May 18, 2008

Genesis 1:1 — 2:4a

As I was planning our worship for today, I was thinking that we could simply have a wonderful celebration of God’s creation. It’s not very often that we read the whole of the Genesis 1 creation story in worship, and that setting of the reading that Adam read and sang for us today lifts my spirits in joy. When we practiced today’s choir anthem (The Lord of Everything) for the first time, it made me want to jump up and run outside — not because we didn’t sound great the first time through, but because it made me want to experience the beautiful creation that we were singing about.

This theme in the lectionary, it seems, has arrived just in time for spring – when Saskatonians are finally getting outdoors again where we can see and appreciate the natural world. We’re reading and singing about God’s creation just at the time when many of us are starting to think about and plan for summer holidays. Personally, I’m looking forward to a trip through the mountains to BC later this summer. I can hardly wait to experience those wonderful mountain views and to really enjoy the natural environment that God made.

But as I pointed out in the children’s story, God’s creation (which we gather to celebrate today) is severely distorted, extremely endangered, and ultimately at risk of being destroyed. And there’s no getting around the fact that the cause of the problem is us — humans. It is our lack of care for creation, our overuse and abuse of creation for our own benefit is putting our world and all its inhabitants in peril.

Just the other day, the World Wildlife Fund released some statistics that indicate a severe decline in animals on the planet. In 35 years, between 1970-2005, there has been a 27% drop in overall wildlife on the earth. And marine life has suffered even more, dropping by 28% in just 10 years (between 1995-2005).

They’re calling this a “great extinction episode.” That’s the same language used to describe the period when dinosaurs were wiped off the face of the earth. But the difference is that this unprecedented decline in wildlife is our fault. The WWF blames human activity for what is happening to the animals — pollution, urban expansion, and over-fishing.

The Hebrew scriptures contain two distinct stories that explain in poetic and narrative form how God created the world and everything in it. The first one, that we read today, is my personal favourite — perhaps because it is such a beautifully crafted poem. It feels like a song that should be sung in celebration of God’s wonderful creation.

This first creation story in the Bible was probably composed by the Israelites during the Babylonian exile. In her book, “The Luminous Web,” Barbara Brown Taylor describes the shaping of the creation story as a counter-cultural protest of the people of Israel against the creation story of their Babylonian captors. While their oppressors saw the origins of the universe as violent and bloody, the Israelites told their children a different story rooted in goodness and blessing…

Light came from the darkest night, and order from chaos. The sun and the moon and the stars were set as signs of beauty and the changing of the seasons, providing light and direction and the keeping of time. God filled the earth with vegetation that was fruitful and nourishing, moved the waters back from the land and provided a home for the creatures that crawled across it, walked upon it, and flew over it. In the midst of this loveliness, humankind was tenderly placed and blessed and called to be caretakers and stewards. And God looked upon all this, and found it good.

While scientists work on trying to figure out how and when the world and all its inhabitants came into being, we have this poetic story that doesn’t even attempt to answer the how and the when questions. It’s purpose is not scientific, but religious. The story is true — not in the sense of being historically factual — but in the sense that it conveys the truth that the world was made to be good and meaningful. And it gives us, as human beings, an indication of our true purpose and responsibility in this wonderful world that God made.

As we read the story from Genesis, the refrain that we hear over and over again is that God saw that it was good. The world that God created is a good world, the light, the sky, the dry land, the plants, the sun, the moon, swarms of living creatures, humankind… All are good. In fact, on the sixth day of creation, “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

As human beings, created in the image of God, we are blessed and given the instruction to “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.

Historically, I think we’ve misinterpreted that instruction and used it as justification for doing whatever we want to the environment. We’ve acted like we’ve been set up like gods over the plants and animals (and often over other people too) and we’ve used everything around us for our benefit.

