16 February 2020
What does it mean to serve
and guard the earth as
stewards of God’s creation?
Sunday, 16 February 2020,
The Second Sunday before Lent (Creation Sunday):
9.30 a.m.: Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, Morning Prayer
Readings: Genesis 1: 1 to 2: 3; Psalm 136: 1-9, 23-26; Romans 8: 18-25; Matthew 6: 25-34.
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The three Sundays before Lent once had special Latin names in the Book of Common Prayer, names that were shared in most traditions in the Western Church.
These Sundays were known as Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. The names were based on counting up seventy days to Easter, perhaps in some ways paralleling the seven days of creation.
This Sunday, the Second Sunday before Lent, was known as Sexagesima Sunday – a bit of a tongue twister, even for those of us who did Latin at school.
I find it much easier that in the Church Calendar we call this Sunday ‘Creation Sunday.’ It is so appropriate, with our growing awareness about climate change and the threats to God’s creation – emphasised by recent weather fluctuations, including the storms of the past week, the firestorms in Australia, and the debates about carbon emission and climate change in the recent election campaign.
Care for the creation is not a marginal concern for the Church, nor a matter of the Church keeping up with current social and political trends and fashions. The fifth of the Five Marks of Mission accepted throughout the Anglican Communion is:
● To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.
Our first reading is a celebration of creation, a poetic description of God’s creation, reaching its climax or fulfilment in the creation of humanity and God’s relationship with us.
Like all good stories, this story begins at the beginning: ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1: 1).
At first, there was chaos, ‘an empty, formless void’ (verse 2). However, the life-giving power of God, the ‘wind’ or Spirit ‘from God’ sweeps over this chaos. The creation story is then told in the form of a poem or hymn, with a refrain, ‘And God saw that it was good’ (verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 20, 25).
God then says, ‘Let us’ (26), invoking the royal plural. The creation of humanity is the climax of the creation story. We are made in God’s image – the Hebrew word used here implies an exact copy or reproduction. Because of God’s blessing, we have procreative power, we are to be fruitful and multiply, and to have dominion over the earth, acting as God’s regents, taking responsibility for a just rule in and care for the creation.
And we are told that not only that ‘God saw that it was good’ – as on the other days of creation – but, ‘indeed, it was very good’ (verse 31).
The seventh day is then the day of rest, a reminder of the Sabbath. God blesses the seventh day, and God sets it apart or makes it holy. There is no evening at the end of this day – this relationship between God and humanity is to continue for ever, to the end of the story (see Revelation 21 and 22).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that few texts have had a deeper influence on Western civilisation than this first chapter of Genesis, with its momentous vision of the universe coming into being as the work of God. Set against the grandeur of the narrative, what stands out is the smallness yet uniqueness of humans, vulnerable but also undeniably set apart from all other beings.
Our Psalm (Psalm 136) echoes the wonder and humility we might feel as we realise the splendour of creation and know and find the love of God in this creation.
God who made the heavens and the earth, who spread out the waters, who made the great lights, the sun, moon and stars, is the loving God whose steadfast love endures for ever.
The honour and glory that crowns the human race is possession of the earth, which is the culmination of God’s creative work: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over [it]’ (Genesis 1: 28).
While the creation narrative in Genesis clearly establishes God as Master of the Universe, it is humanity who is appointed master or guardian of the earth.
But this raises fundamental questions about our place in creation and our responsibility for it. A literal interpretation suggests a world in which people cut down forests, slaughter animals, and dump waste into the seas at our leisure, much as we see in our world today.
On the other hand, Rav Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, says any intelligent person should know that Genesis 1: 28, ‘does not mean the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to fulfil his personal whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart.’
Could God have really created such a complex and magnificent world solely for the caprice of humans?
Genesis 1 is only one side of the complex biblical equation. It is balanced by the narrative of Genesis 2, which features a second creation narrative that focuses on humans and their place in the Garden of Eden. The first person is set in the Garden ‘to till it and keep it’ or ‘to work it and take care of it’ (Genesis 2: 15).
