These are days of new things—
New people have arrived in what is for them a new city.
A new school year has begun.
A new football season is underway.
A new church school year started this morning.
And we start what is for us a new time in the church year—the Season of Creation, a few Sundays in these longer green weeks after Pentecost.
A little history:
In 1989 the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Churches declared September 1 as a day of prayer for creation. In the following ten to fifteen years, churches throughout Europe, Australia, and the United States began marking the Season of Creation during the month of September. It is now a global, ecumenical celebration involving Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Christians in prayer, hands-on projects, and advocacy as we show our love for the Creator by loving the creation and loving one another.
After the strong positive response to our Mission Board’s education series on climate change earlier this year, it seemed time for us to get on board, join in this time of celebration, and mark this Season of Creation.
Yes, from time to time over the past decade we have raised up thanksgiving for creation and environmental concerns in worship. But in observing this Season of Creation, we are in a sense letting our worship catch up with our mission.
This year the emphasis is on biodiversity—protecting the web of life in all its variety, because each species reveals the glory of the Creator. With gratitude we recommit ourselves to honoring the bonds we share with each other and with “every living creature on earth.” (Genesis 9:10)
Now, “protecting the web of life in all its variety” is a daunting task, made even more so when we see the way that vast web is currently threatened by the fires raging in the Amazon rain forest— biologically the richest region on Earth, hosting about 25% of global biodiversity.
It is home to more than 30,000 species of plants; 2.5 million species of insects; 2,500 fish; more than 1,500 bird species; 550 reptiles; and 500 mammals. Iconic species like the jaguar, tapir, and harpy eagle are well known, but the Amazon basin contains 10-12% of all the species on the planet. 400 to 500 indigenous tribes also call the Amazon rainforest their home.
In addition to the rich biodiversity, the Amazon is the largest tract of continuous rainforest on the planet, and it plays a critical role in the Earth’s now shaky climate system. It both removes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and also acts as a giant cooling system for the planet. All of the water evaporated from Amazon forest trees absorbs energy when it evaporates –cooling the planet just as we are chilled by evaporating water when we are wet.
The forests burn—calling our attention to the many ways that human activity threatens life on this planet. As Paul put it, the entire creation sighs with pain.
In faith we affirm that every species, indeed every being of every species, is precious because it is made by God.
This is why we join in creation’s lament that God’s creatures are disappearing from the Earth at a rate we can scarcely comprehend. From humble insects to majestic mammals, from microscopic plankton to towering trees, creatures from across God’s dominion are becoming extinct.
The good news, even in the midst of the fires, is that while it would be catastrophic to both biodiversity and indigenous people if the trees were to disappear, it's very unlikely that they would.
Laura Schneider, a geographer at Rutgers University tells us: “Rainforests are resilient ecosystems, so their disappearance is almost impossible.” To this comfort she adds a word of caution, saying: “Resilience, however, depends on the speed and extent of disturbances like land clearing, and this is the worrisome part.”[i]
The Amazon rainforest, and indeed, all of creation is resilient.
What we need to keep in mind, however, is that the resilience of creation should not be confused with the resilience of human beings.
This earth will continue whether we are here or not. In time the forests can renew themselves. In time the air and water and land can return to a pristine pre-industrial state.
But where will we be?
Will human beings be at all?
As the stewards of God’s creation, we are called to protect its goodness.
Our stewardship of the earth must be informed by the best contemporary science. Our stewardship of the earth will mean engagement with today’s tumultuous economic realities. Our stewardship of the earth will require our best skills in the current political world. We need to be up to date in our thinking and our acting.
For us as people of faith, however, ancient stories shape our response as well. Stories of creation, though far from scientific, give us a vision of our place on earth and our responsibility for the earth.
The authors of Genesis lead us into a deep, religious understanding that the earth has been given to humankind by the One who created all things. And it was given to us so that we might care for it. This beautiful and broken world is our home. Our decisions and our actions determine the kind of dwelling place we have.
As Creation comes to its fulfillment, the creator God speaks to those creatures made of dust and spirit: “Fill the earth and subdue it . . . and have dominion over every living thing.”
