A version of a sermon preached June 16, 2019, at First Church of Christ, Congregational, in North Conway, NH.
I often wonder if God ever regrets giving human beings dominion over all of creation. This week it was especially easy to wonder that because every day there was bad news about the environment: climate change is making people more susceptible to pollen allergies now than ever before, even people who have never had allergies. Two billion tons of sea ice melted off the coast of Greenland last week, an amount usually reserved for the hottest of July and August weeks. Plastic has been found at the deepest part of the oceans thus far explored.
Yikes! If I were God, I’d be wanting to step in and set things right with the snap of my fingers and this week, I really, really wanted God to do that for us.
But then I remembered that God is not about either/or. God is about both/and. The God who created us in God’s image knows full well that we are capable both of immensely harmful decision making and intensely creative solution finding. The harmful decision of the first authors of Genesis and Psalm 8 to use a word that implies “power over”—dominion—rather than “relationship with”—such as stewardship—has had consequences for centuries. But we are starting to figure this out and our intensely creative solution finding is finally coming to the fore.
Good thing, too. Our creativity is a wonderful gift, and it certainly seemed so in 1750 when the first huge expansion of fossil fuel use for industrial purposes happened. Life got easier for people even as civilizations became less agrarian in nature; the first realization that there were real and documented long-term downsides to our environment for industrialization didn’t happen until nearly 90 years into the revolution. By then, the average temperature of the world was rising and subtle effects were noticeable. It would be another 120 years or more before Rachel Carson’s best selling Silent Spring sounded a cry that has been echoed around the world.
What would Lady Wisdom do?
I wonder what Lady Wisdom, Sophia, would say about Earth today. She who rejoiced in watching God create the whole universe and who takes special delight in being with human beings might weep at what we have done with what we’ve been given to take care of. Perhaps Lady Wisdom spoke through Rachel Carson and those who took up her cause to celebrate the first Earth Day in 1970. Perhaps she still speaks through those who sound alarm after alarm about the continuing and accelerating pace of destruction that is happening all around as we continue to play God with creation.
BUT: There is hope! This same Lady Wisdom offers us the ability to change our ways so that, if we are willing, we can begin to undo the damage that nearly 270 years of industrial activity has done to our planet.
Lady Wisdom invites us to play WITH God in creation. Lady Wisdom points us back to Psalm 8 and invites us to ask ourselves, “Who are we that you, God, care about us? Why did you make us to be just a little lower than you?” She wants us to ponder the power of God’s decision in Genesis to give us dominion over all created things so that we can see a different way to be dominant than our species has been throughout our existence, but especially since the Industrial Revolution.
Lady Wisdom wants us to see that God’s delegation of authority was not a command to pillage and plunder but an invitation to rejoice and revel in the beauty of God’s creation. We were not called to be pirates of God’s provisions but partners with God to protect those provisions. Despite the damage done by generations of humans before us, it is not too late to do what God intended for us to do all along.
God gave us the role of partner because human beings, so far as we know, are the only species with the ability to be creative on world-changing scales. We can be a little lower than the angels rather than right with the demons if we step up to use our creativity well. The ingenuity that led to the Industrial Revolution and every innovation since are not bad in and of themselves; what has been detrimental to the whole Earth is human arrogance in assuming that there would be no negative consequences to our choices. As early as the 1860s, scientists had begun to notice small changes weather patterns, however, and a hundred years later, there was no denying the immensity of the mess that nearly unfettered industrial development had made of many places in the world. Smog events that lasted for days, rivers catching on fire, devastating oil spills, and lead poisoning of children from airborne particles were the norm. It seemed hopeless.
But it wasn’t. Scientists had started to figure out the mechanisms that caused these events and thus ways to stop contributing to the situation. Other scientists worked—and are still working—to find ways to reverse the damage. Still others have been invested in finding new, less harmful ways to accomplish the same tasks and meet the same needs. All over the world, efforts to use fewer natural resources even more efficiently and to leave less damage behind in the process are powering economies on small and large scales. The creativity that named us partners with God to protect creation has been essential in our efforts to reclaim and restore what our previous arrogance wrought. Scaling this creativity to truly global proportions, coupled with political and economic capital, is what will prevent catastrophic climate change if we have the collective will to demand it.
Our responsibility to creation
We who know ourselves to be Children of God have a responsibility to be part of this work to reclaim and restore creation. As I noted at the beginning of this sermon, many of us have taken action in our lives to reduce our personal impact on the environment. We drive more efficient cars and make more efficient trips to minimize mileage and the number of times we start our cars. We reduce, reuse, and recycle as much as we can—the recycling elves here at the church take care of cans and boxes and plastic on a weekly basis for us so we’re even conscious in this building about what we do. We’ve made our homes more energy efficient and many of us add a sweater in the winter or wait a little longer in summer to turn the air conditioners on, living with fans and whatever breeze comes in from outside just that day or week later into June. Sometimes, our motivation is cost, but that cost is in turn driven by the forces at work to make efficiency cheaper in the long run. Wisdom courses through the systems when we let it work for good.
I don’t know if we can fully stop the effects of global climate change. I don’t know if we will continue to see more massive amounts of rain in wet areas and longer, hotter droughts in dry areas or if we will get back to more normal patterns. I don’t know if the Polar Vortex will stabilize where it belongs or continue to be pushed south to bring deadly cold air to New Hampshire while parts of Alaska and Greenland above the Arctic Circle are 40 degrees or more warmer than usual.
What I do know is this: if we do nothing, climate change will continue and it will happen faster and faster. Our call as partners with God in creation is to try.
Whatever we do will help, even if only at the margins. If enough of us try, it won’t be just the margins that see the effects. We owe it to the children who are sitting here today to live in this relationship with God and creation in ways that make a turnaround possible. We owe it to their children and to their grandchildren to do this work.
So my challenge to you is to pick one more thing to do this summer, one more environmentally friendly action to make a habit, whether it’s walking one more block rather than driving or reading the newspaper online instead of in hard copy. It might be turning your air conditioning up a couple of degrees or swapping out your lightbulbs for LED bulbs. You might take up meatless Mondays or change out a beef meal for a chicken meal. And it might seem as though your choice is meaningless, but when you do it and I do it and hundreds and thousands of us make these small changes, it begins to add up.
That’s how we contribute to this immensely important project, one family at a time. That’s why Lady Wisdom still rejoices in the company of human beings and why God still gives us a role as partners in caring for this incredible gift of creation. Amen.
The Reverend Doctor Ruth E. Shaver is the Interim Senior Pastor of First Church of Christ, Congregational, United Church of Christ, in North Conway, New Hampshire. She completed her Doctor of Ministry at Lancaster Theological Seminary in 2016 with a dissertation project titled, “I Wonder: Scientific Exploration and Experimentation as a Practice of Christian Faith,” and is a Sinai and Synapses Fellow. This post was originally published at Sinai and Synapses. Reprinted at ORBITER with permission).