Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
As you may know, I am setting off to England on pilgrimage with 11 others next Friday. We are beginning at Westminster Abby, where we will be blessed by our friend, the Dean, John Hall, and 10 days later arrive at Canterbury Cathedral as pilgrims.
So, what that has meant is a few trips to REI. I was there the other day picking up some sock liners. It was a Monday and not the usual REI busy. As I was checking out, somehow, I got into a conversation with the clerk about artificial intelligence and how pretty soon automation would put him out of a job. I agreed with his prophecy, and followed with, “It’s going to put a lot of people out of jobs. It already has.” And then I asked, “So, what will humans do if we are no longer a necessary component in an economic machine?”
And that is the question I left him with. It is a question, really, about identity and vocation and purpose.
It is not a new question. 2300 years ago a guy named Aristotle was thinking about it. To help him organize his thoughts, he put together a list of 10 categories that described all things and set them in order of importance, according to him.
Today we are going to look at 2 of Aristotle’s 10: 1) substance and 2) relationship. I draw this insight from Richard Rohr’s book The Divine Dance. Aristotle believed that substance is anything that is “independent” of all else and can stand on its own; like a rock, or a tree, or a man, or a woman. Substances are nouns. Relationships, on the other hand, are verbs. They are things that only have identity through partnership with something else; like a father, or mother, or wife, or son. Aristotle claimed that substances were superior to relationships.
2300 years later a lot of people still believe that… thank you Aristotle. But we don’t. Right? We know that no one on their deathbed, wishes they spent more time at the office, or owned one more piece of art. You know why?
Because a thousand years before Aristotle, we had another great thinker wondering about identity. It is the person who wrote the book of Genesis (or maybe the community who collaborated in putting together the book of Genesis). The very first two chapters in the Bible are about human identity. We heard ne of the identity stories this morning.
Here is the beauty of how human identity is articulated in Genesis: it applies even in a world where automation and artificial intelligence do things better than humans do. Because the identity articulated in Genesis is about relationships first and foremost… relationship with God and relationship with creation. And relationship will always be something that humans will be better at than robots! It is what we were made to do.
The Apostle Peter defines our relational nature this way, sort of summing up the first two chapter of Genesis: He writes: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” That is an identity statement- a royal priesthood!
That is our vocation- a royal priesthood! The royal priesthood is a job description for humanity; and it is a job description that includes everybody. It is a vocational title wound into the very fabric of each human being.
And this vocation has two parts: The royal part and the priesthood part; and they both sit within the framework of relationship. Royal describes relationship between humanity and creation. Priesthood describes relationship and humanity and God.
Today we are only going to look at the royal line of work as it is understood in the second creation story we hear from Genesis today. Now I want to start by defending the word royal. It is a loaded term, so I ask you to hold it in its best light, as a sovereign who is magnanimous and generous and deeply caring for the realm over which he/she is meant to serve. Also keep in mind that the word royalty indicates lineage; that humanity, as royal priests, are children of the king and made in the king’s image and likeness.
So, let’s move into this Genesis story now. It begins by telling us that humanity was the first thought of God. God formed a human, the word in Hebrew is Adama, which means “earth creature,” from the dust of the ground and breathed life into it. And there the earth creature sat with God; just a human being and God. I love that idea of sitting there with God.
Then God made a place for the earth creature to live and called it a garden. It isn’t a factory, or a mine, or a field, or an office. It is a garden. And what do we do in a garden? We enjoy it. We nurture it. We care for it. We seek its inherent beauty. God set the earth creature in a garden.
Then God realized it was not good for the earth creature to be alone. So God created relationship. From the dust of the ground God formed animals and fish and creepy crawly things. And God invited the earth creature to be in relationship with them, to know them. This is symbolized by the earth creature giving each thing a name; and when something has a name that is how we connect with it and relate to it.
Now the author of Genesis knew something that science has only recently proven: that all things, from fish to flowers to human beings are made from the same stuff… dust from the stars. And so, all things are unified by our dustiness, yet, differentiated by vocation. Only humanity, the story goes, is singularly different in that we were given the breath of God. That is what makes us royals. That is what makes us children of God, which is why we are responsible for the garden. It is also why the earth creature could find no suitable companion among the animals made by God.
So from the rib God split the earth creature into two; creating man and woman; to live in a garden as sovereigns, not to dominate or exploit; but to care for and share and enjoy. But then relationship with God and the garden got bumped down the hierarchy of importance, in favor of the exploitation of substance, and, well, we know this as the fall.
Our right relationship with creation was forgotten or misconstrued. The warning against this is embedded in the Genesis story we heard today. God says it is bad for humanity to be alone, and then parallels this with you shall not eat of the tree or you will die. Alone and die are intertwined. Alone means removed from the garden. Die is what happens when relationship with the garden is forsaken. This is a warning.
We were made to be together in the garden. We were made to care for it, not use it up, or tear it down. In the Kingdom of God, garden is a verb, not a noun. Garden is a relationship between us and the substance of creation. And it is primary. And so, we are given this story, Genesis chapter 2, in the Bible to remember our human vocation.
As Todd said on Ash Wednesday, Lent is a season to remember. And so I invite you to remember your sovereignty, your royal priesthood. Remember that you were made for relationship with creation and with God. We have the breath of God.
And with this in mind, I return to our clerk at REI and one final thought: if our purpose as royal priests is it not to be cogs in an economic machine made for production and consumption, then what do we do? How do sovereigns act in the garden?
Well, what if in the garden childcare and music lessons were valued equally to computer programming and engineering? What if in the garden scientific research was done for the sake of curiosity more than the value of commodifying the discovery? What if in the garden sitting with the dying was valued as highly as curing the sick? What if in the garden if the arts were given the same attention as athletics? What if in the garden contractors spent more effort on craftsmanship, than cost containment? What if in the garden clothes were made like this handmade chasuble for purpose and beauty (by Sandra Darling for the church)? What if we let automation and artificial intelligence feed us, while we danced together and sang together and played with children, and sought to make the garden beautiful?
What if we could do all of this right now? What if we could claim our royal priesthood right now? What if we made relationship with God and creation the most important thing right now?
Imagine if we acted as we were made to be a royal priesthood, right now, not 500 years hence, but right now! This is the kingdom right now: it is here, it is near, we are in the garden, right now. And you are a royal priest, standing there.