Over time, we’ve found ourselves in a lot of trouble because of that word, “dominion.” We’ve taken it as a license to trample down, plunder, and kill. We’ve heard it as an invitation to abuse and pollute in the present with no regard for the future.
Rightly understood, however, the Hebrew word that we translate as “have dominion” leads us to sharing in the exercise of power. It is a word that speaks of the creative ability to act. Rightly understood, “dominion” invites us to act toward the earth in ways that give care, even nurture, rather than exploit.[ii] “Subduing” the earth refers to the difficult task of cultivation, to the further development of the created order. Read through the account of creation in Genesis: you will discover that God is not the only one who has or exercises creative ability. As those created in the image of God, human beings are to relate to the nonhuman as God relates to them—with love, with care, in a way that fosters life.
In the biblical account of creation birds, fish, and all manner of “creeping things” are blessed by God and told to be fruitful and multiply; human beings are charged with the stewardship, the wise care, of plants and animals and earth. Human beings are placed over the rest of creation for its well-being, profit, and enhancement.
As those given the tasks of subduing and having dominion over the earth, we are called to be stewards of the earth—to care for what is entrusted to us with wisdom.
Our purposes in life are many. But a primary one seems to be the stewardship of the earth.
In giving human beings the stewardship of the earth, God also gave us freedom enough to destroy ourselves and our world—though certainly such destruction is not the will of God.
Yes, we respond in various ways. Yet no matter how green our attitudes or how theologically sound our environmental statements, the fact remains that we are living more heavily on earth that ever before. In a culture based on excessive consumption, even those who attempt to live lives of simplicity will cause at least three times the environmental impact of a rural villager in India or Africa.[iii]
How do we reclaim our identity as stewards of the earth?
Something new occurred to me as I read through that Genesis account of creation again this past week.
“God saw that it was good.”
Yes, I’ve noticed before that creation is good, very good—that is, lovely, pleasing, beautiful. There is the sense here that the God who creates finds satisfaction and delight in the creation.[iv] And we should do the same.
What I’d never really noted before was that “God saw.” Maybe this is nothing new to you. But it strikes me as important.
Perhaps we start with that word we discovered as we were beginning to read: “Look!”
Look so that you really see.
Look. Look at the land, the sky, the water.
Look. Let looking be a delight to your eyes. Look at the trees as they start to lose their summer green and take on their autumnal. Look at the fields growing ripe for harvest. Look even as September ushers in the fleeting daylight.
And while we’re at it, let us listen as well. Let hearing be a joy to our ears. Beyond the roar of Kinnick, September has a sound all its own. The geese return, calling out as they fly south. The wind still sounds as it blows through the leaves on the trees. The water roars over the Burlington St. spillway, as it does all year long. As Paul Tillich once encouraged us: “Listen to nature in quietness, and you will find its heart.”[v]
Our actions are important—we know that and that’s one reason we’ve found our way into the United Church of Christ. But our actions can become grimly earnest.
Before you act—Look. Listen.
And in doing so, take delight in creation once more—or for the first time.
We need to remember who we are and to remember who God is. Search the heavens, gaze at the earth. Stand in awe of all that you see and feel and smell.
After we have looked and listened, after we have touched and smelled and tasted—that is, after we have again opened ourselves to the wonder of God’s creation, perhaps we will be ready to once again take on our God-given role of stewards of creation, caretakers of the earth, our home.
This earth is our treasure, given to us by God. The challenge is still to be good stewards of what we have received, for our time and for future generations, faithful to the God of life.
Let us find delight in all we have been given—this earth, our home.
And from this delight, may we find new ways of caring for creation.
[ii] NIB, Genesis, pg. 346.
[iii] Lois Ann Lorentzen, “Paradise Paved,” Sojourners, Nov.-Dec. 2000, pg. 31.
[iv] W. Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation Commentary.
[v] Paul Tillich, “Nature, Too, Longs for a Lost Good, The Shaking of the Foundations., pg. 86.