy.