Finding God…in the Dirt

This sermon is the first in a series about the different places we can find God around us.

SCRIPTURE – Genesis 2:4-15 – In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 11 The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12 and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.


Last week, I talked about how, before my three-month sabbatical, I had lost Big-G God and replaced God with a smaller, cheaper version. I shared with you the different ways I experienced Big-G God while on sabbatical, and how I’m now working to pay attention to God here at home, so that I don’t lose the mystery and the majesty I experienced while I was away. Today, we start a sermon series called, “Finding God.” I hope to share with you the different places and ways I found God while I was gone, and what that means for our life together now that we are reunited. Big-G God is here, if we know where to look.

One of my favorite purchases for my sabbatical was my first pair of hiking shoes. I thought it was kind of crazy that I’d never owned hiking shoes, until I remembered that I’d never hiked before. If you don’t hike, you don’t need hiking shoes. But I was planning on doing some hiking while I was in Alaska, so I thought I should at least look the part and get hiking shoes.

These shoes were pretty awesome. They were slick-looking, came from Eddie Bauer, and I got them at half-price. Score! I purchased them a few months before my sabbatical started so that I’d have plenty of time to break them in. So I started hiking. I wore them while hiking around Target. I wore them while hiking around Wal-Mart. They were waterproof, which came in handy when I stepped in a puddle while hiking from the parking lot to the mall. These shoes were ready for Alaska!

I got to put them to use my first day there. After checking into my hotel in Anchorage, I drove outside of town to Flat Top Mountain, a popular hiking site whose website included phrases like “easy-to-follow trail” and “low-key circuit tour.” It said that fit hikers can go up two or three different times. Hey, I’d hiked around Fayette Mall two or three times, so what’s a little mountain? My shoes and I were ready!

I found hiking up Flat Top Mountain to be pretty easy. As I was walking the trail, I looked up and saw the plateau at the top, and then a much larger mountain in the background. I said to my shoes, “Sure am glad we’re not climbing THAT one!” Then I realized the big mountain WAS Flat Top Mountain. My shoes immediately complained, “We can’t do that! We barely made it around the mall!” But I trudged ahead, because I didn’t want the money I spent on my shoes to go to waste. The “easy-to-follow” trail disappeared about two-thirds of the way up, blocked by a recent snow and huge mud ponds. I navigated my way around, finally making it to the top to enjoy the gorgeous view of downtown Anchorage and they bay beyond it. But then I looked down at my poor hiking shoes, covered in mud and snow. They looked like they had…well, climbed a mountain! And my first thought was, “Oh no! I got my hiking shoes dirty!” Take a minute to let the absurdity of that comment sink in.

I don’t like to get dirty. Growing up, I was not your typical boy. I had no desire to make mud pies or splash in puddles. I didn’t like dirt because it was so…dirty. Even as a boy scout, I preferred to stayed in my tent playing cards than go trapsing through the forest. I had what author Richard Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder.” Louv claims that many children today are living in a de-natured environment and are missing out on the benefits of spending time in God’s creation. He lifts up the example of a young boy who was asked his favorite place to play. The boy said, “I like to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” I bet that boy didn’t own any cool hiking shoes.

For the most part, we are a de-natured society, cut off from the land, surrounded by a buffer zone of technology and convenience that keeps us from having to interact with creation. For us, the land is one more thing to be controlled, mined, managed, in order to get what we want. We don’t feel any special kinship with dirt; dirt is something to be washed off and removed.

That’s a far cry from what the Bible tells us about our relationship to the land. In the Genesis passage we read, you’ll notice how God made the first man, Adam, whose name is derived from the Hebrew word for “dust.” God scooped up a palm-full of dirt and breathed life into it. Adam was literally animated dirt, and each one of us who have come after are made from the same material. We have a soul-deep connection to the ground around us. It’s not a commodity to be used up; it’s a part of us.

Land played an important role in the development of the Israelites’ story. When God comes to Abraham he promises him two things: ancestors and land. Moses leads the Israelites out of the land of Egypt toward the land flowing with milk and honey, the Promised Land. To be in that land was to be close to God, and the worst punishment the Israelites could suffer was being exiled from that land, which happened when they disobeyed God’s commands.

