Maybe it started with Genesis 1:26, where we read:
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
For far too long, a misreading of this scripture has confused and misled Christians searching for our role in caring for God’s creation. Perhaps it is because a literal view of the word ‘dominion’ can – when misinterpreted and considered in a patriarchal context – seem to suggest that everything in creation exists solely to be exploited by those in control of our economic system.
In this unfounded and heretical way of interpreting Christin scripture, man – not woman but man – is seen as the most important part of creation. In this way of seeing things, pollution of air and water is an acceptable cost of generating wealth for those who own coal mines and oil wells. In this way of seeing things, government rules to protect environmental quality are mistakes: what must be protected is the right of the few to reap the benefits of exploiting the natural world God gave us. In this way of seeing things, the suffering of those who breathe polluted air or drink contaminated water are unimportant: what matters is using things up to generate wealth. Those who share this view are often those who own companies that could generate larger profits without having to meet environmental quality standards.
The current administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency holds this view – so does the man charged with managing federal lands.
This Earth Day, we need to say that this view is not what Jesus said or God wanted. We need to recognize God created this world to sustain all life, not just the lives of rich men who own stock in coal and oil companies – but all life. As Christians, we are called to care for the glory of God’s creation, and this requires us to safeguard the quality of our air and water as well as the myriad of interwoven natural systems that make up the web of live on this, our fragile island home, the planet Earth.
Failing to care for God’s creation will lead us back to the brink of environmental degradation, degradation which both affects and limits human life on this planet. If we fail to remember the lessons of history then, we are bound to repeat them.
Back in the 1970s, a Republican – President Richard M. Nixon – established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Back in those days, no one recycled their trash and there were few limits on pollution of our air and water. Pollution was so bad that the Cuyahoga River in Ohio actually caught fire time and time again.
I remember working as the first reporter to cover an environmental beat in the state of Connecticut. Those who opposed new regulations claimed the solution to pollution was dilution.
Well, we were so good at diluting things that by the time were figured out how to measure in parts per million we also found significant levels of DDT in animals around the world. In fact the levels were so high the populations of Ospreys, or fish hawks, began to plummet.
Too late we learned the “low levels” of DDT in these birds were high enough to prevent reproduction. The DDT made the shells of their eggs too fragile to survive. The Osprey disappeared from along the Connecticut River, Long Island Sound, and much of New England.
One of my first newspaper articles about the Osprey chronicled the story of Paul Spitzer, a young Wesleyan graduate who transplanted eggs from healthy Chesapeake Bay Osprey to Osprey nests on the Connecticut River estuary where the eggs of local birds were failing.
His plan worked, and today Ospreys have returned to the river and Long Island Sound. There’s even one that nests in the salt marsh across from my house in New Haven, CT.
Why should we care about a wild bird?
Because as the Osprey goes so we go as well. When I was young, the summer camp community where we vacationed would spray DDT at night to keep the mosquito population down.
No one had a second thought about sending us out to sleep in the screen porch after the spraying had just been completed. Some of today’s cancer cases are the unintended result of what we now know is unsafe application of pesticides, herbicides, and other toxic chemicals. If we ignore this lesson of history, if we repeal regulations based in science that aim to protect public health and environmental quality, future generations will condemn us for the damage we do. Conservatives say they value a right to life, but what good is that right when life is poisoned by fracking chemicals in our water, pollution in our air, and plastic so ubiquitous it even in “artisan sea salt.”
If we cannot convince people to act in their own self-interest and to protect their children and grandchildren, perhaps we can build support by casting the question in terms of protecting the quality of God’s creation.
Which is why, for me, God enters the equation. Not a mathematical equation, but the equation that elegantly encapsulates my life. I learned this formula as a child on the coast of Maine. In those halcyon days of the early ‘50s, Mom and us kids would climb in the 1949 Chrysler New Yorker and dive north from Boston to Ocean Park Maine. We moved into our cabin on the July 4th weekend – and we would stay there until Labor Day.
As we approached mid-July, Maine time would kick in. You know you are on Maine time when you don’t hurry to the beach each morning.
Sometimes you don’t go to the beach until afternoon, sometimes you would not return home to the cabin until just after dusk. Maine time is a kind of luminal time, a time when the world slips away and the divine is a little closer. It was on one of those sunny summer afternoons in the ’50s when I learned my Earth Day lesson.
As the sun sinks towards the horizon, most people leave the beach. They miss the best part of the day. Just before sunset the light takes on this luminous quality, the kind of light you see in a painting by Maxfield Parish. Everything seems to come alive in that light, everything seems to glow: the orange lifeguard tower seems almost alive, salt grass covering the dunes seem to be the essence of green, and the sand almost glows. Even the beat up remnants of a Victorian amusement park down the beach looks good in this light.
Best of all is the way the light catches the water, the way it makes waves into mystical beings. Standing there knee deep in Casco Bay, being pulled back and forth by the waves as God revealed the beauty of creation, I connected to the web of life in a way beyond words, mathematics or expression. The closest I came to expressing my experience came in Sunday School as we sang the old hymn:
This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.
Today’s lessons try to tell us different parts of this same story. Our first lesson reminds us if we follow God’s commandments and care for the earth, we “may live on the land securely. The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live on it securely.” Our Psalm reminds us of God’s great and magnificent power while the second lesson says clearly we are subject to God’s dominion – not that of corporate leaders or politicians. And today’s Gospel teaches us that
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?’
is time for us to takes as a cornerstone of our
This spiritual life a new approach to caring for God’s creation, one centered not on maximizing the wealth of the few but on protection environmental quality for the many. We can begin by being serious about recycling, by reducing our carbon footprint, and by taking political action centered on protecting the earth.
Let us say in our lives and in our words that Jesus us to be faithful stewards of God’s creation. Let’s believe that God calls us to wisely use – or conserve – the creation God made and placed in our hands. This is how we should mark Earth Day 2017
Let us pray:
Holy and righteous God,
you created sun and moon, sea and dry land
and placed the under our care.
Forgive us for greed that harms your creation
forgive us for being too busy to care, too tired to act.
Let the words of scripture,
fulfilled in Jesus your Son,
burn within our hearts
and open our minds to recognize him
in the breaking of bread. Amen.