Genesis 2:15 (KJV). And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
To dress it and to keep it (Ellicott’s Commentary). The first word literally means to work it; for though a paradise, yet the garden had to be tilled and planted. Seeds must be sown and the cultivated plots kept in order; but all this really added to Adam’s happiness, because the adamah [Hebrew for ground or earth], as yet uncursed, responded willingly to the husbandman’s care. The other word, “to keep it,” implies, however, some difficulty and danger. Though no unpropitious weather, nor blight nor mildew, spoiled the crop, yet apparently it had to be guarded against the incursion of wild animals and birds, and protected even against the violence of winds and the burning heat of the sun. — Charles Ellicott, ed., An Old Testament Commentary for English Readers (1897).
We didn’t have choir last Sunday morning, so instead we went to “dinner church” the evening before. It’s an informal gathering once a month in the fellowship hall at Peace Lutheran (aka the “old sanctuary”) in lieu of the regular Saturday afternoon contemporary worship service. As the name implies, it’s an actual meal followed by Holy Communion. By design, it’s interactive.
And by serendipity the format, which is informal and interactive, raised issues in a way that kept me thinking long after the service was over. I suspect that’s also by design. At any rate, it gave me a new context for the weekend’s headlines — which were about a presidential temper tantrum that raised, at least for a while, the possibility of World War III; and wildfires in Australia that led scientists to wonder, quite circumspectly and soberly, if global warming “has now breached a tipping point, an irreversible shift in the stability of the planetary system.”
Let’s unpack it, and begin at the beginning, with dinner church. It’s a new format for evening worship services, and it went like this.
After a late-afternoon breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage and hash-browns, we listened to the lectionary reading for the day (the Saturday before the second Sunday after Christmas, if you’re keeping track. For our Saturday services, we have the same readings as on Sunday morning). It was from the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. John. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And we discussed it in lieu of listening to a sermon.
To guide us, we had three discussion questions printed in the service bulletin. They went something like this:
- What jumped off the page (or projection screen) at you?
- What’s it mean?
- So whaddya going to do about it?
(Disclaimer: I’m paraphrasing very, very loosely here, and that last question is one I always ask. I got it from a tip sheet by James Martin of America magazine on prayer and meditation: “[You ask:] What do I want to do, based on my prayer? Finally, you act. Prayer should move us to action, even if it simply makes us want to be more compassionate and faithful.” Martin says this focus on action is typically Jesuit, although it’s good advice for everybody and — come to think of it — I’ve been hearing it all my life.)
So what jumped off the screen at us? Mostly how hard it was to summarize the passage in 25 words or less. Beautiful poetry, though. And it sums up the Christian gospel in very few words (although more than 25). The Word was God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, who brought “grace and truth” to some but not to others.
I didn’t want to take the group off on a tangent, so I didn’t mention it, but it also reminded me of the readings for Christmas Eve just a couple of weeks before. A passage from the book of Genesis.
At the Christmas Eve service our pastor, from the pulpit in a darkened church sanctuary, read the opening verses of the first chapter of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
And a lay assistant, in the lectern opposite, read from Genesis 1:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And back and forth it went, from the Gospel of John to Genesis, and hearing it with little points of candlelight flickering in the darkened sanctuary, the effect was mesmerizing.
And it stayed with me. It’s still with me.
Especially when the opening verses of John came up again a month later in dinner church, as the pericope, or assigned lectionary reading, for dinner church . It stayed with me after that service, too. It’s still on my mind.
Taking the discussion questions in order:
What stood out? The poetry. Take it from an old English teacher — that’s one reason the passage from John was so hard to summarize. Another: The prolog or first 18 verses of John, according to Raymond E. Brown who has written several highly acclaimed commentaries, are “a hymn, a poetic summary of the whole theology and narrative of the Gospel, as well as an introduction.” in fact, Brown suggests to readers of The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary (1988), that they read his commentary on the prolog “hastily at first, and then, after completing the Gospel and commentary to return for further study.”
That tie-in with Genesis from Christmas Eve stood out, too. It still stands out, even though it took me off on a tangent. Still takes me off on a tangent.
So what’s it mean? Well, that much is clear. Incarnation. Brown says it’s a “great cycle,” and it goes like this: “[T]he Son descends from heaven to our level, and ascends back to heaven bringing us with him to the divine level.” The italics are Brown’s, by the way. He adds, in standard Roman type, “The prologue describes the Son in heaven and the descent; the Gospel describes the walking among us and the final elevation and return to the Father.”
I’ll buy that. It also calls to mind a passage from one of Martin Luther’s sermons.
