Genesis 3:14-19, 4:8-16
My ancestors on my mother’s side of the family arrived in America from Germany in 1836, drawn by the promise of inexpensive farmland in the state of Indiana. My grandparents still lived in Indiana as I was growing up, and many summers, we took long car trips out there to see them. I remember that once we hit Columbus, Ohio, the landscape went from rolling, forested hills to completely flat fields of corn. And more corn, and more corn, and more corn, as far as the eye could see, until we hit the city of Fort Wayne. These car trips are the stuff of legend in our family. In 1992, we took our first family trip to Germany, and at one point we returned to the village where my mother’s family had come from. I remember that we drove up over a ridge and looked into the valley spreading out before us, to see another flat landscape filled with fields of corn and other crops. And I said to my mother, “Well, at least we know why your family settled in Indiana now. It looks just like their home here in Germany.”
Last week, when we talked about forests and trees, we talked about how God made us to be creatures of relationship—we are even in relationship with the trees, as they give us the oxygen we need to survive and we give them the carbon dioxide they need to survive. Today I would like to put before you this idea: we are also in relationship with the land, and I believe that each person has a particular type of land or landscape that God has called him or her to be in relationship with. I have several stories and experiences that seem to back this idea up. Here is one: This week my parents and I visited the Heart Mountain Relocation Center Museum, and learned how the U.S. government rounded up the Japanese people on the West Coast and brought them here to Wyoming. The reaction of most of the internees was one of shock and despair when they saw this area for the first time, because to them it looked absolutely desolate. I contrast that to my reaction when I came out here to interview, and how stunningly beautiful I thought it was, even though there was a lot of haze covering the area from the summer forest fires. I know that, throughout my life and through all of the many places I have lived, I have always felt most comfortable in areas where mountains are close by. So I believe that God has called me to be in relationship with a mountainous landscape. And from stories I have heard from those of you who have traveled back East, I know that many of you are relieved to come back to an area of the country that is not so heavily forested and where you can see for miles and miles. So, perhaps God has called you to be in relationship with this landscape, too.
We saw in last week’s reading from Genesis how God commanded Adam to till and keep the earth, or, in the literal Hebrew translation, “to serve the earth”. This week, in the story before these few verses we have read today, Adam and Eve have reached forth their hands and eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, exhibiting a lack of trust that God knows what is best for them, and knowing things now that God had never intended for them to know. As part of their punishment, God curses the ground, so that it will be difficult for Adam and Eve to till and keep it, to serve it. But, at the same time, God reminds them that, even though the relationship between them and the ground is now dysfunctional, they do still have that relationship: they are made from the soil of the earth, and when they die, they will return to and become one with that soil once again.
Noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman, in writing about our text from Genesis today, says that one of the purposes of this passage of Scripture is to reflect on “how to live with the creation in God’s world on God’s terms. The narrative appears to be a reflection on what knowledge does to human community.” We are in a relationship with the land. We have the knowledge of what we can do to the land, but just because we can do something to the land does not mean we should do it. Because dysfunction and disorder have entered into that relationship, our desire for what we want to have often clouds our judgment of whether or not we actually need the things we want to have. And so, as I said last week, we human beings, who are a part of creation, often rush to take the place of God and judge some parts of creation bad and disposable in order to get what we want.
