A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
September 8, 2019
Gen 2:4b-9, 15-25
Today we are beginning a new year of scripture readings from the Narrative Lectionary. This will be our second four year cycle of readings that cover the broad sweep of the story of scripture. The story of scripture will be emphasized, helping us connect our lives to the broad sweep of the biblical narrative.
Some of these stories may be new to you. Some will feel very familiar. I invite you to listen to each story as if you were hearing it for the first time. Don’t let what you thought you knew about it keep you from hearing what God may be saying to you today.
And so we start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, as Julie Andrews taught us.
Or almost the very beginning.
The creation story from Genesis which we heard is a continuation of the story begun in chapter 1. In the first creation story, God speaks and the world comes into being. Here, in this story, God shows us the act of creation, shows us what creation means, and shows us why it matters.
The creation stories in Genesis were never intended to be a historical reporting of the first day of creation. The creation stories are about helping us understand our place in the world and our reason for being in the world. Walter Brueggeman, one of my professors says it is about human’s destiny as God’s creations, to live in God’s creation, with God’s other creatures, on God’s terms.
And the story of us begins in a garden. Humans, we’re told, are put in the garden to till it and keep it. Work is not punishment. Work is part of who we are.
And the work to which we are called is not unlike the work that God does. It isn’t exactly the same, but it is similar. In our very creation, God shows us how to work. In order to make the first human, God got down on his divine knees, knelt in the dirt, and formed human out of the dust. The word for human in this section is ‘Adam’, which means ‘out of the dust’.
Similarly, when woman was created, God put Adam into a deep sleep, opened him up, took his side, and then formed the woman into being too.
The work of creation is messy. God’s hands surely got messy in the dust and mud and open rib cages and blood and guts. In the creation of humanity, God was involved, not sitting at a remove. The work God showed us how to do is creative, and full of love and hope. It was tilling a garden in order to bring life.
Many of you are wonderful gardeners. I know because I am the grateful beneficiary of your extra cucumbers, raspberries, and zucchini. Gardening is messy work. It requires bending down into the garden bed to weed, pulling the bugs off leaves, and then scrubbing the dirt out from under your nails. The tilling and keeping of a garden is work, and God showed us how to work by making us.
Humans aren’t exactly the same as tomato plants.
I wonder if God knew what God was sowing when God was busy creating us out of the dirt
and bailing wire
and duct tape.
Because humanity is not as predictable as the plants in our gardens. When I read the news, one minute, we are doing horrible things to each other—war, gun violence, callous disregard for the plights of our fellow humans—and the next minute, I read stories of such surprising compassion and love toward the stranger—so many contradictions we are.
We never know how another will respond. In the dust of war torn countries, places where we would expect nothing good to grow, compassion and love may be the dominant trait in people.
In clean neighborhoods, where dust is meticulously banished, and where every opportunity is provided, people may exhibit nothing but violence and depravity.
The growing of humans is clearly complicated work. And so the creation story in Genesis calls us to attend to that. It reminds us how important and how complicated it is to live together. God instructs the Human that he may freely eat of any tree in the garden. God is generous with permission. An entire garden for the human to enjoy and work and care for.
There is a tree from which he could not eat.
The freedom we have in God’s creation is immense. But not complete.
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil often gets lots of attention in this story. And your guess is as good as mine as to what the tree was, or why God put it smack dab in the middle of the garden.
Perhaps we wouldn’t plant a tree right in the middle of our garden if we didn’t want people to mess with it—but that just serves to remind us that it isn’t our garden. It is God’s. And God’s ways are not our ways.
But to emphasize the forbidden-ness of that tree and to ignore the provision of the entire rest of the garden seems to be mis-characterizing the intention of God.
God gives humanity a lot of permission, a lot of freedom, in the garden. An entire garden, minus one tree, is ours to enjoy and from which to be fed. And yet it remains God’s garden and our relationship to God remains what it was at the beginning. We are the creatures in the garden made with love out of the dust. God makes beautiful things out of the dust.
