Sermon, June 11, 2017
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the green growth and the swimming fish, the soaring birds and the running animals, humans foraged in the light and slept in the dark. They pulled fruit from the trees and fish from the streams and captured the birds of the air and killed the beasts of the land. And the flesh became food, and the hide became cloth, and the living things on the land became tools. And God looked down from heaven and saw it was Good. It was the first generation.
In this very first chapter of the very first book in our Bible, we recite our narrative of how we came to be. How we humans, and the earth came to co-exist. God, the Creator, seemed to be in a good mood and went to work, breathing things into existence as the Holy Ruach, the Holy Wind from God, swept across the waters. (If something feels missing… if you are looking for some additional details, something more human-focused, perhaps something involving a rib and a garden of paradise… that’s the other creation story, the second one, which comes right after this one, starting in Genesis 2:4.) Here, we recite the making of the world in 7 days. The creation of something from nothing. The transformation of chaos and darkness into meaningfulness and light. And God proclaims it good. God’s first pronouncement is the creation is good. The goodness here is not an aesthetic or ethical proclamation about the nature of light; God is not admiring the beauty of the morning sunrise, or arguing that his creation is righteous and ethical in judgment; rather, God proclaims it to be of good value. Of good worth. Of good use. Goodness concerns the use to which it can be put for God’s intention – it is of good purpose.
And in the second generation, when humans made stronger tools, they captured the beasts for burden, and raised the fowl for food, and tilled the land and cultivated the living things. They created homesteads and formed communities that shared both labor and the fruits of that labor. And God looked down from heaven and saw it was Subsistence.
This scripture reciting the creation story defines relationship. One clue to God’s purpose is that in this text we are given an image of God’s own spirit, the Ruach, entering into a relationship with the the waters and the darkness – the manifestations of chaos and, by entering into them – breathing on them, molding them, shaping them, God is transforming them into a heaven and earth and an ordered reality in which all things can thrive. God is the Creator, the author of all things – the author of all relationships. Heaven and Earth are related. Light and dark have a relationship. The waters, the earth, the plants, the animals, the birds, the fish, and us; all these things are related, through God, the divine author.
And God says to the human, be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and gives humans dominion. Dominion – sovereignty over all things. Dominion, defined in the dictionary as the "Power to direct, control, use and dispose of at pleasure; right of possession and use without being accountable; as the private dominion of individuals." This creates not only a new order but also a new reality.
In the third generation, when humans explored the world, they found acres of forests, and mines of metals, and deposits of oil and coal and stone. And they harvested the forests, and coopted the copper and nickel and gold, and hauled the stone for building, and burned the fuel, and laid strong foundations. And God looked down from heaven and saw it was Industrious.
And in the fourth generation, when humans tamed vast acres of land, and mass produced the animals, and built great structures, and invented many engines, and transported their goods, and manipulated all things for their productivity, God looked down from heaven and saw that it was Plentiful.
And in the fifth generation, when humans consumed more goods than they needed, and drove their cars all the time, and mass-produced everything so it could be made cheaper, faster and with more abundance, and plastics began to be used to make everything packaged and portable and disposable – everything from individual on-the-go yoghurt to miniature water bottles to plastic bath sponges to disposable dental picks – when all these things, in no way reusable or biodegradable, elevated convenience and impermanence and now go into the trash, and humans amassed giant swaths of landfills… God looked down from heaven and saw that it was Easy.
And in the sixth generation, when humans saw the destruction at their fingertips; when they saw the depletion of the Ozone layer, and the clear-cutting of jungle forests, and the erosion of the soil, and the extinction of the beasts of prey, and levels of pollution causing toxic algea blooms in our rivers and ocean’s shores, and sea creatures disfigured while miles and miles of floating trash collects where the ocean currents meet, and wash up on the shore of developing nations; and glaciers melting so fast that polar bears can’t find ice to float on to hunt for food; and weather patterns so extreme that we a experience a frequency of tornadoes, devastating forest fires, and then mudslides; powerful hurricanes, and repeated droughts and floods that create havoc in the systems we are so proud of. And yet we keep digging, and drilling, and fracking, and producing, and buying, and consuming, and deny-ing the implications…
And God looked down from Heaven. And God saw Greed.
During my recent visit to the Black Hills and the Nebraska Sandhills, I got caught in a discussion about climate change with a man you might call a skeptic. This man owned land in the Sandhills, and lives in close relationship to the land – much closer than I ever have. His land – which holds the remains of ancient sea creatures – is cattle pasture for Black Angus Cows. It’s covered with the remains of burnt trees, because in 2012 a fire burned so strong that they were forced to evacuate their home. He said he’s lived through earthquakes that will swallow up earth as if it was never there. His recognition of the power of nature, which he sees every day of his life, leads him to both be skeptical that anything humans do could make any difference, and to be antagonistic toward the urban populations who are by far bigger producers of carbon dioxide that he himself. He referenced how one eruption from the geyser beneath Yellowstone would eradicate any need to measure human impact.
Through our conversation, I began to understand some of the differing opinions on climate change. The question is not whether the climate is changing, it is at what rate, how humans are involved. Have we accelerated it? Is it even possible to slow it down? Faced with the magnificence of God’s creation, what are we humans in comparison?
The Psalmist seemed to share this view. He says, O LORD, how majestic is your name in all the earth! …When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? 5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
And yet, God pronounced it good – to be of good purpose, to be of good use. And we turned it into good use, and then we turned it into profit, and then we turned it into excess, and then we turned it into waste. If indeed God gave us charge to care for all creation, to care for the earth – God certainly gave us charge to care for each other. And that’s the thing about climate change – whether there is disagreement on how it happens, how fast it’s going, or how much we will be able to fix it – what can’t be questioned is who will be effected. The people who will be most affected by climate change is not you and me. It is not the relatively wealthy, safe and privileged people living comfortably in the middle of the wealthiest country in the world.
It’s everyone else. The rising seas, extreme weather, gale force winds, extra-powerful hurricanes, droughts and floods and famines that are already happening and are likely to only increase may not impact us in our lifetimes. No, those things will impact the people of Haiti. It will crush the poverty-encrusted islands in the Caribbean and the developing countries in Latin America. It will further cripple the drought-laden people of Africa. It will swallow up Pacific Islanders with rising seas. In fact, the island nation of Kiribati – 33 coral reef Islands holding 110,000 people - is already planning the demise of its nation within the next 35 years.
At the Annual Meeting of the Nebraska Conference this weekend, Reverend John Dorhauer, the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, called Climate Change “the justice issue to end all justice issues.” We won’t be asked to support women’s empowerment, or help get medical care to rural Africans, or bring teachers to Malawi when the seas and storms, and lack of food and water have taken their effect. As the nation with the longest history of the heaviest pollution, we will have comfortably shifted the implications of our dominion of the world onto the people of the world who are least equipped to fight it.
And in the seventh generation, when the people of all nations came together to try recover the goodness of their dominion over the earth, the most powerful nation on God’s creation refused to cooperate in their own redemption. With fear that other nations were applauding our demise – when in fact they were applauding the noble intent to care for other nations - the President of the most powerful nation in the world turned away. And God looked down from heaven, and saw Ego.
In the words of Reverend Penny Greer, a Nebraska conference attendee who studies geology on the side, we are now living in a Grand Experiment. There’s no question that climate change is happening, or that it has always happened through millennia. It’s the fact that changes that used to be measured in geologic time – measured in rock sediment formed over thousands of years – is now happening in historical time – in a way that the human mind can measure it and record it. And no one knows what will happen next.
I wonder if God met us today, would God still grant us dominion over his precious and good creation?