Genesis 1:26-31 Psalm 24:1-2
The Rev. Tom Herbek
April 22, 2018
As we think about “Earth Day” this week, we hear Psalm 24. The Psalmist wrote that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it”. There was a clear sense of stewardship of God’s earth for the Psalmist: that we do not own the earth but are given the gift of life in it, surrounded by the presence of God.
Fortunately, many who live on the earth see it as a precious gift entrusted to us by God for safekeeping. There are others, however, who read the Genesis saga, especially the story of the sixth day, and they land on the world “dominion.” Dominion has the same root as “to dominate”, to rule.
And there are many in our world who believe that dominion over the world gives us the right to do anything we please with it, to treat the world in any way we wish. There are those who believe that the earth is able to heal itself from any damage we do to it, and that economic goals must always take precedence over environmental issues.
However, on Earth Day and every day, most people have gotten the message that we can no longer ignore the environmental consequences of our actions. We have begun to understand the old French proverb: “You not only have to want what you want but you have to want what your want leads to.”
We must try to heal our planet. We have dominion over this earth. That means we have great power and great responsibility as stewards of the earth. For the sakes of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren we must begin. As overwhelming as it is, we must not give up.
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, as a thoughtful 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: “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”.
Tippett asks Davis: 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, 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 gives us a clue in her 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.”
We must return again to a realization that we are deeply dependent on the world God created and pronounced, “That’s good!”. Perhaps we are beginning to know our world for the first time. The challenges we face are causing us to see the world in a new way, and to return to a sacred responsibility to care for “all things bright and beautiful”, to be grateful for our beautiful earth.
As the old Chinese proverb says: “When you drink from the stream, remember the spring.” We must know God’s creation for the first time. We are facing a crisis which has helped us all to return to a sense of gratitude for this extraordinary planet on which we all travel through space.
Our faith and our understanding of who God is, and what God is calling us to do, must change over time as our world changes. The one constant in life is that things change. Sometimes we can help to move that change in new directions. Sometimes all we can do is find a way to adapt and change ourselves in response to the changes.
It can all be quite worrisome. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes:
I worry about our planet becoming less livable, about our running out of places to live, water to drink, and even clean air to breathe. Sometimes I worry that I will live so long that I will come to see terrible things happening and be powerless to do anything about them, a war more fearsome than anything we have ever seen or an economic collapse even greater than the one we have just seen, one that will further erode people’s savings, and sometimes I worry that I won’t live long enough to see some things I look forward to. And most of all, I worry that all this worrying makes my life less enjoyable than it ought to be.
Then this wise rabbi, who has seen his share of tragedy in his own life, comments on how he tries to deal with this long list of worries and fears.
How do I cope with all of these fears? Sometimes I do it by putting them in perspective as very unlikely to happen. Sometimes I find some small area over which I do have control- watching my diet, conserving energy, recycling more. Sometimes I simply do what most people do: I just stop thinking about unpleasant outcomes; sometimes I stubbornly believe as an act of faith that God has made a world in which tragedy is real but happy endings heavily outnumber tragic ones. I resolve not to let my fears of what might happen prevent me from anticipating with pleasure what I hope will happen.
-Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World
Poet Mary Oliver once wrote:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
We must each do what we can, just like the true story of an adult daughter who persuaded her mother to take a drive with her to see some daffodils. They have been driving for some time and the mother writes:
We turned into a gravel road, and I saw a small church. On the far side of the church there was a hand-lettered sign that read, “Daffodil Garden.” I followed my daughter down the path toward the sign. We turned a corner. I looked up, and stopped dead in my tracks. Before me lay the most glorious sight. It looked as though someone had taken a great vat of gold and poured it down over the mountain peak and slopes. The flowers were planted in majestic, swirling patterns, great ribbons and swaths and flowing rivers of all shades of yellow. There were five acres of daffodils. In the midst of all this glory was a modest A-frame house, the home of the gardener. On the patio was a poster headlined, “Answers to the Questions I Know You are Asking.”
The first answer was a simple one: “50,000 bulbs.” The second was “One at a time, by one woman. Two hands, two feet, and very little brain.” The third answer was “Begun in 1958.”
The mother goes on to reflect on the impact that this had on her:
For me, that moment was a life-changing experience. I thought of this woman whom I had never met, who had begun, one bulb at a time, to bring her vision of beauty and joy to an obscure mountaintop.
Just planting one bulb at a time, year after year, had made something of indescribable magnificence, beauty, and inspiration. One bulb at a time had changed the world.
She said to her daughter, “It makes me sad, in a way. What I might have accomplished if I’d thought of a wonderful goal thirty-five or forty years ago, and had worked away at it ‘one bulb at a time’ through all these years. Just think what I might have been able to achieve!”
Her daughter replied: “Start tomorrow.”
When faced with seemingly overwhelming obstacles, what can we do? We can take one step at a time. We can start today or tomorrow, but no later.
One bulb at a time can make a difference. One letter at a time to a politician can make a difference. One walk to the store instead of driving can make a difference, not just on Earth Day, but every day. One gallon of gas saved each day can make a difference. One degree lower on the heat or higher on the air conditioning each day can make a difference. One gallon of water saved each day can make a difference. One telephone call a day urging someone else to get on board can make a difference. Not just on Earth Day, but every day. It is up to us, but it is not all up to us. We are on this spaceship earth together, and when we begin working on this together, there is no telling what we can do.
For the survival of our human race and our environment, we have no time to waste. It is time to start planting daffodils. It is time to really be stewards of God’s earth, for “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” We are called to exercise skilled mastery, even in the face of great obstacles.
We are the hands and feet and voices God has to use. Let us be God’s stewards, and raise our voices, and use our hands and our feet to make a difference – on Earth Day and every single day. And let us start today something new and creative that will bring beauty to our world, exercising skilled mastery and good stewardship of this special world that we have been given.