Sunday, April 23, 2017

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation": A Sermon preached on the Sunday after Earth Day.

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation"

A Sermon on the Sunday after Earth Day

Genesis 1 & 2

Earth Day was yesterday.  So this Sunday seems like a good day to celebrate God’s good creation and to ponder our place in it.  This is a day to reflect on what our faith says to us about how we are called to live on the earth.
In this season of Eastertide, we are celebrating good news:   in raising Jesus from the dead, God has broken the power of sin and evil and delivered us from the way of death-- to life eternal and abundant.   We ponder what it means to live as Easter people… and what it means to live in the ways of God here and now.  And today, especially, we are challenged to reflect on how we are called to live in relationship with God’s good creation.
When we look to our scriptures, it turns out that the Bible has a lot to say about creation and caring for creation. There are over a thousand references to the earth and caring for creation in the Bible.[1]  

The first face of God we encounter in the Bible is God as Creator, in the first two chapters of Genesis.  In Genesis chapter one, we hear that God created the earth and all that is in it, and blessed it and saw that it was very good.[2]   On the sixth day, God created humankind in God's image and gave them dominion over living things.  But that isn’t all that happened on the sixth day.

            Barbara Brown Taylor writes about noticing something new about day six, after years of thinking that we humans had day six all to ourselves.  She noticed that day six starts two verses earlier than when humans were created, with the creation of land animals-- cattle, to be exact, along with unspecified creeping things and wild animals. 
            “What a comedown.” Taylor says.  “A reminder that although God may have made human beings for special purposes, we were not made of any more special stuff than the rest of creation. We were made on the same day as cows and creeping things and wild animals of every kind. God gave us dominion, it is true, but God did not pronounce us better than anything else God had made. ‘God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”[3]
            But what does “dominion” mean? 
Over the years, there were interpretations of “dominion” that taught people to view themselves as superior to nature, and justified treating nature as something to be exploited. Some have said, “I believe God gave us the job to do what we want with creation. Which could mean, “I think the Bible says we have the right to destroy things that get in our way. “Dominion” came to be understood by a lot of people as doing whatever they wanted to creation, or even as “domination.”
            But that has resulted in air and water pollution, the loss of animal species, the loss of trees, environmentally caused disease.
            Christian ethicist James Gustafson calls this “despotism”-- one of the historical ways that people of faith have interpreted the Bible as their divine right to dominion over the earth.  In this view, Gustafson says, “you don’t have to ask a tree before you bulldoze it for a subdivision. You just knock it down, push it into a pile with the corpses of other trees, and set it on fire. Then you are free to scrape the clear-cut earth free of green moss, tiny wild iris, toads, and a couple of thousand years’ worth of topsoil before calling the pavers to come and cover your artwork with steaming asphalt. Oh, and if the mountain laurels block your view of the river, just turn the dozer on them too. The next time the river floods, the banks will collapse without those living roots. The river will silt up eventually, until you can push a sharp stick three feet straight down in the sandy bottom without ever hitting what used to be the riverbed. But what the heck, if the trout die, you can still buy some at the grocery store already cleaned and boned for just a few dollars a pound. You are Lord over this playground, after all--God said so, right? It is all for you.”[4]

            When we study the Hebrew word “rada” that’s translated as “dominion,” we discover that the meaning is more like care-giving, even nurturing-- not exploitation.  Human beings are created in the image of God, so we need to relate to nonhuman creatures as God relates to them.[5]   Dominion is about responsible stewardship.

            In chapter 2 of Genesis, we have another creation story, in which God formed Adam from the dust of the earth and put him in the garden of Eden “to till and keep it.”
God’s first command to humanity was given to Adam, to serve the garden and to keep it. As God keeps and sustains us, we are to keep and sustain God’s good creation.
            The Hebrew word translated as “keep”, shamar, is sometimes translated as “guard,” “safeguard,” “take care of,” or “look after.” Shamar is about a loving, caring, sustaining kind of keeping. In the blessing of Aaron in Number, “The Lord bless you and keep you,” the word for “keep” is the Hebrew word shamar--the same word we heard in Genesis 2.
            If we are fulfilling God’s commandment to keep the creation, we make sure that the creatures and other living things under our care are maintained so they can flourish.  As God keeps people, so God’s people are to keep God’s creation.

