Genesis 1:1 – 2:3; Psalm 24:1-2
The Rev. Tom Herbek
April 23, 2017
In 1927, James Weldon Johnson wrote a poem, based on the story in Genesis, entitled “The Creation:”
And God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
I’ll make me a world.”
And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said, “That’s good!”
Then God reached out and took the light in His hands
And God rolled the light around in His hands,
Until He made the sun;
And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered up in a shining ball
And flung against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said, “That’s good!”
Then God himself stepped down
And the sun was on His right hand,
And the moon was on His left;
The stars were clustered about His head,
And the earth was under His feet.
And God walked, and where He trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.
Then He stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And He spat out the seven seas;
He batted His eyes, and the lightnings flashed;
He clapped His hands, and the thunders rolled;
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.
Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine-tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms;
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around His shoulder.
Then God raised His arm and He waved His hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And He said, “Bring forth! Bring forth!”
And quicker than God could drop His hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beast and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings,
And God said, “That’s good!”
Then God walked around
And God looked around
On all that He had made.
He looked at His sun,
And He looked at His moon,
And He looked at His little stars;
He looked on His world
With all its living things,
And God said, “I’m lonely still.”
Then God sat down
On the side of a hill where He could think;
By a deep, wide river He sat down;
With His head in His hands,
God thought and thought,
Till He thought, “I’ll make me a human!”
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty,
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And that human became a living soul.
(Adapted from James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones)
In living here in this beautiful place of natural grandeur, we must be on our guard that it will not become routine or taken for granted. We must give ourselves opportunities to notice and to be thankful for what people come from all over the U.S. to experience for a few days. I am chagrined to admit the number of days that often go by between the times I actually and deliberately drive past and look at the lake. And it still affects me each time I see it. It still gives me joy. No wonder God said, “That’s good!”
As caretakers, we need to regularly let ourselves be moved by this piece of earth that we inhabit, this door to joy. And we must not take for granted that it will still be here for future generations. We must be diligent in our efforts as caretakers.
Many years ago, Adlai Stevenson said what we now know to be true: “We travel together, passengers on a little spaceship, dependent on its vulnerable supplies of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace, preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.”
We do need everyone working together as caretakers of this fragile craft on which we all travel through space, this beautiful earth. It is no longer just important that we join this effort together; it is now essential for our very survival.
And as William Sloan Coffin once said: “Let us dare to see that the survival unit in our time is no longer an individual nation or an individual anything. The survival unit in our time and henceforth is the whole human race and its environment.”
May the beauty that surrounds us be a frequent and never-taken-for-granted doorway to joy for us. And may we respond as creative, dedicated caretakers of the earth, part of the whole human race and our environment.
Krista Tippett, in her book, Becoming Wise, interviews the woman who was her Old Testament professor at Yale many years ago: (This is the book that was going to be used for our Adult Retreat last fall, but we had to cancel that retreat. We will return to it in the future.)
At Yale Divinity School in the 1990s, I studied the Hebrew Bible with a professor named Ellen Davis, who pointed out language about care for the land in nearly every text. A decade later, she tells me how unprepared she was for that experience, and how it transformed her life and scholarship ever after. She said:
I was lecturing my way all the way through the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, for the first time. And I think at the end of the first semester, one of my doctoral student teaching assistants said, when we were making up the final exam, “You need to ask a question about land.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because you talk about it all the time.” I was not conscious of doing that; I was simply aware of talking my way through each book of the Bible. I would now say it’s obvious that I would be talking about land all the time because you can’t go more than a few chapters without seeing some reference to land, water, its health, its lack of health, the absence of fertile soil and water. But at the time, that came as a surprise to me.
Tippett asks: So how do you step back from the Genesis language of subduing and especially “dominion”- what do you see that is not clear in the way we have translated and used this text?
The Hebrew word is a strong word, and I render it “exercise skilled mastery amongst the creatures.” The notion of skilled mastery suggests something like a craft, an art of being human, without taking away the fact that humans do, from the perspective of almost all the biblical writers – not every single one but almost all – humans occupy a very special place of power and privilege and responsibility in the world. But the condition for our exercise of skilled mastery is set by the prior blessing, in previous verses, of the creatures of sea and sky.
They too are to be fruitful and multiply. So whatever it means for us to exercise skilled mastery, it cannot undo that prior blessing.
“Exercising skilled mastery” has a distinctly different connotation than does “dominion.” So how can we exercise skilled mastery when we look around us at the beauty of this extraordinary part of our world? Perhaps Joan Chittister, who lives in Erie, PA, gives us a clue in her new book about her relationship with animals, Two Dogs and a Parrot:
Unless we begin to align ourselves with nature, nature will be endangered and our own lives with it. Our own souls with it, in fact. We are here as part of creation, not as consumers of it. We are here to care for this planet, not to exploit it. We are here to find our proper place in it, to grow with it spiritually as well as physically.
But in order to do any of those things, we may need to rethink our theology as well as our role on the planet.
Seduced by a theology of superiority and domination, sure that the world and everything in it had been made for human consumption and human control, the narrative of human relationships with animals has a very mixed and sad history. Only the findings of science concerning the intelligence, feelings, and place of animals in the human enterprise, and the realization that we are all made of the same stuff, have begun once again to reverse the story of human-animal relationships and return it to an earlier cosmology.
We know now that if human beings disappeared tomorrow, the existence of birds, insects, water creatures, and land animals wouldn’t be affected at all. If animals disappeared tomorrow, on the other hand, human beings could not possibly live without them – as long as bees are needed even to pollinate so many plants. As the top of the food chain, we would be the first to go. The interdependence of the species that has become so dear in our age has also shed new light on the concept of creation itself. The Creator of all, the scriptures tells us, saw all of creation as “good.” It is our role to protect it, to guard it, to develop it, to sustain it – not to destroy it for our own purposes.
It is indeed time for us to begin to listen to the animals.
We need to be reminded – and often – that we are caretakers of our world. There is a word that the environmentalists use often these days. The word is “tipping-point.” A tipping point is based on the idea that when a dump truck starts to raise the truck bed, it gets to a certain point before anything moves, before the dirt moves, but then everything starts sliding down out of the dump truck and onto the ground. It is like an avalanche coming down a mountain. Sometimes we all need a reminder that little things can lead to something much bigger. I really enjoy this point, made quite well in my favorite children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
What we each do makes a real difference – on many fronts. As caretakers of this fragile craft, we all must remember that what we do does makes a difference.
God looked around, again and again, and said, “That’s good!”
When we stop and look at the lake, really look at the lake, we can’t help but agree, “That’s good!”
We are called to exercise skilled mastery over this fragile craft, without getting any closer to the tipping points that are built into everything we experience. May our great-great-great-grandchildren still be able to look at this beautiful lake and agree, “That’s good!”
And every day, may we realize anew how wonderfully we are blessed, to live in this beautiful place.