This week, I want to focus on something that is going on in the Appalachian Mountains on the East Coast of this country: mountaintop removal mining. In traditional mining, an underground shaft is dug into the side of the mountain so that people can mine the coal while leaving most of the ecosystem on top of the mountain undisturbed. Yes, this traditional mining has its dangers, as we periodically hear about miners who are trapped in the shafts and die as they are overcome by methane gas. So at first glance, mountaintop removal might seem to be a safer alternative. In this method, the entire top of the mountain is removed so that it is easier to get at the seams of coal in the ground and remove them by the truckload. It begins by deforesting the entire mountaintop and either selling off the lumber or burning it. Once this is done, miners use explosives to remove what they call the “overburden,” or the land that is covering the seams of coal. This “overburden” is then deposited into valleys, often filling up streams in those valleys, thus contaminating the water that people need to drink. The coal is then removed. Now, technically, after the coal mining has been finished, the mining companies are supposed to reclaim the land by replacing it and reseeding it with grass. But, very often they get waivers or find loopholes in the regulations so that they do not have to do this, thus leaving hideous scars on the face of the earth where once deeply forested mountains existed. Even if they do reseed the land, the ecosystem has been permanently disrupted and will not return to the way it once was for many years, if ever.
There are so many things wrong with this mining procedure, it is hard to know where to begin. There is the disruption of the ecosystem: trees are cut down, producing more carbon dioxide that warms our atmosphere; animals and other plant life that lived in the shadow of those trees are evicted from their homes and may die. Drinking water is contaminated. Blasting at these sites expels dust into the air; this dust contains sulfur compounds which corrode structures and create health hazards for people living nearby. There are greater levels of hospitalization of adults for chronic pulmonary disorders and high blood pressure. Rates of lung cancer and chronic heart and kidney disease are elevated. There is a higher rate of birth defects. And the list goes on and on. And yet, even though greater awareness of the dangers of mountaintop removal mining has risen, and more people are speaking out against it, it is still continuing to happen. And somehow this is supposed to be “safer” than the traditional way of mining. This is definitely a dysfunctional relationship with the land. Did you notice that the technical term for the land that is removed is “overburden”? We have judged that land to be bad and to be an obstacle to what we want, so we rename it as a burden. We have crossed boundaries that should not be crossed, and we will pay a price.
So, how do we take the “dys” out of dysfunctional? How can we turn from this wanton destruction of land, in the Appalachians and elsewhere, and find a better way to live in relationship with the land? Some theologians today suggest a theology of “re-place-ment”. Too often, land is considered incidental—one piece of property is much like another, and we don’t have that relationship with the land or any feeling for it. I, for example, have moved from place to place for most of my life, and I do not know what it feels like to be rooted in one place for a long time. I’m hoping that I can begin to understand what that feels like, and to continue developing a love for this place that I am in, Powell, Wyoming, located in the Big Horn Basin. It is said that only love for a specific land can motivate us to struggle on its behalf. Do you love the land on which you are located? Do you know its ins and outs, what makes it sick and what makes it well? Do you love the plants that grow on it? If you farm, how do you care for your land? Do you keep up with new ways of farming that not only produce the crops you need, but also keep the land healthy and continuously fertile for the future?
In places you have visited, for example, West Virginia or any part of the Appalachian Mountain range, or the Tetons here in Wyoming, where you have experienced deep love for the beauty of the place, do you keep up on what’s happening in that area? Do you advocate for good and gentle use of that land? Do you listen to the struggles and the feelings of the people who live permanently on those lands, and work with them to make their relationship with the land better? Most importantly, do we pray for God to give us the wisdom to use the land that he has given us in the best way possible?
All of this may seem like a tall order. I will tell you that, when I was taking a class at the seminary called “Ecology and Stewardship,” I came out after each class feeling depressed and hopeless, that the earth was so far gone that there was little we could do to fix the problems that we had caused. But God does not leave us without hope, and I think that hope comes today in our reading from Romans. The Apostle Paul writes, “For, if the many died through the one man’s trespass (that is, Adam), much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.” Through Jesus, Paul says, we have hope that the curse that Adam and Eve received from God and that we inherited will be reversed. And that includes the curse on the land. So let us go forth with that renewed hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us trust in God and listen for God’s voice as we contemplate how best to use the gift of the land that he has given us. Let us not do something simply because we can, but let us respect the boundaries which God has given us. And let us look to the future with hope in Jesus’ return, and that when he returns, all things will be set right once more—including the land. Amen.