**Originally preached for the 4:00 Jazz service at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago on July 5, 2015.**
Four years ago, at the beginning of my seminary career, I was in a class that focused on discernment and vocation. In the second week of the term, we were instructed to go out alone and find a quiet spot somewhere on our campus and commune with nature for an hour. In the seconds immediately following the instructions, I could feel the collective eye roll of 50 new seminarians. I suspect that I was even more disgruntled than most. The idea of sitting alone with my thoughts at that point in life felt unbearable. I had just finally acknowledged to myself that I was queer, and the fearful weight of all that lay ahead in terms of “coming out” and living into this new truth daunted me. More than anything, I feared my parents’ reaction when they learned that their daughter was something with which they deeply disagreed.
As I grudgingly made my way out to the creek behind our classroom building and settled myself on top of a storm drain, these heavy thoughts rolled around in my mind. Looking for a light-hearted distraction, I determined that I would focus on a squirrel. I heard rustling on the opposite bank a few minutes later and I looked for the source hoping for a new squirrel friend. Instead, a long black snake crawled out from the undergrowth. I was on my feet before my brain could even fully process what I was seeing.
It would be a bit of an understatement to say that I don’t like snakes. They terrify me. As long as I have lived, I have known that snakes were bad. Even Indiana Jones doesn’t like them! And so instinct propelled me to my feet, but something else kept me from running away. I wondered if maybe this was an opportunity for me to see something important. So I took a deep breath and settled back down to watch.
For half an hour, I observed silently as the snake made its way along the creek bank. I was struck with wonder at the ordinariness of it all. It wasn’t evil, it was just life. In my time by that creek, I thought something about snakes that I had never thought before: they were beautiful. Fascinating. And just as beloved a creature of God as I was. My fear and hatred of snakes was only a narrative I had learned from culture and indeed from our religion. That narrative had distorted my ability to appreciate them and our mutual creaturely-ness.
Suddenly I was crying. I knew, profoundly, in that moment that the same was true for me and my queerness. My parents’ fear and my own fear were products of a distorted narrative—an inherited brokenness. In truth, I was—like this snake and like all creatures and people—a beloved, wondrous creation of God. I wrote a blog about my experience without revealing its particular significance as far as my queerness. Days later, my mom—who I hadn’t yet come out to—shared with me that the night before she read my blog she had a dream. In her dream, someone was forcing her to hold a snake. She was afraid and didn’t want to, but when she held it, she realized there was nothing to be afraid of. My own experience and my mother’s gave me hope that underneath the fear and brokenness and isolation, there was a deeper story for us of unity and belonging and love.
In the world of today, none of us are strangers to brokenness and division. Even as we have seen astounding moves toward justice and equality for LGBTQ people with the recent Supreme Court ruling, we see also the disturbing reality of racism and anti-black violence with the Charleston massacre and the burning of black churches and with threatening letters being sent to female clergy. There is a human crisis going on in the Dominican Republic and we hardly hear a thing about it.
These realities are founded in and perpetuated by false narratives: stories that teach us that the color of someone’s skin or who they love make them less human than someone else. Stories that teach us to fear one another instead of love one another. Stories that tell us the violence, pain, and oppression happening in someone else’s house or town or country are not our problem.
These narratives of brokenness and division don’t just divide us as people. They also distort and disrupt our relationship with the rest of God’s creation. It is a distorted narrative that teaches us that the world around us is a tool for our use: resources that exist merely for our consumption. And this story has led us to consume with abandon, to exploit the natural systems that hold life in delicate balance, to disregard care of other creatures and plants until now, when our planet struggles to hold itself together and we’re forced to finally notice that the cost of such unbalanced living could be catastrophic and imminent.
On this Fourth of July weekend, our nation commemorates its 239 year history. It celebrates its independence from other powers, and it lifts up the value of freedom even while we wonder if we will ever see liberty and justice for all. But we as people of faith—as Christians—are called to remember that we weren’t created, ultimately, for independence but for interdependence. Interdependence with one another and with the world. This is the history that is older than all others—it is our true story and it begins in a garden.
We live in the shattered, struggling remnants of a broken world—and we continue to live out this broken story as if it is the story we were made for. It is certainly an old story—starting with our text for today in Genesis 3. But it’s not our first story. It’s not where we begin.
Genesis 2 offers us a creation account that makes clear that our very existence is about unity. Adam is created out of the dust of the earth itself. He is created from it and created to care for it. The animals that God creates come from the dust too and are given to be companions to Adam even as he is charged with guarding their wellbeing. And finally, when Adam is still lonely, God creates another human from Adam’s own self. It is this connected quality—bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh—that makes her his ideal companion. And so she becomes his partner in caretaking as the mother of all living.
