Pastor Matt Sturtevant’s sermon is “Stewards of Eden,” the 3rd sermon in the August/September worship series, “A Season of Creation.”
Today’s Old Testament reading comes from the second chapter of Genesis. In fact, it comes directly following the story that we read last week from Genesis chapter One. Herein lies the problem. Biblical scholar Beth Tanner suggests that we do a pretty poor job reading these chapters of Genesis. We conflate the two stories, like we sometimes mix up the different Gospel accounts. Or we pull in what we already know about later chapters, or even later books of the Bible. Or, worst of all, we go to these passages with a bone to pick, or a theology to defend, and we often find what we are looking for.
But I think it is wise to read the Bible on its own terms. This morning, I want us to actually listen to the text. Don’t look for the parts that aren’t there yet. As the Two-Way offered last week, see this as a passage about Original Goodness, and not Original Sin. Perhaps close your eyes and listen. Listen as though you were sitting around a campfire at night, amongst a group of shepherds, as one in your midst tells us all a story. Focus on what you hear, not on what you think you already know. With new ears, hear again the story of Genesis 2:
4b In the day that the Lord[a] God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7 then the Lord God formed man [ADAM] from the dust of the ground,[ADAMA] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man [ADAM] became a living being. 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 11 The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12 and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
15 The Lord God took [ADAM] and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Some of my favorite characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are the Ents. If you know the story, you know that the Ents are tree people. They look like trees and are as old as the oldest trees. They are the keepers of the forest and are thoughtful and wise souls. In fact, according to his books, these Ents and the Entwives helped humans to create gardens and preserve beauty.
But, the forces of the evil wizard Saruman destroyed the gardens and the Entwives. He cut down the trees in order to feed his war machine, clear-cutting the forest to make room for his factories and to keep the fires burning to create his weapons of war. Saruman’s armies burn, chop, and destroy these tree people, with no regard to their beauty or wisdom.
Tolkien scholars know that part of what motivated him to write about the trees was his Christian faith, and his lament that much of the English countryside had been developed and destroyed. For Tolkien, these tree creatures became some of the grandest heroes of his books, protecting the innocent and waging battle against the forces of evil.
The lament that Tolkien felt is one that has reverberated throughout the centuries. Empires and those hungry for power and wealth have so very often found as targets the trees of the forest. Sandra Richter is a Biblical theologian who points to the destruction caused by the Assyrian Empire—to humans and trees alike.
First, if you need a bit of a reminder who the Assyrians were…these are the folks who really began this idea of Empire-building. Their goal was to grow their power and territory by destroying other nations and cultures in their way, taking their resources and leaving their people decimated in the process. We know of them in the Bible because the Northern Kingdom of Israel was one of their victims…they moved in and destroyed the capital of Samaria, did away with their king, and their people—ten of the original tribes named in Genesis—were exiled or destroyed. History has called these the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, generations of God’s people lost to an Empire bent on total destruction. These were bad people.
Richter writes that when the Assyrians waged war on a people, one of their aims was to destroy not just their political structure, but the very land that they sat on, including the trees! According to their war records, date palms, fruit trees, olive trees, beautiful gardens, were all cut down and burned. This destruction was not accidental: destroying the trees was a symbolic way to demonstrate total domination, as well as a practical assurance that those who were left would have no ability to rebound once the trees that took a generation to cultivate were burned to the ground. Richter suggests that how a people treats trees often demonstrates how they treat all living things. As go the trees, so go the Israelites, the people of God…mown down to make room for the short-term gains and immediate destruction. Richter uses the term “environmental terrorism” to describe the ways that the Assyrian Empire treated the trees.
But it is not as if all nations did this. This was particular to the way of Empire. In fact, she points to a passage in the Bible, in Deuteronomy, in the Mosaic law, that says the complete opposite. Deuteronomy 20.19. literally says, “if you wage war on a people or a city, in the course of that battle, you may not cut down the trees.” The Law of God, in stark contrast to the law of Empire.
Unfortunately, it is a story that didn’t end with the Assyrians. Richter talks about a similar environmental terrorism in more contemporary times…
First, she speaks of the country of Haiti. Close to a decade now, a dozen of us left Kansas for the shores of Haiti. One afternoon, we drove to the border to see the Dominican Republic. Many of you will know that Haiti is on an island that it shares with the DR. While the Dominican is not the strongest economy in the region, it is much stronger than Haiti’s. A few times a week, the border is opened up so that Haitians can stream into the DR in order to buy what they can—goods and supplies that they can turn around and sell in the cities of Haiti, or things that they need that they cannot get in their own country. It was heartbreaking to see the frenzy across the border to the DR, and many of us wondered what made the difference. Why was the DR so much stronger, just on the other side of the border? Before long, we realized at least part of the difference: the trees. The Domincan Republic has chosen to engage in more sustainable environmental practices, including preserving the forests of the island. Haiti, on the other hand, has engaged in short-sighted clear cutting and immediate gratification of charcoal production. With the disappearance of the trees, erosion has washed the tender topsoil into the ocean. Satellite images show a clear difference between the two sides of the border: trees, and no trees. What we saw on the ground shows a clear difference: production, and desperation. As go the trees, so go the people.
Richter tells another sad story: that of Operation Ranch Hand. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the United States waged war on the people of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. But they also waged war against its trees. Perhaps you have heard of Agent Orange. This toxic chemical, and many others like it, were used to destroy and deforest the areas in which US soldiers fought. Like the ancient Assyrians, the army knew that destroying the trees meant that the enemy could not use them as resources, could not hide in them, and could not restore their economy or way of life. Fifty years later, these chemicals have killed or disfigured hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians, have made it impossible even now for the land to be usable, and have had a similar effect on the American soldiers ordered to use them. Our tax dollars are now being used to treat and restore the bodies of American soldiers, that our tax dollars once went to destroy through the use of these chemicals. As go the trees, so go the people.
