Click. The gate to the Garden of Eden just closed behind you. What do you do now?
You, Adam and Eve, were charged to till the garden and keep it. But not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It would have been easy to care for this garden. The soil was fertile, water plentiful. God had provided every good thing to eat.
The story of the Garden of Eden is one that we all know in its general outline, whether we’re adherents to a Judeo-Christian faith or not. It’s an origin story that continues to speak to us down through the generations because there are profound truths in it about what it means to be human.
You may recall that there are two origin stories at the start of the book of Genesis. The first, written in what is called the Priestly tradition, starts off like this:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Genesis 1:1-5).
The Priestly origin story brings order out of chaos. Humans are created in the image of God and given dominion over all of creation.
This second origin story, the one with the Garden of Eden, is written in what is called the Jahwist tradition. In this story, God is more like humans. God walks in the garden in the cool of the evening. God calls out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you? Why are you hiding from me?” God makes things and then stands back with an artist’s eye and thinks about what else could be added. God makes the human, Adam, out of earth, adamah. Adam’s name basically means “earthling,” because he is made out of dust of the earth. Adam and Eve are not given dominion over all of creation; they are told to till the earth and keep it, or tend it. And as soon as they disobey the rules, they are booted out. There are consequences.
There are infinite ways to interpret this story. We could read it as tracing what it means to grow up, to learn the ways of the world, to be tempted by all the things that pull us away from God: the yearning to know more and set ourselves up as gods and experts instead of remembering with humility who God is. The yearning to have what is not ours to take. And then, like teenagers who snuck out last night and don’t want the parents to know, there’s the shame, and trying to shift the blame, and hiding from that parent figure because you don’t want to confess.
Perhaps this week you’ve been following some of the news about COP 26, the climate conference that world leaders have been attending in Glasgow. The rulers come together and promise that their nations will do better, will be carbon neutral with net zero carbon emissions by 2050 or 2030 or whenever. And Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate change truth-teller, said the other day that COP 26 was already a failure because it was all words and no real action. And if history serves, she’s right. There have been 25 previous COP meetings, and all those promises haven’t amounted to a whole lot. Our carbon emissions continue to climb in ways that will destroy life as we know it. We think we’re negotiating with other countries. No, we’re negotiating with nature. Nature always bats last.
We are ruining Eden, my friends. We know it. Like Adam and Eve, we don’t want to be held accountable for it. But if we’re not careful, humanity will get booted out. We didn’t till and keep Eden, we tried to remake it, to plunder it.
Last week we started a worship series called “Liminal Time.” We’re exploring the in-betweenness of where we are. We’re not who we used to be in so many ways. And we haven’t yet arrived at wherever we’re going. This is true of our experience with COVID-19. And it’s true of climate change. We’re not living on the same planet we used to know. It’s changing right under our feet.
So here we are, Adam and Eve, and the gate just swung closed behind us on that original Garden of Eden. We are facing a new and harsher world. What do we do?
As we talked about last week, in liminal time we notice what has ended, what is lost, and we grieve it. Species gone extinct, sea coral bleaching and dying, beautiful forests lost to wildfires, and on and on. It is heartbreaking. Adam and Eve might grieve the ease of growing and harvesting food. God has said now the soil will be rockier, harder to work, and it will require the sweat of our brow.
So we grieve. But we also look around in this liminal time and say, “What can we do? What are the opportunities to learn, to grow, to serve, to adapt, to be creative and try something new?” Because we will need everyone to show up and do their part. We listen hard for how and who God is calling us to be in this revised landscape. This is an opportunity to get off of fossil fuels and onto cleaner forms of energy using solar, wind, water—so many creative minds are hard at work figuring out how to generate and store energy in sustainable ways. This is do-able, to repower our world. The technology is already there—we just have to get out from under the thumb of the fossil fuel companies and find a way to implement these new options.
We grieve, we discern—and then we move forward with love and hope. Another way to say that is we continue to till and keep the garden.
Yesterday at least 15 people showed up here for clean-up day. Some people worked inside, setting up the space for us to be here today. I know people were working in the kitchen, the fellowship hall, the sanctuary, and the office, and maybe other spaces as well. On the outside, we were raking leaves and dumping them into the back of a pickup truck I had borrowed for the day. We were trimming the trees so that dead branches don’t come crashing down on passersby.
We weren’t just taking care of the physical garden and building. We were also connecting with each other, having those informal, in-person conversations that bubble up naturally when you’re breaking down tree limbs and putting them in a compost bin, or when you’re both trying to heave a heavy trash can full of leaves up over the side of the pickup truck to dump it out. We were taking care of the garden of our relationships.
Yesterday afternoon, back on Whidbey Island, I spent a long time in my garden, spreading all those leaves over the garden beds. Some went onto the large beds I’m developing with layers of hay and manure. Some went on top of the potatoes. Some leaves got packed around the base of the eight fruit trees that some of you helped plant earlier this year. Those fruit trees are now mulched for the winter weather that’s coming.
There is joy in tilling and keeping the garden. If you are a gardener, you may find yourself humming contentedly as you put your garden to bed for the winter. Just being out in the day with your hands in the dirt does something good for the psyche, as our book group read recently in the book All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. It can also be a way of healing racial trauma, as we read in the essay “Black Gold,” by Leah Penniman. She founded Soul Fire Farm “with the mission to end racism in the food system and reclaim our ancestral connection to land” (p. 418). Soul Fire Farm is a place where Black people come to learn that growing things in a field doesn’t have to be about slavery but can instead be about healing and reconnecting, community and empowerment.
Healing, reconnecting, tilling, keeping. I’m thinking that one way we deal with climate change is to look at how we till and keep the garden. Because even after God sent us out of the Garden of Eden, the mandate is still to till and keep the garden, wherever we are.
Our food systems are broken, and they are a contributor to climate change. The average distance a meal travels to reach our plate is 1,500 miles. But we have the knowledge and capacity to change. What if this congregation grew some food on Whidbey Island and shared it—with each other, with food banks, wherever? What if we tilled and kept our own gardens in such ways that the soil grew more fertile, the relationship connections grew more healthy and vibrant, the people became less reliant on fossil fuel systems to put food on the table? Some of you already do this. You grow tomatoes, keep chickens, sprout lettuces, plant bushes you got on “Buy Nothing” from a neighbor who didn’t want them anymore.
Some of us are gardeners in this congregation. Some of you bring in tomatoes or plums or whatever crop you’re swimming in, or you share tomato starts in the spring for us to plant in our own gardens. Farmers are learning regenerative, no-till, silvopasture techniques that build up the health of their soil, thus enhancing its ability to sequester carbon. Their gardens, their farms, become part of the solution, not part of the problem. Some people plant an extra row to give to food banks, thus keeping and tilling the garden that is us people.
Click. The gate to the Garden of Eden just closed behind us. We are out in a new and changing world, a harsher world than was in that garden. God still loves us, still calls us to till and keep the garden—the garden of our food, and the garden of our relationships. And, as the climate change conference COP 26 meeting makes abundantly clear, we need to get busy. This is an opportunity to be creative, to build community, to move forward with faith and love and hope. Amen.