GOOD? (A Sermon)
When Elizabeth and the kids and I moved into our neighborhood, there was a a short, squat house nearby, surrounded by trees. The house as been empty as long as we’ve been here, so we’ve considered those trees our neighbors. Trees make the best neighbors – they aren’t loud, and more importantly, they don’t complain about us being loud. And they never borrow your weed-whacker and bring it back broken, claiming it was broken to begin with.
In this last couple weeks, someone sent a big machine with a long arm and a claw…with a mechanical thumb…to demolish that old house. The machine played with the house, like a big cat toying with a wounded animal, or like a toddler playing with a stuffed animal. This machine shuffled down this house like it was made of playing-cards, then it started crunching – steel and glass, plaster and wood, brick and concrete and when we looked the next day, there was nothing where that old house used to be, just flattened dirt strewn with straw (presumably planted with grass seed). And I thought, “this is alright. That old abandoned house wasn’t doing any good for the neighborhood, now in a few months it’ll be a grassy clearing surrounded by trees. Instead of worrying about meth-heads using the house as a drug lab, we can worry about pot-heads using this forest glade for singalongs.”
It was nice, with that old abandoned house out of the way, to imagine that the land would belong to the trees again. When the people are away, the trees will play. They’ll just play reeeeeeeeally reeeeeeeeelly slowly. “Man, I thought those people would never leave – I’m gonna grow an Afro, maybe branch out, see if I can get a little of that sunshine over there and watch my favorite soap-opera, ‘Chasing Tail,’ starring the neighborhood squirrels. We can sit up all night telling scary stories. This one’s called… ‘Leave it to Beaver…’” “Don’t tell them that, they’ll have nightmares and leak sap all over the place.” “Nah, it’ll put vines on their chest.”
Of course it wasn’t the trees that had bought the property – trees don’t sign contracts, they just stare at the paper and say “His name was…Spruce…and you cut him down in his prime…beat him to a pulp…flattened him out and stapled him.” A couple days after the house was demolished, the machine came back for the trees. It clutched them by the trunk and pulled them up, then tapped them on the ground to shake the dirt off the roots. Like the trees were cigars, it tapped them on the ground. And Elizabeth said, “If God made the trees in His image and likeness we’re in big trouble.” And I looked around nervously “This is Christian country. If they hear you say that they’re gonna cut you down and use you for firewood.”
God looking like a tree – the very idea is preposterous. The Bible proves that, not only in what it says, but also by what it is, paper, a bunch of ground-up wood. Surely if God had some special interest in trees, He wouldn’t allow such a massacre of them to produce copies of a book for us to read. And right there on the first page it clearly says: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
Ah, it’s so reassuring, such a relief to hear those words – to feel like God’s special love for us is tied up in God’s love for Godself. “How can I stay mad at you, when you look so much like me?” We want God to look a nice bearded old man – like Santa Claus, except wearing white and He’s eaten less Christmas cookies. We want a God who will watch us all the time, keep a careful list of all the bad stuff we do, and then throw out the list and give us the goodies anyway. And most important, Santa may be watching us all the time (a little creepy? A fat old man spying on your kids when they’re sleeping and awake?) he’s got the supernatural surveillance but he’s always somewhere else – he’s far away where he can’t interfere. He’s got the CIA spy-gear and the jackboots but he never comes kicking in your door to put a black bag over your head, he just slips in through the heating vents, plants the toys and goes back to base (I checked the toys last Christmas, by the way, they’re not manufactured in the North Pole anymore – apparently Santa Claus has moved his operation to Taiwan where the labor is cheaper, and his sleigh these days is called “Amazon Prime.” I should start calling my car that. “Amazon Prime.” I should call my wife that too. She’d love it).
We have a powerful desire to humanize God – to make Him more like Santa Claus. We try to humanize nature too – “Mother Nature.” “Mommy nature, we’re sorry,” because we know mothers can’t resist empty apologies, our moms think we’re so cute. “We won’t do it again,” we already called, our friends are on their way over so we can do it again. That’s why we don’t say “Uncle Nature,” because when we make an environmental boo-boo we don’t want to hear “You ordered your bed, now sleep in it.” We want a Mommy to accept our hollow apologies and clean up our mess for us, “Oh, bless your heart, don’t worry, we’ll sweep it under this carpet called…the ocean.”
In Christianity it’s a sin to believe in “Mother Nature.” But if you just happen to have a statue of Mary in your garden, and your roses just happen to prosper? That’s innocent, right? I mean, what could be more innocent than an unwed teenaged mother?
We want nature to love us, and nature does love us – and not just for feeding the mosquitoes and hosting her beloved flu virus (“Thanks for the ride!” “Freeloading hippie, get a job, flu virus, you bum.”) but also for just being ourselves, adorable little rug-rats, critters, animals. Nature loves us, but nature doesn’t love us best. She gives us the same rules as every other species – “I want you to have friends, but keep the party small and don’t make a mess of the place.” Because when we let our population boom out of control she’ll send us to bed without supper, and if we trash nature’s house she’ll clean it up with tidal waves.
I love nature but I don’t really like nature. Nature is mouths and thorns and mosquitoes and animal crap on the ground when you’re walking and feel the sun on your face and your heart is beating and your problems seem inconsequential and… Aw! Aw man! Who left this here? Now all my problems seem insurmountable and I’ve gotta scrape this nature off my boots.
