How Are We Doing With That Taking Care of Earth Thing?

A sermon based on Genesis 1:1- 30
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on April 27, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I love the creation story. For one thing it reminds me of baseball which I also love, and why does it remind me of baseball? Because it takes place in the big inning.  Then Eve stole first, Adam stole second and then they acted like Dodgers – from God – in the garden . . . and what San Francisco Giants fan doesn’t like to hear Dodgers at home, getting thrown out?

So, see, the creation story gives me an excuse to do baseball jokes.
To be honest, the reason I like the part of the creation story we heard today is not punny at all.

The first part – what we read today– was written later than the Adam and Eve part, probably during the Babylonian Exile, when things were in chaos for the people of Israel.  This part of the story is about God speaking sense into the chaos of the whirly-swirly formless void and darkness of the cosmos. In this story The Word of God turns chaos to order and creation and life.  I find it very poetic. I think, at least with regards to metaphor and imagery, that is what the original author intended.  God’s Word creates. God speaks and chaos turns to order, the cosmos is formed. God speaks and sky and ocean and land are created. God speaks and sun and moon and stars and night and day are created. God speaks and life, plants and animals and humankind, are created.

In this story all of creation is comprised of the breath and words of God. It’s all Sacred. It’s all Divine in origin and in make-up.  As a consequence God soaks all that is.  To stretch a metaphor a bit, God is in the DNA of creation, and actually when we look at the New Testament we can hear that Christ is also in creation’s DNA.

Listen carefully to how the Gospel of John, referring to Christ as the Word of God, nods to our Genesis story, John 1: 1-3 reads:

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

So in John, and this is very important to note, Christ is understood as the very Word of God that God speaks to create. In short, for John’s community Christ is the very Word of God that created us, that we soak in, that creation soaks in.

All of this means to us, when we take Genesis and John at their word (so to speak), Creation is both God and Christ drenched. It is no wonder that everything created by God–everything– is called and treated as very good in Genesis . . . and we ought to be calling and treating it good too! Right?

Earth Day was commemorated this past week. And so it is right and good that we take an hour or so this Sunday to lift up this planet, this tiny portion of creation and consider its goodness and the vast wonder of it– and especially our responsibility to care for it.

This little sphere is so full of much that is dear, or ought to be dear.  I mean strictly from a theological standpoint from a literal – not even a metaphoric reading– of today’s creation text how can we not deeply honor and revere this world of ours?  We are told that God  – God– took the time to painstakingly create all of this and set in motion all that we know in life. And even with all the power God has it took more than a finger snap or a nose wiggle or a wand wave or a lightening bolt to put it all together. Slowly carefully like an artist the writer of Genesis 1 describes God’s handiwork.  God, the busy deity of the universe stops and sculpts with word, speaks into being this magnificent work of art which we call world and earth and home.

As we also heard Genesis states that once God created humans God speaks to them. The Word of God shifts from just creating the world to words of blessing and instruction. First God

blessed them, and God said to them, “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 than moves upon the earth.”

In typical modern human fashion to most of us that might sound like the granting of a wish to do as we please with the earth. We get to subdue it and have dominion over it. Some folks have argued that and argue it still– but that is not at all what the words meant in the context in which they were written. To begin, it stands to reason that God did not create a good world for us to do bad things to it and pillage it so that any part of its goodness is depleted. We are not to take any God soaked thing and wring the Holiness out it! This is especially so since the story tells us we are made in the image of God and that God carefully made creation and thinks highly of all of it.

Walter Brueggemann, the world’s leading Old Testament scholar notes that this part of the text, most especially the subdue and have dominion over portions,  are about caring for and tending to creation, not dominating it as we wish.

Dr. Bruggemann writes:

 the task of dominion does not have to do with exploitation and abuse. It has to do with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition.

Dr. Bruggemann notes that the dominion language relates only to animals and so gives us shepherd-like duties which to “ a Christian understanding of dominion, ” he notes:

  Must be discerned in the way of Jesus of Nazareth. The one who rules is the one who serves. Lordship means servanthood. It is the task of the shepherd not to control but to lay down his life for the sheep. The human person is ordained over the remainder of his creation but for its profit, well being and enhancement. The role of the human person is to see to it that the creation becomes fully the creation willed by God.  1

As I’ve mentioned before, creation is called by God to be the best it can be, just as humans are. Walter Bruggemann is asserting that Biblically speaking a part of human best-ness is to help the rest of creation to it’s best-ness. This makes sense. If we are made in the image of God then as God’s image we, like God, ought to want the best for creation too.

Dr. Bruggemann and I are not alone in this regard. Terrence Fretheim points out that in the Genesis reading (quote):

 subduing involves development in the created order. The process offers to the human being the task of inter-creational development, of bringing the world along to it’s fullest potential. 2

Simply put, God created creation and put us here to protect it and help marshal it to its fullest potential.

Almost every day there is news that suggests we have failed in this task. God blessed us and blesses us with an amazing biosphere, and place to live and multiple and fill, and instead of shepherding it to its best-ness, we have, it would seem, put it into the worse shape it has ever been in since humankind arrived.

