To Till and To Keep
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 19, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 2: 4-9; 15
Matthew 22: 34-40
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
Today is a cool day in the life of the church because it is the day where we install new elders to the session, and for the second year in a row, we are ordaining a new elder, laying hands on, with that connection to history, with all its weight, with all its tradition, with all its responsibility, Ben you'll feel all that, and you and Margaret will be setting forth, beginning a new path of service and leadership. It is extra special this year, as it was a year ago, because a child of this particular church is now taking that next step. It is special for the church, and it is special for his family, it's special for him, and it's special for God. It's a proud moment because it is a commitment of a life time, a selfless one at that, a commitment of service, selfless service, of much time, sometimes full of frustrations, but filled also with the great honor of getting to take a new and dedicated walk with God, for that is what being an elder is above all. . . taking a walk. . . a walk reminiscent of the primordial walks in the garden of Eden, between Adam and God, walks that would take place in the cool of the day we are told, walks that God cherishes, and misses greatly when we decide we don't want to walk them anymore, which is a phenomenon we'll talk about some next week, but for now though, let us focus on the perfection of the garden, the newness of life, and our unfallen state to get a glimpse of what God's perfect idea for the call of humanity truly is.
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5 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; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7 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. 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 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.
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 
If we take the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1 & 2 together as one cohesive story, we see in close view in Genesis 2 what we get a distant survey of in Genesis 1. Here we are magnified on the 6th day, and God has made the home, the oikos, especially for human beings in which to dwell, and live, and thrive. And now for human beings, the pinnacle of creation, God decides to get his hands dirty. We get a glimpse of closeness, and care, not simply the distant God sending out his Word and speaking light, and it coming into being, calling things good, but God personally forming us from the dust of the ground, and especially breathing into our nostrils the breath of life. It's close, it's intimate, to quote Casablanca, it is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, a relationship framed in perfect purpose, meant to be close a partnership, dare I say love, put in a garden of perfection, with all the trimmings, food, pleasant to the sight and good for nourishment, with only one limitation, one rule, one boundary, fullness of life, relationship, paradise, but one line never to cross, there also stood looming large in the midst of the garden the tree of knowledge of good and evil, one temptation in the middle of paradise. As I said we'll get into that misstep crossing the line next week, that world changing, watershed moment, but today as if it had never happened, we're there in paradise, working with God, for he has made us it says to "till and to keep."
What does it mean to till and to keep, how does that work within the labor necessary for the creation and cultivation of a garden literally and of a faithful world figuratively. If we are to till and to keep, what else is necessary for the garden to flourish, for there is more to it than simply tilling and keeping? What is our job? What is God's job? How is the partnership to work? On a sports team, or in a band, or in any working group, there are roles, defined and working together side by side if the group or partnership is to function. How are these roles divided between creator and creation, God and us. If we think about it, within the context of the garden metaphor, there are circular cyclical steps within gardening. There is tilling, and then there is sowing and growing, then there is keeping, then finally reaping, and then repeat, repeat, repeat. It is interesting to look at this formula of the partnership between humans and God in the garden, and then of course its many parallels in our world.
Tilling is the breaking of the ground, the making of a foundation, making a place for the seeds to be planted within the Earth that God has made. The Hebrew word for it is Awbad, to till, to work, to serve, but with the object of the verb being the ground, to work the ground, to serve the ground, so to till the ground makes the most sense. To till the ground. I get that. It makes sense to me. It seems to mirror some of Jesus' parables. Often Jesus speaks about seeds and where they fall, that they may fall on the path, that they may fall on the rocky ground, and neither take root and flourish, but seeds that fall on cultivated soil, tilled soil, then those seeds are the ones that come to full fruition. I like the image of tilling. I like that humans are to till. It is of course interesting that the ground we are tilling is the very same ground where God made us, the very same ground with which He made us. . . In Hebrew Adam of course means man, but Adamah is ground. . . even in language man comes from the ground. so We till the ground, the metaphor of ourselves is hard to miss, we till, and then. . .