In the book of Exodus, Moses is minding his father-in-law’s flocks in the wilderness beneath Mount Horeb when he encounters an angel of the Lord who appears in a flame from a bush that is burning but not being consumed.
Moses hears the voice of God instructing him, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the ground you are standing on is holy ground.”
The ground on which Moses was standing was wilderness.  The name of the mountain, “Horeb,” simply means “wasteland.”  There was no sanctuary there, no religious shrine, nothing to make it seem extraordinary in any way.  And yet it was “holy ground.”  So I hope that we’ll all think and pray about what makes ground “holy.” 

In our society, we can argue about the politics of environmental justice.  But it has become clear that current trends in growth and consumption are not sustainable.  Those of us who call ourselves Christians need to take seriously what our faith says about Creation.
When it comes to the environment, we need an alternative worldview.  We need alternative, faithful ways to know our place in Creation that are not naïve or simplistic.  For instance, recycling is a good thing to do, and it helps. But efforts by individual and volunteer organizations to recycle will not save the planet. 
As one of my colleagues has said, the issue is too global, too political,  too economically driven to be resolved by personal piety or individual good intentions.  The issue is ultimately theological—a matter of faith—because it raises the question, “Who owns this place?”[6]  
As persons of faith and as a faith community, our task is to imagine how the world would look if God really is ruling, and then to implement that vision—put it into action.
We need faith communities—people like us—who know the earth is the Lord’s and that all the earth is holy ground.  We need to commit ourselves to living and proclaiming that alternative vision to our communities and the world.
I was inspired by the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon when I read recently about what they’ve been doing to care for creation.
A little over twenty years ago or so, Cameroon, along the coast of west Africa, had a rich tropical evergreen forest that provided shelter for animals and birds of all kinds and enriched the fertility of the Cameroonian soils. In the next fifteen or so years, this forest was mostly destroyed. There were several causes, but a major one the indiscriminate deforestation by foreign timber companies carrying out unsustainable logging practices, in agreement with the Cameroonian government, which was looking for ways to fill in budget shortfalls.
The result of this is climate change, as dry winds from the Sahara Desert find their way easily to the south, causing drought, which has endangered animal and human life. Water supplies have been drying up.  The dry season is longer and hotter and is followed by more floods and longer rains. 
Cameroon used to be a great exporter of food crops in all of Central Africa, but has now been experiencing food insufficiency for its own population.  
The Presbyterian Church of Cameroon started an annual event of tree planting every last Sunday of May to the first Sunday in June.  Every Presbyterian was asked to commit to planting trees every year. At least 400,000 trees were planted every year in an effort to “rebirth” the creation destroyed by irresponsible human beings.[7]
            The Presbyterian Church in Cameroon committed to promote life through community action for water, clean air, flora and fauna. They covenanted to undertake to minimize loss through faithful stewardship of resources that encourages renewal, replenishment and abundance, and to uphold the integrity of creation for abundant life for the world. The vision statement for the seven year environmental plan is “Protect Creation, Save the World!!![8]
            They’re still planting trees and hope to plant trees in all the 10 regions of Cameroon and ensure water catchments in communities are protected and developed.
            This has evolved into an interfaith project, working to raise environmental awareness about tree planting, not only within local Presbyterian churches but also with the local Roman Catholic Church, Protestant Mission, and Muslim communities.  They work  through young people in Presbyterian colleges and government schools to form clubs to plants trees and mobilize PCC movements – the Christian Youth Fellowship, the Christian Women Fellowship and the Christian Men Fellowship – to plant trees in identified communities nationwide as volunteers. They’ve organized training workshops, worked through the media and provided tree seedlings to be planted by volunteers, in collaboration with the Ministries of Forestry, Environment, Agriculture and Research.

We live in a broken and fearful world, but we are Easter people who follow the Risen Christ.   We know that we can trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the courage we need to unmask idolatries and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace, for the welfare of all.
So… let us commit ourselves to live as faithful stewards on this holy ground, and to care for the earth as a way of worshipping and serving our gracious Creator God!
May it be so for you and for me.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 23, 2017

[1] Preface to The Green Bible: Understanding the Bible’s Powerful Message for the Earth. New Revised Standard Version. Harper One Publisher, 2011.
[2] Genesis 1:1-31
[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “”The Dominion of Love,” in The Green Bible.”
[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, quoting James Gustafson, in The Green Bible.”
[5] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Abingdon Press, 1994), page 346.
[6] P.C. Enniss, “Holy Ground,” in

[7] Carolyn Bush, “Finding Our Place.” A Sermon preached at McCormick Theological Seminary, in “Worship in Celebration of Creation, In Recognition of Earth Day.