One commentator suggests that we’ve mixed up the words “dominion” and “domination.” God’s words to humankind were to have “dominion” over the earth and all its creatures. But “dominion” is a word that seems to cause more trouble than it solves because it sounds so much like “domination.” When we think of “domination,” we think of the autocratic rule of one thing over something else. But “dominion” has a different connotation. “Dominion” is the benevolent sovereignty of one thing over another.

The similarity in these words is that both domination and dominion describe a type of power. Their distinguishing factor lies in the motive behind the power. The motive in domination is so the ruler can get whatever he/she wants. However, the motive in dominion is for the ruler to be entrusted with the best interest of the subject.

Walter Brueggemann, in his commentary on Genesis, says that the image of God reflected in humanity is like a king who establishes statues of himself to assert his sovereign rule where the king himself cannot be present. We are God’s statues — not stone cold or unmoving, but statues in that we are God’s presence in the world. As humankind, created in the image of God, we are given dominion over all the other creatures that inhabit the earth. The creatures that inhabit the earth have been entrusted to our care.

We have been given power, but it is power as God exercises power — the creative use of power to love, to bless, and to care for the other. The power we have in relation to creation is not coercive or tyrannical. The dominion that we have been given demands that we secure the well-being of every other creature. We are expected to care for this good earth and all that is in it, in such a way that everything will grow, and flourish, and thrive. And that includes the air, water, land, plants, animals, and even other human beings.

I like the way Sharon Kore, a Presbyterian preacher in Virginia, put it: “The dominion we exercise must be understood in the way of Jesus of Nazareth — the one who rules is the one who serves… Our role is to see to it that the creation becomes fully the creation willed by God.

Everywhere I look these days, there are ideas and suggestions for how we can begin to live as people who have the power and the will to care for God’s creation. This year’s resources from KAIROS, our ecumenical social justice organization, provide many ideas for reducing our carbon footprints and for saving energy and resources. There are all kinds of programs available to help you reduce your impact on the environment at home — by adding insulation, using energy efficient appliances, and by using less water. And there are sometimes even some financial incentives to make changes for the better.

Some of you may have taken part in “Earth Hour” a couple of months ago. At 8 p.m. on March 29th, people all over the world were encouraged to turn off their lights and power for 60 minutes. And even if you missed taking part on that particular evening, you can choose any day to turn off the lights when you don’t need them on.

You can ride a bike, or walk… take the bus, or carpool instead of always driving your car. You can choose energy efficient options whenever you need to buy an appliance or to make improvements on your home. You can decide to buy less stuff. Think about the fact that so much of our stuff eventually ends up in a landfill, and only buy it if you really need it. You can recycle, and reuse as much as possible. You can buy locally and go to the farmer’s market. All these little decisions — all these choices that we make – can make a difference. We can choose to have dominion over God’s creation, rather than domination.

This summer, I hope that we will all have lots of time to spend outdoors, enjoying God’s creation. Let’s take some time to wonder at all the lovely plants, and animals, and land, and sky, and air, and sun that God has made. God made it all — and God said that it is good.

Near Anchorage, AK, Philip Yancey pulled off the highway to look at what many other motorists had stopped to observe, a pod of silvery white beluga whales that was feeding just offshore. Yancey wrote about his experience: “I stood for forty minutes, listening to the rhythmic motion of the sea, following the graceful, ghostly crescents of surfacing whales. The crowd was hushed, even reverent. We passed around binoculars, saying nothing, simply watching…. Just for that moment, nothing else — dinner reservations, the trip schedule, my life back in Chicago — mattered. We were confronted with a scene of quiet beauty and a majesty of scale. We all felt small. We stood together in silence until the whales moved farther out. And then we climbed the bank together and got in our cars to resume our busy, ordered lives, which somehow seemed less urgent. And it wasn’t even Sunday.

May we take the time to pause and take in the majesty and wonder of God’s creation. And may we grow into the image and likeness of God, becoming caretakers and stewards of God’s good earth. Amen.