I’d been rereading it Saturday before we went to dinner church, and it gave Luther’s take on the incarnation. It’s in a sermon, or postil, he delivered the afternoon of Christmas Day in 1534, and it sticks in my mind mostly because of an everyday metaphor he used that must have delighted the congregation in Wittenberg. My copy of Luther’s house sermons, a well-worn used copy published in 1871, translates it like this:
He [Christ] is born, that is, He has become a man like unto you. Now whoever is born a man, may and should comfort himself with this Savior who is born. … My dear friend, if you will say it is not for me, to whom then does it belong? Did He come for the sake of geese, ducks or cows? For you must notice what He is. Had He wished to help another creature, He would have become that creature.”
It’s all to easy for me to get lost in the theological weeds when I try to deal with incarnation. But Luther’s barnyard simile brings me back to the fairway. Ducks, geese and cows I can deal with.
But I still have questions — why not? I have to ask myself. Why wouldn’t God want to come to earth for the sake of ducks and geese? They’re God’s creatures as much as I am. And I’m probably flirting with heresy here, but I sense the presence of God in a flight of Canada geese flying overhead or the mallard ducks that congregate in Springfield’s Washington Park lagoon as much as I do in the Magnificat or Bach’s B-minor Mass.
There’s a passage from The Brothers Karamazov that stays with me, too. I saw it quoted by anthropologist S.A Mousalimas, in a book about shamans in Russian Alaska, but it’s straight-up Dostoevsky. (It’s also, as Mousalimas suggests, straight-up Aleut or Athabaskan Indian.) “… the Word is for all: all creation, all creatures, every leaf, are striving towards the Lord, glorify the Lord, weep to Christ, and unknown to them, accomplish this.” Where have I heard this before? In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God … Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. The Word is for all, all creation, all creatures, every leaf. Ducks, geese, cows. Moses, Abraham and his flocks, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist (or the “Redactor” who is thought to have incorporated the prolog into the Gospel of John), you, me, our neighbor, all of God’s creatures.
And that in turn calls back to mind that reading from Genesis on Christmas Eve. That was my epiphany a couple of days before Epiphany. With Australia burning up and an estimated 1 billion of God’s creatures dead or threatened with death, we haven’t been doing a very good job of caring for God’s creation.
So what am I going to do about it? Well, I want to think it over first. A good place to start might be the prayer for the day on the ELCA website in the lectionary for the Second Sunday after Christmas:
Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
And how, exactly, do I do that? Hard to tell. The reading from John was pretty abstract, but the part about darkness and light I can relate to. (Even if I have to repress a bad pun about firelight.) The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. There’s plenty of darkness around, and the bushfires in Australia lend a new urgency to whatever we can do to overcome it. For us and all of God’s creatures. All of which I interpret as a call to action.
“Finally, you act,” said Fr. Martin in the how-to article I quoted earlier. “Prayer should move us to action, even if it simply makes us want to be more compassionate and faithful.”
Well, there’s plenty of room for faith and compassion. What else?
One idea comes from Mainline Protestant theologian Walter Brueggemann, who has written extensively of the Old Testament prophets; he suggests, in the January issue of Sojourners magazine, a “new environmentalism [as] an alternative to the world of plastic accumulation that is killing our oceans and ocean creatures.” This prophetic vision would inform a “new ecological perspective in which the earth and all the creatures of the earth are treated like covenant partners who are entitled to dignity and viability.”
So it keeps coming back to Genesis. Allowing climate change to overtake us, after repeated warnings over at least the past 40 years, isn’t exactly in the best interest of the cattle, the birds of the air and animals of the field that Adam was called to care for in the second chapter of Genesis. And as far as I’m concerned, our covenant partners should also include Australia’s kangaroos, wallabies and koalas, and Luther’s ducks, geese and cows.
Brueggemann adds a couple of others: “Every acre, every squirrel, every radish, every whale, every cornstalk is entitled to viability and respect,” he says.
In a very similar context, that of the recent encyclical Laudato Si, Fr. Martin paraphrases Pope Francis in speaking of a divine “call to care for creation that extends as far back as the Book of Genesis, when humankind was called to ’till and keep’ the earth.”
“But we have done,” adds Fr. Martin, still summarizing Pope Francis, “too much tilling and not enough keeping.”
Perhaps the last word should go to Fr. Martin. When Laudato Si came out in 2015, he published a very useful summary in America titled “Top Ten Takeaways from Laudato Si’.” At the very end, he concluded with a one-sentence paragraph:
“To use religious language, what the pope is calling for is conversion.”
I really don’t have anything to add that.
Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1988. 21.
Walter Brueggemann, “Called to a Dangerous Oddness,” Sojourners, Jan. 2020, 27-31.
Martin Luther, Sermons of the Gospels for the Sundays and Principal Festivals of the Church Year, by Dr. Martin Luther, ed. Matthias Loy. 2 vols. Rock Island: Augustana Book Concern, 1871. 1:101.
James Martin, SJ, “Top Ten Takeaways from ‘Laudato Si’,” America, June 18, 2015 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2015/06/18/top-ten-takeaways-laudato-si.
S.A. Mousalimas, From Mask to Icon: Transformation in the Arctic. Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2004. 119-21.