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Divine Dominion

Watch the sermon here.

Genesis 1:26-31

This is the first time I can remember preaching a sermon series during the summer. I wanted a break from the lectionary, and at the same time I was aware that a series could be difficult considering the influx of visitors and the sporadic attendance of our regulars during the summer months.  So each week had to be connected and yet be able to stand on its own, with a different focus or topic each week.

When I began to play around with the creation stories, I realized again the depth of material in these two chapters. I realized that I could preach the whole seven weeks leading up to my vacation with a different theme each week, all while never getting out of chapter two!  How many stories can give you that depth or flexibility?  I then selected all the good hymns on creation and nature in our hymnals.  I came up with twenty hymns specifically focused on creation.  (There were more, but some of them were difficult to sing so I skipped them!)  I had fun reading through the lyrics of each one and determining which week it would fit better, and then I planned them out for the whole series.  This week was probably the easiest in terms of hymns.  Songs about the care of the earth are easy to come by.

The sermon, however, was not. I couldn’t preach a whole series on creation without talking about our need to care for the earth, but the message seemed so obvious: We’re supposed to care for the earth because God made it.  Got it.  Let’s take the offering and get out of here so we can go to the beach!  But of course you know me well enough to know I can’t let it go at that!  So if caring for the earth is such an obvious truth to us, let’s look at why it isn’t to others.

We start with these words: subdue and dominion. According to the Oxford Dictionary, “subdue” has two definitions:

  1. to “overcome, quieten, or bring under control”
  2. “to bring (a country or people) under control by force”

Here are some of the synonyms: conquer, defeat, vanquish, overcome, overwhelm, crush, quash, beat, trounce, subjugate, thrash, and hammer. Yep, that sounds like a pretty accurate account of what we have done to the earth.  We have overwhelmed it with pollution. We have crushed its rivers.  We have hammered its fissures and rocks.  We have subjugated the earth’s needs to our own desires.  We have attempted to subdue the earth in the worst sense of the word.  We have held dominion over the earth, dominating it with authoritarian force.  And now reckoning day is upon us.  Scientists have been warning us for decades about climate change.  They tell us that in the years to come we will experience significant flooding on the coast, an increase in turbulent weather, and growing portions of the world that will become uninhabitable due to heat.  The economic costs of all this are unimaginable, at least to me; but on an individual level, the largest price will be paid by those who can least afford it.

Whenever we discuss environmental issues, we have to consider the human cost, and who pays the highest price for the damage we do to the environment. Across the United States, those who live in or near poverty are likely to live near landfills and waste treatment facilities.  Black and poor children are eight times more likely to be poisoned by lead than those children who come from higher income families.[1]  Even the most superficial reading of the water situation in Flint Michigan reveals the racial and socioeconomic elements at play.  We are 3 years into the crisis, and it will be at least another 2 years before their water is safe to drink, and children’s lives will be forever changed by the damage done to their brains.  There is no way that what happened in Flint, which is over 56% African American,             would have happened in an upper class predominantly white city.

Environmental justice issues have a huge impact all around the globe. Writer Melissa Browning tells of her research in Mwanza, Tanzania.  Lake Victoria connects three East African countries, but it has become degraded through overfishing, particularly for export use.  Large fish were introduced into the lake for the purpose of export, but these non-native fish destroyed the native species.  As the fishing has decreased, the competition for the lake’s limited resources has increased, which further degrades the quality of the lake.  And it has a huge impact on the people who rely on it, especially the women.  Women are not allowed to fish; they only buy the fish from the fishermen and then sell it in the market.  But because of the scarcity of fish, those who catch them set the rules.  Many of the fishermen will not sell their fish to women who refuse them sexual favors.  The women not only have to pay in money but also with their bodies.  If they refuse, they are not sold fish, or are denied a place to sell it.  To make matters worse, the local police officers target the wrong people.  “In this area of the lake it is illegal to catch fish that are smaller than seven inches long in order to control over-fishing.  Yet when the police enforce the law they go to the market and arrest women selling small fish rather than go to the beaches to catch men bringing in illegal fish.  Here, women are seen as easier targets, and as a result are pushed even further to live off what remains of the broken earth.”[2]

Clearly, our efforts to “subdue” the earth cannot be what God intended. We have believed the earth was ours to use, misuse, and abuse.  We have seen ourselves as consumers of it rather than caretakers of it.  And there are several reasons why that understanding of the scripture is wrong.

First, according to this story, we were created in the image of God and then were told to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. “This God is the God who is in the process here of making a world balanced, ordered, structured, and designed; it is that God whom you and I mirror.  Hence, when the text goes on to say that we humans are to ‘rule/dominate’ all the creatures of land, water, and air (Gen 1:26) and to ‘subdue’ the land made by God (Gen 1:28), those powerful images must always be employed in the bright light of the reality that we act as mirrors of God, not as free agents of our own human desires.”[3]  In other words, God created this orderly, beautiful world.  We were created in God’s image.  So how dare we try to justify destroying what God has created?  So the fact that we were created in God’s image is our first argument against a domination view of our relationship with the earth.