Richter tells yet another story of desperation, this one a little closer to home, especially closer to my home. The Appalachian region of Kentucky and West Virginia is perhaps best known for two things: beautiful, vast forests of dark, wooded mountains…and coal. Coal mines have been dug deeper and deeper into those mountains, as the thirst for cheap and easy energy continues. But somewhere along the way, companies discovered an alternative to dangerous mines. They found that if they clear-cut the trees, they could basically remove the tops of the mountains, take out the coal, and dump the rest of the rock and topsoil into the adjoining valley. Simple, right? As go the trees, so go the people. As soon as this practice started, residents started getting sick. The sediment that choked these streams, and the fact that the trees no longer filtered the groundwater, meant that water quality plummeted. Arsenic, lead, aluminum, and a dozen other toxins leached into the water. People started getting sick from the water, from the chemicals used to blow up these mountains, and from the toxic sludge dumped into the rivers. Throughout that region, people—including the people begging these companies to keep employing them—are dying by the thousands. Today. In our own country. As go the trees, so go the people.
Richter bemoans the fact that not only are these environmental terrorists doing things like this around the world, but they do it so very often with the express support of the churches! There is a theological argument, she writes, that suggests that “we live in a fallen world, so it’s best not to get too attached to that world. In fact, God is going to destroy it all anyway, so why worry about the environment?” In short, they say, “Use it up…Jesus is coming back anyway!”
Richter acknowledges that that is one way of viewing our relationship to Creation, but it is not a Biblical one! The Bible teaches a vastly different theology. Hear again today’s passage in Genesis: And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In the beginning, God planted trees. The woods. The forest. The garden of Eden was a part of God’s original plan and purpose for the world. It is how God’s plan for creation began. Trees filter out of the air and the dirt and the water things that might harm us. They give us oxygen. They give us food. And they inspire us with their beauty, as Genesis says, they are “pleasant to the sight.” The Two-way showed me their wisdom on this passage again this week. So often, we read this passage as a precursor to Genesis 3: serpents and fruits and failure. But today’s passage is not a story of Original Sin. It is a story of Original Goodness! Tolkien had it right: the trees help us to see God’s providential care and wisdom. In the beginning, God planted trees.
But God did not only plant trees. In the beginning, God planted us. Humanity. We miss the point of this story sometimes in English, and we think that it is just talking about some dude named Adam. But the Hebrew word for humanity, for man, is “ADAM” Meanwhile the Hebrew word for dust of the ground is “ADAMAH.” Hear the similarity? That similarity is on purpose: God planted the trees, the plants, the garden….and God planted us. Formed us from the dust of the ground. We are tied to creation because we are co-created with it.
But, wait, there’s more. The passage goes on to say that ADAM’s task, vocation on the earth is what: “to till and keep it.” I love the Hebrew language because it is so wonderfully rich. In the original Hebrew, these words can also mean “serve,” “guard,” “protect,” even “worship.” ADAM is given this vocation to use God’s creation, but also care for it, protect it, even see caring for it as an act of worship! From the very beginning, it is the task of humanity to care for the earth, to care for the trees!
But that is an Old Testament theology, you might say. Not so fast, says Richter. Flip all the way back to the end of the Bible, and hear these words from Revelation 22: Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. The trees are there in the beginning, and they are there at the end. It is lazy theology, and not at all Biblical, to say that Jesus is coming back, so we don’t need to care for the earth. That’s exactly the theology that causes Christians to support the deforestation of Vietnam or Haiti or Appalachia. It is the theology of Empire. But the theology of the Bible is that it was our task, given at Creation, and the reality of new Jerusalem that we will inherit!
So let me suggest that this is good news for you and me. Richter has spent a lot of time teaching students in Christian colleges and seminaries, and many of them come with the inheritance of this lazy and unbiblical theology. When she asks them what they think of nature, almost to a person, they all tell the same story: “Well, I love being out in nature—in the mountains or the fields or the forests—but I feel guilty so often because I know as a Christian, I’m not allowed to incorporate that love into my Christian faith. I know I’m supposed to believe that we live in a fallen world, and so I shouldn’t love the things of this earth.” This theology of Empire is a source of guilt and confusion in their minds.
Let me assure you that the theology of Empire is not the theology of God! The theology of God is that these trees, or the mountains that I love, or the garden that gives you so much pleasure, or the birds that you love to watch, were created by God! And you were created to care for them! Don’t let the theology of Empire load you with guilt or confusion. Our task as people of God is to care for God’s Creation! The good news that I have for you today is the good news that Richter has had for her students. You don’t have to chose between your faith in God and your love of God’s creation. They are connected and intertwined. In fact, the reason you feel that love is because you were created to!
Some of you might recognize where I am walking. It is the little park that I have preached about before off of Folks Road. It is labelled as the City of Lawrence Nature Park, or something like that, but it is a part of the land protected and preserved by the Kansas Land Trust, an organization whose purpose it is to care for and guard little corners of God’s creation. I love coming to this park, and have for years, because it reminds me, just a few blocks from my home, that I can disappear into the trees, into the darkness of the woods, and celebrate. Celebrate that my love for these woods is a part of my faith, that caring for them is a part of my walk with Christ, and that I have been handpicked, as Richter says, to be one of the Stewards of Eden