April 23, 2023
The Rev. Megan Collins
Before we begin, let’s state the obvious. I am not a scientist.
I am wearing my most serious looking reading glasses. But I’m not trying to fool anyone. I’m not a scientist. I can’t tell you in depth about the science of climate change or weather patterns or environmental issues. We will be talking about science during this series and (spoiler alert) how you can absolutely love Jesus and believe in the Bible and also really love science too. But we aren’t pretending to be scientists.
What Dave and I are is pastors. Our job is to talk about what the Bible teaches us, and one thing it talks about quite a bit is the creation. The Bible shows us how important the creation is to God, and our responsibility to care for it. That’s why we’ll be spending the next few weeks studying these passages and looking at how caring for the environment is a critical issue for our faith.
But even if we agree that this issue is important, we are all, at our very best, well-meaning hypocrites when it comes to caring for the environment.
Many of us want to care for the environment and we think it’s really important but we still don’t get it right all the time. This past Thursday was the day I had planned to do some writing for the message this morning. It is also the day the Florida emergency alert system decided to do a test at 4:45 AM, sending a very loud alert to our cell phones. Somewhat bleary eyed I made my way to Starbucks and ordered a coffee and a water. Then I sat down with my laptop, cradling the two, disposable, plastic lidded, landfill bound cups to write a sermon . . . about caring for the earth.
We are all, at our best, well meaning hypocrites. Maybe you have a rainwater collection barrel, or a compost bucket, or you at least drag your recycling to the curb once a week. But none of us get it right all the time. Nonetheless, God’s command for us to care for the earth is critical.
In the very beginning of the Bible, truly right there at the start in Genesis 1 and 2, we have what we call the creation narratives. These are the stories the Bible has about the beginnings of our relationship with God. We’ll talk more in a few weeks about what we do with these texts in light of the science of evolution (again, we are team science). But for today, let’s take them at face value by reading them as they were intended, as a theological statement, not a historical scientific one.
1 When God began to create the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
God goes on from there to separate the earth from the sky and the seas, to create plants and vegetation, to set apart the stars, the moon and the sun, then finally the animals. The day always ends with God seeing the creation and telling us it is good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27 So God created humans in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
Here we have one of the very first teachings about creation and its care.
God creates this beautiful and amazing creation: majestic mountains that soar up toward the clouds, oceans with waves that crash onto the sand, trees that follow the seasons with changing leaves in the fall and then new growth in the spring. It’s beautiful and perfect and . . . good. Then God makes us, and hands the creation over to us. I have to think it would have been tempting for God to take one look at humans and think “maybe I should have stopped with gorillas.”
Who are we to be trusted with the creation of God?
It reminds me of when my kids were younger. I am a little bit clumsy with holding onto things. I am, what you might call, a “dropper.” When my sons were little they would work for hours on a lego creation. They would put each lego carefully into its spot, double checking to make sure it was just right. One piece at a time they would make a beautiful color filled creation of blocks. They would carefully bring it in to show it to me, coming into the room and hold it out proudly. I would reach out for it to hold it and get a closer look and they would back up a couple of steps. Then they would gently say something like “how about I hold it, and you just look?”
How tempting that would be for God to do with us, to hold the creation back, to let us look at it from a distance but not really get our hands on it. Because God knows we are droppers. Exactly how we have dropped it is a topic for next week. But let’s take a closer look at exactly what God intended us to do.
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
There are two critical words in this one verse that we, in our tendency to mess things up, have grossly misunderstood: subdue and dominion. To subdue the earth meant to cultivate it for food, to use the ground to grow fruits and vegetables. Dominion was a way to set humans apart from the other living things, and to put humans as caretakers. But these words create a siren song for us of power and abuse. Subdue and dominion become control to do what we please. But look just before this verse and what did Genesis tell us? It says you are made in the image of God, that you are an image bearer of God in the world. This is the God who loving made the creation and called it good. This is the God who would come not to be served, but to serve. This is the model we were intended to have, to serve and care for.
