Earthlings from the Earth: Land Sunday

Genesis 3.14–19; 4.8–16

‘It seems improbable that a country can continue to hide from the actuality of its history in order to validate the fact that having said sorry we refuse to say thanks. Should we ever decide to say thanks, the next step on a moral nation’s agenda is to ensure that every Australian acknowledges the history and insists that, as we are all Australians, we should have the opportunity to share the education, health and employment of that country on equal terms. Many will say that equality is insufficient to account for the loss of the land but in our current predicament it is not a bad place to start. 

‘The start of that journey is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginals did build houses, did cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginals were intervening in the productivity of the country and what they learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to inter-cultural understanding and, perhaps, Australian moral and economic prosperity.’ — Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu


Last week, we looked at the Creation story in Genesis 2, the story of the Garden of Eden. 

We saw that the first earthly relationship established in the Garden of Eden is between the human and the trees, which were ‘pleasant to the sight and good for food’. 

We saw that trees thrive in forests, and that a forest may be described as a superorganism just as an ant colony may be. 

Let me also remind you that we said this is a story. It’s not history or science, but it is if anything more important than that: it is a foundational story. It’s foundational not just for Christians, Jews and Muslims but for the West as a whole. And, in these interconnected times, the whole world may share in it. 

In today’s reading, the story has taken a dark turn. Before we look at that, let’s look at something in last week’s reading that we didn’t touch on. Something to do with Land Sunday, today’s theme. 

Genesis 2.7, we read 
‘the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being …’

Let’s learn some Hebrew. Adamah is a Hebrew word: it means soil, land, even earth. When God forms ‘man’ the word is Adam. ‘Adam’ isn’t primarily a name, it’s the human God makes from the ground. Just as ‘Eve’ is not really a name; Eve means ‘Mother of all living’. 

So: Adam — the Human — is formed from Adamah — the Earth. 

We could say the Human is formed from Humus, the topsoil. 

Or better still, the Earthling is formed from the Earth. Adam is the Earthling from the Earth. 

This is why at a funeral service you may hear the words
Earth to earth,
ashes to ashes,
dust to dust …

as the coffin is lowered to the ground, or disappears behind the crematorium curtain. 

In this foundational Eden story, we are intimately connected with the Earth. Living in a city, we can easily forget that we are earthlings from the earth. The funeral liturgy is a place and time that keeps this connection firmly before us. We return, one way or another, to the Earth from which we came. 

Yet as the story goes on, the earthlings from Earth turn against one another. It begins as Cain kills Abel. 

These earthlings are no longer living in connection with one another, or with the Earth from which they came. In fact, we shall see that the ground itself has grown hostile. 

Back to the story. Adam and Eve 
‘heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”’ 

Now he has eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam is afraid of God. There is a separation between him and God. 

They say the best lie is close to the truth. The crafty serpent spoke a half truth when he said to Eve, 
God knows that when you eat of it (the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

This is how I read the story: Adam and Eve were children as far as maturity was concerned. God wanted them to grow to know good from evil, but not yet. 

The time would come when they could eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but they needed to mature first. 

I imagine what it would be like if my four-year-old granddaughter were given the maturity of a twenty four year old woman. She couldn’t handle it. She is not ready for it. Yet. 

Adam and Eve grasped at the fruit, and received maturity too soon. 

What happens then? Everyone starts throwing everyone else under the bus. 

The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ 

Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’ 

And then the consequences flow. Hard. 

The serpent must go on its belly.

The woman will have pain in childbirth. 

Again, this is not history — or else we may be implying that snakes had legs and talked before Adam and Eve ate the fruit, or that babies had small heads beforehand that made giving birth easier. 

To the man, God says 
‘cursed is the ground because of you;
   in toil you shall eat of it
     all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
   and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
   you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
   for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
   and to dust you shall return.

This is a hard road to wisdom. It’s not the steady maturing that God had in mind for Adam and Eve, the Earthling from earth and the Mother of all living. It is a wisdom that comes through mistakes, failure, conflict, defeat. Ultimately — thank God! — it bears fruit as the wisdom of the cross as Jesus identifies with us unto death. 

The Earth is a place of hard labour for earthlings. We Australians live in a ‘sunburnt country,… of droughts and flooding rains’, in Dorothy Mackellar’s famous words. If the flood doesn’t get you, the bushfire will. If the drought doesn’t get you, the cyclone will. And the mossies will finish the rest off. 

In this difficult situation, it’s little wonder that earthlings turn against one another. The first murder, the murder of Abel by Cain, occurs in the fourth chapter of Genesis! 

It wasn’t meant to be this way, according to the foundational story of the Garden of Eden. The design was for us to live in peace and harmony with the land. 

The issue between Abel and Cain was Whose land is it? Does it belong to Cain the farmer, or to Abel the herder?

The history of Australia can be seen as a story of whose land it is. 

Every Sunday, we acknowledge the land we stand upon as land of the Yagera and Turrbul nations. These are the First Peoples of this place. They have never given up the sovereignty of their land, but we occupy it. 

The Aboriginal flag is our pulpit cloth. More than that, we live in a place where that flag is painted on the main intersection. (You can just see the roofline of this church on the left of the photo.) 

We are also a place in which Aboriginal elders such as Aunty Jean Phillips and activists such as Brooke Prentis have been and are welcome to speak. 

Is that it? Is there more we could do? If we acknowledge ‘Aboriginal agricultural and spiritual achievement’ (Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu), then that is a question we should ask ourselves as we move into the future. A first step might be to familiarise ourselves with the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

How do we live as earthlings from earth in Australia today? We need the wisdom of indigenous people to explore this further; as we meet on Yagera and Turrbul land, we must beware of only paying lip service to that reality. 

West End Uniting Church 13 September 2020

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Filed under Church & world, Culture, Season of Creation, sermon

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