By Rev. Paul Mitchell
Everyone needs to be an EarthKeeper! Or at least everyone needs to be an earth keeper. Before, during, and since the UM EarthKeeper training cohort I attended in October 2023, I have encountered several references to nuanced scholarship of the Genesis 2 creation story. “Then YHWH took the earth creature and settled it in the garden of Eden so that it might cultivate and care for the land.”[i]
In his book Green Faith, Harper Fletcher tells us, “Farm and take care of. These words, which are at the heart of the Bible’s second creation story in Genesis 2, offer a succinct synopsis of what we’re meant to do in relation to creation. Farm (often translated as “till” in older English versions of the Bible) is a verb used biblically in agricultural and nonagricultural contexts. When it’s used nonagriculturally, it is translated from Hebrew into English as serve, a meaning that provides an important clue to understanding the connotation of the word’s deeper meaning. Jews and Christians alike are familiar with a famous use of this verb translated like this: in Joshua 24:15, Joshua famously says, “But my family and I will serve the Lord.” Or, in the more familiar translation, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (KJV). ….
Taking care (transliterated “shamar”) has numerous rich Hebrew meanings, including guard, protect, and watch over. One of the best-known blessings in the Bible, which God has Moses teach to his brother Aaron, the overseer of the priests of Israel, goes like this: The Lord bless you and protect you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his face to you and grant you peace.”[ii] Thus, our mission as a species, according to this oft-quoted verse, is, in fact, to be “earth keepers” – cherishing, tending, protecting, and restoring the creation.
The training location I attended with five others from the Greater Northwest Area was in Denver. A highlight of the training was a visit to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the foothills west of Denver. There were simultaneous trainings in Baltimore, MD and Birmingham, AL, with over sixty trainees participating. I signed up expecting to glean information and support for my project to relandscape the church and parsonage yards around Pioneer UMC in Walla Walla with more sustainable planting. It was so much more. One central focus was environmental racism and the relationship between the way people of privilege systematically abuse both the planet and people of color. These are linked by the Doctrine of Discovery – a tool that was explicitly crafted to exercise power over “others” who were and are considered less. Even though I was previously aware, engaging in this learning was heartbreaking and challenging.
During the three and a half days of training, we had support and encouragement to consider and present our projects through these critical lenses. My project evolved to include and perhaps even focus on the theology, history, life, and justice of the land that our buildings “occupy.” It’s my hope that we can open up a wider and deeper conversation with the land and the people whose historic homelands are here. Another lesson was that our United Methodist kindred in other parts of the country are years ahead of the Greater Northwest in both dismantling racism and keeping and serving creation. We think of ourselves as progressive leaders in the denomination – and in some ways, we are. But God has work for us to do.
It’s been an honor this year to participate in developing worship resources for the Season of Creation as part the United Methodist Creation Justice Movement Worship Team. After returning from EarthKeeper training, we began work on a three-week environmental justice focused series for the three Sundays after Easter 2024. The materials hinge on the lectionary texts from 1 John and were developed as a partnership between the United Methodist Creation Justice Movement and Discipleship Ministries. It will be available widely through the Discipleship Ministries website.
In my own worship planning and preaching I have been seeking to make our relationship and responsibility for creation a central theme – normalizing it as essential to salvation. The benedictions I wrote for the series all conclude with the phrase, “Our salvation is bound together with creation.” N.T. Wright writes, “…the work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us. If we can get this straight, we will rediscover the historic basis for the full-orbed mission of the church.”[iii] I hope you’ll join me in centering the work of environmental justice, through both worship and work. Be an earth keeper.
Rev. Paul Mitchell is Senior Pastor at Pioneer United Methodist Church in Walla Walla, Washington. The church operates on the ancestral homelands of the Cayuse, Palus, Umatilla, and Walla Walla.
[i] Priests for Equality. The Inclusive Bible (p. 18). Sheed & Ward. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Fletcher Harper, GreenFaith (pp. 58-59). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
[iii] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 200.