On this Earth Day, of Creatures and the Creator, and Humus and Humans and Humility before the Lord
Here’s a really beautiful something that Martin Luther never ever said, even though on Earth Day, shared especially by well-intentioned Lutherans, a person can’t avoid seeing on social media.
The quote is typically augmented with a nifty font and a serene background, right along with Martin Luther’s name underneath the whole shebang.
Also, true confession: I’ve been known to post it myself in years past, before I thought to myself “hmmmm…that…doesn’t really sound like him now so much, does it…” and then hung my head in Lutheran-theologian-shame when I realized that I’d done been took:
“God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on the trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”
It’s attributed to him all over the ‘net, but nope.
Not anywhere to be found in Luther, no matter how hard you schütteln his Werke.
Truth is, my pfennig is on Luther wishing he’d said it, buuuuuuut he didn’t.
He did say something close to it though, and it’s a bit of a longer take on the matter:
The Scriptures teach us…that the right hand of God is not a specific place in which a body must or may be, such as on a golden throne, but is the almighty power of God, which at one and the same time can be nowhere and yet must be everywhere. It cannot be at any one place, I say…
…On the other hand, it must be esssentially present at all places, even in the tiniest tree leaf. The reason is this: It is God who creates, effects, and preserves all things through God’s almighty power and right hand, as our Creed confesses. For God dispatches no officials or angels when God creates or preserves something, but all this is the work of God’s divine power itself. If God is to create or preserve it, however, God must be present and must make and preserve God’s creation both in its innermost and outermost aspects.
Therefore, indeed, God must be present in every single creature in its innermost and outermost being, on all sides, through and through, below and above, before and behind, so that nothing can be more truly present and within all creatures than God with God’s power. (LW 37: 57-58, modified for inclusive language)
Upshot: God is everywhere and in everything.
Turns out that Luther had a bit of the panentheistic mystical going on, which is a whole different blog, and per usual, I digress.
But for the moment, here’s the thing: Luther believed that there was no place that God was not, not least of all because every place was created by God, and, by extension, so was every creature in every place.
He’s not far off from that passage in the book of Exodus about Moses moseying about the wilderness, and then encountering the burning bush [aka YHWH]:
3 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
Sitting in my Old Testament classroom at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, back in the day, I remember my professor, Dr. Lynn Nakamura, going over this very Scripture, and lingering at the notion that God appeared out of a bush.
An ordinary bush!
In the wilderness.
And precisely there, Moses was to take off his shoes, a rite of humility and respect that was—and still is, in many places—done before entering sacred spaces, which for all the world suggested that this very spot, this bush in the middle of the wilderness, right there, was sacred.
Dr. Nakaumura’s passing comment was in many ways transformational for me, because it clicked that God is everywhere, and that therefore everywhere is holy.
The moment was key in changing my view about nature and my appreciation of it, and helped shape my love of the Land for the rest of my life.
In related news, when my late husband, who was sitting in that same classroom, proposed to me a year or so later, he gave me not an engagement ring but an engagement tent.
Again, I digress.
Years later, as part of my Teaching Assistant responsibilities while doing my own doctoral work, I was privileged to read the dissertations of students from countries where English was not their primary language. Even though they were studying in Germany, their dissertations were to be written in English, so I got to proof them for grammar, syntax, and flow, which I totally loved.
But I loved it not least of all because their insights in turn proofed my theological savvy, and often found me wanting.
One such dissertation was written by Rajula Annie Watson, and is entitled Development and Justice: A Christian Understanding of Land Ethics. You can find a Google version of it here.
I remember visiting with her about her topic, and her talking with an exasperated grin about how much easier the dissertation would be if it were geared to a Jewish understanding of Land Ethics!
The early Christian writings, it turns out, really don’t mention creation, let alone the care of creation so very much.
The Jewish writings, well, heck: creation and life dependent on it is everywhere. Just look at the passage above, for that matter (and for sure look at Walter Brueggemann’s astonishing work The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith).