Do we see God primarily as a God who prohibits? Or as a God who gives permission?
I think this is a fundamental question.
If we see God setting humanity loose in a garden that, with some labor and care, will provide for them—then we have permission to see our lives in a way that allows for us to be creative in our own working and tilling of the garden. We can trust that God has provided and will continue to provide. We can set aside anxiety and fears of scarcity. There is enough for all.
If we see God setting humanity loose in a garden that is full of snares and traps and the punishment of work—then we worry about getting it right and pleasing a God who is trying to trick us into getting it wrong. We work only for ourselves. We separate ourselves from others and worry there won’t be enough because we don’t trust in God’s provision, only in God’s prohibition.
We hear stories on the news of people who I’m sure are well meaning and doing the best they can, just as you and I are. Yet they have been taught that God will be displeased with them if they get it wrong, or if they allow someone else to get it wrong.
The way we understand the garden story informs how we live our lives—and how we treat the rest of the people in the garden.
God says it is not good for the human to be alone. And that’s why we have dogs and cats, and the hedgehog, and the deer and the antelope. God puts all of these animals in the garden and the human names them. They are given as helpers and companions.
And they’re great. But they’re no woman, amIright? They weren’t enough. And so the woman is made from the man’s side and it is only once another human is there in the garden that the words man and woman exist. It is only once another person is in the garden that we hear the voice of the human. Language is a product of community. The community we have with other humans is a gift of God from the very beginning.
The woman is created as a helper for the man. For too many years, that word has been reduced to a sense of helper as someone who picks up dry cleaning and washes the dishes, both of which are things I appreciate as help when they are offered.
The word is bigger than that. Ezer means a helper of strength. Moses names one of his sons “Eliezer”, which means God is my helper, and not because God folded Moses’ laundry. At its root, the word translated as ‘helper’ is ‘to rescue and save’ and ‘to be strong’. Wherever else the word is in scripture, God is the helper, God is the one to come alongside to save.
There’s a sentence at the end of this passage about a man leaving his mother and father and joining his woman. Which is odd at this point in the narrative because Adam and Eve didn’t have a mother and father. So while it is understandable we think of marriage when you read this passage, this passage is not about being single or married. The community we have with each other, with the other beautiful things God made out of the dust, does not require marriage. It is about being connected to each other, and helping each other through life.
We are already connected to each other because God made us from and for each other. A part of Adam’s body became woman’s body. From the very beginning, we are connected. And we are to be helpers—strong to save— for each other.
It is not good for the human to be alone is a reminder, as the poet said, that no one is an island, entire of itself. We are connected, one to the other, by the God who formed us out of the dust.
We have a tendency, though, to pretend the concerns and problems of other people are not our problems.
People impacted by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas and along the eastern coast of the US are our people, and their concerns are ours. We were created to be their helpers. (Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is responding. If you’d like to contribute, here’s a link to their site).
People legally seeking asylum at our border are our people, and their concerns are ours. We were created to be their helpers.
Three million people about to lose access to food stamps are our people, and their concerns are ours. We were created to be their helpers.
If we pretend we aren’t connected, we are ignoring the story of the Garden. It is not good for the human to be alone.
The story of the Garden reminds us to care and to respond to the plight of people we don’t know. Not because we share their politics or their religion. But because God formed them from the dust of the earth and put them with us in the Garden too. Because we were created to be their helpers.
Yesterday, Rebekah and some of her crafting friends held a sale in the church grove, and a portion of the proceeds will go toward our campaign to erase medical debt. Darleen Gilbert will be selling some of her handmade cards at church during coffee hour in a few weeks, the proceeds to also go toward our debt relief campaign. So far, we’ve collected over $500 for the campaign, but we have a ways to go. We are created to be helpers for our fellow humans. Who can you help this week?
As you go through your week, I invite you to think about the ways we choose to be in community with others and the ways we pretend we are separate from others.
Our story as people of faith begins in a Garden of abundance, where we were made out of the dust. It’s a great story. Glad to be a part of it with you, glad to have you as helpers, in this corner of God’s Garden.