Droughts, floods, California forest fires that cover hundreds of thousands of acres and destroy thousands of homes, glaciers retreating, ice shelves melting – it is easy to believe that the world is falling down around us and that God has decided to punish us for our sinful ways. That’s what Jeremiah thought when he interpreted drought and famine as Divine judgment against the idolatry of the Hebrew people. In our lesson this morning, the rains have not come, the land is parched, the crops do not grow, and there is no grass for the animals. Thus the people acknowledge their iniquities and call upon the Lord not to forsake them.
Well, we don’t talk much anymore about God punishing human sinfulness by turning nature against us. Sure, there were some in the late 80’s who saw AIDS as God’s condemnation of a certain group of people. And a couple of years ago a few televangelists proclaimed that Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgement against New Orleans – a city of sin. (I bet that made a bunch of folks along the Mississippi Coast wish that God’s aim was a little better.) However, for most Christians there is no doctrine of God bringing destruction and death as a penalty for sin. Most theologians say that God doesn’t cause bad things to happen; bad things are just a fact of life. Evil exists, bad things happen, and what God wants to do is redeem what is evil, redeem what is bad – that’s the story of crucifixion and the resurrection.
The other day, Tom Porterfield sent me an email that read: It’s so dry in the South this fall that the Baptists are baptizing by sprinkling, the Methodists are using wet wipes, the Presbyterians are giving rain checks and the Episcopalians are praying that the wine turns back into water. Up until the rain this weekend, that email, humorous though it is, hit a little too close to home. Mother Nature has been acting in some weird ways as of late. Some say that the droughts and the storms we have been experiencing in recent years are just another of nature’s cycles, they won’t last forever. Others say, and most scientists agree, that the increasingly extreme weather patterns we are witnessing are indicators of an even larger problem – global warming. It would be easy to say that global warming and other environmental threats are God’s punishment for human sin. We screw up and God turns Mother Nature against us. But that would be too easy and it would let us off the hook. The diminishing Chesapeake Bay, the smog filled air, the melting ice caps aren’t God’s punishment. God didn’t do it – more than likely we did it, and as a result we are punishing ourselves. Worse, we are punishing generations yet unborn, we are punishing our children. The sins of the fathers really are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation. As Robert Oppenheimer said as he watched the first nuclear bomb explode over the New Mexico desert – “We have become as God’s, destroyers of worlds.”
What is supposed to be the Christian response to the environment? Is there one? In the book of Genesis, Adam is made from the dust of the earth. God scoops up some dirt and breathes life into it. In Hebrew, the word for this earth is ‘adamah’. It means fruitful soil. Adam is made from adamah. There is no mistake that the names are similar – humans are part and parcel with the earth. We may live in cities and suburbs that cause us to feel estranged from nature, but in truth we are dust and to dust we shall return. When we fail to care for the earth, we only hurt ourselves.
Moreover, in Genesis God gives Adam and Eve dominion over the plants and the animals, over the earth itself. For centuries we have understood this idea of dominion as our right to control the earth. Humans are to subdue the wildness of creation, make order and culture out of wilderness, civilize the natural, control nature. In America’s push west we saw this as part of our manifest destiny. But is that really what Genesis means? The actual words in Hebrew are ‘abad’ to serve and ‘shamar’ to protect. Adam and Eve were not to subdue the earth but to serve and protect the earth. “To serve and Protect” – the motto of many a police force, humans are supposed to be God’s cops, serving and protecting our earthly home so that it and we may flourish.1
So, we are adamah, the stuff of creation, and we have been created by God to serve and protect the earth. However, instead of protecting creation we have exploited it, and now human beings, numbering some six billion strong, may destroy the very thing we were meant to cherish. What do we do?
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself and Christ has entrusted to us this message of reconciliation so that we are now ambassadors for Christ. As Christians, you and I are to continue the reconciling work of Jesus. You and I are to continue the work of redemption – healing relationships, caring for the poor, striving for justice, working for peace.
Week after week the clergy stand in this pulpit and remind us of this work of reconciliation. They encourage us, exhort us, to remember our calling to live as Christ in the world. Often that preaching focuses on how we are to treat one another, how we are to love our neighbor. But an increasingly important aspect of our calling to be Christ’s disciples, centers on our need to redeem what we have broken in creation, to literally work for the reconciliation of the earth. Caring for the environment is not a partisan idea. I believe it is part and parcel of what it means to follow Christ. Because, when we work to reverse the harm that has been done to creation then we are working to redeem not only our broken relationships with God and one another, but our broken relationship with creation as well. In this sense, to be Doers of the Word includes in it our calling to serve and protect God’s creation. To be Doers of the Word we must always remember that we are adamah – children of earth. Amen.
1. Earthkeeping and the Bible, Steven Bouma-Prediger, “Reflections”, Yale Divinity School, Spring 2007.