Field trip

At the beginning of the Bible, on page 2 in most editions, the story of creation is told as a story of a garden God planted. And God took the human being, whom God had formed from the dust of the ground, and put him in the garden to till it and keep it. That is the first thing to know about what it means to be human, according to the Scriptures: we are creatures whom God has formed, and our God-given purpose is to work the garden and take care of it. The verbs used to describe the role of humankind in the garden of creation contain overtones of serving, guarding, and protecting, suggesting that we are here to look after all things that grow, tending to their flourishing.

Wendell Berry wasn’t the first to note that “there is an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth.”[1] In chapter 1 of Genesis, just a few verses before the garden story, God addresses humanity, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” There’s a tension between our call to till and keep and our call to subdue and rule—and it’s a tension largely because we don’t grasp the dominion of God in whose image we have been made. God’s rule is sovereign, but never self-serving; God’s dominion serves the flourishing of life, and humanity is called to participate in God’s dominion, not to establish our own by subduing the earth and one another to our own will. There is indeed an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth.

The prophet Isaiah used the image of the vineyard, a staple in love poetry of his day, to sing about God and God’s people Israel.

My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it, cleared away its stones, planted it with excellent vines, built a tower inside it, and dug out a wine vat in it. He expected it to grow good grapes—but it grew rotten grapes.

Rotten grapes, that’s no way to end a love song. Sweet wine and the joy of sharing it was what the audience expected; they were baffled. Now the prophet stepped into the role of the disappointed owner who had made such an effort digging, clearing, planting, and caring for the vineyard.

You who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it? When I expected it to grow good grapes, why did it grow rotten grapes?

They couldn’t tell him, couldn’t name a single reason why the song ended with rotten grapes rather than sweet wine. The man had certainly done everything that could be expected. Now the prophet continued to sing in the role of the disappointed lover, but it wasn’t really a song anymore; it was the violent undoing of what was meant to be a happy-ever-after love song:

Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard. I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed. I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled. I’ll turn it into a ruin; it won’t be pruned or hoed, and thorns and thistles will grow up. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.

They had known for a while this was no ordinary love song, but with that last line even the most metaphorically challenged in the audience realized that they were listening to the poetry of divine promise and judgment. Isaiah had made his point, now he just underlined it:

The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress![2]

God plants the garden of life and we are called to till it and keep it. God plants a vineyard and God’s people are expected to bear the sweet fruit of justice and righteousness.

The Apostle Paul continues in that tradition of reflection on what it means to be human in God’s creation with images drawn from the garden, the vineyard, and the field. In today’s passage from First Corinthians, he doesn’t go to the field right away, though, he begins in the house, in the nursery. Remember, he is challenging individual believers who think of themselves as spiritually advanced, way ahead of the less mature believers, the less sophisticated sisters and less eloquent brothers. Paul has reminded them that the center of their life together is occupied, not by ladders of advancement defined by worldly standards of upward mobility, but by Christ crucified. Worldly standards of power and success, wisdom and knowledge have been turned upside down in the revelation of God on the cross.

The spirit-enthusiasts who pride themselves in their maturity and their ability to discern which leaders offer the best in eloquence and wisdom are in truth babies in the life of Christ. The life of faith is a life of growth and maturing, but what they like to think of as their advanced status is in truth the large part of their life and identity that hasn’t been transformed by their baptism, that hasn’t been converted. They still behave and think as those whose lives have not been claimed by the Spirit of Christ, but by the lesser spirits of human inclination that make their presence known through jealousy, quarreling, and division. When one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” they only replicate in the church the world’s standards of boasting and belonging. Old habits die hard, and it’s not enough to dress up the old attitudes of elitism and superiority with pious talk and a cross necklace.

What then is Apollos in this new reality where Christ crucified occupies the center? What is Paul? Servants, the Apostle answers; co-workers in God’s service who simply do what has been assigned to them. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” The life of faith is a life of growth and maturing, individually and in the church as a whole, but our allegiance is not to Paul or Apollos, Luther or Calvin, Wesley, Campbell or Francis, but to God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters are as one in their service, and the field, the garden, the vineyard, the earth is God’s. You are God’s field, writes Paul, and the emphasis is on God to counteract our very human tendency to parcel up the garden into smaller and smaller tracts claimed by one or another of God’s field hands. You are God’s field, Paul writes, and I believe he would agree that this “you” is really a “we,” because in Christ all of us are both field hands and field, workers in the vineyard and branches on the vine, sowers and the soil that receives the seed.

We began our journey in the garden, we looked at Isaiah’s vineyard and Paul’s field, and along the way other images emerged that help us reflect on what it means to be human in God’s creation. For the final leg of this field trip I invite you to a brief walk in the woods. Henry David Thoreau wrote,

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down![3]

Thoreau takes us again to the ancient tension, old as humanity, between our call to till and keep and our call to subdue and rule, but I want to consider the trees themselves for a moment, mindful of the prophet who announced that God’s people would be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.[4]

No tree is an island,” I read recently, “and no place is this truer than the forest. Hidden beneath the soil of the forest understory is a labyrinth of fungal connections between tree roots that scientists call the mycorrhizal network. Others have called it the wood-wide web.” The wood-wide web, that’s cute, maybe a little corny, but it’s really quite astonishing.

[The fungi] partner with plant roots because each gets something out of it. The fungus infiltrates the plants’ roots. But it does not attack — far from it. The plant makes and delivers food to the fungus; the fungus, in turn, dramatically increases the plant’s [capacity to absorb water and minerals] via its vast network of filaments. They provide far more surface area for absorption than the meager supply of short root hairs the tree could grow alone. What has not been appreciated until relatively recently is both how complex [these] fungal networks can be and that they can also act as conduits between trees. … [Researchers in Canada] found that Douglas-fir seedling and paper birch shuttle carbon back and forth to one another seasonally via their [fungal connections]. Paper birch send carbon to Douglas-fir seedlings, especially when they were shaded in summer, probably enhancing their survival. In spring and fall, the Douglas-fir return the favor when the birch have no leaves.[5]

Trees sharing nutrients via fungal networks, and not just between generations of the same species, where older trees give the little ones an occasional boost, but even across species. When we look at trees only above ground, we may see only competition for precious sunlight; but below ground, the forest is shaped by astonishing mutuality. I believe Paul would have loved the image of the church as God’s forest, where we flourish and grow to maturity, planting, watering, shuttling resources back and forth, all of us serving together for the good of all, to the glory of God.


[1] The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Ed. by Norman Wirzba (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002) 118.

[2] Isaiah 5:1-7 CEB

[3] Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle (1863)

[4] Isaiah 61:3

[5]; see also

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