For the second argument we have to consider the second story of creation. As you know, Genesis 2 contains a different creation story than Genesis 1.  Genesis 2 does not tell the humans to have dominion over the earth and subdue it.  Instead, it says that God put the human in the Garden of Eden to—in various translations—till it, work it, or farm it; and to take care of it.  One respected scholar I read this week offers an even richer reading.  He says “The Hebrew word’s more basic meaning (beyond farming) is ‘serve,’ and when that is paired with the other verb ‘to protect/guard,’ the image is that we are partners with God and with God’s creation, not masters, not dominators, not even stewards. . . .[We are to serve and protect the earth.]  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.”[4]  This is a far cry from subjugating, thrashing, or hammering the earth.

We have been speaking, of course, about the earth, but the application goes beyond           the rivers and oceans and forests and land.  The earth includes all the animals on it—including other humans.

Sometimes we treat others as commodities to consume. Sometimes we treat others as if we are supposed to subdue and dominate them, instead of protect and serve.  Instead of using things and loving people, we love things and use people.[5]  If we are to protect and serve and care for and love creation,        doesn’t that include the human creation, too?  And they go hand-in-hand, two sides of the same coin.  Conserving the earth is better for people.  Treating people with kindness and compassion is better for the earth.

I am reminded of a story told in the book Being Mortal. A man named Dr. Thomas had a radical idea for transforming nursing homes.  He wanted to bring life into them—real plants instead of artificial ones,      gardens to care for, and animals to interact with the guests.  He would have to push against state health codes, but first he had to convince his boss.  Bring animals into the nursing home? Several of them?   It would be pandemonium.  It would smell like a barn.        And besides, the primary purpose of nursing homes is to care for the humans.  How could they spare time for caring for animals?  But Dr. Thomas kept at it.  He reminded the director of the “Three Plagues” of nursing homes: boredom, loneliness, and helplessness.  Bringing in animals would fix all three plagues.  The director finally gave in, and Dr. Thomas went to the state capitol to lobby for the funding and for the regulatory waivers to allow these changes.  He got them all.

When it started, it was pandemonium.  They brought two dogs and four cats into the nursing home—virtually at the same time.  They ordered 100 birds—which arrived before the bird cages, so they were let loose in the hair salon.  But once things settled down, they began to see changes.

“In his book, Thomas recounted the story of a man he called Mr. L. Three months before he was admitted to the nursing home, his wife of more than sixty years died.  He lost interest in eating, and his children had to help him with his daily needs more and more.  Then he crashed his car into a ditch, and the police raised the possibility of its having been a suicide attempt.  After Mr. L.’s discharge from the hospital, the family placed him at [Dr. Thomas’s nursing home].  Thomas recalled meeting him.

‘I wondered how this man had survived at all. Events of the past three months had shattered his world.  He had lost his wife, his home, his freedom, and perhaps worst of all, his sense that his continued existence meant something.  The joy of life was gone for him.’ At the nursing home, despite antidepressant medications and efforts to encourage him, he spiraled downward.  He gave up walking.  He confined himself to bed.  He refused to eat.  Around this time, however, the new program started, and he was offered a pair of parakeets.  ‘He agreed, with the indifference of a person who knows he will soon be gone,’ Thomas said.  But he began to change.  ‘The changes were subtle at first.  Mr. L. would position himself in bed so that he could watch the activities of his new charges.’  He began to advise the staff who came to care for his birds about what they liked and how they were doing.  The birds were drawing him out.  For Thomas, it was the perfect demonstration of his theory about what living things provide.  In place of boredom, they offer spontaneity.  In place of loneliness, they offer companionship.  In place of helplessness, they offer a chance to take care of another being. ‘Mr. L began eating again, dressing himself, and getting out of his room,’ Thomas reported.  ‘The dogs needed a walk every afternoon, and he let us know he was the man for the job.’  Three months later, he moved out and back into his home.  Thomas is convinced the program saved his life.”[6]

We need the natural world. We need to be in relationship with living things of all kinds.  We need birdsong and cat purrs and dog breath.  We need clean water and ocean waves.

So let’s take the offering and get out of here so we can go to the beach!

[1] Whyte, Talia. “Top 10 Environmental Issues Affecting Urban American.” http://thegrio.com/2010/04/22/the-top-ten-environmental-issues-affecting-america/

[2] Browning, Melissa. “Women’s Broken Bodies in God’s Broken Earth.” http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/180856.pdf

[3] Holbert, John. “A Needed Climate Crisis Conversion.” http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Needed-Climate-Crisis-John-Holbert-06-06-2014

[4] Ibid.

[5] Different versions of this quote have been attributed to many different people.

[6] Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal. pp 121-124.

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