This Sunday gives us the opportunity to worship with the land, soil, and land creatures. Scripture proclaims Christ as the second Adam who came to overcome the sin and death caused by Adam, including the curse imposed on Earth.
First Reading Genesis 3:14–19; 4:8–16
Because of the sin of our primal parents, God pronounced some curses. The ground of Earth bears the curse for humans, and from the ground Abel’s blood cries to God. At their death, Earth welcomes humans home again.
Psalmody Psalm 149
Psalm 149 is a song of thanksgiving. God turns the tables: the humble will be victorious, kings are now bound in fetters; God is now Maker and Monarch.
Second Reading Romans 5:12–17
Christ is the second Adam who came to overcome the sin and death caused by Adam, including the curse imposed on Earth.
Gospel Matthew 12:38–40
In death, Jesus too is connected with the ground. He was three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
"The Earth Swallows," sermon by Rev. Fred Kinsey
Sometime since the pandemic started, Kim and I binge-watched, “Six Feet Under,” because when it came out in 2001, we didn’t have access to HBO up in rural Michigan. Six Feet Under is the story of the Fisher family, who lives in the residence of their family business, an old-time Funeral Home in the L.A. area. David, is the faithful son, who stays home to work with his dad, in the business, and Nate is the prodigal, wandering son, who comes back, and though, never intending to, ends up joining his brother in the business, after the father suddenly dies in a car accident.
One of the more emotional episodes, is the burial of Lisa, Nate’s wife, who dies much too young, under mysterious circumstances. When it comes time to make arrangements, Nate ends up arguing with Lisa’s parents about the burial. Her parents want a traditional service in the Funeral Home, and final resting place for her ashes, in the family columbarium back home. But Nate insists she be buried naturally, no embalming, no casket, simply put in the ground. Earth to earth; ashes to ashes. Nate had had a conversation with her about it just recently. She was clear about her wishes, and Nate feels obligated, as her grieving husband to fulfill this promise to Lisa. But the parents just can’t accept a green burial.
After the Fisher funeral for Lisa, we watch, as Nate hands a box of cremains to Lisa’s parents who are getting into their car to go home. Is the quarrel over?? Did Nate really give in to the parents? They all look pleased as they say their good-byes, though for different reasons. Only then that we learn how Nate has given them, a random box of ashes, taken from a shelf in the Funeral Home, we had seen the brothers talk about earlier in the season, where many boxed remains were never claimed, by next of kin.
Then, in the final scene of the episode, Nate drives to a remote location, one he and Lisa had enjoyed going to together, and he digs a hole in the ground, and puts Lisa’s body in, breaking down in exhaustion and a mournful wailing lament. He is still sitting there when the sun rises, revealing the beauty of the location, his mind more at ease, now that he has fulfilled his promise to her.
But like Cain and Abel, nature itself rises up to reveal Nate’s sin. It’s not the soil that cries out to spoil his secret. Murder is not Nate’s wrong-doing. But when the parents take the cremains to be put in the family columbarium, the undertaker feels a moral obligation to inform them. These cremains are certainly not Lisa’s, he says. These cremains are from a past cremation practice, many years ago. The dust of the dead can tell their own story, just like the blood Cain spilled in the soil of his field, from his brother Abel, cried out.
From Adam and Eve, to Cain and Abel, in these first four chapters of Genesis, we learn the history of our own jealousy, envy, covetous desires, blindness towards God’s grace, and lack of responsibility for our freedom to choose good over evil.
The story of Adam and Eve and their first children is not so much a story of original sin, as it is about our common human condition; the situation we’re in, in our own lives, living in the world every day. We inherit brokenness. Not just the brokenness from Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, but from all people in whom we are in relationship with; from our next-door neighbors, to our fellow citizens, in city, state, country, and world. But that’s not all. In this Four Week Lectionary in September, we’re also rediscovering, and recovering our relationship with, and to, the earth, land, desert, and rivers.
And we see this clearly in Genesis, chapters 3 and 4. There is enmity between people and animals. And, the soil shall sprout thorn and thistle, making it hard work for us to eat from the plants of the field: in verse 19, “by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, till you return to the soil.”
And most disturbing, and yet at the same time, so revealing, is the relationship of the soil to Cain’s brazen murder of his brother: ““What have you done? [God] question’s Cain, Listen! your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil! 11And so, cursed shall you be by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand. 12If you till the soil, it will no longer give you its strength. A restless wanderer shall you be on the earth.” Cast out of the Garden, there is brokenness between humans and the land.
Robert Alter says of this soil that, “The image is strongly physical: a gaping mouth taking in blood from the murderer’s hand.”
So here, the earth, the very soil, is witness to the brazen awfulness of the murder, this blood-letting, that the ground must absorb; the sacrifice of the soil. The soil chooses, to no longer give of its strength to Adam and Eve. And God is intimately aware of it. God feels the pain and the travesty of Cain’s misdeed. It cries out to God! God empathizes with the work that the soil must do to absorb, and swallow, Cain’s breaking of the 5th Commandment.
Today, the soil, the land around the globe, is crying out to us: the erosion of the soil throughout the midwestern breadbasket; decades of soil depletion. The soil of newly rootless forests, ravaged by fire, along the west coast, and resultant mudslides. The EPA super-sites, soil choking from dumped chemicals and nuclear waste, waiting to be cleaned up. The frozen tundra’s and glaciers melting at alarming rates. We have not respected mother earth as if our lives depended on it; as if we are aware of our intimate relationship with the land and soil, that God loves and listens to, and has given to us to care for.
When Jesus was asked to give a sign to the leaders in Jerusalem, in our Gospel Reading, he didn’t pull any punches: “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, [Jesus says] but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.”
Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, and devastating giving up to his stone-cold tomb, is the best sign of his coming to our world as the Son of God, the anointed One. Just as Jonah was swallowed up for 3 days in the belly of the big fish, so Jesus will be buried in the heart of the earth 3 days, he says. Jesus, who was born in the straw of the manger, the innkeepers goat-feeder, close to the earth and the animals, this Jesus, lays down to be buried in earth’s safe keeping, until on the 3rd day, when God shows the world how he is the first-born of the dead, the Second Adam, as St. Paul says, in our Second Reading today, and our redemption.
And so, even Jesus’ greatest sign is not accomplished without our dependent relationship, between earth and humanity.
Today, we are still outcasts from the Garden of Eden, living with Cain in the land of Nod, east of Eden. One day, in a great reveal, God will restore, rescue, and redeem creation, and, in our relationships with God, neighbor, and land, we’ll be saved and made right again.
It is time we treat the land, as an equal partner on our faith journey, as we come from God, and continue on our way, back to God. It’s time we treat the land with the same respect God gives to it, for without it, we will die.
For now, we are dust, and to dust shall we return, as God told the human, a’dam. But as we wait, and take on our responsibilities for Land and soil, we also rest in the knowledge of the Psalmist, who today sings: “If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.” (Psalm 139:8)
God promises to be with us – on the way, all the way, and no matter where. So let us trust in the Promise of our baptisms, and our death into Christ, who lay “in the heart of earth” 3 days. That we may also rise up with Christ, and return to God, our creator and redeemer, and be made whole and right again.