And nature communicates with us in feelings, instincts, mostly from our bellies and our swimsuit area. She doesn’t get it that we’re the nerds of the animal high school, we want our instructions clear. How do I pass this test? Couldn’t you put it in writing? And so we cling to our religions, which give us study guides for the final exam – a syllabus. For example, the Bible is divided into two Testaments – “Testament” meaning contract. And right there at that start of the first contract, God creates the world in a certain way, and begins telling people about how they should interact with it.
According to the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, God dictated the formation of skies and land in six days. A seventeenth century bishop used Biblical chronological data to calculate that this process began on October 23rd, 4004 years before the common era. The land was flat and the sky was a hard, solid dome on top of it – if you can imagine one of those plastic bubbles that gumball machine toys come in, that’s the world that gets created in Genesis One. And the sun and moon chased each other around inside this bubble, and God made plants and animals and sea-monsters and birds and then little figurines of Godself. Once these little figurines, people, are in place, the whole structure can finally pass inspection, “Very Good,” and then God subcontracted human beings to oversee the whole business.
In the last few centuries, preachers and scientists have been playing tug-of-war over the logistics of this story, and we’ve generally come to agree that the world is more than six thousand years old, it’s round (we’ve all seen the photographs) and probably revolves around the sun. But there are other elements of this story that our culture has a harder time letting go of. The story tells us that Creation was complete when humanity appeared. It tells us that the human being is the final, the ultimate creature. The finished product. Well of course we are! History begins with us, everything before humanity was just prologue of bumbling bacteria and dimwitted dinosaurs, and history will end with us, if humanity ends there will be nothing but cockroaches picking at our trash. “Hey Keef, we’ve struck gold! A Twinkie, we’re set for life!” The world was made for humanity. Many of us here are not Biblical literalists, and yet many of us here still believe that the human race is the culmination of creation, and that when we’re finished the story is over forever.
We do love to debate about who made humanity – was humanity made by God, all at once? Or was humanity made by the world, gradually formed and refined by evolution and natural selection? Did Adam and Eve have furry tails and swing from trees? But our cultural debate about natural selection has nothing to do with monkeys. I mean, sure, it might be embarrassing to say you’re related to primates who play with their own feces, but anybody who’s ever raised a toddler can come to terms with that. The hardest thing about accepting natural selection is letting go of Supernatural selection – a promise from God that we as humans are exempt from the laws and limits that govern the survival of every other species. We are taught to believe that humanity is “too big to fail,” and that if we as a species crash, God will bail us out. And if we let go of that, our cherished cultural belief in a manifest destiny of expansion and renovation will be exposed as a reckless binge, an intoxicated rampage fueled by delusions of indestructibility.
In Genesis 1:28, God is reported to say, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over…every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Our culture is built on dominion over the earth, changing the land to suit our needs. And eliminating any creature that gets in our way. We might debate about whether or not it’s America’s God-given responsibility to police all the nations of the earth, but few of us would debate whether or not it’s humanity’s God-given responsibility to police all the species of the earth. Mark Twain observed, “We hunt the fly remorselessly; also the flea, the rat, the snake, the disease germ and a thousand other creatures which [God] pronounced good, and was satisfied with, and which we loudly praise and approve – with our mouths – and then harry and chase and malignantly destroy, by wholesale.”
As we debate the mechanics of the Genesis creation story, we can forget to look at the message of the creation story – God said each part of creation was good. Before people started messing with it. Maybe the story is telling us – before we charge in to filling, subduing and dominating, we should always take a look at creation and consider: “God said this was ‘Good’ as it is – are we really going to make it better?” Because many of our big box stores and parking lots are not an improvement (and all this bulk-buying and driving isn’t doing our figures any favors either). Civilization did not begin with some group of people ten thousand years ago saying “Hey! We’ve got a great idea! Let’s destroy the earth!” No – it began with some group of people ten thousand years ago saying “Let’s perfect the earth!” For ten thousand years, groups of people have been trying to perfect their environment, not to wreck it but to make it better. To make it easier to provide for themselves and their children.
Decades ago, I don’t know how many, someone stepped onto a plot of land in my neighborhood and said “I know what will make this perfect. We’ll clear a few of these trees, and build a small, humble house here.” And months ago, someone else stepped onto that plot of land and said, “I know what will make this perfect. We’ll knock down this old house, clear some more of these trees and…” How they intend to improve the neighborhood remains to be seen, but I’m told that they’re going to build a parking garage. That’s our modern idea of perfection – easy parking.
An eighteenth century French exile who called himself Voltaire composed a short novel called Candide, about a young man’s quest to make some sense of life. The search for meaning drags poor Candide like a rag-doll across the planet, making him witness and victim to countless atrocities born of nationalistic and religious fanaticism. By the end of the story, Candide has no illusions about countries or creeds, and when someone attempts to draw him into a philosophical discussion about life’s meaning, Candide calmly says, “We must tend the garden.”
We live in a time religious and political fanaticism, ideologies clash like clanging cymbals drowning out the noise of destruction around us as our culture attempts to perfect the world by turning it into a parking lot. And in all this noise we can easily miss that calm voice: “We must tend to the garden.” The garden needs our help, it’s true, but we must also let the garden tend to itself, because it is good. And when we acknowledge that the garden is good, we can stop trying to perfect it and let the garden tend to us.