Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Earthly Things

Rev. Kathy Donley

04/30/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Genesis 3:1-24, 4:8-16; John 3:16-17

  

What was the fruit that Adam and Eve ate?  Was it an apple?  A peach?  I’m talking about the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.  Whatever it was, Eve saw that it was good for food and pleasant to look at it.  It could have been a peach, or an apple or a pear or a lot of other things.  The issue was never with the fruit itself, but with the fact that God said not to eat it. 

 

Genesis says that when humans were first in the garden, they were naked and were not ashamed.  They were comfortable with who they were.  But after they ate the fruit, they were ashamed and afraid, so they hid and tried to cover themselves.  From those details, and possibly from their own personal pre-occupations, early church leaders tended to interpret Adam and Eve’s disobedience as having to do with sexual sin.  The text does not say that.  Within this story and the rest of the Hebrew Bible, human sexuality is never seen as evil, and is often valued as part of God’s good creation. 

 

This is an ancient story.  It has lasted and continued to be told through the millennia because it has layers of meaning and symbols.  We are not going to decipher all those layers and symbols today. 

 

Today, I am interested in this world that God loves, the world of John 3:16-17, which God does not condemn but loves so much that God’s own beloved child enters into it to redeem it.  My goal for the next few minutes is to focus on that world, to see what I can appreciate about that world, if I try to hold John 3 and Genesis 3 together. 

 

Before we jump back into Genesis 3, let’s remember something from Genesis 2.  In the beginning, God gave human beings two jobs, two responsibilities.  Genesis 2:15 says that they are to till and to keep the garden.  “To till” and “to keep” are how the verbs are usually translated.  Bible scholar John Holbert suggests that first verb is better rendered “to serve”.   It comes from a Hebrew word from which the word “slave” also derives.  Tilling suggests a kind of control which is not present in serving and that is more accurate.

 

The second job of the human creatures, “to keep”, would be better translated “to protect”.  Keeping things implies ownership, but the Bible repeatedly says that the earth is the Lord’s.  We humans do not own it.  Holbert says that the nuance of language has implications for how humans take on these tasks.  We serve and protect the world, we do not control or own it.[1]

 

Adam and Eve are to serve and protect the garden.  The garden is good.  They live in it and are not ashamed.  They are in harmony with each other and with the other creatures.  Until that day, when the snake and Eve have that fateful conversation.  It is clear that Eve knows the boundary God set.  She tells the snake that they cannot eat of the tree.  Actually, she makes the boundary stricter, saying that they cannot even touch the tree. But we know how long that lasts.  She eats the fruit.  Adam eats the fruit.  They realize that they are naked.  They attempt to cover themselves with fig leaves and they hide. 

 

If we had not heard this story for all of our lives, we might find it strange.  What is the tree of the knowledge of good and bad?  What are we to make of this story? 

 

Elsewhere in the Bible, the expression “good and bad” is a way of saying “everything.”  This is the tree of knowledge of everything.  As the snake said, if you eat from this tree, there are no limits.  You will know everything.  You will be like God. 

 

One truth this story conveys is that humans were not content to live within the boundaries set by God.  They wanted to know more, to experience more, to control and plunder.  Perhaps they were not satisfied with the goodness of creation and thought they could improve it.  They were not content to leave just one part alone, out of the sphere of human use.  Once they violate the prohibition about the tree, then they seem to lose all concern for serving and protecting the garden. They have no energy for it.  Their focus is on themselves, on the new knowledge and the freedom and the terror that comes with it.[2]

 

Their focus is on themselves, but their actions have consequences for all of creation.  We see that as the rest of chapter 3 unfolds.  Where there had been shalom and well-being, there is now enmity between humans and other creatures, between humans and the earth, between one human and another human.  When Cain commits the world’s first murder, God says that the ground cries out with his blood. 

 

I want to give Adam and Eve a break.  They get blamed for so much.  All the evil and anxiety and alienation and sin in the world.  They made a choice and did what God had explicitly told them not to do.  I get that.  But they were the first people ever.  How much could they really understand? I want to give them a break.  I don’t think they could possibly understand the far-reaching consequences of their actions. 

 

On the other hand, with millennia of human existence behind us, we can understand far more than they did.    Humans were tasked with serving and protecting creation.   Humans have largely abandoned that task, and human actions have consequences for all of creation. 

 

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein tells this story from Jewish midrash: “Two people were in a boat. A person at one end of the boat began to drill a hole in the bottom of the boat. The other person said, “What are you doing drilling a hole in the boat?” And the one drilling the hole said, “Why should you care? It’s not your end of the boat.”[3]  We know now that human actions on one part of the boat have consequences not just for other people, but for all of creation.

