The journey of becoming an ecotheologian of sorts began for me through caring about people: I have a distinct memory from my first semester of coursework at Brite, where I was reading a text by Eleazar Fernandez where he asks the question: What does it mean to have hearts as large as the world? I was already a nature-lover, beginning gardener, runner and hiker, but I hadn’t yet made the connections between the things that I found enjoyable in my personal life and in my professional life. That started to shift for me through a couple of different things: as a pastoral counselor, I began to notice how deeply things in people’s physical environment affect their sense of happiness, as well as their health. As a hospital chaplain, my long-term patients (especially the CF kids who were in a really tightly controlled indoor environment), talked about how much they missed being able to go outside – and on the rare occasions where Dallas air quality was good enough to allow this, they came back with joy on their faces…and many times got better faster.
I began to look at the ways our tradition invites us to relate to the world that sustains our lives – and found a really mixed heritage, both in our sacred texts and in the theologies that have developed our relationship with creation. A really common interpretation you’ve probably heard of takes the genesis passage that talks about “dominion” and reduces that to the right to use and control the earths resources to the benefit of humankind alone. This is a real challenge for us, I think: we live in a culture that fits this kind of model to a t: it’s a culture of individual happiness and material gratification, so its really comfortable to look at the earth as an object and tool for us to use so we can be happy.
There are two things that might help us pick through this today:
1) Playing out this scenario with 7 billion other people on the planet: what happens? We end up storing up lots of earth’s resources and making lots of waste in some parts of the globe (like ours), and others are left with fewer resources and dealing with the waste that gets created (like most of our electronic waste, which is shipped across the world to dump and salvage operations, in which children are exposed to toxic chemicals as they try to make enough living to survive.
2) I think this is not a very rich or respectful way of looking at how God calls us to relate to the rest of the world, the “otherkind” of creation – many other stories can help us live a little more thoughtfully with our traditions. Larry Troester, a GreenFaith Scholar in Residence and Conservative Jewish rabbi in NYC, offers us three models from the Hebrew bible that help us cast our relationship with creation in more complex ways. Caretaker (Psalm 8 – praising God for creation and for making people “masters” of it), Farmer (Gen. 2.4b-7, 15) creation story – placed in a garden to keep and till it – reciprocal relation), Citizen (Psalm 148 among others: litanies of creation offer praise – all are citizens of creation that offer praise to the divine), & Creature (Eccl. 3.17-21 – we all return to the dust).
The interesting thing to note about these models is that even at their most anthropocentric, we are still to play a responsible and caring role with regard to the creation, because it is ultimate God’s and part of God’s activity in the world.
The creation isn’t a passive resource, but an active subject with whom we are in relationship: how does this change our engagement with it? Are there ways you are already doing this in your life? What was a meaningful time you felt like you were relating to the creation? How would you like your relationship/our relationship as a culture to creation to be different?
Our understanding of God as the tip-top of a system of power begins at the very beginning. In Genesis 1, we commonly read: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”
As is often the case, some things get lost in translation. First, we often think that the earth is nothing here, but that is not the case. The Hebrew, tohu vavohu, is often used to describe a wasteland left in the wake of a calamity. It is definitely a something. Second, the wind does not merely sweep over the face of it. It actually hovers, like a mother bird feeding her young. And third, when God says, “Let there be light!” – well, this is where it gets really word-nerdy, but hang with me. The form of the verb here is called a jussive. It expresses the wish, desire, or command of the speaker. When a king says something with a jussive, it is usually translated as a command. When the subject speaks to the king, it is translated as a supplication. But why assume that power structure here? Let’s try reading it a little differently.
God encounters this desolation, the site of calamity and feels compassion for it. God hovers over it, nurtures it, and speaks to it. God says, “I wish there were some light in you. I wish you could be something again. I wish you could be restored.” And when God calls out to this broken place, the broken place responds: There is light!
If reality is a chain of command,, then we might as well all just get in line, do what we’re told, and use it all up. For our own survival, we might want to be careful about how we use it, stretch it out as long as possible, but that’s about us. As long as we control what is below us and let ourselves be controlled by our betters, things will play out as they should. When it’s over, it’s over. It’s all in God’s plan. It’s just the way things are.
But I believe that the order of reality is relationship. God sees brokenness, desolation, a place where life cannot be, and changes it. Restores it. Heals it. Makes life possible by speaking to the brokenness of the world. We’re going to look at a lot of issues in this series and each one can be viewed as simply the way things are. But, as we discussed last week, God is in the business of the impossible. The way of the world is not God’s way. So it may seem impossible that the earth’s resources are enough, that humans can live on the earth without consuming it, that the earth is, in fact, a place for life to live and to thrive. But God is in the business of the impossible. As Christians, so are we. We can speak to the broken places of the world and find some light. We are small and our resources are few, so let’s start with love. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love the earth that gives so much that we might have life and have it abundantly.
Table Litany (written by Genny)
The central symbols of our communion celebration are bread and wine: fruit of the earth, and gift of the vine. They are imminent, practical symbols: without eating and drinking, we could not live. Without sharing these things together, we cannot live fully.
In our prayers at this table together, may we remember:
Those who planted
Those who harvested
Those who transported
Those who loaded and packed and unpacked
The soil and water that brought these gifts of life to us,
And the animals who made the soil and the plants their homes.
May they all be cared for and renewed, as loved neighbors in the web of life.
Our stories tell us that on the night he was handed over, Jesus shared a meal with his friends. He took bread, and broke it, sharing it with those he loved, saying, “Take this, and eat it.”
Then he took a cup of wine, and poured it out for his friends, saying, “Take this, and drink it.”
In doing these things together they loved each other more deeply than they had known before.
Hoping for a world where we share a table together, celebrating even our differences, sustained by a blessed garden in a circle of abundant life, is faith worth acting upon. There are places at this table for all: you are invited to come, whether you believe a little, a lot or not. The table is ready, and we welcome your presence.