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Sermon, German Kirchentag

Theme: The soil and our faith. These wonderful texts about the power of life are really about the earth, the soil, the black dirt...

04 June 2015

Text: Mark 4:26-29

Theme: The soil and our faith

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, World Council of Churches general secretary


These wonderful texts about the power of life are really about the earth, the soil, the black dirt. There are many beautiful texts and images of nature, also in our Bible. Some of them we treasure in books or albums, some in our fond memories.

“Look at this soil!” A Brazilian farmer wanted to show me two different soils in his farm. He first showed me the soil where he had to plant tobacco to have an income - from the tobacco industry. There was nothing alive in the dirt. Pesticides, required to optimize the growth of the tobacco leaves, he told me, was the reason. But then: “Look at these worms!” His face was shining. He let me taste the tomatoes growing in another place. No chemicals, he said. And the soil, not being used for the tobacco plants for 5 years, had found new life; it was full of worms and insects. And the tomatoes were good, very good.

Whatever we say about the soil, we say something about ourselves and how we relate to the earth – and to one another. The image of the soil even tells something about the kingdom of God, Jesus said. I have to admit that these texts even made me think of the meaning behind my own name. I will return to that in a moment.

There is something that happens by itself. Automatically, automatae. This is the key word in the Gospel read to us. Of itself, the earth brings forward the stalk, the head and the full grain. We can watch it, day or night, it happens, on its own.

There is a saying in my culture that there is nothing that happens by itself, except for decay, the power of destruction and devolution.

Both are true. Creation happens everywhere and everyday as the earth brings forward life and plants and fruit by itself. This belongs to the basics of the goodness of creation. It is following immediately the division of water from land in the first creation story. “And God saw that it was good.” (Gen 1:12)

However, we know that all life is but for a while. Decay, destruction, and death; it happens everywhere and everyday by itself.

Both cycles belong to what we call nature. Both are realities we experience in different ways. We experience the miracles of a birth or the wonders of springtime; we experience the reality of death and the time of autumn and winter.

This year I experience both the death of my father and the birth of my granddaughter. We as human beings are also part of this cycle of nature. There are conditions for us that are given. We are dependent on what other parts of nature provide: nutrition, fresh air, light, water and material for shelter and heating. We have to live in these circles, even in times of modern life, urbanized cultures and technological innovations that make it easy to forget our connection to these basic elements of nature.

When we ignore these connections, we face the consequences. We are ourselves making a difference in how these circles affect us, and the impact on the whole of nature. These realities are another dimension of the first creation story in the Bible. We are, as human beings, also something more than merely one part of nature. Women and men are not only created into the cycles of nature, but given a special mandate to subdue the earth and to have dominion over other creatures. It has been rightly discussed whether “subdue” and “dominium” are translations that serve as legitimization of exploitation more than a mandate of accountability. A better way to speak about this mandate can be to speak about human beings as priests of creation – taking care of what really belongs to God – in the presence and worship of God. This is combined with other privileges. “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of the earth, end every tree with seed in the fruit; you shall have them for food. “ (v. 29). But we have not been given the growth of the earth for ourselves alone. This privilege of having food from the plants is also given to all living creatures (v. 30). The responsibility belongs to the creation of women and men. Yet it all belongs to what God saw as good, even “very” good.

In this dialectic between the cycles of creation and destruction we are human beings, with our gifts and with our frailties. We cannot ignore the responsibility entrusted to us, and neither can we ignore our potential for both fulfilling it and failing in doing so. When some parts of humanity and some cultures have failed to follow this mandate in a proper way, we feel deep shame. We may even criticize the idea that we have this mandate. That does not change anything. There is no way to run away from the realities of this earth that can bring forward life by itself. Neither can we avoid the judgement on us when we prevent the earth from doing so, for the benefit and blessings of all creatures and all human beings. Even the earth is judging us.

The accountability of being human is part of our life. This is accountability to our Creator. It is shown in how we deal with the earth and the other creatures. The acts of ours, the human interventions in the world can increase the power and the ability of life to be created. The acts of ours, the human interventions, can also increase the power of destruction and death, and the inability for life to continue. We can care for the garden or we can destroy the garden of life. Through our accountability to one another, to the generations to come after us, through the accountability to other creatures, to the plants and to the earth itself, we are accountable to God, our creator. The God of life has given us life. How can we be those who block the potential of others to live?

More than anywhere else, the measure of our responsibility to the God of life is exposed in how we exercise this mandate in our relationships to one another. The significant values of justice and peace are exactly what define these basic elements of life. They are also seen as part of what God brought forth as gifts. The “Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase” when righteousness and peace will kiss each other, proclaims Psalm 85 (10-12). Life has always to do with justice and peace. Life requires that we are working for the balance between what is given and what we give, what is taken and what we take for ourselves and what we leave for the continuation of life and for the sake of others.

I said the texts reminded me even my own name. Olav Tveit, my great grandfather, after whom I am named, bought a small piece of a hill in Hardanger in Norway. Nobody could live from what was growing there; there was not even enough to feed a cow! But he bought it and started to clear the earth for stones and trees, building walls so that they could walk in the steep hill. And he sowed grass to grow and planted apple trees to provide a livelihood. The family grew, 8 children were born and fed. The farm was and still is a small farm. The name Tveit means a place in the forest cleared for something to grow and a place to live. He had to work, to work extremely hard. In his life and work, there had to be an understanding of the relationship of human beings in creation, and a faith that the earth would let something grow from which they could eat and live. Yes, something would grow by itself, automatically, but he had to strive, devoting his life, and his family’s, to cultivate the land.

In the wintertime, my great grandfather worked as a lay preacher, supplementing the work of the ordained pastors in the area. The desire to sow, to plant had many dimensions. I believe it was strongly connected.

The action of faith is always a contribution of work, doing something for the life of the other. It is also always an expression of faith in the power of God to create life, through the work of our hands. This is a sacred combination; this is a sacred calling. Today’s complexities mean we have to see these connections through many more dimensions. But the responsibility to act in a way that opens the way for life, protecting the proper use of nature, is the same.

This is the prototype of the history of human beings in almost all cultures. I share this to show how close I actually am – how any of us actually are - to this story of the soil as a story of humanity, a story of faith in justice and peace.

The gospel, the good news to be shared and to be proclaimed to all of us, is that there is a power of life that can always break through the cycles of death. The kingdom of God with its values can come forth, the will of God can be done on earth as it is in heaven. The power of our Creator to create life is before us and is after us, it is stronger than any of our misdeeds and sins. The power of grace and forgiveness can renew our generation, our people, our political leaders, it can transform us to see the necessary decisions to change, to reverse climate change, to reverse pollution, to ensure the right to food for all, and the right to enjoy clean water, clean air, clean soil. The beauty and the power of justice and peace kissing one another can be a reality. And we – you and me – can participate in that love story.