August 30, 2015
“Take Good Care”
Rev. Pam Serdar
It’s the last of our summer sermon series on topics you wanted to hear a sermon about. I’ll save the rest of the 70 for next year! A couple of folks asked about this morning’s topic: earth and creation care. It is a topic near and dear to my heart because many of my God-moments have been outside; nestled in the rocks on the shore of Lake Superior; out on a cold, moonless, star-dazzled night; walking in a golden, illuminated birch-filled valley; mesmerized by the thunder of waterfalls, blissed-out, awed beyond belief, reveling in the mystery.
We just heard and saw Genesis 1, the blissed-out, awed beyond belief, reveling in the mystery version of the creation story. This is a love-poem-praise-song to the creator God of the universe, not a scientific treatise. And it is the understanding that this precious creation of God has been entrusted to humankind to be cared for as God cares for it. That interesting word, “dominion,” used in so many of our translations, misses the mark in my opinion, when it comes to what God expects of us. The King James uses dominion, along with the New Revised Standard. Along with the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, the new Common English uses “master,” and I’m not sure that is any better. Masters can be good, and masters can be horrific. Eugene Peterson’s The Message uses “Take Charge! Be responsible for” which seems more in line—when a person is ordained in the UMC, the words the bishop says are “Take authority as an elder,” meaning you are responsible, not that you are to dominate or master or lord over. When those words were said to me, I understood clearly that my authority was delegated by the Spirit, and I was responsible not only to the Bishop and the United Methodist Church, but also to God. I believe God weeps when we treat the earth and its creatures with less than love and grace and justice.
The Biblical writers could not see far enough into the future to understand, when the poetry and awe of Genesis 1 are projected thousands of years into the future, what “have dominion over” means. “Have dominion over” and “be fruitful and multiply” have a different feel when you have about 300 million people on the planet versus 6 billion. “Have dominion over” has a different feel when 206 million gallons of oil fouls 582 miles of Gulf coast line over 85 days before the well was capped and 1.8 million gallons of dispersant are added to the mess. (That was the world’s second largest oil spill—the largest was intentional, by Iraqi forces opening the valves at an offshore oil terminal and dumping oil from tankers, spilling 380-520 million gallons. The oil resulted in a 4-inch thick oil slick that spread across 4,000 square miles in the Persian Gulf. It wasn’t until the refinement of the internal combustion engine and the drilling of oil combined in the 1860s that oil was produced in any significant quantities. The warning—“beware the demon oil” isn’t in the Older or Newer Testaments.) “Have dominion over” has a different feel when your weapons are clubs, bows and arrows, swords, slings and rocks, spears, battleaxes, and chariots vs. nuclear weapons. Our ability to destroy the planet has grown by several orders of magnitude over what it was in the Ancient Near East. (UN Environment Programme) “Have Dominion over” has a different feel when the Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction of life. Scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly 1,000 times the "natural" or "background" rate and, say many biologists, it is greater than anything the world has experienced since the vanishing of the dinosaurs nearly 65million years ago. “Have dominion over” sounds less like a blessing and more like a warning.
So what responsibility do Christians have when it comes to earth care? As United Methodists, one of the first places we can go is to our Social Principles. Paragraph 160 begins with this: All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings. . . the intro concludes: Therefore, let us recognize the responsibility of the church and its members to place a high priority on changes in economic, political, social, and technological lifestyles to support a more ecologically equitable and sustainable world leading to a higher quality of life for all creation. Pretty good stuff. It goes on, and I encourage you to take a look at the Book of Discipline in the Library of the church, (page 105 of the 2012 Book of Discipline) or go online to read it there. There are also a couple copies of the Social Principles on the table outside the office where you can take a look at.
You may, on the other hand, hear some folks of different understandings say that we can use the world up any way we want, and we should actually hasten its demise because God is going to give us a whole new heaven and a new earth any way. They may quote the book of Revelation as proof. I believe that is a deadly misreading. However, many evangelical churches have recently signed a creation care covenant, saying that we are to care for the earth and not despoil it, not thinking like a child that if we break it Daddy’ll just get us a new one. The United Methodist church has never been party to this kind of theology, which is a mid-1850s reaction to the modern world.
How many of you have read The Last Child in the Woods? It is a wonderful book by Richard Louv that speaks to the need for children to be exposed to nature, something that we may not think is an issue. If you have children around you, though, you are well aware of how difficult it is to get them away from their devices. Louv relates the question of his then 4-year-old son, Matthew: “Are God and Mother Nature married, or just good friends?” Louv goes on: “conservation is, at is core, a spiritual act. After all, this is God’s creation that is being conserved for future generations. For parents, this wider conversation will intensify the importance of introducing their children to the biological and spiritual values of green pastures and still waters.” (p. 298-299) He quotes Paul Gorman, as he reflects on Genesis: “The purpose of creation really is to bring us—children and all of us—closer to the creator. As a parent, you don’t encourage children to experience nature because its’s pretty, but because your children are exposed to something larger and longer standing that their immediate human experience.” In my experience, that deserves an amen!
We need to remember that care for creation isn’t even a new idea, though it may always be a bit controversial. Medieval Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen, born in 1098, wrote: “All of creation is a song of praise to God.” And: “The earth is at the same time mother, She is mother of all that is natural, mother of all that is human. She is mother of all, for contained in her are the seeds of all. The earth of human kind contains all moistness, all verdancy, all germinating power. It is in so many ways fruitful. All creation comes from it. Yet it forms not only the basic raw material for humankind, but also the substance of the incarnation of God's son.” Hildegard, along with those in the church (small c) who claimed to have visions directly from God (and especially women who made this claim), were very often suspect if their visions did not conform to the teachings of the church. Charges of worshipping nature rather than God were always a deadly risk. And still, Hildegard could not help but sing the praises of creation and creator.
Even earlier, the gospel of Mary Magdalene, left out of the Newer Testament, contains writings, claimed to be quotes from Jesus, about the interrelatedness of all of creation. The gospel is written in a Q and A format and contains such as this: “Will matter be utterly destroyed or not? The Savior replied, “Every nature, every modeled form, every creature, exists in and with each other.” Sounds a bit like Chief Seattle, doesn’t it—“Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
I wonder what our attitudes towards creation would be like if the early church would have stayed the course of allowing both male and female leadership, and feminine and masculine ideas of creation—would “have Dominion over” have stood? What do you think? As you ponder, I invite you to watch this clip, The Earth is Our Mother, we must take care of her by David Dyballa.