A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, April 17, 2016
Today let’s move directly to the heart of the conflict. How do we find our place in the order of creation? For a very long time – perhaps, since the beginning – humans have heard “dominion,” “subdue,” “control” as invitation, if not mandate, to treat the earth as we will. Increasingly this perspective has been called into question. Many have come to see stewardship as our rightful place in the order of creation while others have argued that we are of the earth and not over it. The gifts with which God has graced human being are part of an intricate web of related being in which we take a significant but not superior place.
In Bible study Tuesday Phil suggested that without human intervention the rest of creation would have gotten along just fine. Perhaps human being has had a largely deleterious effect on creation from the beginning, given the struggle we have had to find our place within inherent limitations. Phil answered his own question by also suggesting that we might have been given a certain sort of intelligence that, when operative, has functioned in creative ways to advance the creative process and enhance life on the planet.
However, this theological debate is a different one than the current debate over the effects of human being on the environment. Some will argue that the place of domination that humans have occupied for too long threatens to destroy the earth. Others will argue that earth was created for humankind, for the comfort, convenience and well-being of humans as the obviously superior creatures. Some see the results of human encroachment on the natural order and the pollution of the environment as the inevitable result of human progress, which is privileged above all other dimensions of the natural order. Some see creation as infinitely adaptable or believe that human ingenuity is capable of repairing whatever damage we do to the earth.
Patrick Allitt, historian and author of A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, which is our Senior Connections Book Group book for this month, argues that, though humans have done real damage to the earth, we have also learned to take steps to correct much of the damage done. As science, technology, and economic prosperity have developed in the past couple of centuries, there have been serious environmental consequences; at the same time, humans have developed a concern for correcting our mistakes and a will to do what is necessary to right our wrongs. He argues, “I make no secret of the fact that I consider industrial civilization a superb accomplishment, very much worth protecting and improving. Industrialization has harmed the environment while improving life for almost everyone. We have the resources to remedy this harm (Patrick Allitt, A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, p. 13). Allitt believes that environmental alarmists have done a disservice to their cause by overstating their case and inciting fear instead of leading people to take seriously their concerns in ways that would lead to fixing problems and cultivating environmental well-being.
By contrast, poet, essayist and farmer, Wendell Berry, argues that “We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it” (Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House). He says, “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.” These are complicated concerns and complex arguments. We will not resolve this debate this morning or any time soon.
It’s my belief that, as Christians, we have work to do on our theological and spiritual perspectives before we even come to the political, scientific and cultural arguments. Finding our place in the God’s created order will help us understand how we see and approach environmental concerns.
I am sure that this morning’s passage, over time, has helped to anchor the belief systems of those who privilege human being and see our place as dominating the rest of creation. In addition, there is the religious perspective that “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” In this hallowed perspective, there is no need to care for the planet as God will one day gather the select into heaven and to hell with the rest. In either case, it is all about human being and little about the rest of creation.
It is difficult to ignore that a text, written by human beings, is likely to privilege human being by seeing it as unique and special. We are created in the image and likeness of God. God has made us a “little lower than God and crowned us with glory and honor.” It’s hard to be humble when we start with this understanding of our place. Of course, it doesn’t help that the English translations on which we have depended are grounded in the tradition of kingly power and rule. This language itself has helped to shape worldviews. Who hasn’t harbored a dream of being king or queen of all they see? Most of us, at one time or another, have dreamed of ruling, at least, our own backyard.
By contrast, Berry argues that “The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good, and He loves it. It is His world; He has never relinquished title to it. And He has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care of it” (Wendell Berry, What Are People For?) In this sense, there may be a sovereign but it is not us.
If we take the notion of dominion, of being made in God’s image and likeness, to mean service then our attitude toward the rest of creation will be altered radically. Then Nan Merrill is on to something when she writes, “O Love, my Beloved, how powerful is Your Name in all the earth!” (Nan C. Merrill, Psalms for Praying) rather than “O Lord, our Sovereign…”
In fact, Jesus seems to challenge this notion of sovereignty altogether, at least in any dominating sense. Jesus appears to find his place as the servant of all and even implies that serving is critical to God’s nature. With great irony, he pictures the “Kingdom of God” as a place that welcomes the least of these, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the outcast, the marginalized, and the stigmatized. Hardly a royal assemblage!
In his commentary on Genesis 1, Walter Brueggemann argues that “The text is revolutionary. It presents an inverted view of God, not as the one who reigns by fiat and remoteness, but as the one who governs by gracious self-giving.” He continues, “It also presents an inverted view of humanness. This man and woman are not the chattel and servants of God, but the agents of God to whom much is given and of whom much is expected” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching – Genesis, p. 33). So, we may be elevated but that also means we are challenged and blessed with co-creative responsibility
Another Christian scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, John Holbert, writes, “In Genesis 2:15 we read ‘YHWH God took the ‘adam and placed it in the garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it.’’ In light of this mandate, he argues, “…we are partners with God and with God’s creation, not masters, not dominators, not even stewards. We are finally no more important in God’s world than are the ravens, the lions, the mountain goats, even the ostriches…” Still, he concludes, ”The image of servant of God’s world has the possibility to make us new creatures, helping us see our rightful place as God’s servants for the world. In short, we need conversion to a new way of thinking about the creation, the environment. The world, the cosmos, is not our oyster. Rather it is God’s pearl, and we are assigned the twin tasks of serving this pearl and protecting it from all abuse, especially abuse from ourselves” (John C. Holbert, “A Needed Climate Crisis Conversion: Reflections on Genesis 1:1-2:4a,” June 5, 2014, Opening the Old Testament, patheos.com).
Last week we spoke of the interconnection of all creation, even the ways that God is interwoven into all being, including human being. In commenting on Psalm 8, Elizabeth Webb writes, “All creatures, including human beings, live in interdependence with one another. As much as we have dominion over creation, we are also dependent upon it for our well-being. Our sovereignty can never mean that we place ourselves over-against the creation. As ‘lords’ over creation, we are in fact servants of it” (Elizabeth Webb, “Commentary on Psalm 8, June 15, 2014,” workingpreacher.org). And in today’s Words of Preparation, Maya Angelou declares, “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.”
If, among other things, God is love, as we often claim, then to be created in the image and likeness of God is to be infused thoroughly with love as our source of power, as the shaping spirit of our humanity, as the place where we live and move and have our being. It seems to me that before we enter into any battles over climate change or fossil fuels or pollution or endangered species or the fate of the planet, we need to make sure we find our place as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. At the same time, we need to see and understand that the God in whose image and likeness we are made is a lover and not a king. God is self-giving and invites us to that same sort of self-giving love and concern for all that is. Human being is meant to be compassionate and caring. Rather than subdue we are to serve. Rather than rule we are meant to revel in the wonder of it all. Rather than dominate we are meant to delight in the goodness of what that God has created. To find our place is to look around, carefully, to see, to hear, to smell, to taste, to feel what God has made and blessed and called “very good” and then to say “yes!” to it all. Amen.