Scripture Reading: Genesis 1–3 NRSV (selected)
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
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.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ”
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
As we’ve spent time in worship this month engaging with our relationship to creation, I’ve encouraged us to notice and enjoy things that blend into the scenery in our daily life: the beauty of the sunrise and sunset, the aroma of a cup of coffee in the morning, the taste of fresh tomatoes, and the brightness of the moon and stars at night.
As I was traveling to Olmsted Manor this past week for a retreat with other pastors beginning the final three years of the ordination process, I was struck by the grandeur another feature of God’s creation that we often overlook: trees. If you’ve ever traveled through the Allegheny National Forest, you know that the trees are often your only companions for mile after mile of travel. Maybe you’ve been up to Olmsted or over to the Kinzua Bridge overlook. There’s no cell phone service. No roadside conveniences. Just miles and miles of tree-lined roads. (I might be exaggerating a little bit. There are some signs of life. But the most impressive is the over 23,000 acres of forest.)
Can you imagine what our world would look like without trees? It wouldn’t be recognizable. No shade, just totally exposed land.
For some of us, we have family rituals involving trees. Maybe your family has a tradition of going out and getting a fresh Christmas tree every year. (We always went into the basement and assembled the plastic, artificial variety.) But I can remember on my grandparents’ farm that there was a tree planted the year I was born. There’s pictures somewhere of me next to that tree as both of us grew taller. (Despite how tall I am, the tree quickly outpaced me.)
Author J Matthew Sleeth, whose upcoming book is devoted to the role of trees the Christian story, comments that, “Trees are the only things from our childhood that get bigger when we go back and visit them as adults.” It’s true. As we grow up, the world grows smaller as we see more of it. Our heroes shrink in our minds as we begin to recognize their flaws. But a healthy tree grows larger and larger, nourished by the soil, water, and sunlight around it. Dr. Sleeth suggests that is how our faith should be—growing deeper, taller, wider as it is nourished by Scripture, prayer, Christian community, love, and even the trials and tribulations of life. Isn’t that the lesson of Psalm 1? Be like a tree, not like the chaff blowing in the wind.
Our Christian Scriptures, from the very beginning, remind us about the importance of trees to God’s creation and to our own faith. Genesis 1 tells us that God gave us dominion over fish, animals, and birds. But more central, God populated creation with every plant yielding seed and every tree that produces fruit so that we might have food.
Genesis 2 zooms in on creation to a garden where God placed the first humans, surrounded by “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
A quick Google search tells me that God’s creation is home to 60,000 species of trees. I don’t know if they were all present in that Garden of Eden, but lets just imagine that they were all represented there. God gave Adam and Eve dominion, authority over every one of those trees—with one stipulation: “do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
God had given them everything they needed for life, in all its variety and grandeur. He even provided them with a tree of life! In that garden, they had no fear of death, for it had no power over them. They were naive in the best possible sense of the world—they had no idea that things could be any different. God walked among them, and they had abundant life.
I wonder how much time they spent investigating the other 60,000 trees and eating their fruit before the crafty serpent inquired about that one tree in the middle of the garden. I expect that they hadn’t even started to explore the beauty of that garden in depth before they decided to take what they couldn’t have.
God had given them dominion over everything on earth but one thing. Our first parents made the same decision we all make every day without realizing it—they decided that what God had given them wasn’t good enough. They couldn’t just let God be God. They couldn’t submit themselves to God’s lordship. They saw the fruit, and they just had to have it.
This wasn’t just any fruit. This was the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. This was the fruit that would make them, as the serpent said, would make them like God.
No matter what we do, we live in the shadow of Adam and Eve’s choice. Day after day, we choose to eat from that tree as we try to be like God.
At our best, we at least try to do what God created us to do. We try to exercise righteous dominion over the earth as we care for it and use it to provide for our needs and the needs of our family. But how often do we step over that line and start to pretend like we’re the Lord of creation. We pretend that God’s creation is something that we can use in whatever way we want, for our own selfish ends. Rather than serving as righteous stewards of the earth, we behave as tyrants over our subjects, acting in ways that suggest we don’t understand the ways we depend on the health of the rest of God’s world.
How often have we, as human beings, done things because we can without considering the long-term risks that they pose. In the past 100 years, we’ve developed and used atom bombs and agent orange. We’ve figured out the very code of vegetative and animal life, and we’ve found ways to manipulate it to our own ends.
Such knowledge can either be a tool of righteous dominion or a way that we try to assume Lordship of the earth.
It all goes back to that one tree in God’s earthly garden.
As Paul quotes in Romans from Ecclesiastes, “there is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God.” It’s true in every facet of our life, but especially in the ways we engage with creation.
We shape creation in righteous and sinful ways, but the world in which we live also shapes and transforms us for our good or to our detriment.
When we think we’re the Lord of creation, when we think we’re in control of everything in God’s world, one of the Scriptures that speaks to us is God’s response to the demands of Job, the righteous and wise sufferer:
Job had demanded knowledge of the inner workings of the world. He accused God of not managing things properly. Chapter after chapter, God listened patiently. And then, God answered…
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
“Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,”
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Surely you know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!
Yup, God can get snarky too.
When we probe the majesty of creation and the depth of God’s knowledge, we often find out that we have no idea what we’re doing. We realize how human and fallible we are. We weren’t there when God laid the foundations of the earth. We didn’t assist God in determining the measurements of the heavens. And thanks be to God, because we would have surely messed something up!
But when we assume our rightful place in creation, we have the potential to do a lot of good. In the words of Psalm 1, we should be like a tree! We should be like a tree planted by streams of fresh water, yielding our fruit in its time.
The Lord, the Psalmist says, “watches over the way of the righteous.” And so, we should consider, what is “the way of the righteous” in relationship to creation?
Well, it means many things that we’re already doing as a church. It means caring for those who are most vulnerable to climate-related disasters, which we do through the United Methodist Committee on Relief. It means supporting organizations like our Food Bank and the Society of St. Andrew, which help ensure that everyone receives the benefits of the earth’s resources and that no food goes to waste. It means supporting our camping and retreat ministries that maintain and protect places of beauty and natural exploration for future generations to enjoy. It means advocating, as our United Methodist pension managers do, for equitable and sustainable business practices. And it means that we reflect upon our impact on creation, in the big things and the small things, from recycling, to our power usage, and even planting trees.
But here’s the good news. While we may have a responsibility to be good stewards of creation, while God calls us to follow the way of the righteous, the restoration of God’s world is not up to us. The God who has the whole world in his hands is the one who created us and makes us into a new creation. Hear what Revelation 21–22 has to tell us about the hope to which we cling:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
There was no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
Yes, that tree of life, the tree we were separated from when we left that garden in Eden, is central to God’s project of renewal. In the new Earth, there is no death, crying, or pain. No longer will we reign over earth like greedy tyrants, but we will care for the world as God intended it from the beginning. No longer will we worship God in buildings made with human hands, but God will dwell among us like on that first day in the garden. No longer will we be like the chaff floating in the wind without roots, but we will be like the tree planted by the streams of living water.
This is the sure and confident hope to which we cling, even though the earth may change (Psalm 46). We shall not fear. We shall not lose hope and go our own way. But we will trust in the Lord, the God of all creation. Thanks be to God, Amen.