 

Let me take one example.  There is a severe drought in East Africa right now.  That includes Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, South Sudan, Ethiopia.  Thousands of cows, goats, sheep and donkeys have died.  Forty to sixty percent of the livestock is gone.   You can see the ribs of the remaining cows. Four million people were expected to need food relief in March, in Kenya alone.[4]  Adequate rainfall has not happened for several years.  That lower average rainfall is attributed to climate change.  Lower average rainfall creates drought and desertification and changes the land.  That, in turn, results in famine, malnutrition, disease and starvation.  Those things create environmental refugees and conflicts leading to violence. 

 

We drill the hole in the boat with behaviors that contribute to climate change. Climate change disproportionately affects the poor people of the world. Children, the elderly, those already sick, those already malnourished are particularly at risk.  First world nations contribute more to the problem, and those who have contributed least are at the greatest risk to be harmed by it.  That’s a position held by Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech and an evangelical Christian.[5]  Our actions still have consequences for the rest of creation. 

Here’s something I notice about the Genesis story.  Even after Adam and Eve disobey, even after Cain murders his brother, God still loves them, still cares for them in concrete ways.  For Cain, it comes in the form of a divine tattoo, a mark that signals he is under God’s protection.  For Adam and Eve, it comes in the form of clothing.  After they ate of the tree of all knowledge, one of their first inventions was loincloths, which they made out of fig leaves.  Now fig leaves have the texture of coarse grade sandpaper.  When ancient people told this story around the campfire, it was a great chance to laugh at silly humans.  Sandpaper underwear – how’s that working for you?  God’s response, was to offer them clothes from soft animal skins which they took when they left the garden.  Tangible evidence of God’s ongoing love. God’s love does not end because of human disobedience. 

 

In fact, it seems that God’s love for the world is never exhausted.  So, when we get to a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a well-educated, faithful man, the theme comes up again.  Jesus speaks to him about being born of water and of spirit. It is a kind of mysterious conversation about birth and water and the wind which blows where it will.   Nicodemus does not understand and then Jesus says “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

 

That is the whole point of the incarnation, isn’t it?  The incarnation, the divine becoming human, is an emphatic declaration that earthly things matter in the heavenly realm.  Water and wind, mountain peaks and savannahs, mosquitos and giraffes.  All of it, every single bit, is precious to God. 

 

In the midst of this conversation about mystery between Jesus and Nicodemus, we have those words which might be the gospel in a nutshell “For God so loved the world”.  God so loved the world, the kosmos, the good creation.  God so loved that world that the Word of God, the beloved Child, became flesh, became human, became earthy and dwelt among us. Not to condemn, not to punish, but to redeem us, and not just us, but to redeem, to reclaim,

to heal the whole creation.   

 

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells is a British pastor.  For several years, he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University.  He argues that caring for creation is still our vocation as Jesus’ disciples, and that the earth is bound to our identity and relationship with God. He says, “ . . .if we’re not interested in the home God has made to dwell in with us now, how can we claim to be eager for the home God has made to dwell in with us forever? By the way we enjoy the playground God has given us to enjoy today, we show God how deeply we long to dance with the Trinity in eternity.”

 

He continues, “Cherishing creation is the way we show God our gratitude, the way we humbly acknowledge our creatureliness, and an important way in which we worship. Polluting Earth, sky and seas, depleting habitats, overfarming land and ocean, eradicating species -- such practices tell the rest of creation it’s disposable, tell the rest of humanity that its survival is secondary to our comfort, and tell God that we’re bent on obscuring eternal grace with temporal consumption.  This is sin, in its simplest definition: being so shortsighted that we willfully shut ourselves out of God’s abundance and imprison ourselves in our own scarcity.[6]

 

For the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there God put the human whom God had formed. The Lord God put the human in the garden of Eden to serve it and protect it.  When humans faltered, in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus to save God’s good world.  God loved this, this beautiful, fragile world that we and so many other creatures call home.  May we learn to cherish it like God does.  Amen. 

 

 


[1] John C. Holbert http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Back-to-the-Beginning-as-Lent-Begins-John-Holbert-03-07-2011

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching,  (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1982), p. 48 

[3] As quoted by David Rhoads in his sermon Resurrection and Wilderness http://www.webofcreation.org/Worship/preaching/sermons/rhoads.htm

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/apr/25/satellite-images-trigger-payouts-for-kenya-farmers-in-grip-of-drought

[5] http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/katharine-hayhoe-lubbock-climate-change-evangelist/

[6] https://chapel.duke.edu/sites/default/files/April22LetEarthandHeavenAgree.pdf

 

 

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