God gently hands over God’s creation to us to hold. Now fast forward to where we are now and we have dropped the whole thing on the floor. Legos everywhere. We aren’t even sure what the original creation looked like anymore, but we do know we have really messed it up.
You have seen the news. You hear about the flooding and you know its connected to global warming. You have seen the climate clock counting down to when we won’t be able to reverse the damage we have done. You hear the desperate pleas of climate scientists for us to change. You find yourself researching where you should buy land for your grandchildren in case things get really bad. You want to help but you wonder what you can really do about it. So you do what seems to be the only thing you can do, you give up hope.
If that’s you, I want you to really listen to this next Bible verse. Let’s read from Romans 8. It says:
19 For the creation waits
Notice it doesn’t say the people wait. The creation waits
with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God, 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but by the will of the one who subjected it,
In other words, the legos didn’t break themselves. But how does the creation wait?
Hold onto that word - we’ll be coming back to it.
21 that the creation itself will be set free from its enslavement to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor, 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
What’s the letter to the Romans talking about here? We believe that God’s story is on this really long timeline. The world came to be, and then God has been at work with God’s people. Jesus came to be here, then overcame sin and death. Then there’s us, you and I. But we believe one day that God will redeem the whole creation, not just some spirit form of ourselves, but all of it. You and me and the whole creation will be changed, made to be good. So for now, we live in this in between time, between Jesus being here, and this final thing God will do. The creation is groaning as it waits for God to birth this new world. As we wait, we have hope. Romans finishes this section saying:
24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what one already sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Don’t give up hope. Even if all the evidence points to the contrary.
You are a reflection of God’s image in the world. As one made in God’s image, your job is to let other people see you taking care of the earth, doing everything you can, so they can see God and have hope too. It isn't just about what your work will accomplish. It's about not giving up, even if you aren't sure it will make a difference. And you can’t do that if you are sulking on your couch.
I know it’s hard. I know there are some of us here who want to give up when it comes to environmental issues. But you have a job to do.
NT Wright says it like this:
“This doesn’t mean that we are called to build the kingdom by our own efforts, or even with the help of the Spirit. The final kingdom, when it comes, will be the free gift of God, a massive act of grace and new creation. But we are called to build for the kingdom. Like craftsmen working on a great cathedral, we have each been given instructions about the particular stone we are to spend our lives carving, without knowing or being able to guess where it will take its place within the grand design. We are assured, by the words of Paul and by Jesus’ resurrection as the launch of that new creation, that the work we do is not in vain. That says it all. That is the mandate we need for every act of justice and mercy, every program of ecology, every effort to reflect God’s wise stewardly image into his creation. In the new creation, the ancient human mandate to look after the garden is dramatically reaffirmed – What are we waiting for? Jesus is coming. Let’s go and plant those trees.”
What are we waiting for? Jesus is coming. Let’s go plant those trees.
Sometimes hope is literally planting trees.
I’d like to close by talking about one specific project, started by just a few people and some hope, that is doing exactly this.
Over thirty years ago a man named Jack Hannah from North Carolina took a sailing trip near Haiti. He saw the silt in the water and the barren faces of the mountains. With no remaining trees, the soil was eroding from the mountains into the water. Jack went back to his Presbyterian Church and invited them to partner with him in finding a solution. Soon they were working with the Haitians to plant eucalyptus trees on the mountainsides of Haiti. The trees were quick growing and slowed down the rain water and erosion. Two members here from our own Maitland Presbyterian, George MacKay and Paul Morgan, were instrumental in these early development days of the program and our congregation as a whole has been a supporter of it. Today, The Haiti Reforestation Project continues to support the organization CODEP in Haiti as it continues this work. As of this year, they have planted 16.6 million trees. These trees keep the streams clear, the water clean, prevents mudslides and flooding and allows for gardens and fruit trees to thrive.
This is what can happen when one person has hope. When one person refuses to give up.
Jesus is coming. Let’s go plant trees.