Perhaps things might have stayed that way—a holy communion between all of creation and its creator. Instead, there is shift—a break. In Genesis 3, Eve and Adam make a choice. They choose their hunger for the possibility of greater knowledge and power over their relationship with God. After a creation built on connectedness and unity, this is the first moment of turning away from relationship.
Newly aware of their nakedness, Adam and Eve use fig leaves to cover themselves—the first time that humans use nature for their own desire and, more specifically, to work toward separation rather than connection. And then they hide from God, afraid of their own vulnerability—afraid of the truth. God seeks them out, and one by one, each relationship God so carefully cultivated from the earth disintegrates in moments of blame and betrayal. God reels from the shockwaves of these shattered relationships and offers a long declaration—a song of lament even—of the inevitable brokenness that will follow in place of the unity God intended.
In direct contradiction to the creation story in Genesis 2, bonds are dissolved: between animalkind and humanity, between humankind and their offspring, between one human and another, and finally between humanity and nature. This new fallen world, shaped by human impulse rather than divine intention, is one in which children bring their parents pain, hierarchical authority divides people, and the natural world is merely a tool for human use.
The tale of the garden is a heartbreaking and tragic story of brokenness. We see reflections of that same kind of universal brokenness all around us. Stories that tell us that some lives are valued more than others, stories that say an extravagant present for some is more important than an existent future for all. What is clear is that even in the midst of hierarchy and exploitation and distorted relationship—even in brokenness—everything is still connected. The kind of brokenness we encounter in violent racism or human oppression isn’t totally inextricable from the kind that leads to environmental destruction. It is all part of a global story and it is profoundly present in our world today.
So much so, that the one of the most powerful religious figures in the world—Pope Francis—recently released a papal encyclical—an incredible 184 page document—naming the critical reality of climate change and environmental degradation. Pope Francis calls out our “unfettered greed” and its impact on pollution, inequality, and global warming. He suggests that we “lack an awareness of our common origin” and “our mutual belonging.”*
It is this connectedness that ties all forms of brokenness together. Francis says, “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.” He points out that the impact of climate change and environmental exploitation disproportionately affects the most vulnerable populations in the world.
Pope Francis, too, recognizes the false theological narratives that have perpetuated the destruction of the world. “We are not God.” He says. “Nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” He names that, “thousands of species destroyed by human activity will no longer give glory to God and ‘we have no such right.’”
It matters that the pope himself makes these claims. As Christians, our urgent responsibility to respond to these crises of brokenness is not only practical but also theological.
The state of the world today—the myriad and even endless forms of broken relating and destruction—are overwhelming. It is a story that can feel hopeless. But we are not—in the end—without hope, because this story is not the story for which we were created. It wasn’t the first story. And it won’t be the last.
After the long litany of punishments and fallout in Genesis 3, just before Adam and Eve are sent from the garden into the world, God has a final word to offer. “You are dust,” God tells them. “And to dust you shall return.”
Often, we read these lines as condemning. We recite them on Ash Wednesday to remember our mortality and fallenness. However these are not words of hopelessness, but of hope. When God could have said, “good riddance and goodbye,” instead God offers a reminder of where we come from. “You are dust.” And a promise, that one day—one day—“to dust you shall return.” All that has been torn asunder will one day be restored and that promise—that holy hope—is what God send us into this broken world with. That hope of redemption is the same promise that compels Jesus Christ to come into this world—to preach justice and love, to live and die, and live again that we might be freed from the brokenness that binds us and restored to our Creator. That holy promise is both comfort and a challenge.
My preaching professor and Presbyterian pastor KC Ptomey once said, “Remember you are dust. But remember also that God remembers. And God is in love with dust, no matter how messy it is.”
We are called to remember that these stories of distortion and destruction and fear and hate and abuse and carelessness—these narratives must be confronted but they are not the story God wrote for us. There is a deeper story. A story of interdependence and relationship. A story of dust lovingly shaped into this earth and every wild incarnation of life within it. We are a part of the dust and it is a part of us.
Every time we step out into this broken world we have a choice—to believe in the stories around us and continue to use one another and the earth and to break and to break—or to remember that we are dust and to love and to care for this world and one another as we were made to. Every moment, we have a choice with how we engage. We can forget, or we can remember as God remembers and we can trust in the promise of reconciliation, restoration, and redemption. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
With this hope urging us forward we can become a people who, as Pope Francis suggests, have “generously shouldered [our] grave responsibilities.” We know where we come from and we know the promise of return for us and for all beloved things. The God of hope goes with us, and the Lover of dust calls us home.
So let us go out this day with the prayer Pope Francis offers: God, “give us the grace to feel profoundly joined to everything that is.” May it be so. Amen.
* All quotes taken from encyclical itself and this article in Crux by Michael O’Loughlin