The Power of Place
Sermon #293 St. Martin’s #51 (Riverway) 2/5/23
Before You Read: In our contemporary service at St. Martin's we have been talking about the Anglican Marks of Mission. This was the final sermon in the series, and it was based on the fifth Mark of Mission: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.” You can find all the Marks of Mission here.
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no vegetation 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, but a stream would rise from the earth and water the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 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...
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, 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.”
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to the man to see what he would call them, and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle and to the birds of the air and to every animal of the field, but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.”
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-25 (NRSVUE)
As we wrap up this series on the Anglican Marks of Mission, it seems fitting that we end this conversation where it all began—as in, where the human story all began.
If this whole series has been about participating in God’s action in the world, and a call for us to respond for the sake of the Kingdom, then it may be beneficial for us to see how God first wanted us to participate and respond. What was the original task given to us?
Genesis 2 has this fascination with the ground (or the earth). “Out of the ground” is a phrase that appears multiple times. Interestingly, we’re told that no one was there to till the ground—the adama in Hebrew—so the Lord God breathed into the adama and formed Adam. From the earth came the earth man.
And then in v. 15, we are told that God placed this new man of the earth in the Garden “to till and keep” the ground he just came out of.
This is the original mission—the task that God had given humanity. Of course, we were created out of God’s abundant love, and were meant to love and be loved by him—to be in relationship with him—but we were also given a task.
Our word mission comes from the Latin “missio” which just means “sent.” We were first sent by God to care for the creation he had just made. When God saw the world needed tending, he solved the problem by making us.
We are then, stewards of creation; empowered by the Lord God himself to tend and care for the world.
But there is a major difference here compared to Genesis 1. In the first chapter, God tells humanity to have dominion (or rule over) the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, etc.
Not so, in chapter 2. In fact, one way to translate “to till and keep [the land]” in chapter 2 is: to work “for the garden soil, serving its needs” rather than the other way around (E. Davis, 29). It’s the opposite of having dominion!
Even the rabbis who wrote the Midrash said: never forget God made a covenant with the land before making one with us (Genesis Rabba XIII 8).
Is your head spinning yet?
All this gets me thinking about a few different things:
What is humanity’s purpose considering all this? What is my purpose in the world? How am I tilling and keeping—how does one even do that in our 2023 context?
But really it comes down to: What might it mean if we weren’t created to take and consume and rule over creation as Genesis 1 insinuates, but we were meant to be more of a steward, and work for the Lord (and for the land), like Genesis 2?
Power of Place
To get to some sort of an answer I think we have to reckon with the idea of place—as in, where we find ourselves in the present moment. Because I’m not sure we can have a sound theology of creation and mission if we don’t have a good theology of place.
You see, we are all shaped by the ground under our feet whether we realize it or not. One of the best Bible classes I ever took required us to color on a map the different kinds of rock that made up the Holy Land. The point is, the ground itself shaped the biblical narrative.
The hills, valleys, and plains of Canaan shaped where towns were established, where roads and commerce flowed into the region, where battles were fought—and the longer that Israel was in the Promised Land the more it seemed to get rooted deep into their soul.
Read the Bible and you will not only get a sense of the geography but a deep love for the very rocks themselves.
And the irony is that the Promised Land was, in fact, mostly rocks. Unlike the great civilizations in Mesopotamia that lived along the banks of the Tigris or Euphrates River, or Egypt whose life was dependent on the mighty Nile River—the land of Canaan was sparse compared to those places.
There were a few spots to farm along the coast, but the Philistines possessed that, and Galilee was always a contested area by different kingdoms and tribes. There was no major river that they could build a kingdom around—many days Brays Bayou looks bigger than the Jordan River.
If the Israelites were going to survive, they would not be able to rely on the things that made Egypt and Babylon so powerful—they would have to rely on God. He would provide for them within the land.
The biblical scholar Ellen Davis says this, “Ancient Israel’s Scriptures bespeaks throughout an awareness of belonging to a place that is at once extremely fragile and infinitely precious. Fragility belongs essentially to the character of this land and may even contribute to its value” (Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture 26).
Because the land is so fragile it proved that if the Israelites were going to thrive as a people, the place was “under the immediate, particular care of God” (27).
Sounds a lot like the original intention in the Garden of Eden.
In our own day and time, few people are as aware of the fragility of the land as the Kentucky author, poet, and farmer, Wendell Berry. His work has helped us modern folks reclaim an appreciation and reverence for the land.
He talks about the land having its own personality, its own story, that can only be understood over years and years of “being” in a place. Not to use the land as a tool, or a means to an end, but to reclaim that biblical understanding of place.
He writes, “To preserve our places and to be at home in them, it is necessary to fill them with imagination. To imagine as well as see what is in them. Not to fill them with the junk of fantasy and unconsciousness, for that is no more than the industrial economy would do, but to see them first and clearly with the eyes, and then to see them with the imagination in their sanctity, as belonging to Creation” (“Notes: Unspecializing Poetry,” in Standing by Words).
For Berry, you cannot “know something” or “know a place” unless you really spend time there, unhurried, with no agenda. And it’s worth spending time there (wherever that may be) because it is a gift of God…because we are made from the dust of that place.
Wherever you grew up, you were shaped by that place. Here in Houston, we are formed by the bayous, the plains and marshes, the Gulf of Mexico, and the very clay under our feet. These things shape which part of town we want to live in, what activities we do on the weekends, and everything in between.
Just like the ancient Israelites, our collective story is in many ways being shaped by the land and our relationship to it (and God).
How can we possibly do mission well if we think it is only “out there” somewhere else? We are called to be stewards first and foremost to the sacred ground that we tread on a daily basis.
I’ll end with this. I don’t know how many of you have seen on Netflix the 2020 documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” but it is awesome. This South African filmmaker decided to swim in the ocean every day, rain or shine.
At first, this kelp forest that he would usually swim in seemed pretty boring and lifeless, but then he came across this small purple octopus. He observed it for a while and noticed how smart it was. Soon enough he was returning to the same spot every day, and eventually, the octopus began to recognize him and would swim with him and be playful when he was there.
The film tells the story of the bond the man had with this one octopus, and how the seemingly lifeless kelp forest was actually teaming with life…but he only realized that by returning to it over and over again.
Friends, when it comes to being faithful stewards of creation and the ground on which we stand, it appears that our first act is to open our eyes and realize that more may be going on here than we realize. That more is going on and we have a duty and sacred responsibility that was given to all of us way back in Genesis 2. But first, we must pray that God opens our eyes to see…and only afterward can we act.
And really, I think that applies to all the marks of mission we’ve talked about over the past month. We cannot join Christ in his work in the world if we are not looking for him.
Are we looking for him? More times than not, are we inviting God to act on our behalf toward our goals, or are we seeing how God is inviting us into his work? This invitation began in Genesis 2 and has so graciously been given to us as well.
During communion, we’ll have the opportunity for you to re-dedicate yourself to God’s mission with the anointing of oil. I really hope you’ll consider being anointed for God’s work in the world. The crazy thing is that God doesn’t need us, he doesn’t need our help—but he has invited us into his work nonetheless. And what an honor that is for us.
Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Ellen Davis. Photo by Beau Horyza on Unsplash.