Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig on Genesis 2:4-19
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Jennifer Davis Sensenig
CMC 1 October 2017
Genesis 2:4-19; Romans 8:18-27
I’ve been on a sabbatical for 4 months, so it’s good to hear this story of the beginning as I’m beginning again with Community Mennonite Church. Thank you, CMC, for making a sabbatical possible. It was a rich time for spiritual renewal, study, writing and rest. I’ll share more during a Monthly Gathering. Thank you also for the blessing that it is to return to you.
According to one of our originating stories, humankind–adam–was created by hand, by God, by dust, by breath. Our unique human kind of life was sustained by a garden full of plants and animals and in turn we tended the garden, cared for the animals. Genesis 2 also describes initial conditions that allowed our life to emerge and sustained Eden’s paradise. Think water–an underground stream that when it reached the surface watered the whole face of the ground–that’s in v. 6. And then four great rivers, two which we study in elementary school–the Tigris and Euphrates–rivers of the fertile crescent–and two which we can no longer trace because the Gihon and Pishon rivers are only remembered here by ancient people who knew what we would have otherwise forgotten.
This creation story, the second one in Genesis, describes us–adam–at first without gender differentiation, without race or national identity, without economic status. We are one living being with one vocation. Adam’s first task is naming the animals, meeting and knowing and naming each one, recognizing and honoring the diversity of all animal life. Our vocation in the garden is summarized this way–to till and to keep it.
Tilling is a human responsibility in an agrarian society. Keeping or shepherding animals is a human responsibility in a herding society. So the phrase “to till and to keep” transmits some ancient human wisdom about society. “To till and to keep” seems gentler than the phrase for human responsibility in the earlier Genesis creation story, which commissions us: “to subdue the earth and have dominion over fish, birds and everything that moves.” But really, Biblically, their meanings are similar. We human beings have unique capacities and special responsibilities within creation. And make no mistake; we are accountable to God for these.
This creation story is worth pondering because today we are aware of the ecological crises on this watery, garden globe we call home. Since the mythical days of Eden some of us have lost sight of our vocation amidst the industrial and technological transformations in society. Others have never lost or are even today regaining a sense of our calling to care for the earth, “to till and to keep it” to be in solidarity with our natural home. Isn’t this the politics and spirituality of Mary, the mother of Jesus, which Isaac Villegas highlighted last weekend at our retreat? Isn’t the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth, ultimately the same cry? Didn’t we hear at retreat that fantastical story from Revelation, in which the wilderness is a place of nourishment for the woman and the earth itself comes to her aid? Perhaps the ancients were right–our origin and future is to be in reconciled, responsible community with creation.
St. John’s Bible
While I was on sabbatical I went to Minnesota to study the giant bound heritage edition of the St. John’s Bible. It is called an illuminated Bible because of the artwork throughout the volumes, which is not so much decoration, but theological reflection on key scripture passages. Most illuminated Bibles are very old–from the Middle Ages–but the St. John’s Bible is new. It is the first complete handwritten illuminated Bible since the invention of the printing press. It is a New Revised Standard Version and the illuminations in the first pages of Genesis connect the best of our scientific understanding of geological and anthropological history with our creation stories. Thankfully, this Bible was designed with an understanding that science and scripture are compatible dimensions of our theology and spirituality.
Friends, the Bible is not at fault for Jewish or Christian failure to care for the earth. The Bible doesn’t whitewash our antagonism against creation, but these Genesis tales anchor our God-breathed origin in community with creation. Our vocation is to be gardeners and caretakers of the earth, who also depend on this creation for our very lives. We are made from the dust of the earth, created by a God willing to get her hands dirty, down in the mud and form us as a living being. Imagine the original form–no gender differentiation, no racial distinctions–we are one. Let’s not blame our failures to be one with each other and one with the earth on the Bible. That would be a cheap excuse, shrugging off our accountability before God. Scripture is actually a profound resource for renewing our vocation to care for the earth and deepening our love for and solidarity with both the rest of humanity and all the natural world.
The illuminations in the St. John’s Bible include the double-helix of human DNA and images of the earliest cave paintings by human beings. The fecundity of creation spills over the gold frame of the Garden of Eden illumination. And humanity is modeled on the Karo tribe in Ethiopia along the Omo River. In addition to the artists who provided theological illuminations, Chris Tomlin, a natural history illustrator also contributed to the Bible insects. You’re reading along and turning a page, it’s as if a dragonfly or a beetle has landed on the vellum. Vivid illustrations of butterflies adorn certain pages and their wings show up in illuminations that connect heaven and earth. So on sabbatical I would often find myself studying the illuminations and reading aloud beautiful calligraphy of familiar scripture. And this happened in a temperature controlled library study room. Then in an afternoon hike I’d see those very insects from pages of the prophets and epistles flitting along the edge of Lake Sagatagen.
Green Congregation Initiative
Last year one of the themes that emerged from our congregation’s vision process was captured with the phrase Green Congregation. Recently a task force has formed and these are the CMCers involved: Brian Martin Burkholder, who is convening the group, Wayne Teel, Kathy Yoder, Doug Graber-Neufeld, Alex Graber-Neufeld, Randy Reichenbach, Lucy Melenke and David Shenk. These folks are getting in touch with our vocation to till and keep the garden, to know and name the animals, to be in solidarity with the earth, to remember our rivers and watershed, to hear creation’s cry and respond with love and care.
The task force is preparing a proposal for Church Council and during the November congregational meeting we hope that the congregation will be ready to move forward with some version of it, as seems fitting to all of you. This past week I met with Brian to learn more about the direction of the proposal. I was moved by the depth of this task force work and I recognize that it has been stirring in many of our hearts over some years. One of the commitments that the task force has is to intentionally connect CMC with other local folks who inspire us by their care for creation–groups like Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV), Renew Rocktown, and congregations like Park View Mennonite Church.
Perhaps the stirring within you has connected you with the adult education class Wayne Teel is convening. Or you are interested in the Forest Farm along Black’s Run and the Northend Greenway from talking with Cornelius Franz. Valerie Serrels could share with you her vision of a church of the wild. The CMC task force proposal will include something related to greening the buildings we own as a congregation, and also bringing our lives into greater solidarity with the earth which is crying out. This is challenging work, and it’s not likely to move forward from guilt or shame or despair. This people on this task force are convinced that we can’t care for something we don’t love. By nurturing a deep love for creation, recognizing love is a verb, and caring for the earth by shifting our lifestyles we can realize the vocation of adam.
Perhaps your spirituality is deeply connected with the natural world–hiking woodland trails, gardening, or being on the water feeds your spirit. For some , though, our Christian spirituality hasn’t been interconnected with human solidarity with creation, but our Bible is suffused with creation-based spirituality. It seems to be God’s long-term project to restore all relationships–including the relationship between humanity and creation. That’s why we see Jesus born according to the stars, communicating directly with storms, healing bodies beset with disease, feeding hungry people and working miracles with mud and water and breath as if he were God in the garden forming us as one humanity transforming us from a body of humiliation into Christ’s glorious body. Today Christ comes to us in the grain and the grape, crushed by human efforts into bread and wine. These are signs of creation, a body in crisis, and signs of new life, new love, new care for all things–a new adam.
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