The ecological vocation of the Christian is to take care of creation, under the broad rubric of ‘love of neighbour’. If preachers are to avoid being noisy lecturers on environmental ethics how should we tackle this in the pulpit?
This essay will focus mainly on Genesis 1, whereby God creates place and structure for the whole community of creatures, including human beings. The priestly authors wrote this at a time when the Israelites were displaced by exile in Babylon. Their society was enslaved to a pagan economic system, where they lived under threat, anxiety and insecurity. The purpose of the Genesis narrative poem was to restore to their memory the ordered life that had been God’s benefi cent gift and steer them away from the chaos of cultish worship.
Deconstructing Genesis 1
Genesis 1 needs to be read carefully. We should remember that Hebrew is a more symbolic, multi-layered and vague language than English. Any single word can have multiple meanings and often a word and its opposite will share the same word root. So, for example, the word for ‘day’, is yom. It can refer to a literal 24 hour period, or as a f gurative period of time. Augustine believed that time was part of the created order, because God could not exist in time, and therefore the action of each ‘day’ is simply providential guidance directing permissively the unfolding creative process (De Genesi ad litteram, in Alister E. McGrath 2009, A Fine-Tuned Universe, Kentucky: John Knox Press, pp.98-106).
God spoke the words ‘Let there be’ and God made the sky and the sea, day and night, earth and water. These are the fi rst three days of forming, dividing, naming and setting in motion the self-sustaining processes of life. On the fourth day God brought under control the light of the first day to light up the earth; the fish and the birds of the fifth day are revealed in the water and air of the secondday; the animals and the humans of the sixth day give a justification for the earth created on the third day. Like a cosmic music score, God arranges the staff, notes, pitch and accidentals, dots and ties of the fi rst three days and surreptitiously unfolds a work of harmony and beauty, while the beat and rhythm drives the pace of life. When Haydn composed his oratorio The Creation he felt he was performing an act of religious devotion.
The created world came about neither by pure chance, where something desirable would have had a fl eeting life; nor is it a rigid structure, where creative possibility would have been held within a straightjacket of dull uniformity. Astrophysics tells us that, at the Big Bang, the universe started out so hot and tiny that no particles could form. Gravity and nuclear forces were determined less than one millionth of a second afterwards. Order emerged out of chaos and here we are, made of cells, cells made of molecules, molecules of atoms, and atoms of protons, neutrons, and electrons. The German theologian Meister Eckhart said, ‘Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God.’ Philosophers wonder why there is a universe at all and scientists assert that it is possible that there might have been nothing whatsoever.
A stumbling block for the preacher
Elohim gave humankind ‘dominion’ over the creatures and ‘to fi ll and subdue’ the land (Genesis 1.28). There are two interpretations of these words. To the biblical farmer, herder, fisherman, and city dweller, the rough soils, intemperate seas and wild animals were a threat to human survival. Humankind would have felt intimidated because it was not in control. By divine providence therefore, as the Psalmist explains,
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. (Psalm 8.6-8)
The second interpretation is inspired by Adonai or YHWH, the God of Israel. YHWH’s visible presence in the Pentateuch was as a ‘pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fi re by night’ (Exodus13:21-22). The dominion discourse of the Genesis writers derives from kingship imagery. When a king ruled over an extensive territory he would have to appoint an offi cial who would have ‘dominion’ to act with delegated authority.
Both Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 were written by theocratic priestly authors who had a hierarchical view of the world. Unfortunately, as a consequence, dominion came to mean domination in the Judeo-Christian interpretative tradition.
Anne Davidson Lund said in the January 2016 edition of The Preacher that a sermon should, ‘Appeal to all our senses, enabling us to be in the moment of the story’ (p.4). So the preacher needs to recover the poetry of Genesis 1 in the imagination of the congregation, inviting them to visualise the grand creative sweep of God’s actions, as an evolving history of life, a source of endless possibilities as new creatures emerge, all part of the holy mystery of God. Preachers should encourage them to savour this moment, before they reach the problematic issue of dominion. Importantly, the congregation should be reminded that, in the preamble to the grant of dominion, the text says, ‘God blessed them.’ Them – all creatures. Not just us.
Humankind was not granted the inalienable right to dominate nature in a militaristic sense and destroy all natural habitat, which is the meaning of subdue used elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. 2 Samuel 8.11, Jeremiah 34.11). The Earth and all of its resources belong ultimately to God. God loves what God has made. After each day of creation ‘God saw that it was good’ and on the sixth day, ‘God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.’ God wants us to care for this divine gift, to cherish and protect it. The parable of creation from chaos illustrates this uncontrolling love. This said, creation is not without protective boundaries, not without rules, the stems of plants, the exoskeleton of our bodies conduct the fl ow of life. Our task is to prevent creation disintegrating back into chaos.
Humankind bears enough of the imago Dei to keep us distinct from the remainder of the natural world but we are still creatures. We are in dialogue with God, as part of, and in service to the community of life, as trustees, as priests of creation, as nurturers, as co-creators. God’s image is communicated to us in relationship, so that we in turn can communicate and reflect God’s image to other creatures. Pope Francis expresses the ecological vocation in these terms, quoting Patriarch Bartholomew,
…. we are also called to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet (Laudato Si’, p.4).
We have the gift of free will and God has given us the capacity to choose, but one that does not lack understanding. We are shaped, honoured and dishonoured by the choices we make. We have been commissioned by God to ‘till and keep’, not pillage and destroy (Genesis 2.15). The poet-farmer Wendell Berry concludes,
To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skilfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want. (1981, The Gift of the Good Land, Berkeley: Counterpoint)
Our understanding is shaped by science and this needs to be assimilated, but not uncritically. Although science guides our ethics, we also need to deepen our understanding by seeing, thinking and acting differently.