From seemingly small things like reckless tossing of cigarette butts and fast food containers out our car windows, to not recycling on up to giant oil spills and clear cutting forests and putting off so many carbon emissions we’ve hurt the protective ozone layer , we’ve made quite a mess. Entire animal species have disappeared forever, and more are endangered and threatened.

In Ohio right now there are endangered or threatened bats, warblers, plovers, snakes, fish, shellfish, beetles, butterflies, flowers, clovers and other plants. It’s scary. These good creations of God may no longer exist if we don’t figure out how to be good shepherds of this beautiful state. If this does not seem like a real threat consider that we have already lost forever a number of species, real life forms that humans have caused to become extinct right here in Ohio including:  The Eastern Elk; the Carolina parakeet; the Heath Hen, the Passenger Pigeon, the Blue pike; the Harelip sucker; four types of ciscos, five types of clams; and at least two types of plants. The begs the question:      Did we in our role of the “human person . . . see to it that [these] creations [became] fully the creation willed by God?”  The answer is obvious.

Let me ask another question.  If God and Christ are a part of all creation what does it mean when we have destroyed a part of creation?  In the eight century a priest, St. John of Damascus, wrote that “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.”  Are the wounds we inflict on nature leaving scars on the iconic face of God?  Now there’s a sobering theological thought.

While I personally do not believe that God creates hell, I wonder if humankind creates hell for us all. If so, we sure seem to be on the brink of leaving a hellish mess for our children and grandchildren.

Here’s the thing, we are called in this moment to make the best of it no matter what has transpired in the past, by the Grace of God we can be saved from a lesser way of being.

That’s the promise of Easter, it’s the promise of Christianity. We can be saved from a lesser existence.   We tend to hear salvation meaning individually we can transform our lives and move forward saved from the lesser self we might have been. And that is true, very true, but the idea of transformative salvation applies collectively as well.

We can – indeed we must– transform our collective way of treating God’s creation. It is not ours to deplete and pollute and utterly ruin.  It is God’s creation. We must transform our collective way of treating God’s creation so that we treat it as the God soaked, God owned world that it is. We need to act like caretakers of creation. That’s the call in Genesis.

We need to transform into good caring shepherds in this moment, not only because God calls us to be good caring shepherds of creation, but even if we did not believe in God or in that call, the truth is we only have a few years left before reversing our damage will be much, much harder to accomplish.

The global warming and other environmental threats are not tree-hugger crazy talk, they are a matter of mainstream science. While some ballyhoo global warming and environmental concerns, a great many people with training and knowledge and education in the field are convinced we need to not only be concerned, but we need to do something about it right away.

Stop littering. Start recycling. Start being greener as individuals, but we also have to act together in a big way.

On Easter the New York Times editorial Board wrote a column on three reports recently issued by the worldwide Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, panel composed of “the world’s leading climate scientists.  The experts’ “first report ‘confirmed . . . global warming is caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels . . . and, to a lesser extent, by deforestation.’” “The second [report] . . . said that profound effects were already being felt around the world, including mounting damage to coral reefs, shrinking glaciers and more persistent droughts, and warned of worse to come — rising seas, species loss and dwindling agricultural yields.”

The Times’ Editorial Panel pointed out that

The third report . . . may be the most ominous . . . annual emissions of greenhouse gases have risen almost twice as fast in the first decade of this century as they did in the last decades of the 20th century. This places in serious jeopardy the emissions target agreed upon . . . to no more than 2 degrees Celsius . . . above the preindustrial level.  Beyond that increase, the world could face truly alarming consequences. . .
[B]ut here’s the key finding: The world has only about 15 years left in which to begin to bend the emissions curve downward. Otherwise, the costs of last-minute fixes will be overwhelming. “We cannot afford to lose another decade,” says Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist and co-chairman of the committee that wrote the report. “If we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization.”  3

While this is bleak news, there is good news within it. Did you hear it?  There is the promise of a window, a light in the looming darkness.  We, the human race, can be good shepherds and work hard in this new moment and the ones that follow to do our job and “bend the emissions curve downward.”  God’s put the opportunity there.

I am pretty sure the New York Times Editorial Board did not mean to make an Easter statement with their column, however, it was written on Easter and we are still in Eastertide – the time of the promise of Light in every darkness.

But see, we have to be willing to open our eyes and take in the Light and to move toward it.  This is serious stuff. This requires us to take what lawful actions we can to start our community and nation and world to collectively transform humankind’s global impact on the earth from devastating it, to rescuing it.   What better time to begin than the month with Earth Day and Easter in it? God and Christ are in every atom and molecule, both deserve our respect in all that is.

Earth Day and today’s reading have a common theme of taking care of this planet. We’d do well to listen, it’s the only planet that we’ve got.


1. Bruggemann, Walter, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching,  32-33
2.  Freitheim, Terrance, The New Interpreter’s Bible vol, 1, p 346 commentary on Genesis.
3. New York Times Apirl 20th on line Editorial Bord column “Running Out of Time” Staff