Part 1: God’s Continuing Creative Action
In the creation story, when God made the first human being, He “formed a man from the dust of the ground.” The first human being was made out of dirt. And God called him Adam, a name that means “soil” or “ground.” Adam was the first human – and even the word “human” comes from an Old English word for “earth” or “ground.” We see that reflected in a word we still use for a particular kind of dirt: “humus.” It’s also where we get the word “humble,” which means “low to the ground.” Is that an insult to us, to call us “Adam” and “human”? A reminder that we are worthless? I don’t think so.
Another question to ask is, is that creation story literally true? Our church sees it as a metaphor, not a literal account of how the universe was created. So we don’t need to believe that the first human really did come into being by God scooping up dirt and forming it into a human. But in a very real, very scientific level, that is actually true. We really are made out of dirt – the molecules that our bodies are made from were once dirt. And in order to grow, we obviously have to eat food, and which comes from the soil.
Soil is a remarkable substance. In preparation for this sermon, I read three books about soil, and saw a documentary called “Dirt! The Movie.” They all emphasize just how miraculous soil is. For one thing, it didn’t come from our solar system – the minerals could not have come from our sun, which is too young and not hot enough to produce those elements. The ingredients of soil came from supernovas, and apparently drifted through space until settling on our planet. But soil does not appear on any other planet in our solar system, or, as far as we can tell, any planet yet discovered.
What are the components of soil? What is it made of? If you ever played the old game ’20 Questions,’ you may have started with a standard question, “Is it mineral, vegetable, or animal?” In the case of soil, the answer is clearly “All three.” Part of it is minerals—calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus—much of it from volcanoes, and ground up by glaciers during ice ages or broken down by water (so one book pointed out that soil is the product of “fire and ice” – volcanoes and glaciers). Part of it is vegetable, as anyone who has done composting knows. A large part of that “humus” I mentioned began life as rotting vegetation. Composting, as the expression goes, “turns garbage into gardens.” And all of those books have pointed out something we might be a little squeamish in acknowledging: that what we call “soil” is, to a large extent, little tiny animals – microbes, bacteria. A cup full of good soil contains more microbes than there are human beings on earth. That’s why we get nervous when small children put dirt in their mouths – although farmers used to do that on purpose to test their soil.
In case you get too nervous about all those germs in the soil, keep in mind that it’s also where most antibiotics come from. In 1943, some soil scientists at Rutgers University were working on a soil project, but one was distracted by the fact that his wife was dying from tuberculosis. Another grad student asked, “Why is it that when you bury a dead body in the ground, the earth is not poisoned?” In fact, the soil in graveyards is some of the healthiest soil on the planet. That question led to the discovery of streptomycin, a soil-based antibiotic and the first cure for tuberculosis.
Soil is very much a living thing. One of the books I read called it “The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.” An expert in the documentary pointed out the biggest problem with soil: “Soil is living, but we treat it like it’s dead.” It is constantly being renewed – a never-ending process of breaking down minerals and vegetation, and providing the context for new life to begin. The same atoms, the ones from supernovas millions of years ago, get recycled over and over again. Those atoms go from being part of the earth, to being part of the plant life, to being part of us, and then back again. One author called it “God’s continuing creative action.” If you want to see the creation process in actions, there is no better place to look than in the ground beneath your feet.
Another remarkable thing you can say about soil is that it’s organized. That was a word that came up a lot in my research: soil is an organized society. Of those billions of microbes, many cooperate, some compete with each other. Soil organizes different kinds of salts and nutrients, making sure they go where they are needed. Soil organizes water as well – purifying it, retaining it, directing it. One book talked about the city of Los Angeles, which is experiencing water shortages so severe that it is importing water from as far away as Wyoming. But, the author pointed out, Los Angeles actually has all the water it needs. The problem is that it is trapped under layers over concrete and pavement – two thirds of LA has been paved over. The soil can no longer do its job of directing and retaining water, renewing life and organizing the ecosystem. Soil is the connection point between the molten core of the earth and the atmosphere. Soil is Grand Central Station, where all the components of life come together.
This is why the documentary said “Throughout history, we’ve seen civilizations rise and fall based on how they treated dirt.” In our own country, this occurred during the Oklahoma Dustbowl of the 1930, when farmers, not knowing how to treat their soil, basically turned it into dust that blew away with the wind. There are disagreements now about what exactly we should do with soil – how much to fertilize, what to plant in it. But ever since the beginning of time, wise people have recognized that you have to take care of the soil. Soil can be abused, mistreated and neglected, and if so, it can become useless.
So, back to the creation story, once the six days of creation were complete, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” And then one of Adam’s sons, Cain, was referred to as “a man of the soil.” Noah was the next person called a “man of the soil.” Then we have the Children of Israel, about to enter the land of Canaan, and before they went in, Moses had a burning question for the spies who scouted out the land: “How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor?” (Number 13:20). And there was that description I read in this morning’s readings about a king who took the throne at age 16, Uzziah. Many of the kings of Israel in those days were disasters, but the Bible says “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord,” and one of the things it specifically mentions (in 2 Chronicles 36) was that he loved the soil.
In the weeks leading up to the service, I’ve talked to many members of this congregation about soil. And it’s clear to me that many of you love the soil, and know more about it than I ever will. Here I am, talking to a room full of experts! And that is very good, because all of my research has led to the same conclusion: we need as many soil-lovers as we can get.
Part 2: Soil = Country
Another thing that we take the time to acknowledge at this time of year is that it’s important to love your country as well. And if you hadn’t noticed, that ties in with my topic. Soil is so important that we use it as a stand-in to represent the entire nation. We go to war to “protect American soil.” If you were born on American soil, you are automatically a citizen of the country. I heard rumors that in the days when British sea captains were exploring the world, some would take containers of soil with them – a small piece of their own country, so they could visit every corner of the globe but never leave home, bringing England with them.