God plants seeds, brings nourishing rains. The crops grow. They thrive and prepare themselves to give life. And then we are on again, we are to keep them. Keeping is interesting. There is work here, it's care, it's love, it's protection. It's stewardship. It's a responsible hand. The Hebrew word is Shamar, to keep, protect, guard, remember. . . it is interesting because it is the same root as a word that means commit to memory through repetition, the Jewish Shema, was to be written everywhere and repeated all day, to love God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and so "keeping" here is a repetitive constant thing. Keeping. And then finally, its back to God again, God reaps. God takes the finished fruit, he knows when it is time, and only he does. He knows when it is time to call.
So our two jobs, Tilling and Keeping are in and around the things that God does, all necessary, a part of both, God doesn't necessarily need us to do it, but has invited us into relationship for this very reason. In Genesis 1 it talks about humans being made in God's image for the special purpose of having dominion, but here in Genesis 2 we get a glimpse of what that dominion means. It is not a non-connected ruler, taking over for God to do what we like, ruining the land, destroying the world because we can, but instead we see here that we are to till and to keep. Let's look at these two now as symbolic, not just as a garden, but in the world around us.
There are so many ways that we can till the ground that is here surrounding us, making ourselves and others ready for God to enter into lives. How are we living to do this? Especially as Christians, are we making the ground ready for God's work, or do we sometimes make it so that the seeds can't be planted? As Christianity gets more and more marginalized in our society how much of that is based on some of the missteps that Christians have taken, some of the battles that we have fought, that have actually resulted in turning people away, making it harder to plant seeds, instead of making deep and fertile rows, we've left hard and shallow, rocky narrow roads, like concrete, coldness, cold hearts, impenetrable. You could say that in the 2000 years of Christianity we have tried to do more than just till, we've also tried to plant, ourselves. Are crusades and inquisitions and blue laws, state religions examples of humans overstepping their role, doing more than just tilling, trying to plant as well, and in such destroying the soil we are supposed to be cultivating? How can we learn from this? Can we allow ourselves to simply till, and then let God do the planting? What would that look like? It would certainly require faith wouldn't it? Faith rather than legislation. Education and caring, the hard work of tilling the soil, rather than force. To just be able to lay the ground work and have God step in and do the next piece, to believe that God will do his work, the active work, only God can do. And then it would be our turn again.
The keeping. . . how are we doing at looking after what God has planted? Are we nurturing those around us, are we loving them, are we caring for them, or are we trying to rush them toward their bringing fruit, seeking to reap the harvest on our own terms? Interesting how we again within the metaphor often try to infringe on God's work, by overstepping our own. We seek to get people ready to be productive, we think about what they can do for us, what they can do for the church, what they can do for the world, rather than simply loving them, keeping them, for them, for their very well being, knowing that God has a plan for them, not us, and that when it is time God will call them to action, call them to begin their own tilling, their own keeping, and the cycle begins again.
Today we recognize that God has called two new tillers and keepers, one for the first time in this official role, and another poised and ready to work another season in the fields. At each step of my own ordination path I was given a charge, a few words that put the step into perspective for me. I was blessed to have a dear friend and mentor give those for me, and they all meant something because they simply tilled the soil for what God was doing, and they let me know that I'd be kept in care along the way. Margaret, Ben, the same is true for you, and now you are called to be active elders in this church. It is a fine act of ministry, important and crucial within God's plans for this church. Remember each step of the way that God is the one who reaps, and so God has called you, not the members of this church, not me, not the nominating committee, but God, for now you have come to fruit, and God has picked you, with his own hands, getting them again dirty, ready for the walk, like Adam. . . you will be asked to till. . . and to keep. Here in this church help to cultivate places where God can plant seeds. It's a great place to start. . . know that you do not have to do it all, making the row is enough, God will take the next step. Look for those seeds that are planted by God around you and foster their growth, keeping them, loving them, serving them, helping them grow, and then let them flourish, and be called as you were.
The other great aspect of the Garden metaphor is that it is a long term process, one that requires faith and patience each step of the way. Know that God is with you, know that God is working, remember always that it is a partnership, a relationship, so when the cool of the day comes, each day, take some time to walk again with God, when the time each week for Sabbath and rest comes, rest with God, too. You'll need those walks and you'll need that rest, take them, God has prescribed them both for each of us. Don't rush the work for the work is what it is all about, not the ends, the end of the cycle is in God's hands, focus on your work. . . our work together. . . simply tilling and keeping. . . together. Amen.