Sometimes, I think that we can just feel it—our connection to the land, the way that God created humans to feel connected to, amazed by, and grateful for this gift of the soil—the neighborhood of the land. If we are really paying attention, I think that there is something in the very life of the land around us that feels like home. Maybe it is somewhere that has been home. Maybe it is somewhere that will be home. Maybe it is a moment or a place where the land that we are standing on, the soil that we can feel beneath our feet and between our toes, feels sacred and we know, without a doubt, that we are surrounded by the presence of God, who loves and cherishes both our lives and the lives of those in the soil, what Wendell Berry calls the neighborhood of life beneath our feet.
What is that place for you? Where is that land, that soil for you—that place that reminds you of home, that place that is holy for you, that place where God is so very present to you that you have to catch your breath, stand still, be still and know God?
One place comes to my mind when I ask myself those questions. This place is a recent discovery for me. It came to me when I took a few months of renewal leave a couple of years ago, to pray, to explore, to listen, to hear where God was calling me next in my life. This place I discovered on a beautiful April Monday morning, in Alzey, Germany. I knew that Alzey is my ancestral hometown. My ancestors left this beautiful village in 1709 because a severe climate event was the last straw in a long line of disasters. The most severe winter still on record in the past 500 years killed everything and my ancestors were starving. They were vintners, grape vine growers, wine makers and the severe winter had destroyed the vineyards. They could not wait for the 5 or 6 years that it would take for a replanted vineyard to produce. So, they made a difficult decision to leave and seek another place, another land, another soil to call home.
On that April Monday morning, I decided to walk the vineyards outside the village of my ancestors. The tender leaves of the vines were barely noticeable, but the moment I stepped foot in the vineyards, I felt like I was walking on holy ground. I stopped to feel the spring breeze on my face and smell the scent of blossoms in the air. I walked to the middle of this vast vineyard, closed my eyes and imagined the generations of blood, sweat, and tears my ancestors poured into a similar place that was probably not far from where I stood. I closed my eyes and knew, in a moment, that the seasons of the vineyards reminded my ancestors of the presence of God and the land that God had given them to care for, to help produce the fruit of the vine. I could sense the pain that they felt too, possibly the pain of feeling like they were letting God down as they made the decision to leave. I could also sense that they knew that God would go with them to a new place, a new world, a new land where again, they would be in partnership with God, caring for the land and helping to produce food and hope. It was for me a sacred moment, filled with appreciation for the land of my ancestors and for God’s care for them when they could no longer care for the land that God had given them.
In the second week of the 2020 Season of Creation observance, people of faith, all over the world have been focusing on the land, the soil beneath their feet and what it means to care for this land that is called home. In Genesis 3 and 4, we encounter two parts of the continuing Genesis story where, in the biblical tradition, land is understood, not as real estate, but as a sustainer of life, as a sacred place for an altar where we can worship God, and as a place to call home.
These faith stories in Genesis tell us who we are and what our responsibilities are. When the first few chapters of Genesis are read as a whole we see that God created the world as a place of beneficence and bounty. It was good. It was perfect. And humanity didn’t need to improve it or control it, but to care for it, enjoy it, be grateful for it. It was a place to meet God, because God is always in the midst of Creation, waiting for us to notice and pay attention to God’s constant and abiding presence with us.
But the relationship between God and creation, especially God and humanity is shattered in the tragic tale of Genesis 3 when the humans decide that they know better than God and eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, defying God’s wisdom and love by deciding that all the other gifts of the land were good, but not good enough.
This tragic story is a story of our faith, not our history. It is a tale of humans’ fall, but it is also an ancient warning of what happens when we continue to separate our lives from God’s love and grace and wisdom. Early on, something had gone wrong with the human journey and God’s heart broke. What had been created and called good was suddenly flawed and in need of mercy, forgiveness, and hope. While banishing the humans from the garden is seen as punishment, it is possible that it is more an act of mercy, because God could have wiped out the humans and the whole of creation, whose goodness was now flawed because of humans’ mistrust in God’s wisdom. But God didn’t wipe them out, didn’t destroy creation, but gave them alternatives for life which included hard, sometimes difficult work because the land would no longer yield without toil, but even in the midst of toil, then and now, the presence of God continues.