Human society has been taken in by the cult of consumerism. Some argue that consumerism now functions as a religion. We are prone to want things. Physical objects are resource dependent but the supply is fi nite. As confessing members of a true faith, we are particular persons in a loving relationship, summoned out of the world to live in the world, thinking persons, learning from the Wisdom tradition. We need to turn and catch God’s radical vision. This is what being a prophetic church means. Then we will hear the ruach Elohim, vibrating over the waters, calling to us to serve.
We are sisters and brothers in Christ, the Lord of Creation, given the gift of creation, to live in a peaceful coexistence of mutuality and dependence. Jesus calls us to love God and our neighbour. We give voice to the glory of God in the beauty of creation. We are the eyes that see the divine splendour. We are the heart that beats in love for the creation that wants to be loved. Luther had a theology of hearing the word, he shut his eyes and listened and found liberation and peace. Calvin saw nature as a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God. His theology was contemplative and profoundly visual. Contemplation comes prior to action.
We need to see and hear with the depth of our souls, in an intimate dialogue with our Creator God, and allow the connections to happen spontaneously. When we appreciate what we see as nice, we need to expand this sense of what we see as beautiful to all that appears ordinary, the grubby earthworms and the dun coloured cow, as well as the photogenic giraffes and pandas. When we have developed that sense of awe that is more than wonder, beauty, or grandeur, then we will begin to sense the presence of the Creator.
When we fail in our responsibility as stewards,
when we mistake dominion for dominance, we
are abdicating our divinely ordained role in
creation. Nurturing environmental care within
our Christian discipleship, requires a deep
conversation between science and spirituality.
Nature is not empty of divinity. Seeing nature
as secular or merely instrumental to human
wants, renders us blind to nature’s meaning,
it value, and its power to save us. It takes
courage to break through the political and
social monologues of the reductionists
and evolutionists to articulate the mystical
wonder of Genesis 1, to pivot and guide
our communities into a new direction with
different values and objectives, but this is the
task of the preacher.
This is a story not just about Jesus and his disciples, but also about a boat which is forging its way in a terrible storm across the Sea of Galilee with the disciples on board. Matthew paints a terrifying picture of waves lashing wildly at the boat, and of a raging head-wind impeding progress. It’s dark too, and barely possible to make out what is ahead. Out in the middle of the lake, the disciples are suspended between one shore and another – one place of safety and another – having left Jesus on the shore behind them. In the thinking of ancient Israel, the sea was a place of chaos, and here with the water billowing around them the disciples may well and truly feel that their boat is offering but little protection against such chaos.
For the disciples in this story there is no really easy or comfortably safe space. There is only the boat battling the storm and the storm itself, and we might readily understand that, given the option, the disciples would prefer to cling to the protection that the boat affords rather than step out onto the water. Jesus however is not so fearful of the chaos. He chooses the sea, walking over the water with the ease of walking on dry land. Matthew offers an inspiring picture of the Christ, in the midst of a storm which cannot overcome him.
Meanwhile the disciples, blinded by darkness and whirling water, don’t even recognise who this figure is. Peter asks him to prove his identity by telling him to walk on the water. Is Peter calling a ghost’s bluff here, hoping to stay inside the boat? But Jesus responds to Peter’s request, commanding him to confront the chaos. The real Jesus does not invite us to stay clinging on to our security for dear life, but calls us to be bold and step out into the waves of our chaotic world in order to recognise and meet him there.
Peter’s action as he steps out of the boat is not a great feat of bravery or even foolhardiness, but first, simply an act of obedience. Jesus commands, and Peter responds. Then it becomes an act of discipleship: Peter walks on water as Jesus does and steps across the waves with assurance, as long as he keeps his eyes on Jesus. But as soon as he looks at the overwhelming chaos around him, he starts to go under and cries out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Then Peter’s experience becomes one of trust and faith. He discovers himself held and supported by his Lord, and together they return to the boat. There all kneel in worship, recognising the identity of Jesus as the Son of God.
So what was the point of getting out of the boat if in the end Peter was going to end up back in it? Couldn’t Peter have stayed relatively safe in the boat all along and never bothered to confront the waves? Well yes; but by staying in the boat he would have been disobedient, and would never have discovered that Jesus was strong when he was weak. By getting out of the boat, Peter learns that Jesus is truly in the midst of the storm; Jesus calls his disciples to be there with him, and never abandons them. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that some days later it’s Peter who responds in faith when Jesus asks: who do you say that I am?
In telling his story, Matthew has painted a profound picture not just of Jesus and his disciples but also of the boat, which down the centuries has been seen as an image of the church, called to navigate stormy waters often in great times of darkness. In a world torn by divisions of all kinds, in a changing society in which religious believers are thought to be at best quirky and eccentric, and at an unsettling time in which our nation is journeying from one political set-up to another, as yet mostly unknown, we might feel as though we in the church are having to forge a way through the storm. We don’t quite know where we are going; we can long for the secure shores of the past when we knew who we were as the church in society and felt more confident to speak of faith to the people around us. Equally, we may long for the security of the new shores to come – even though we may not yet know what they will be.
But our story suggests that the church doesn’t offer us a place to hide in and cling to. It’s the place to which we come and return to again and again having encountered the living Christ in the midst of the chaos of everyday life. We return to recognise the authority of the one who meets us and holds us when we step into the storm in faithful obedience to his call. And it’s the place where we bow down, and discover that the storm no longer actually threatens: because Christ is Lord over it.