Bible Culture Sabbath Sustainability Wendell Berry

Sabbath as Creation Care

September 18th I will be speaking in chapel at Texas Lutheran University. I will also be participating in a panel of alumni on environmental sustainability. I thought I would share with you my sermon for Friday. Some of it is taken from a previous post on Sabbath.

What did you have to eat this morning? What’s for lunch? If it’s true what they say, “You are what you eat.” What exactly are we? The truth is many of us have no idea. Are we maltodextrin, or xantham gum? Monosodium glutemate? Anyone?

Almost everything you eat, no matter how far removed it seems from plants and animals, ultimately comes from a plot of dirt somewhere in the world, or more often in the case of processed foods, many plots of dirt scattered across the globe. As Wendell Berry so eloquently wrote,

Eaters must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act. And that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.

The way that the world is being used today in order to feed our appetites is not sustainable. The loss of topsoil because of agricultural practices throughout the world is considered by some to be the greatest threat to our global environment. Agriculture accounts for somewhere between 15-30% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The produce at the grocery store travels an average of 1500 miles from farm to plate. Eating fast food may actually be worse for the planet than driving a Hummer. Let that sink in.
Let me suggest that part of the solution to our national eating disorder is the biblical commandment of Sabbath.

Exodus 20:8-11 Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

Over the centuries rabbis have written countless pages trying to unpack what it meant to “not do any work.” Is it okay to open the fridge? What about using scissors? What if my donkey falls into a ditch? Rather than the obsession with not doing any work, let me suggest that the Sabbath is about remembering and resting.
The initial command is not to cease from working, but to remember. This is important. The whole law was based on Israel’s memory, their remembrance, of God’s past action for them in history. “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing.” It was the retelling of stories, particularly the Exodus from Egypt, which was the foundation of their continued covenant with YHWH and practice of the law in community. Remembering this story was more than just entertainment or even teaching moral lessons. The Passover is a reenactment of the story as believers place themselves within the story. As the seder meal says, “When we were in Egypt…”

So, in the same way, “remembering the Sabbath” is a re-telling of the creation story and a re-enactment of that story as we place ourselves within it. Sabbath is about grounding our lives in the creation story.
So, we remember that we did not get our own day in the creation story, but share the sixth day with “cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind” (Gen 1:24). We remember that dominion is not a license for domination and exploitation. We remember that the earth is its own character in the story. It says that “the earth brought forth vegetation” (1:12). We remember that we are dependent on the earth for our lives. We remember that God was a gardener, digging God’s hands into the dirt both to plant a garden and to shape the first human. We remember that we are given the garden “to till it and to keep it” (2:15). We remember most of all that the original intention of God’s creation was for us to be connected to the earth and in particular to our food.

The connection between the Hebrew word for human, adam, and the word for earth, adama, in this story has often been noted. The best English equivalent I can find is humus and human. Humus is that mysterious part of the soil that gives life and fertility. In the second creation account the human is formed from the dirt, graphically illustrating the dependence of humans on the land. Human from humus.

We are part of a wonderfully complex ecological system that God created. In one sense the story tells us that creation does not depend on us for either its creation or sustenance. God is Creator. At the same time, it reminds us of the power of dominion and the responsibility of stewardship that have been uniquely given to us as the only creatures who possess the ability to manipulate and destroy the very system that sustains us.
J.D. Crossan says, “It is not humanity on the sixth day but the Sabbath on the seventh day that is the climax of creation… our ‘dominion’ over the world is not ownership but stewardship under the God of the Sabbath” (53). The reason that scripture gives for observing the Sabbath is not worship, as you might assume. The reason given is so that the slaves and foreigners could have rest as well (Ex 23:12; Deut 5:14). Again Crossan says, “The Sabbath Day was not rest for worship, but rest as worship… In summary, the Sabbath was about the justice of equality as the crown of creation itself” (54). The Sabbath Day is extended to the Sabbath Year (Ex 21:2 and Deut 15) and finally the Sabbath Jubilee (Lev 25).

The Sabbath was not just about people either. Exodus says this about the Sabbath year,

“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard and your olive orchard” (Ex 23:10-11)

It is important to point out that the Sabbath commands often combine the ecological and the economic. Our relationships with each other and the earth hang in the balance of work and rest. This passage also clearly indicates the relationship between the work and rest of the land and the people who work that land. The right ordering of relationships, between people and other people and between people and the earth ultimately results in just distribution of resources.

The worst of modern industrial agriculture does not allow rest for the land or people. The same field is planted year after year with the same crops. Because the fertility of the soil is depleted and topsoil eroded, farmers must use synthetic petroleum-based fertilizers to continue growing crops. The excess nitrogen in many of these fertilizers leaches through the soil into groundwater, or runs off due to erosion and ends up in waterways. This is far removed from the picture of both abundance and right relationship in the creation story. This way of producing our food and caring for the land has forgotten the story.

Crossan says that through the progression of Sabbath laws “we can see clearly the demand of God for a just distribution of land-as-life based on the creation theology in Genesis” (71). Did you hear that? “Land-as-life” The soil on which you stand is the very stuff that keeps you alive. We have now reached the point where we can no longer outsource our soil, environment and agriculture.

Let me give you a final picture to help you understand the situation we’re in today. A woman in California’s Central Valley, the most productive agricultural place on the planet, was visiting her son’s elementary school for lunch. Curious, she asked the worker in the cafeteria where the food was from. The worker replied that most of it was canned food shipped from China. The world’s most productive land can’t feed its own children. What’s more we must borrow money from China to buy this food. And to top it all off… We moved a lot of agricultural production overseas because of our concerns about pollution, which is now being picked up on the trade winds in China and blown all the way back to California. This is what our garden looks like now after we have tilled and kept it the last hundred years or so.

The commandment to keep the Sabbath is not about just taking a day off. It is about re-connecting ourselves to the ongoing narrative of creation in which we participate unawares most of the days of our lives. It is about “re-membering” as Wendell Berry puts it, putting back together things which have been rent asunder. This is kingdom work that Berry describes in one of his Sabbath poems:

By human work,
Fidelity of sight and stroke,
By rain, by water on
The parent stone.
We join our work to Heaven’s gift,
Our hope to what is left,
That field and woods at last agree
In an economy
Of widest worth.
High Heaven’s Kingdom come on earth.


7 comments on “Sabbath as Creation Care

  1. Wonderful, Lucas! Thank you for sharing this.

    One thing I’ve heard from Cal DeWitt: the word for “keep” in Genesis 2.15 (“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and KEEP it.”) is the same as in the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6.24 (“The Lord bless you and KEEP you.”). Implication: we are to keep the earth just as Yahweh keeps us.


  2. nice… thanks for adding that.


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