What Dr. Watson discovered was that in the Christian writings, while there wasn’t a lot of there there by way of tending to creation, stewarding the earth, and so on and so forth, positively spilled over with references about the New Creation, or to heaven as a New Land…once Jesus returned.
A calling in these texts to steward the present land, precisely as Christians, or as an element of our relationship as creatures to the Creator, is a bit harder to discover.
Like nigh impossible.
One theory is that the Christian writings reflect the early Christian belief that Jesus was going to come soon and very soon.
He was coming back any minute now…no really…just…just hang on…he’s coming, truly…[the second letter to the Thessalonians powerfully reflects the dismay and sense of betrayal that the early Christians felt when people kept waiting, and dying, and Jesus kept on and on and on not coming back]…
The early Christian focus, then, was less on the care of the earth and more on the expectation of the new one.
Revelation 21:1 is a classic example of that: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
I’m not entirely sure that we Christians have ever recovered, either from the texts that diminish our relationship to the Land, or, come to think of it, that Jesus hasn’t returned when expected!
Heck, too often enough we can’t even get the interpretation of the Jewish texts about creation right, like, no, “have dominion” does not mean “dominate,” but very much rather to care for, love, steward.
Truth is, Christians’ future-fixation, and its spiritualization of the present, has harmed the earth, and it’s harmed us.
We have this powerful text in Matthew, Matthew 25, which has Jesus saying, “Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”
In other words, Jesus is really in the other—really ‘is’ the other, in many respects.
So when we see someone hurting, broken, hungry, alone, and afraid, Matthew’s Jesus says, we’re actually seeing Jesus.
Very much relatedly, Luther did say this, in a remarkably apropos text for these days, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague:”
“This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who fell sick, everybody would be so caring and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running.”
And then Luther went on to say that they/we don’t, in fact, care for the vulnerable, and that they/we don’t care for the vulnerable, and that all of that is nothing short of an abomination.
Matthew’s Jesus agrees.
Moreover, Matthew’s Jesus makes goats out of all such self-concerned people (the ‘all’ being nations [*ahem,* USA] that don’t care for the Least of these, like, oh, say the refugees and the poor and the hungry and the sick and the imprisoned, but again that is another blog and again I digress).
On Earth Day—and in fact every day—I’m left to wonder: what would happen if we took a page out of what Luther didn’t say, and what he did say, and what is in Exodus, and what is Matthew, and pulled it all together?
What would happen if we indeed did see God in the trees and the bushes and the dirt and the waters?
Would that change how we treat the earth?
Would that make us cherish rather than tarnish?
Would we care for creation because in doing so we’d care for our Creator?
As I’ve written about before, according to Genesis 2, ‘Man,’ namely some guy we’ve dubbed Adam, was not created first.
That little ‘-ah’ at the end shows that adamah is a feminine word.
Anyway, adamah is not a person.
The first human being was a humus being.
It’s only later in the text that the Hebrew words for male (ish) and female (ishah) are noted, who came out of adamah.
You can find all those wonderful details here, in a blog I wrote for Earth Day a couple of years back.
But the point is, we are not separate from the care of creation: we are creation.
So Earth Day is about humus, and it is about humans, because all of it is sacred.
And it is all connected.
Again, like Luther said (he really did), “Therefore, indeed, God must be present in every single creature in its innermost and outermost being, on all sides, through and through, below and above, before and behind, so that nothing can be more truly present and within all creatures than God with all God’s power.”
So humans, on this Earth Day and every day, please take off your shoes.
Notice the bushes burning with the abundant wildfires fueled by human-created climate change, and then imagine the fire of God within them.
Imagine God within them.
See God within them.
Then feel the humus between your toes (and though technically not humus, my personal favorite foot-feeling is warm gorgeous squishy moss under my soles, which somehow quite actually gets into my very soul).
Then be humbled before the Lord, for the Creator is everywhere in creation.
The Creator is even there in that very bush, burning or not, and that very moss, and that very leaf, and the flowers and the clouds and the stars, correctly attributed quote or not.
Love the Lord.
Love the land.
And know that you, and the land, and all of creation are very, very much loved in turn by the Lord.