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A sermon by Christine Jerrett. The worship service in which was first preached is available at Reformed Worship week 5.

Scriptures: Genesis 2: 15 -25

In 1986, a woman named Alberta Billie stood up to address a meeting of the General Council of the United Church of Canada. She was the First Nations community of Cape Mudge in British Columbia. She began her address by saying, “We are the salmon people. . . . We recognize the way the salmon run inland from the sea and their return to the sea. We respect that cycle and we celebrate it in our lives, our ritual, our art, our festive occasions. . . We are the salmon people. (James A. Taylor in Currents)

What kind of people are you? What is the dominant story in your culture that tells you who you are?

Over one hundred and seventy-five years ago, the French philosopher Alex de Tocqueville visited the United States. Upon his return, he wrote Democracy in America. He noted, ‘Each citizen is engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely himself.” The story that dominates much of our culture is the story of the Self. Its main characters are My Wants, My Needs, My Feelings, My Desires, My Appetites, What I Deserve. They are placed at the centre of our lives and are not only celebrated, they are coaxed and coached and cultivated. They are coaxed and and coached and cultivated because our society depends upon us being pre-occupied with ourselves in order to keep going.

In order for our economic system to function, we need constantly to be dissatisfied. We need to define ourselves as not having enough, not being good enough, not being loved the way we are. There is always something more we need to get, to buy, to do, to achieve if we are going to be happy and satisfied an fulfilled.

The Self as defined by its needs, appetites and desires is a story that lives deep within us. It shapes our lives and our relationships in powerful ways that undermine human dignity. That story, dominated by the ‘not enough’ Self, makes human community impossible. Said Wendell Berry, “‘Every man for himself’ is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub; appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings . . . A society wishing to endure must speak the language of caretaking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighbourliness, and peace. That language is [a] precious resource and cannot be privatized.”

The story is told of a director of a charitable organization in a small town who noticed that the town’s wealthiest man had never once made a donation. The director decided he would visit the man. He said, “our research shows that your income is at least $500,000 a year, and yet, you never give to charity. Wouldn’t you like to give back to the community in some way?”

The man replied, “Did your research also show that my mother is dying after a long illness and has medical bills that are several times her annual income?”

The director was embarrassed. He mumbled, ‘No, I didn’t know that.”

The wealthy man continued, “Did your research tell you that my sister’s husband died in an accident, leaving her penniless with three children?”

Humiliated, the director said, “I am sorry. I did not realize.”

The wealthy man finished by saying, “So, if I don’t give any money to them, why should I give any to you?”

We may not have an annual income of over $500,000, but we do know what it is to be anxious that there will not be enough. That’s the story that inundates us from many different directions: not enough money, not enough health care, not enough social services, not enough to fill the empty places in our own hearts and souls.

Genesis 2 defines the Self in a radically different way. The main character in the story is not the Self. The main character is God. God has been doing all the talking. God has done all the acting. God has made the human, has breathed life into the human, has placed the human in the garden. So far, the human has not said or done anything. The main actor in our lives is God, not our Selves: God who creates and provides and gives life and pronounces blessing. We are the beloved children of this God. The first thing that defines our lives is that we are a people created by a good and holy Creator. We are formed by our relationship with God.

Whenever we try to live without that relationship, whenever we try to make the story all about us, our lives get small. They become less than God intends them to be. God wills something far greater than that for us.

This God places the human in the garden and gives us work to do there. We are to care for the earth: respect its particularities and its needs so it can remain fruitful for all people.

In the middle of the garden was the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God said to the human, “You may eat from any tree in the garden except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The tree from which we are not to consume is placed in the middle of the garden. It is not tucked away in some corner where we might forget that it is there. It is in the middle of our garden, in the middle of our lives as a daily reminder that everything we want or desire is not going to get satisfied. There will always be a deep yearning in us that will not be filled no matter how much attention we lavish upon ourselves. No matter how much we think of our own needs, not matter how hard we work to make something of our lives, there will always be an empty space that we cannot fill. We were never meant to “have it all”. (Thanks to Craig Barnes for this insight in his book, Yearning)

That emptiness, that yearning, that ache in the deepest part of you is not something you are supposed to try to fix or fill up. It is not a problem that you need to solve. It is the place in your soul where the living God comes to meet you. The act and the yearning that cannot be stilled is trying to direct you toward leaving space in your life for God to show up. Said St. Augustine, ‘You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

We are a people created for community. We are created for relationship with God first of all. We are also created for relationship with the world that God makes and values. We are not to exploit it, grabbing whatever we want. We are to tend it and to care for it. We are also made for relationship with each other. We cannot be who we are on our own. We are dependent on God. We are dependent on each other to become what God intends us to be.

Every time we baptize someone, we baptize them into the Body of Christ. We receive them into the community of people who have apprenticed themselves to Jesus Christ. We are those who have promised over and over again to live as a community that is learning to live beyond our pre-occupations with our Selves. We have promised to live, instead, trusting God who has met us in Jesus Christ and who sustains us with steadfast love and faithfulness. We are a people who are learning to receive life as a gift from a gracious God who has a good and holy purpose for all creation. We are a people who are learning to live our lives on God’s terms: not grasping to get all we can for ourselves; not anxiously trying to make our lives count; living, with wonder and awe because we live in the midst of mystery and miracle.

Being that kind of community is not easy. It requires commitment of time and energy. We cannot be a community in the abstract. It happens only as we sacrifice for the sake of a common purpose. It requires courage and risk. Being part of the community that follow Jesus Christ will challenge us beyond our comfort zones as our Lord takes us deeper and deeper into the mystery of God’s love.

Through such a community, God gives us and the world an alternative to the anxious grasping that is killing creation. Through such a community, God gives us a way to live in hope in a dark time. Such a community receives its life from God who is making all things new.

It takes our whole life to learn to live that way. It takes the whole community together. Who are we? We are the people of God who comes to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are the people of the Garden: gifted with a wonderful, diverse creation. We are not to exploit or abuse it. We are to live within it on God’s terms. We live honouring, respecting and cherishing this fragile treasure. So shall we live to the the glory of God.

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