Sunday, April 22, 2018

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Earth Sunday.


"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation"

Genesis 1 & 2; Psalm 23; John 10:10b-18 

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday, and it’s also Earth Day. On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, our Gospel lesson is always taken from the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, in which Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. So, this is a good morning to listen deeply for the Good Shepherd’s voice.
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, in a world where hunger, poverty, poor health, fear, violence, and injustice are daily realities for many of God’s people.  And today, especially, we are challenged to reflect on how we are called to live in relationship with God’s good creation.

            Back on the first Earth Day in 1970, some twenty million Americans rose up to proclaim their love for the earth. They took part in rallies, protests, and teach-ins. They demanded that our government take action to restore the environment.  Some of us are old enough to remember some of the reasons people got so energized about the environment.
            In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so fouled by industrial pollution that the river caught on fire. It had caught fire at least 13 times before. Close to home, Lake Erie was described in an article in Time magazine as a “cesspool” created by the waste of Detroit’s auto companies, Toledo’s steel mills, and the paper plants of Erie, Pennsylvania.
            Cities like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh were enveloped by heavy smog of lethal hydrocarbon haze.
            There were companies that buried toxic industrial waste. One of these sold a chemical waste site at Love Canal to a local school board for one dollar. They built an elementary school on it. There were miscarriages and birth defects and cancers in devastating numbers in the people who lived in the Love Canal area.

            The public outcry and pressure worked.   Congress passed the Clean Water Act, strengthened the Clean Air Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency.
            Forty-eight years later, I think there is a renewed concern for the environment, as at least some Americans begin to understand the reality of climate change. It’s too late to stop global warming, but there are ways to live more “lightly, carefully, and gracefully” in the world.[1]
            So, what do our scriptures teach us about how to live as faithful stewards of the earth?
In Genesis chapter one, the scriptures tell us that when God created the world, God blessed it and called it very good.[2]   In fact, the word “good” is used seven times in this chapter. God loves what God has made. I think this passage invites us to cultivate a deep love for creation ourselves, and to nurture it in others.
God is revealed through the beauty, power, abundance, and mystery of the natural world.  Through wind and flame, water and wilderness, creatures and seasons, God is continually present and active in the world.
Human beings are endowed with reason   and given the responsibility to celebrate and care for Creation.  God’s first command to humanity was given to Adam in Genesis 2:15:  to care for the earth.  “Cultivate” and “protect” it.”
Genesis 1:28 tells us that God exhorts humans to “subdue” creation and have dominion over it. Some have interpreted this to mean that God has given human beings free reign over nature to do with it whatever we want.
Too many Christians think that we are the center of the universe and have twisted the gospel of Jesus Christ to mean that God is only interested in saving individual human souls--  rather than all of creation. 
Over the years, some have allowed the biblical texts to be twisted so that “dominion” came to mean “domination,”    and stewardship came to mean “exploitation.   Some have used this interpretation to justify using coal, oil, gas, and all natural resources for human profit.
But having “dominion” is not the same as “domination.” God entrusted the world to human beings. That trust and power is not meant to be abused, but exercised with great care.
In Genesis 2:15, God puts Adam into the garden to “till and keep it.” In other words, God wants us to take care of the garden of earth. 

In the original Hebrew, the verb abad means “to subject oneself as a servant” to God and Earth.  As biblical theologian Carol Newsome explains, “The image that Genesis has of the original human relationship to the environment is one that involves interaction but of a very modest sort. The forest of Eden is imagined as what we would call a permaculture, where human attention is part of the ecosystem, but of a nature rather like “light pruning and raking.”[3]
            The other verb, shamar, means “to keep, guard, observe, and give heed.” Other forms of shamar mean “to protect and save life,” and connote abstaining, refraining, and restraining oneself. According to biblical scholar Leah Schade, Adam is charged with guarding and protecting the garden, watching it with a close eye, and heeding--listening--to Earth. It is the same verb used for “keeping the Sabbath.”[4]   So, it seems that humans are to regard earth as holy, just as the seventh day is to be revered and respected as holy.[5]
The language in the original Hebrew connotes restraint and being a servant of the land.  So, the relationship between humans and creation is not one of domination and hierarchy, but of interconnectedness and service. 
During Eastertide, we celebrate the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. As early as the story of the flood later in Genesis, we are invited to see that this good news is not only for humankind--but for all of creation.  
Following the great flood, as the flood waters subside, God speaks with Noah and his sons, and makes a covenant with them, saying, “I am establishing my covenant with you and with your descendants after you”--that is, with all of humankind-- “and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you.”[6] 
God’s special relationship with humankind now extends to all of creation. To make sure we don’t miss the point, the story in Genesis repeats the inclusiveness of God’s covenant five more times in nine verses. The covenant is “between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all generations.” God describes the covenant as being “between me and the earth.” The covenant is “between me and you and every living creature of all flesh….the everlasting covenant [is] between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” Again, God speaks of “the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”[7]

