(Genesis 1:26-2:4a; Psalm 8; Colossian 1:10-20; John 1:1-5)
How many of you would say that you are nature or animal lovers? Well, today we’re going to explore what the Bible says about how we’re supposed to relate to nature and to animals – to that part of God’s creation that isn’t human.
We are certainly blessed in this area by the beauty of the Farmington River and it’s surroundings. We can experience, firsthand, why the Bible reports that “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” after he created the earth and its inhabitants, both human and non-human. Living where we do, we can see, like God, that creation is, indeed, good.
As a matter of fact, we human beings are to “see” creation in a special way. We are to have a special relationship with creation. That relationship is defined in the creation account of Genesis 1. In the creation account of Genesis 1, God created all of the earth and its non-human inhabitants before he created man and woman. After everything else was created, God said,
“Let us make humankind 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.”
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
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.” (Gn 1:26-28)
After creating humankind, God blessed us and gave us instructions about how to treat non-human creation. He told us to fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the creatures that live on it.
Wow. God gave us a lot of power over his earth and its creatures. He used powerful words like “subdue” and “dominion over.” He gave us the right and the responsibility to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over the non-human beings that inhabit the earth.
Now, it seems to me that that power has gone to our heads. We heard those powerful words “subdue” and “dominion over” and they went straight to our heads. We began exploiting the power that God gave us over his creation. The following are only a few examples to prove my point:
- The incidence of asthma has increased due to our pollution of the air.
- The incidence of cancer in areas where there are nuclear or chemical plants has increased.
- Many domesticated dogs and cats are euthanized every day because they’ve been abandoned by human beings.
- The rain forests and their non-human inhabitants are disappearing due to human greed.
I think that part of the reason that human beings have exploited the power that God gave us is that we’ve ignored an essential part of the story of our creation. It’s kind of like we’re teenagers and we only heard the fun part of the instructions that mom gave us. We heard her say, “have fun,” but we didn’t hear her add, “but don’t do anything that I wouldn’t do.”
You see, before God gave us power over his creation, he made us in his image. God first said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,” and then he said, “and let them have dominion over everything that lives on the earth.” We only have dominion over creation because we are made in God’s image. That means that we’re not supposed to do anything to creation that God wouldn’t do. Like our mothers and fathers, God told us to have fun with his creation, but not to do anything that he wouldn’t do to it. But, like teenagers, we didn’t hear the responsible part of what he said – we only heard the fun part.
So, we have to be reminded of the responsible part of what God said: that we are made in his image and are to treat creation as he would treat it.
We can’t see God, though, so how do we know what it means to be created in his image? Well, as Christians, we believe that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, so we have to look to the story of Jesus to understand what it means to be created in God’s image. The story of Jesus tells us that God loved his creation so much that he gave his only-begotten son to redeem it and to reconcile it to him. There are three things in the story that define the image of God: love, giving, and grace. God loved his creation so much that he gave his only-begotten son to it so that his creation would experience his grace. Love produced action (giving), which produced results (grace). This, then, is the model for our relationship to non-human creation: We are to love it so much that our love is translated into actions that have grace-filled results.
Clearly, we have not loved creation so much that our love has been translated into actions that have grace-filled results. We have fallen short of the responsibility that God gave us. Too often, we have used creation for our own benefit regardless of the result.
I’m going to tell you a joke someone sent me in an e-mail message that illustrates my point. It’s a conversation between God and St. Francis of Assisi on the subject of lawns. St. Francis was the 13th century Christian who started the Franciscan Order of monks. He is known for his love and reverence for all living things, and that is why God talks to him about lawns. Here’s the joke:
God: Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistles, and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honeybees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.
St. Francis: It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord: the Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers “weeds” and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.
God: Grass? But it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds, and bees, only grubs and sod worms. It’s temperamental with temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?
St. Francis: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.
God: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the homeowners happy.
St. Francis: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it, sometimes even twice a week.
God: They cut it? Do they bail it like hay?
St. Francis: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.
God: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?
St. Francis: No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.
God: Now let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut if off and pay to throw it away?
St. Francis: Yes, Sir.
God: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.
St. Francis: You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.
God: What nonsense! At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It’s a natural circle of life.
St. Francis: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle of life. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.
God: No! What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?
St. Francis: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something that they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.
God: And where do they get this mulch?
St. Francis: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.
God: Enough. I don’t want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What movie have they scheduled for us tonight?
St. Catherine: “Dumb and Dumber,” Lord. It’s a real stupid movie about . . .
God: Never mind. I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.
Now, I’m as guilty as the next person of that which God and St. Francis are talking. I love to garden and to make my yard look precise and pristine. But when you look at what we’re doing from God’s perspective, it does seem foolish, doesn’t it? We have this human-made ideal of the perfect yard, so we use our physical and material resources to do what nature would do naturally if we left it to itself. It’s not a responsible use of our resources or of God’s resources. God created nature to nurture itself, but then we humans came along and interrupted the natural cycle because we got it into our heads that it shouldn’t be the way that God made it.
And we’re adamant about the way we think it should be. There was a woman who wanted her yard to be natural. She didn’t want to force it into her version of what it should be. So she let it go natural. And her neighbors went wild. They were infuriated. How dare she not force human order on nature’s chaos! They went through the town government to try to force her to keep her lawn the way everyone else kept their lawns.
You see, as human beings we’ve come to believe that our wants and needs outweigh the wants and needs of every other living thing on God’s green earth. God gave us dominion over the earth and its creatures, didn’t he? So we get to do whatever we want to do! Uh oh – there’s that teenager again, focusing on the fun part of what mom and dad said and ignoring the responsible part.
But the responsible part is really just an acknowledgment of the way things are. God created the earth and its creatures as interconnected parts. The sky is connected to the earth; the earth is connected to the water; the water is connected to every living thing because all living things need water. None of the parts are separate, just as none of us are separate from each other. We and all of creation are part of God’s family. We cannot do something to any one part and not affect the other parts.
But we human beings are so self-centered that we forget that everything is interconnected. We think that we’re it, that we’re what matters and everything else is there for our pleasure and enjoyment.
Well, everything else is not there only for our pleasure and enjoyment, to use as we wish. Every part of creation is there in its own right, as God made it. And every part of creation is good, as God saw it. And we are to treat it with the love and reverence with which God and St. Francis would treat it.
What is the first step toward reconciliation when a relationship has been broken? Repentance. We have broken our relationship with God and his creation by our treatment of creation. And so we must repent. We must say we’re sorry and ask God for forgiveness. And then we must act differently. We must stop acting as if we’re the only part of God’s creation that matters. There are countless ways to do this.
- Make sure you recycle.
- Use natural products when you clean your house. Did you know that baking soda and vinegar are about the only cleaning products you need in your home? And they don’t hurt the environment.
- Buy meat products that come from humane farms.
- Wash out your plastic food storage bags and reuse them.
- Use cloth napkins instead of paper napkins.
- Spay and neuter your pets so that you don’t create more homeless animals.
- Buy from companies whose products are environmentally friendly.
Sermon by Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, April 29, 2018, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.