The second Sunday of the Season of Creation invites us to reflect on the land—the soil beneath our feet and the landscapes we inhabit.
Many biblical writers imagined the land as much more than merely a stage, and landscapes as much more than props. A week ago, for example, the lectionary for this mini-season included the story from Genesis about God bringing forth a delightful forest from the land. The soil is where divine fruitfulness and abundance reside, bringing forth every tree that is lovely to see and suitable for food.
The situation changes quickly and dramatically in the third and fourth chapters of Gensis: one of God’s creatures is cursed; animosity appears in the garden of delight; intimate relationships are distorted by power and mapped to gender; the land itself is no longer apparently fertile and readily fruitful.
The lectionary skips over the causes—a complex mix of lies and deception, of guilt and shame—and jumps ahead to the consequences, especially the way bodily shame can lead to an inward and downward spiral of isolation or it can turn outward, projected on to others as disdain and anger, or hatred and violence.
And here’s the key point for this season: the land knows all this, and the land remembers.
That is, admittedly, a rather strange way to put the matter, but perhaps you’ve experienced something similar about particular places, or buildings, or street corners, any physical location where something just doesn’t seem quite right. You feel a bit uneasy, perhaps a little anxious, and you’re constantly looking over your shoulder even though no one is there.
A mean spirit, the undercurrent of hatred, or threat of violence—we all know what it’s like to encounter these things in a person, or in a situation. It’s like riding through turbulence—you can’t see it but you can certainly feel it.
When those moments are sufficiently severe, they can leave a mark on us, a wound or a scar. For some, the experience lingers long after the situation has ended; we now call this “post-traumatic stress syndrome,” or PTSD.
More than a few biblical writers would have us notice exactly these same things about the land; the land knows, and the land remembers.
The classic story about the land’s own memory comes from a passage of Scripture that we never hear on Sunday mornings from the ordinary lectionary; that might be why it sounded so shocking to hear it during worship this past Sunday as it was being read from the lectern. I mean the heart-rending story about Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.
These two are brothers, sons of the first humans. Abel is a shepherd, tending flocks; Cain, by contrast, is a farmer, trying to tend crops. Remember, by now in the story the land is no longer friendly to farming, and Cain is struggling. So he takes his brother Abel “out to the field,” out to where he has been trying to make things grow, to the ground that has already been cursed.
And there, in that field, Cain kills his brother.
When God confronts Cain about this, Cain tries to deny it, insisting that he knows nothing about it. Oh yes you do, God says, because “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground”; the land remembers.
It matters that this early story of violence is a story of fratricide. It is not a story about protecting one’s self from outside invaders, from people you’ve never seen before; it is not a story of war between peoples or nations. This is a story of fratricide, in which violence takes root among siblings, not strangers. It’s a horrifying story precisely because the actors in it are as close to each other as they possibly can be; they are kin.
These opening chapters in Genesis present a gut-wrenching tale of how the first humans are gradually alienated from all their kin—not only from each other but also from the garden-like forest and its fruitful land, which are also their kin.
The land knows, and the land remembers.
All over the world, in every corner of every country, including right where I’m writing this in the U. S. state of Michigan, we live on land that carries horrific memories—much of it soaked in blood from the violence that turns kin into strangers.
This remains a vastly under-diagnosed condition of distress and disease among all those who treat the land as mere stage and landscapes as inert props. The land not only cradles the pools of human blood spilled in violence, but also retains the wounds and scars of the violence we continually inflict on the land itself—strip mining, flaying Earth of her skin, burning her with industrial farming, and then casually pouring toxins and acids into her open wounds like salt on skinned knees. Not only the ancient storyteller in Genesis but also the Hebrew prophets are shockingly clear: the land will not remain patient forever; one day (perhaps tomorrow), the land will simply stop yielding harvests of any kind.
I confess to having trouble finding where precisely any good news might be buried in this second week of the Season of Creation. But I think it emerged from both Cain and then Matthew.
The very same God who did not abandon Cain—Cain, the one who killed his own brother—that very same God has also not abandoned us but has given God’s own self to us in Jesus.
Let’s make that standard Christian trope a bit more pointed: God stands in solidarity with us as our own kin.
Some theologians have coined the term “deep incarnation” for this kinship with God. The union of God’s creative Word with Jesus is not just superficial or merely apparent; God is truly united with the human body of Jesus, all the way down, as it were, to the cellular level.
This is what makes the suffering and violent death of Jesus so profound: God’s kinship with us extends to the very depths of human mortality, and all for the sake of love.
Consider this: what if this divine incarnational passion extends also to the land?
What if the depth of God’s loving union with God’s own creation does not end with the human body but embraces the body of Earth herself?
What if we read and heard more regularly the Gospel in exactly those terms?
Week Two in the Season of Creation also gave us a rather strange passage from Matthew’s account of the Gospel. There Jesus compares himself to Jonah, to that ancient prophet who spent three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish.
This is of course a foreshadowing of Jesus being laid in a tomb, but notice the phrase Matthew uses to describe the burial: in the “heart of the earth” (Mt 12:40).
God’s kinship with God’s own creation extends to the very heart of the earth herself, for love and healing and redemption.
I do believe this is good news indeed, but I couldn’t quite connect all these dots, especially how we ought to live in response, until I just happened upon a startling scene in the latest in the Star Trek franchise on television.
The second season of Star Trek: Picard features an episode in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard decides to engage in the tricky business of time travel, to go back in time. The situation was dire, so this dramatic step was needed. As Picard put it, “If we want to save the future, we have to repair the past.”
I nearly fell off my comfy couch when I heard that line so casually spoken. What a wonderful summary of the Gospel, of what God is committed to doing—has done and will do—to ensure a fruitful future!
And that’s exactly what God’s people everywhere are called to do in partnership with God: to repair the past, to heal so many broken lines of kinship.
Among the countless ways to do this, I was recently stumbled across a powerful example recently in the news from the upper Midwest, from a small slice of land in southwest Minnesota.
That small slice of land was the site of the short but often brutal U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. It was also the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history when 38 Dakota Sioux were all hanged at once that year by the U.S. army for participating in that war and after each had undergone a trial that lasted approximately five minutes.
In one of the precipitating events of that 1862 war, one of the Dakota bands was temporarily relocated to a federal facility, also on that same slice of land. Over the course of the subsequent winter months, they were all allowed to starve to death, most of them women and children.
Adding insult to profound injury—still more salt poured in the wound—that slice of land was later turned into state recreational parks with picnic tables, and trails for hiking and snowmobiling, and a river for boating. Local Dakota Sioux were then charged a fee every time they entered that park to visit the grave sites of their ancestors—to visit the ground where the blood of their ancestors cried out to God.
Sadly, little of this story caught my attention—it’s too painfully common in American history—until I read this: in 2021, the State of Minnesota returned more than 200 of those acres of land to the Dakota Sioux, and just this year, the governor and the state legislature returned another park as well.
These gestures of return of course come at a cost—the cost of public recreational facilities and picnic tables and visitor fees. But as President of the Lower Sioux reservation Robert Larson put it, the cost of that land was already paid for by the blood of those who died there.
There are many stories like this from all over the country and the world; we must learn them, and then tell them, for the sake of healing.
As God’s people, if we are indeed committed to a thriving future we must repair the past.
The land knows this; and the land remembers.