Sociologists like Robert Bellah and theologians like Sally McFague keep reminding us of the degree to which the strong sense of community and the priority of  “the common good” that was foundational in the biblical and republican traditions are no longer shaping life in our society today.   McFague says that, although we continue to live in communities, our motto of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is usually interpreted these days in personal, individualistic ways, as, for instance, the right to carry a gun or the right to do as you choose, rather than our responsibilities for the welfare of the community.[8]

We don’t all agree on the environmental problem, or the scope or cause of the problem, much less the solution.  But there seems to be a growing consensus that current trends in growth and consumption are not sustainable.

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, 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?”[9]  

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.
Theologian Robert Costanza states the challenge this way:  “The creation of a shared vision of a sustainable and desirable society, one that can provide permanent prosperity within the biophysical constraints of the real world in a way that is fair and equitable to all humanity, to other species, and to future generations.”[10]
The key elements here are sustainability and justice.  Sustainability is about recognizing that the earth’s resources are not unlimited, and that any global life-style created on the model of American consumption is suicidal.  Justice demands that we recognize the huge gap—which widens every year—between the haves and have-nots of the earth.

Sally McFague observes that the Greek word for “house is oikos, which is the root word for “economics,” for “ecology,” and for “ecumenicity.”   Thus, she suggests that caring for the earth is simply a matter of household economics, which leads her to offer three simple rules for our global household.
The first rule, as in any household, is take only your share.  All the cookies are not for you.    My share-- as your share-- is what is needed for a decent life:  food, shelter, medical care, and education.  There is enough for all--  if everybody would share.
Second, clean up after yourself.  The ring in the bathtub is yours.  That’s simple fairness. 
The third rule is:  keep the house in good repair for the children and grandchildren who will come after you.
Take only your share, clean up your own mess, and keep the house in good repair.   It’s a simple vision on a global scale.
But we can’t be simplistic and think this can happen through our good intentions as individuals.  We need a renewed worldview--  because the current one is not working. 
We need a world in which nations have the humility to confer and compromise...  and to sign and honor treaties to work together for global cooperation to work together on environmental and justice issues.  We need national leaders who have a vision for the common good-- in their own nations and beyond their borders…  and who are courageous enough to risk their political popularity for the promise of a viable global future.  We need economists and business leaders who are smart enough to know that it takes more than money to create a harmonious global household. 
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.

We live in a broken and fearful world, but we are Easter people who follow the Risen Christ.   If we are truly to be an Easter people--if we are truly to point toward the new life that is possible in a post-Easter world-- then we need to live into the abundant life that Jesus offers us. We need to learn to trust, with the Psalmist, that God will provide what we truly need and that we “shall not want,” even if we need to give up some of our selfish grasping and indulgences.

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 more lightly and faithfully 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. Amen!



Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 22, 2018



[1] Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010), p. 151.
[2] Genesis 1:1-31
[3] Newsome, Carol A., “Common Ground: An Ecological Reading of Genesis 2-3”; The Earth Story in Genesis, Earth Bible, 2, ed. Habel, Norman, and Shirley Wurst (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 64-5.

[6] The story of the flood is in Genesis, chapters 6-8.  See Genesis 9:9-10 for the covenant.
[7] Genesis 9:12-17.
[8] Sally McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Fortress, 2001).

[9] P.C. Enniss, “Holy Ground,” in www.goodpreacher.com

[10] Robert Costanza et al, An Introduction to Ecological Economics (1979), quoted in Sallie McFague, Life Abundant.