The two Hebrew verbs used here are significant. The first verb – le’ovdah (לעובדח) – literally means ‘to serve it.’ The human being is thus both master and servant of nature.
The second verb – leshomrah (לשמרח) – means ‘to guard it.’ This is the same verb used later in the Bible to describe the responsibilities of a guardian of property that belongs to someone else. This guardian must exercise vigilance while protecting and is personally liable for losses that occur through negligence.
This is, perhaps, the best short definition of humanity’s responsibility for nature as the Bible presents it.
We do not own nature; ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’ (Psalm 24: 1) We are its stewards on behalf of God, who created and owns everything. As guardians of the earth, we are duty-bound to respect its integrity.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) put this rather well in an original interpretation of Genesis 1: 26, ‘Let us make humankind in our image according to our likeness.’ Us? Who would God consult in the process of creating humans?
Rabbi Hirsch suggests the ‘us’ in this verse refers to the rest of creation. Before creating us as humans, destined to develop the capacity to alter and possibly endanger the natural world, God sought the approval of nature itself. This interpretation implies that we would use nature only in such a way that is faithful to the purposes of the Creator and acknowledges nature’s consent to the existence of humanity.
The mandate in Genesis 1 to exercise dominion is, therefore, not technical, but moral: humanity would control, within our means, the use of nature towards the service of God. This mandate is limited by the requirement to serve and guard as seen in Genesis 2. The famous story of Genesis 2-3 – the eating of the forbidden fruit and the subsequent exile of Adam and Eve – supports this point.
Not everything is permitted. There are limits to how we interact with the earth. When we do not treat creation according to God’s will, disaster can follow.
We see this today, Rabbi Sacks says, as scientists predict more intense and destructive storms, floods, and droughts due to human-induced changes in the atmosphere. If we do not take action now, we risk the very survival of civilisation.
In the Gospel reading (Matthew 6: 25-34), we continue reading from the Sermon on the Mount. In verse 24, Christ tells us not to be anxious, to be troubled with cares, in a way that gives priorities to my own interests, that is preoccupied with or absorbed by my own self-interest.
Our self-preoccupation and self-absorption cannot lengthen our lives (verse 27). And he points to examples from nature, simple examples from creation, like lilies on the hillsides, grass in the fields, and the birds of the air, to illustrate God’s care for all creation.
‘Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today’ (verse 34).
Christ is saying that being self-absorbed about our own petty needs will not give us a new tomorrow. But caring for the little details of nature, like God cares for the little details of creation, will ensure that our tomorrows reflect God's plans for the creation.
The Midrash says that God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are – how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy my world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’
Creation has its own dignity, and while we have the mandate to use it, we have none to destroy or despoil it. Rabbi Hirsch says that Shabbat was given to humanity ‘in order that he should not grow overbearing in his dominion’ of God’s creation. On the Day of Rest, ‘he must, as it were, return the borrowed world to its Divine Owner in order to realise that it is but lent to him.’
If we see how we have a unique opportunity to truly serve and care for the planet, its creatures, and its resources, then we can reclaim our status as stewards of the world, and all these things will be given to us as well.
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Matthew 6: 25-34 (NRSVA):
25 [Jesus said:] ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’
Liturgical Colour: Green (Year A, Ordinary Time)
The Collect of the Day:
you have created the heavens and the earth
and made us in your own image:
Teach us to discern your hand in all your works
and your likeness in all your children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who with you and the Holy Spirit
reigns supreme over all things, now and for ever.
The Collect of the Word:
God of the living,
with all your creatures great and small
we sing your bounty and your goodness,
for in the harvest of land and ocean,
in the cycles of the seasons,
and the wonders of each creature,
you reveal your generosity.
Teach us the gratitude that dispels envy,
that we may honour each gift
as you cherish your creation,
and praise you in all times and places.
‘Great and Wonderful’ (Canticle 17, Book of Common Prayer, p 129).
‘Glory and Honour’ (Canticle 21, Book of Common Prayer, p 131).
58, Morning has broken (CD 4)
596, Seek ye first the kingdom of God (CD 34)
365, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation (CD 22)
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.