Jesus picked up on that theme, telling agriculturally-based parables about farmers clearing fields and seeds being scattered on different types of soil. The Bible animates creation, telling us that rocks cry out and rivers clap their hands and mountains sing for joy. You’ll remember that in the very first book of the Bible, when God made everything, first God made the earth, then humans. The earth was here before us. When we finally came along, it was because there was no one to till the ground, so God made us and gave us our marching orders to “keep the land.” The earth is alive, and we were created to be its custodians.

But we haven’t been very good at following those instructions, have we? The Industrial Revolution drove us off the land and into the cities. The soil became something to manage or remove. Farming has become a mechanical process of food production, not a relationship with the soil. And the church has done its share of the damage. By focusing on the importance of getting to heaven “up there,” we’ve sent the message that the earth “down here” is only a means to an end. We’ve lost our connection to the place from which we’ve come. And in doing so, we’ve demonized the very ground under our feet.

Does that sound too strong? Let me ask you this: as the saying goes, what is next to Godliness? Right, cleanliness. We often talk about baptism as washing away our sins, as if they are a layer of grime covering our soul. Salvation means cleansing us of our spiritual dirt. It’s only a short leap to say that anything unclean is unholy. Our dog, Sadie, loves to run around our yard, especially when it’s wet, so when she comes back in it looks like she’s wearing black boots. We playfully scold her about tracking dirt into the house. How dare she sully our pristine house, which we work hard to keep clean, by bringing in such earthy filth? Even the primary definition of dirt on is biased: “any foul or filthy substance, such as mud, grime, dust, or excrement.” How did we get from the stuff God used to make human life to…excrement? We’ve lost our connection with the land.

That connection is one of the things I experienced most strongly while on sabbatical. I was blessed to see places where there’s not a Starbucks on every corner or a mall waiting to be shopped. On my flight-seeing tour of Denali in Alaska, we flew over parts of that state that were completely undeveloped. I don’t mean there weren’t any Walgreen’s; I mean there weren’t any roads. It was untamed, and it was a beautiful, because it’s something we so rarely see anymore – God’s creation being what it was created to be.

There are so few places like that around here, and I believe that’s created a hunger in each of us to reconnect with creation. Here’s an example: raise your hand if you have a garden at your house. The National Garden Association says that one in three households are now growing food, even in urban areas. We love going to farmer’s markets and eating at Kentucky Proud establishments. Leigh and I started a garden last year, three little plots with tomatoes and zucchini and green peppers. Leigh grew up in the country, so she gets all the credit for anything edible that we pick. But having a garden is a big step for this city boy. When I was young, I thought potatoes grew in bins at Kroger. But there’s something deeply satisfying about digging your hands into the dirt, planting a seed, watching it grow, reaping the benefits.

Obviously, there’s more at stake here than just some weekend hobby. Our land is responsible for feeding us, and yet we mistreat it to the point of crisis. Because of over-development and climate change, we are losing farmable soil four times faster than it can be replenished. As author Diane Butler Bass says, we literally need to gain ground in order to keep this planet alive. No soil, no food, no us.

But I would argue the crisis goes even deeper within us. There is a natural connection we have to the earth, one that’s been severed by our desire for progress. I certainly was a victim of that, and didn’t realize how much I was missing until I experienced God’s creation first-hand. Standing on the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska, watching the crystal blue water flow through tiny canyons as it carved its way down from the mountains. In Ireland, we saw sheep and cattle grazing in the green fields. In LA we saw put our toes in the ocean and saw seagulls swooping and feeding. This earth we inhabit is alive in wondrous ways, and the only way it’s going to stay that way – and we’re going to stay that way – is if we take seriously our role as custodians.

It might be helpful to remember that the God who we’ve traditionally thought of as “up there” isn’t really up there. God has come to earth in order to be with us in the form of Jesus. Theologian Paul Tillich called God “the ground of all being.” We are grounded in God, who made us from the ground. From dust we are made, and to dust we shall return.

But thanks to Jesus Christ, we don’t have to stay there. Through our faith in Christ, we are promised that one day we will also rise from the ground, like all living things rise from the gorund, to experience the new life Jesus offers us. Because God chose to come down here and get God’s hands dirty with us, we can know the life God offers us, the life that started when God scooped up some dirt and infused it with life. All life comes from the ground. It is not something to be feared or avoided, but sought out and enjoyed. The creation is here for our pleasure, not our abuse. Put on your hiking shoes, plant a tree, nurture a garden, get your hands dirty, and remember the land is not just a gift entrusted to us, it is a part of us. From dust we have come.


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