Scripture: Genesis 2:4b–9, 15–17
I should have known better.
I made the mistake of opening my news app last week, and quickly came to regret it. It wasn’t just that most of the stories were bad news—that is a fairly regular occurrence. It was the type of bad news that I read that shook me. Every news story, it seemed, reported on the catastrophic effects of climate change. Devastating wildfires in California. Lake Powell in Arizona is at an historic low, impacting the local economy and tourism. An article on how climate change is no longer impacting only Caribbean and lower-socio-economic countries but richer countries like Canada, Germany, and Belgium are now feeling the effects. And it was all topped off by an article summarizing a 3,000 page report by a group of hundreds of international scientists. The International Panel on Climate Change, connected with the United Nations, reported this week five likely scenarios for the coming decades. None of them are good. Even if we did everything we could to reverse climate change tomorrow, getting corporations and governments around the world on board, we will see and feel the impact for past bad decisions for the next decades to come. The report called it a “Code Red” to make changes and make them fast, given the catastrophes that await. The less we do, the worse it will be.
And as I read all of this, a wave of grief and anger and frustration washed over me. And at the base of it all was a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. “What could I do?” And I know that I am not alone. This question came up in the ReShape conversations this winter. It was a part of our worship team discussion last year that helped to inspire this worship series. I have heard you ask it around discussions of books and movies in our [Earthworks Team] Purple group meetings. And just last week, I sat right in that parlor with another concerned believer, expressing the same climate helplessness and hopelessness whenever she reads the news.
And as I read, I noticed an interesting parallel with the book of Genesis. I read a commentary by famed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, all about the book of Genesis. In his commentary, he talks about the experience of anxiety. And I take it he is not talking about being anxious before I take a test, or about a clinical anxiety that a lot of us have to deal with on a regular basis. Instead, it seems that he is talking about a more fundamental, existential feeling of dread. An ontological anxiety that exists as part of the human condition. This Sunday, as a part of our Season of Creation series, is Humanity Sunday. And as Brueggemann writes about the book of Genesis, I cannot help but see this basic hopelessness and ontological dread repeating itself chapter after chapter:
- Chapter 3 and Adam and Eve and the violence caused to their relationship with God
- Chapter 4 and Cain and Abel and violence in humanity’s relationship with each other
- The Tower of Babel and the yearning to build and consume and destroy
- Noah and God’s exasperation with the way we treat each other
- And then we come to Abraham and his family and all of the horrible things that they do to each other for the next 40 chapters!
One of our Sunday school classes studied Genesis not long before the pandemic began, and I remember one class member remarking how much of a mess the family of God is! And so, when we open up our news app, or turn on the evening news, and see all of the ways that we each other through our politics, and the ways that we rape and pillage the earth, it feels a bit like the book of Genesis and this ontological anxiety and existential dread and “mess” is still with us. On Humanity Sunday, it feels like perhaps that is what we have always been and are destined to be. We were a mess in the beginning, and maybe we always will be!
And yet, that doesn’t seem to be the only message that Genesis delivers to us on this Humanity Sunday. There is also good news here. Brueggemann talks about anxiety in the midst of creation, but he also points to the middle of this story of Creation and the way that it gives us an alternative vision for humanity. Beginning at the beginning…with a vision of hope. So many Christians think that the Bible starts with Genesis 3. They focus on the fallen nature of humanity and have to figure out where to go from there. But the Bible begins with Genesis One, and a beautiful story of God calling creation “good.” And it follows up that story with Genesis Two, in which God is like a Master Gardener or Host Farmer, using words like “formed” and “breathed life” and “planted a garden.” Brueggemann reminds us that Genesis Two focuses on the relationship with this Master Gardener and his farm hands. He writes that this account is an “intense reflection of the implications of creation for the destiny of humanity.” So, it is appropriate on Humanity Sunday to ask how these stories define who we are, as creatures gifted with hope. He focuses on three verses in the middle of the passage:
- Verse 15 defines what Brueggemann calls “vocation.” Humanity is mean to “till and keep.” These are words of stewardship, and Brueggemann suggests that this verse gives humanity a vocation, a calling, a purpose, to care for the Creation that God is growing. If you grew up on a farm or know much about farming, there are usually tasks assigned to each family member, things for them to do to make the farm run smoothly. This vocation is part of what gives humanity hope, says Bruggemann, gives them purpose and responsibility and identity.
- The account continues in verse 16 with what Brueggemann calls the verse of “permit” or “freedom.” “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden.” That freedom is a second dynamic that gives humanity hope, and according to Genesis it is programmed into our creation. Psychologists will tell us that one of the most damaging experiences of incarceration is the lack of freedom or permit; everything is decided for you—when to eat, what to do, when to sleep, when to go to the bathroom. That institutionalization is damaging to who we are as humans. We need freedom.
