Earthkeeping and con-servancy

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Homily by Calvin DeWitt, October 19, 2014

Readings:  Genesis 2:4-9,15; Colossians 1:15-20.


Our readings today from Genesis and Colossians help us to learn about our privilege and responsibility to care for the land God has entrusted to our care. Genesis 2:15 gives the commission to avad the Garden and to shamar it. And the hymn of Colossians, (1:15-20) tells us that is through Jesus Christ that God creates, sustains, and reconciles ta panta.

The Hebrew word avad in Genesis is variously translated, till, tend, cultivate, work, and serve. It is a word with a constellation of meanings all centering of some kind of service. So its use in Joshua 24:15, “choose ye this day whom you will avad…” and the response, “as for me and my house, we will avad the Lord, inform us of the breadth of its meaning. Our relationship to the Garden, and by extension to whatever God entrusts our care in creation, is a relationship of service. Already we know that the garden serves us; but this text reminds us that we are not simply to take its service for granted. Instead, we are to return its service with service of our own. It is a reciprocal service. It is “con-service.” It is a “con-servancy” —a “con-servation.”

The shamar word, similarly, can be appreciated by its use in another scriptural text, the blessing of Aaron in Numbers 6:24, “The Lord bless you and shamar you…” We translate shamar as keep, as you know. However, this refers to a keeping that is not like keeping pickles in a jar (the Hebrew word for that kind of keeping is natsar). Instead it is a dynamic, caring keeping. In the Aaronic blessing we are given God’s assurance of divine keeping of our body, mind, and spirit—and God’s keeping us in relation to others, our community, and the whole of creation. And so in Genesis 2:15, our keeping is also to be a caring keeping—a dynamic keeping that does what has to be done, even as this might change as circumstances change. And this conservancy is joined in this text with earthkeeping. Conservancy and earthkeeping is the essence of our commission as stewards of land and life, stewards of ponds and prairies.

The Hymn of Colossians resonates with this biblical stewardship commission by situating our stewardship of creation in the context of the one through whom God created all things, holds all things together, and reconciles all things. The Greek for all things is ta panta, meaning absolutely everything; nothing is left out. So as stewards commissioned to conservancy and earthkeeping we locate our stewardship in the love and embrace of Jesus Christ—the creator, sustainer, and reconciler of all things.

Today we celebrate God’s creation and creation’s service by reciprocating with service of our own. Some 15 years ago this was done right here with the blessing of a con-served and re-conciled pond—soon to be graced with a Great Blue Heron. At that time I and my wife and son had recently returned from the Cotswold district of England, where the stewardship of land and life has been made so apparent that it quite literally is published on the landscape.(1)  This of course is the real meaning of publication. We are to publish not only on paper and the internet. Most importantly, our commission is to publish in land and life. This is our grateful service. And it is this service, this earthkeeping, and this conservancy that we celebrate today in the blessing of Holy Wisdom Prairie. Here we renew the substance of the divine commission of Genesis 2:15—and following in the path of the Savior—create, sustain, and reconcile the land, all to the glory of God who creates, sustains, and reconciles all things.


(1) Publishing in the LandscapeBenedictine Bridge, Lent 2000

Calvin Dewitt is a professor emeritus at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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