To Serve and Preserve

Sermon for Sunday, March 1, 2020 || Lent 1A || Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

In our three-year cycle through the Bible, today is the only day we hear one of the most ignored, yet most important, verses of the Hebrew Bible. The verse begins our reading from Genesis today, and really, it’s only there to set up the story of the serpent’s temptation. But I want to focus on this verse today because, when we begin to own the mission that this verse asks of us, we will also – finally – begin to grasp our place in the order of Creation.

The verse in question is simple. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” That’s it. That’s the whole thing. This is the end of the second creation story in the book of Genesis. (Did you realize there were two?) In this beautiful, intimate story, God forms the human being out of dust and breathes life into the human’s nostrils. I’m reminded of the great poem by James Weldon Johnson called “The Creation” that ends like this:

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.

Like a mammy bending over her baby. That’s how God formed the first human, Adam. Adam is not a name, it’s a material – the earth, the clay God scooped from the bed of the river. The Genesis story tells us, “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.” A few verses later, we hear God’s charge to this Person of the Earth (Adam): “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”

To till and keep the garden: this garden that is made of the same stuff as the person – the Adam, the earth, the dust, the clay. The Hebrew word that we translate as “to till” could also read “to work or serve.” And the Hebrew word that we translate as “to keep” could be “to watch over” or “to preserve.” So we could read this wonderful verse like this: “The Lord God took the Person of Earth and put the person in the garden of Eden to serve it and preserve it.” My colleague Rabbi Marc Ekstrand says this: “The human, who was brought to life by an ultimate intimate act with God, is placed within the garden. The garden was not created for the human, rather humanity was created, given its very life, for the garden.”

This understanding of our place in Creation seems to run against a verse from the first story of creation, a much more famous verse: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’” (Genesis 1:28). Well, humanity took that concept of dominion and turned it into domination. For most of history, we couldn’t make a dent in the natural order of things even if we tried. But then…then industrialization happened. We built machines that could dominate on our behalf. We clear cut, we overfished, we removed mountaintops, we polluted air and water. We consumed and consumed and consumed to the point that we no longer remember another mode of being besides consumption.

When the famous verse from Genesis was written, the idea of dominion was planting a grove of olive trees, not clearcutting an old growth forest. But since the second half of the nineteenth century, the famous verse from Genesis gave industrialists cover – a warrant even – to do as they pleased with this fragile earth. And thus has it been since. We forgot the second creation story, the one in which God plants the human in the garden to serve it and preserve it.

When we consider the environmental crisis we find ourselves in, this complex mix of causes and effects and theories and models and scientific consensus that we are in a whole lot of trouble – when we consider this, we can turn apathetic and say, “Well, nothing I do will help, so might as well keep living as I am. After all, I won’t be around for the worst effects.” Or we can take seriously the mission God gives the Person of Earth in the second story of creation. We can challenge the idea that economies must continue to grow to be successful. We can support the work of organizations that are reforesting the planet. We can grow more aware of our energy usage. We can eat less meat. And we can speak out as People of the Earth, as those God has charged to serve and preserve the garden, that both individual and societal patterns must change.

Because, when you look back at the first story of creation, even with its language about subduing and dominating, we find that God only calls humanity “Good” as part of the larger web of life. Here again is Rabbi Marc: “God does not remark that the creation of humanity is good. Only by stepping back and looking at the whole does God remark ומאלד שּׁנּה־טולבְּא הֹה, behold, it is very good. Humanity only shares goodness as one inseparable aspect of creation with a unique place and purpose.”

That purpose is to serve and preserve the garden. Today, I am very aware of my name – Adam. On Ash Wednesday, we scraped ashes on our foreheads, proclaiming, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That dust is the Adam, the clay that our great mammy of a God scooped up from the riverbed and formed in God’s image. To be formed in God’s image means that we have the capacity to imagine – to imagine our way out of crisis, to imagine our way into the mission of God. The Lord God breathed life into your soul and into my soul and then placed us in the garden. The serpent is there, waiting to tempt us to apathy and inaction. But God is there, too, calling us to serve and preserve this beautiful Creation.


Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash.


The Podcast for Nerdy Christians is back for Season 2, and is available wherever you download your podcasts. Episode 4 of Season 2 is out today, and it’s all about reconciliation in the Pixar film Brave. Check it out here and find the podcast on Facebook. You can also subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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