- And yet, verse 17 is a fascinating companion verse. For here, God sets limits. If 15 is about vocation and 16 is about permit, 17 is about prohibition. The account makes it clear that God is still the master gardener, who sets boundaries to our freedom. “You shall not eat…” Brueggemann suggests that this is a crucial companion to our freedom; he writes “our mistake is to pursue autonomous freedom. Freedom which does not discern the boundaries of human life leaves us anxious.” He suggests—and really argues that Genesis suggests—that without limits or boundaries, the human experience does not experience hope but anxiety.
Together, these three verses—15, 16, and 17—explain how we were created to move past our ontological anxiety and live into what it means to be human: vocation, freedom, and prohibition.
I think that these three verses can be our good news, too. But they have to be held together. Brueggemann suggests that we tend to focus on one or two of these, without the balance of all three. And I have heard Christian responses to climate change that fall into that very trap. Some will leave out the freedom part: they wallow in that hopelessness as if God has not given us this gift of Creation. It is all gloom and doom and fear. There is no promise of enjoying the good gifts of Creation. Meanwhile, other Christians leave out humanity’s vocation to care for the earth. I have heard Christians who suggest that the world is fallen and so we shouldn’t bother worrying about it. As if Genesis 2 didn’t exist, as if we were not commanded in the beginning to “till and keep.” Or worse, there are some Christians who suggest that worldly values of greed and environmental abuse are good Christian values. That God wants us to abuse the earth to show how powerful we are at the top of the creation food chain, to show it who’s boss. They think that God’s prohibition doesn’t apply to them and imply that God must have been mistaken when we were given boundaries and limits to our consumption. How often we miss the balance of all three of these. I hate to say it, but some of the most common Christian responses to climate change are a) helpless panic, b) smug and apathetic arrogance, or c) unending greed.
But Genesis 2 gives us a pretty straightforward alternative. What if we did the things that we are commanded as humanity to do in the beginning? Built into our DNA as humans is this three-part hope: vocation, freedom, and prohibition. So, next time you hear or read a headline about climate disaster, don’t panic…don’t ignore…don’t fall into arrogance and greed. But ask yourself three questions.
- The Vocation Question: What is one thing that I can do to help this week? Can I compost? Can I recycle? Can I walk or bike to work? There are a million lists out there about simple things that we can do to “till and keep” God’s Creation. Don’t try to do them all. Do one this week. If you get that done, do another. Start simple. Build slowly. Practice your vocation.
- The Freedom/Joy Question: How can I enjoy God’s creation this week? God has given us this good creation to enjoy, so enjoy it! Sit outside for an hour instead on looking at a screen. Go on a hike. Watch the birds at the feeder. God has filled Creation with a million things that he has called good. Enjoy them!
- The Prohibition Question: What do I need to say “no” to this week? This is a hard one for Americans because we have such relative comfort and ease. American Christians feel like they shouldn’t need to have limits; if I can do it, I should be able to do it: that is what has put us in this mess in the first place. Remember how Paul wrote that “everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial”? What limits should we recognize…what should we say no to? Maybe we take a shorter shower to conserve water. Maybe we try a meatless Monday recipe to practice a more sustainable diet. Maybe instead of buying more stuff to feel better, we say no to more consumption. Limits and boundaries are part of what it means to be created.
One final word from Genesis…and a commercial.
The last part of Genesis 2 suggests that we are not meant to do this stuff alone. ADAM asks for and receives a partner to share in the tasks of humanity. Together, humans share this vocation, this freedom, and these boundaries. And in the same way, we don’t have to do all of this stuff alone.
One month before the pandemic started, First Baptist began a new initiative titled Earthworks. Based on Psalm 8, in which the psalmist reminds us of our place and task as humans to celebrate and care for God’s creation, we created 6 interconnected teams to help make that happen. In a way, the timing stinks, because we wanted to do all of these things together and in the same room, which of course had to be altered. But in a way, maybe this was the best timing. It gave us a chance to rethink the way that we share these tasks. And over the last 18 months, these teams have done some incredible ministry. And there is more to do!
- Red—the Advocates—ask how we need to limit our greed on a societal level; what we need to say no to together.
- Blue—the Nature-lovers—tackle the Joy Question, and share experiences in God’s creation…hiking, biking, simply being outside.
- Yellow—the Worshippers—have helped to organize this series, as well as other worship experiences to spread joy in the work of creation care.
- Orange—the Sustainers—ask how we should limit our appetite when it comes to food and water AND how we can enjoy the experience of eating differently.
- Purple—the Scholars—have had dozens of meaningful conversations around the topics of climate care, asking all three of these questions together.
- Green—the Upcyclers—help us to tackle that vocation question, and accomplish small things with great purpose.
These folks understand that we need partners and community to share together these three questions and the tasks of what it means to be human, according to Genesis 2. What it means to live out of the hope that we have been created with. Today, and in the days and years ahead, let us live out that hope together, as Christ’s church, following the Biblical model of stewardship.
Learn more about FBC’s Earthworks initiative and sign up for one or more teams here.