Yr A ~ Creation 3 ~ Genesis 1:26-31a; Isaiah 55:8–12
You knew it was coming. It’s the Season of Creation. It absolutely stands to reason that in the midst of 5 weeks of talking about this theme that at least one of the messages would be about environmental issues. Well here it is! Kinda.
The thing is I’m pretty much preaching to the choir here. Generally speaking the kinds of people who hang out at mainline protestant churches these days are folks who already have a pretty good sense of how big an issue environmentalism, climate change, and care for the earth are. So it won’t do me a lot of good to lecture you or lay a big guilt trip on you about how humanity is shooting itself in the foot with short-sightedness over things like fracking, and oil sands, and tailings from mining – or our over-reliance on fossil fuels and reluctance to spend the money investing in renewables like wind and solar.
Instead, what I want to do is spend some time talking about the theology that underpins this whole thing. What is it about our theological understanding of God and creation that informs these strong opinions that we have about the environment? Can we build a convincing case for saving the planet without resorting to the hyperbole of Chicken Little or the over-simplified old saw of “because the bible says we should?” I believe we can!
Let’s begin by acknowledging that you don’t have to be a person of faith to be an environmentalist. All you need is an awareness of the problem and a reason to care about it. I would argue that environmentalists who are not people of faith are doing it out of enlightened self-interest.
Perhaps they are worried about their own future health.
Perhaps they’re concerned with the sustainability of their nation and worry about its security (and therefore their own security) if the economic system based in environmental exploitation fails.
Perhaps they have children or grandchildren and highly value the idea that those kids could grow up and be able to breathe the air and drink the water.
Perhaps they have a sense that the abuses in remote parts of the world also have a profound effect on us here.
There’s nothing wrong with these reasons. We all have self-interest as a motivator! People of faith are clearly also motivated by self-interest because we are human. It’s human nature to be concerned about yourself and those you love.
But for a person of faith there is something beyond just enlightened self-interest that drives our passion for caring for the earth. That something is gratitude.
And maybe people of no-faith are grateful too, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what they do with their gratitude. To whom or what are they thankful? Do they thank their lucky stars? What does that even mean?
A person of faith knows exactly to whom we are thankful – the Sacred Something More that moves at the centre of the universe with loving intention toward us for harmony and delight, the Holy Mystery we call God. How do we know that we’re supposed to be grateful to God? I thought you’d never ask!
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over all the earth.”
So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God they are created; male and female God created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over all the earth.”
And God said, “See, I have given you everything!”
Ok, let’s dive into a few of these words. The big verb in Genesis 1 is ‘to create’ – God created. In Hebrew that word is bara’. The neat thing is that bara’ is a verb that is reserved exclusively for God’s creativity. No one else, nowhere else in the bible gets to use the word bara’. God’s creative energy is unique. No human can create creation.
Next it says that we are created in God’s image. It’s a beautiful poetic turn of phrase. And it should startle you a little – at least it would if you spoke Hebrew! The word for image here is tsalem. Everywhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament tsalem is used negatively. It’s the word for idols, as in figurines or whatnot. It literally means that God has fashioned us as idols. Think about that for a minute.
What are idols? They’re lifeless wood or stone images meant to be imbued with a god’s presence or spirit. Humans worship idols as tangible representations of their gods. But this is saying that God has made us as God’s own living, moving, creative idols. God breathes life into these flesh and blood idols that are imbued with the stuff of God. It’s a remarkably bold thought! God created bara’ us to be living representations of Godself! This is what it means to be made in the image of God.
The benefits of this are astonishing. We are filled with Godstuff. Our deepest self is holy and sacred. We are potentially very powerful, wise, and holy.
Now, do you think there are any responsibilities that come with this image of God stuff? Absolutely!
And how are we doing at both embracing the benefits and honouring the responsibilities?
Well, at the Porch last Monday morning we decided that we have good days and bad days!
Another key word in this passage is dominion. To have dominion over something is to rule it, but it also means to have responsibility for it. It’s more than just a power-over something; it is also a care-for, a sense of concern and protection. But we shouldn’t try to soften it. The word is dominion, and later the word is subdue. The power is clear. We are powerful. God tells us to go out and be powerful! We have the capacity to wield that power in whatever way we see fit, for we also have free will. So how will we wield our power?
But wait, that’s not the whole picture. The NRSV gives us an unfortunate word choice here. In verse 28 it says God tells us to be fruitful and multiply (so far so good) and to fill and subdue the earth. But the word fill is the problem. It’s better rendered as replenish. Replenish and subdue. The first dictionary meaning of replenish is to fill or make new again. But replenish also means to inspire or nourish as in “this worship experience replenishes my soul!” So go ahead and subdue the earth, but it must be done with a sense of refilling, inspiring, and nourishing at the same time. The power of dominion is balanced with the call to nourish.