So I hope you had a good 4th of July celebration, and took the time to be thankful for what your country has provided for you. Your country = your land = your soil. I was born in England, and grew up in Canada, so national celebrations like the 4th of July are a little different for me than for some of you. I have loved all three countries, so I don’t like to participate in “My country is better than yours” arguments. For one thing, national boundaries change so much, and are obviously arbitrary: if you were born in Texas, you could have been part of six different nations, depending on when you were born. Or maybe you used to be from Yugoslavia, and now it’s Slovenia. In the grand scheme of things, from God’s perspective, it doesn’t matter what country it was called at that time. That is why it says in Isaiah 40:15, “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales. All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.”
But you don’t have to compare countries in order to be grateful for yours. It has nurtured you, provided for you, given you much that you should try to give back. And, of course, we can say exactly the same thing about soil. Soil is different everywhere across the globe, just as countries are different. We were all born somewhere, on a particular part of the planet, and have all benefited from wherever that was.
One last thing about being automatically a citizen if you were “Born on American soil.” It’s just an expression, isn’t it? It’s highly unlikely you were born on any “soil” at all – you were probably born inside a hospital or maybe a house – and there were many, many layers of flooring and concrete and steel and asphalt between you and anything you could actually call “soil.” Imagine if you went to the hospital to deliver a baby, and said to the doctors and nurses, “Actually, can I move out into the garden? I want my baby to be born in the dirt.” They would never allow that. Imagine giving birth in a stable, with a dirt floor, flies hovering around, manure in the corner and who knows what in the air. How unsanitary!
Yet that is where Christ was born, according to the Divine plan. We don’t know the actual details of the birth, of course, but I imagine Mary lying on a dirt floor when she gave birth, with perhaps a few layers of cloth or blankets beneath her. Baby Jesus was born closer to the soil than any of us. The lesson I take from this is that God himself isn’t afraid of a little dirt.
Part 3: Don’t Treat It Like Dirt
Dirt. That has very different connotations than “soil,” doesn’t it? Soil is the source of life and food, rich with nutrients, living, dynamic, precious. Dirt is just an annoyance that you are always trying to get rid of. The stuff that must be removed in order for anything to be clean. Soil is priceless; dirt is worthless. What expression do we use to represent something or someone that we treat poorly? “Treat it like dirt.”
Even the Bible, with all its positive references to soil, has nothing good to say about dirt. In Isaiah (57:20), it says “The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest – whose waters cast up mire and dirt.” King David brags about defeating his enemies and how we “trod them like dirt in the streets.” In the New Testament (1 Peter 3), baptism is referred to as “the removal of dirt,” not from the body but from the spirit.
The phrase “cleanliness is next to Godliness” is not actually from the Bible (although it was apparently an ancient Babylonian saying), but there are many, many references in the Bible to the need to “wash you, make yourselves clean.” In the New Testament, if you want to be a good host, what is the first thing you should do when travelers (like Jesus and the disciples) show up at your house? Wash the dirt from their feet. There are many references in the Bible to people who allowed themselves to get filthy, who symbolized their pitiful state by rubbing dirt into their hair, face, and clothes.
And it’s not that we are schizophrenic in our attitude toward dirt / soil – sometimes loving it, sometimes hating it. It’s not a mental defect on our part; it’s the fact that sometimes “soil” is tremendously valuable, and sometimes it isn’t. Some soil is useless for growing anything in, as the Parable of the Sower teaches. Many times, dirt is what has to be removed in order to get at the thing of value.
I got very curious about this distinction between priceless soil and worthless dirt, and did a little more research. Are they actually the same thing, or is there a difference between “soil” and “dirt”? One source explained it clearly: the word “soil” implies a multilayered system of different substances, connected to the earth, and useful. But once you take it from its home, take one layer away from the rest, and remove it from anywhere where it could be used to grow anything, that’s when it becomes dirt. Dirt is displaced soil.
When it’s in your garden, it’s soil. Once it gets on your shoe, now it’s dirt.
It’s about connection. Soil is valuable because it connects growing things to nutrients and water, it keeps things in place, it provides a home for plants and animals. In our modern society, it is easy to lose that connection. We may forget where our food comes from, we might mistreat soil because it doesn’t seem valuable – maybe even removing good soil in order to get at gold or diamonds, thinking that’s what has real value. So, this time of year, it’s important to remember that connection to the earth. Remember that we “humans” are literally named after the soil, and come from it. And remember that that connection is sacred.
Moses was reminded of that, in his very first conversation with God. Before he was a great religious leader, he was just a shepherd tending a flock on Mount Horeb. He saw the burning bush, and went over to investigate. There, God called out his name, and began a conversation that changed the course of history. But before God said anything about what Moses had to do to free the Israelites, he gave him a simple instruction. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Before Moses could go on to do all the great things he was destined to do, the first thing God asked was for him to feel the soil beneath his feet – to connect directly with the ground.
After this service is over, I invite you all to do the same thing: go outside, take off your shoes, and feel that sacred soil beneath your feet. And praise God for it!
POST-SERMON PRAYER: Let us pray. Oh Lord, remind us that we are rooted it in the soil. Remind us of the value of connection, bringing heaven down to earth, as the soil connects the air and water with the core of the earth. Teach us to be good soil; not hard as stone, but open, and flexible, and living. Keep us grounded, so that we do not drift away with the wind. And may your truth and love grow within us a hundredfold. Amen.
Soil is the darkest and coldest of all living things. The most widespread. And the most receptive. Warmed, it blooms. So may I in my darkest moments be attentive to the penetrating rays of the sun that finds the seed. (William Bryant Logan, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, 1995, p. 202).