This tragic telling of our faith story continues as the humans’ children fight among themselves and Cain chooses the land—the soil—to settle the disagreement by taking his brother’s life. God, ever-present with us, knew. The soil knew. Again, the exile of Cain was seen as punishment, denying Cain access to the soil, the land, home. God could have taken Cain’s life in punishment for Cain taking his brother’s life, but God is merciful and offered Cain a different kind of life, away from the soil, away from the land, away from home.
In the Gospel lesson for Land Sunday, we find the scribes and Pharisees asking Jesus to show them a sign. From Matthew’s perspective the whole of Jesus’ life has been a sign. There is no need for another sign because there are signs all around. He prepared for ministry in the midst of the wilderness. His first sermon proclaimed what was most important to God, that even the smallest wildflower has vast intrinsic value–perhaps he spoke of my favorite, the dandelion, whose yellow blossoms provide food for the bees in the early spring. He taught in stories that show what is important and connects God with us and the land—a sower went out to sow…. These stories tell of the commonwealth of God not as an otherworldly place and time, but as a renewal of life in the present time and place, the very soil of the land. “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
These are signs of renewal, of hope, of new life, of transformation and not of things staying the same. Jesus compared this to the sign of Jonah—the three day journey in the whale and his three day journey “in the heart of the Earth.” It is obvious that this image refers to Jesus’ entombment, before his resurrection, but it is connected to the Earth, where a seed must fall and die and then grow to new life.
Our faith is about fall and redemption.
Our lives are about fall and redemption. Death and resurrection.
Our soil, our land, God’s creation speaks of God’s tender mercies where death does not have the ultimate say or the last word, but life and resurrection are gifts offered to us from God over and over again—God, who treasures life over death.
In these pandemic days, when there is uncertainty all around, my favorite tree has offered respite and hope. I have watched as my favorite honey locust has transformed from a bare tree in March through the new, bright green spring leaves that turned into the rich green leaves, bursting with summer life. I have watched squirrels scampering up and down and across this tree, trying to reach the bird feeders on the deck. I have watched as birds have perched in the branches making certain that Harry, my cat is not standing by to disrupt their time at the feeders.
Then suddenly, this week, I knew that time is growing short as I have watched the first of my honey locust leaves turn yellow and fall from the branches to the ground below. Already the ground beneath the tree is littered with yellow leaves that I barely noticed gone from the tree itself. This is bittersweet, because summer is never long enough for me and I know that cold weather is coming and yet, I am reminded that this is part of the renewing of the land. It is a visible sign of death and resurrection, the fundamental doctrine of our faith. The leaves that sprung to life months ago, bringing calm to chaotic time, are dying and falling to the ground where their death will add to the richness of the land and creation that God has given us. And from the soil that these leaves will help produce in time, new life—renewed life—will spring forth.
What the soil and the land teaches us this day is also what the forest taught us in the first week of Season of Creation 2020, that part of our care of this precious gift of creation is offered through our paying attention to the life and death and resurrection of the land—of the soil, of life. The more we pay attention to something, the more we understand it, the more we treasure it. It is the same way with our faith. The more we pay attention to the way that God is with us—Emmanuel—the more we discover renewing life and transformation in our own lives. The more we notice that God is with us, the more we will be able to share God’s love and mercy, forgiveness and grace with others.
This land, this soil, not only sustains our lives, but teaches us as we pay attention to this gift that God has given us and as we look for God in the midst of the beauty and hope of the land, the soil, we will discover that in the midst of the soil, the land, the beauty of creation, we notice that God is with us and we are home.
May it be so!