And this is where the last key word comes in – gift. In Genesis God says, “I give you everything.”
I give you You.
I give you the earth.
I give you everything.
I. Give. You.
It’s all gift. Shall we explore that?
If someone gives you a gift are there any strings attached? I mean if I give you $50, for example, are you under any obligation to spend it the way you think I would want you to, or on things I would approve of? Or is it yours, free to do with as you please?
How about if a kind-hearted congregant left Faith United a whole whack of money, but they didn’t designate it for anything in particular (which, frankly I wish more people would do as designated funds are very limiting, but that’s another sermon)?
So, imagine if “Old Lady Whats-her-name” who constantly argued against capital expenditures and constantly advocated in favour of program spending and learning resources left us $100,000. Wouldn’t you feel obligated to honour the character of the generous donor even if she didn’t insist on it? I sure hope we would.
Can you see where I’m going? God has given us a wondrously amazing gift. We are here on this planet at the very top of the food chain in control of all the resources and able to pretty much do as we please, and we didn’t earn one iota of it, and we don’t inherently deserve it either, and yet it is ours – given without restriction. You may argue against the concept that God somehow gave it to us, but you cannot argue that we’ve in any way earned anything. Our ability to use or misuse the world’s natural resources is not the result of any effort on our part, therefore it is pure gift.
Considering that we as people of faith claim that somehow there is a mysterious, sacred Something More at the heart of the universe that is benevolent toward us and has an intention toward us for harmony and delight, it stands to reason that we do not think our possession of dominion over the earth’s resources is an accident, and therefore Something More is somehow responsible. If so, then we must see it all as a gift.
And if God is indeed the intender, the provider, the giver, and we are the recipients of something valuable beyond measure, then do we or do we not have an obligation to consider the character of the giver as we decide how to use their gift?
We are made in the image of God, filled with Godstuff, but we are not God. However, we can certainly learn from God. Listen to this insight from Isaiah 55:10-11
God says, “Just as rain and snow descend from the skies and don’t go back until they’ve watered the earth, doing their work of making things grow and blossom, producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry,”
– which is exactly how the water cycle works according to our science classes – so, as the water cycle flows…
“so will the words that come out of my mouth not come back empty-handed. They’ll do the work I sent them to do, they’ll complete the assignment I gave them.”
Like the water cycle, what God gives comes to us, nourishes and transforms us, and then returns in a new way back to the source. If we’re talking about God’s gift of Presence it comes to us and nourishes us as we sense and savour it, it transforms us as we listen to it and learn its wisdom and delight, and then it empowers us to move in harmony with it, and by doing so we are both continuing the power of the gift and also returning it to the Giver through our delight, and praise, and gratitude.
God has given us God’s image at the centre of our being. As we awaken to its presence it transforms and moves us into acting in harmony with it and as we joyously live we return to God our gratitude.
God has given us God’s love. As we awaken to love and it transforms us we are moved to love in harmony with God’s love and in our loving we express our delight and our gratitude.
It’s the cycle. It’s the pattern. God has given us this existence, this universe, this planet, this life. It is all gift. But we have now learned God’s way and we can honour this immeasurable gift by being fruitful and multiplying it, and replenishing and subduing the earth – not for profit, not for gain, not for power, not even for self-interest, not for any other reason than we are honouring the gift and showing our gratitude to the giver.
The church has a marvellous word for this whole thing: stewardship. It means to lovingly care for something that is under your control but isn’t really yours. It means to honour the one who placed you in charge of something by striving to emulate how they would exercise their power if they were standing in the same spot. It means tending God’s gifts.
Stewardship captures the idea that we are working ‘with’ God. It may seem like we’re saying that we’re working ‘for’ God, but when you work for someone the deal is transactional – work for wages. A worker may be personally invested in the business but not necessarily. If you just work for someone you can punch the clock at the end of your shift and check out. Our communion with God is much deeper than that.
And we’re definitely not working ‘against’ God, although on the evidence perhaps we are. You know the environmental problems all too well. Quite simply the root of the problem is greed. People will ignore what they know is wrong because they have placed the highest value on the bottom line. That’s working against and dishonouring God’s gift. Again, we have good days and bad days! You can imagine God shaking God’s head in frustration saying, “Come on, work with me people!”
So we do! Or at least we try our best to!
We are people of faith, and instead of greed and self-interest our conviction is to celebrate stewardship of the earth and work with God, meaning in the character of God, meaning as God would have us work, honouring the gift, and returning to the giver our gratitude.
We’re certainly not perfect, and we’ve got a long way to go, but delight, harmony, wisdom, and gratitude are surely the image of God shining within us, transforming us, and moving us into loving action.
We are not God, but we are God’s hands and heart in the world.
So let’s get to work!