Faith and Work in Carbon Canaan – A sermon by Gil Waldkoenig on Deuteronomy 11:10-15

Delivered at worship in Valentine 206 for Summer Institute & CTS, July 15, 2016
(Credit for inspiration from Scripture, Culture Agriculture by Ellen Davis and from Eaarth by Bill McKibben)

If you walk down over the hill in front of Valentine Hall, you’ll see a beautiful garden. Every year seminary students plant and tend the garden. Anyone may come and take fresh produce from it to improve their recipes, and the surplus is given away through the food pantry. The garden is about nutrition and health, but it is also something more.

We live in a time when the entire creation of God is in danger. There is an overload of carbon in the atmosphere, and pools of pollution in the waters, in the lands and the air.

But if you go down to the garden and just take a few moments, you might have an opportunity to smell and see and hear something else. The air is clearer and fresher around a garden. The air is clearer and fresher in a forest, too, which is a kind of a big wild garden planted by God.

This past spring our students in a class called Ecology and Stewardship planted the seminary garden. They tapped into the opportunity to live and work at a different pace and in a different way, than most people. They were very interested in teaching young people in their churches where food comes from, and how to be a good steward by gardening, even if it is just a little bit. The people in the class came up with all sorts of ideas for groups in churches to grow food and save energy and enjoy God’s creation in lots of ways. And while they did that, we read and talked about how we today are living through some dramatic changes in the environment, and we have a big effect on God’s creation around us.

Our text from Deuteronomy this morning speaks of a transition. The people were transitioning from the land of Egypt to the land of Canaan. The text says that the new land is going to be different for the people, because it is a land of hills and valleys, and a land in which the water comes from the sky, from rain. In Egypt, the water rose up from the swelling river. Egypt was like Mesopotamia or Babylon, where the river swelled seasonally, and the irrigation of fields happened by siphoning the river into the fields. Canaan was different. You had to wait for the rain. The people needed a different kind of practical faith for a land of hills and valleys and rain, than they did in the land of the Nile.

Of course, as you know, the people were also getting their freedom by moving out of Egypt. But freedom was hard work. Many times, leaders and people looked back to Egypt and re-imagined that it was easier. In terms of the rise of the river it was easier most years, perhaps, until years of drought and famine would come. In the land of rain, in Canaan, it seems the droughts were closer at hand, coming in unpredictable episodes. When the rains came, there was blessing, and garden growth, and plentiful wildlife and water in the Jordan. And so our text today speaks a promise of early rains and late rains, of God watching over the people and the land at all times.

The Egyptian religion worshipped gods who made the river flow and gave life and death. The Canaanite religion worshipped a god named Baal who brought the rains. The Hebrew religion worshipped one God. The same God was with them in Egypt as was with them in Canaan.  But the means by which God blessed the people changed when they moved from Egypt to Canaan. And the faith and the work of the people had to change to suit the different settings of God’s creation.

In the freedom that the Israelites received, they had to work hard, and in new ways, in the land of Canaan. From a cold objective perspective, some of the people thought the new ways were worse than the slavery back in Egypt.

Today there is a great deal of fear about changing our ways of relating to the planet. Many people insist that we do not need to change our ways, or that we cannot. They say we can go on burning copious amounts of fossil fuel and just have faith that one day God would take us away to a better place. They say we can ignore how the land is depleted, the waters polluted and the sky overloaded with carbon from all the burning and cutting we have done. I think those people are a lot like the Israelites who didn’t want to work so hard in Canaan. They didn’t want to adjust to the rain-based environment of Canaan. They just looked back to Egypt. Many people today claim they are looking forward, but they are really looking back, because they insist that we cannot change our ways. They insist that we just have to burn and burn and burn, while we eat without planting.

If you stand in the garden, or walk in a forest, the earth can teach us something different.

One really wonderful thing about gardens today is that they are still possible. All those colors and flavors still grow. Yes, it is getting harder. The storms are worse because an atmosphere filled with carbon holds more moisture and releases deluges. It is more work to get along in our new land of Carbon Canaan. But don’t look back, and don’t fear the work ahead. We are called to be where we are, now. We are exploring a new dimension of freedom in faith. It is not freedom such as others imagine, freedom to escape. It is freedom to plant and tend, to till and to keep, and to appreciate that our labor in the earth is a gift of God and of God’s earth.

I invite you to peek at our seminary garden while you are here, and think about stewardship and freedom in our land of Carbon Canaan. Take a moment to ponder that every leaf and fruit in the garden is closer to the wine and bread on this communion table than they are to the packaged and processed “foods” in the stores. And the water coming from the sky is closer to baptismal water than is the water for sale in little personal plastic bottles. And the soil of the garden and the leaves on the forest floor are closer to us, we who come from dust, than are the shimmering images of people on the screens that we beam in front of our faces. And the wind that blows through the trees is closer to the Word of God than we thought.

Stewards notice things, and stewards stop to consider where they are. If we are in the land of Carbon Canaan, let us not deny our freedom but in faith live it fully. That is the way that Jesus went. He loved the Canaan he was in and did not run away. When the Romans tried to eliminate him, by a cross, God brought him back. Jesus lived his freedom in love for us, in a Cross Canaan. By that cross we see that God would not let Jesus be thrown away, and by that same cross God will not let us go, nor will God let God’s good creation be thrown away.  So step forward stewards in the land of Carbon Canaan. As the text in Deuteronomy says, serve God with all your heart and soul, for “the eyes of the Lord your God are always on the land, even the land of Carbon Canaan.  Amen.