The majestic poem that opens the Bible assigns each stage of creation to a day of the week. On day one, God pierced the darkness by creating light. On day two, God created the sky. On day three, God created the dry land and vegetation. The next three days highlight the creation of the stars and the planets, the fish and the birds, the land animals and human beings.
I never noticed precisely what happened on day six until a colleague brought it to my attention. I had always thought that day six was reserved exclusively for the creation of human beings. Day six was the pinnacle of the story. First, God created the inanimate objects, then God created the lesser creatures, but then, on day six we reached the apex!
As Barbara Brown Taylor says it, "God ordered a kettle drum roll, cleared the divine throat, and said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness:'€”yes, here we are at last!€”'and let them have dominion'€”oh yes! Do let them have that! I've always wanted 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.' Over the whole ranch! As far as the eye can see!"1
However, it was recently brought to my attention that day six does not unfold that way. The day begins, not with the creation of us two-legged, upright, intelligent types, but with the creation of land animals; to be specific, cattle. The text does not mention any other land animals by name except cattle.
That means we must come to terms with the fact that the sixth day of creation is not set apart for the creation of human beings alone. We must share it with cows. It's not that I hold any bias against cows, but they are neither the most elegant nor most intelligent creatures. If God had to begin the day with animals, why not gazelles or snow leopards?2 Why cows?
Perhaps this ancient story reminds us of something that DNA research has revealed. We are comprised of the same basic stuff as the other animals. Our genetic code is not much different than that of a mouse. It's critical for us to remember that this is the context within which we are created. We are not given our own exclusive day. God brings forth human beings on the same day as the cows and the wild animals of the earth. This ought to serve as a constant reminder, that while God has given us a special role, the other creatures may be equally as precious in God's eyes. God looked at everything God made on the sixth day - not just humans - and declared that it was all very good.
This morning we read Psalm 8, a psalm that praises God for creation and reminds us of the critical role God has given us. As in the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, Psalm 8 declares that human beings are given dominion over the works of God's hands. We are placed in charge of all the resources of the planet.
For most of human history, people viewed the earth as a vast wilderness with an abundance of resources. Exercising dominion over the creation led to a theology of domination in which people grabbed whatever resources they needed and sought to control nature as much as possible. If they cut down all the trees in one area it was hardly a disaster, because there were plenty of other forests. However, in the past 100 years, the situation has changed radically. The world's population is so vast and our technology is so powerful, that nature has changed from a storehouse of endless resources, to a fragile ecosystem that we possess the potential to destroy.
We North Americans live in a land of such abundance, that we forget that most of the people on the planet live with constant shortages.
We turn on the tap and there is plenty of water for drinking, for our yards, for bathing and for washing our clothing. We go to the grocery and the aisles are stocked with food, and we consider it a major inconvenience if they are out of a specific brand of a product that we enjoy. We flip the switch on the thermostat and the air conditioner cools us on hot days and the furnace keeps us toasty on cold nights. We hop in our cars and drive wherever we want, and while we complain about the price of gasoline, we still use it as if it will never run out and as if it had no ill effects on the environment.
Yet, this comfortable inventory of resources that we enjoy applies only to a small portion of the world.
The disparity between the haves and have-nots is alarming. In our country, we are battling an epidemic of childhood obesity. Nearly one in five teenagers is obese.3 Many of our dogs must be put on diet dog food because they are so plump. This, in a world where over 850 million people are malnourished.4
God wants us to enjoy the earth and its resources. But God has also placed in our laps - whether we like it or not - the weighty responsibility of managing and protecting God's creation.
The marvelous resources of the earth can bring us great pleasure, but they can also become battlegrounds where people fight one another over clean water, rich soil, fossil fuels, and the fish of the ocean.
The population of the world continues to expand. In 1950, there were 2.5 billion people on earth. Today, there are more than 6.5 billion people on earth. Too many people devouring the world's resources. What kind of dominion do we exercise in a world of shrinking resources?
It has become more important than ever not to waste what we have. Some think they don't need to worry about recycling or reusing because they can afford to buy something new. There was a time when people believed their wealth bought them the privilege of being wasteful. But being wasteful is no longer a sign of wealth. It is a sign of ignorance.
That's why we should celebrate the wonderful response to recycling. More and more people are recycling paper, plastic and glass; and it makes a difference. If you have ever saved up your newspapers and mail for a couple of weeks, you begin to realize the enormous amount of paper each of us uses. Did you know that if you subscribe to one daily newspaper, and save each day's paper for one year, you will end up with nearly 1,000 pounds of paper?5 If it's the New York Times, it's probably 1,000 pounds for the Sunday edition alone! Simply tossing all of that paper in the trash is not an option for people of faith. We are responsible to God for the way we manage the resources of the planet. We cannot simply keep cutting down all the trees. God wants us to be wise stewards by using the world's resources in responsible ways and by practices that do not hinder the earth's powers of renewal.
The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews quotes Psalm 8 and connects its vision of humanity as those given dominion over creation with Jesus, the true king. In doing so, it transforms what it means to exercise power and dominion. Jesus exercised power by taking the form of a servant.
When God grants us dominion over the earth, it is a call for us to serve, not to exploit. It is a call for us to rule as Jesus ruled, with justice and mercy. It is a call for us to act as Jesus acted, with a spirit of generosity and compassion for the weak. With every action we take, we must ask: Are we being fair to everyone? What will be the impact of our actions on the most vulnerable? Be it the poor or the panda.
You may have noticed that the first and last verses of Psalm 8 are identical: "O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" The psalm begins and ends by praising God as the supreme ruler. In between these declarations of praise, it declares that God has given human beings dominion over the creation. The point is that human power is intended to be exercised within certain boundaries. Human power is always to be used in ways that praises God by sustaining and enhancing God marvelous creation.
God is not uninvolved in the world. God sustains life on earth by being constantly involved in its ongoing processes. We exercise our dominion as partners with God. We work with God when we support the healing of the earth and we oppose God when we inflict harm on it. The frightening thing about our freedom to act either in harmony or in opposition with God is that the survival of life on the planet is at stake.
When we ponder what kind of dominion we will exercise, the first question that should pop to mind is not "How can I use this power to my advantage?" but rather: "How can I exercise this power in Christ-like ways?" God urges us to carefully consider how we can preserve and protect, renew and restore God's amazing creation. If we pollute the air, if we contaminate the water, if we destroy the forests, if we waste the precious resources, we ought to be haunted by the prophetic words of Chief Seattle spoken 150 years ago: "The earth is precious to God and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator." As people of faith, we not only need to care about the environment, we should have a reverence for it. The earth is a living creation of God that has taken 4.5 billion years to reach the present stage. What a tragedy if we abuse it to the point that it can no longer support life.
There is a small book entitled Children's Letters to God, and as the title might suggest, there are some priceless comments to be found in it. One little boy named Dennis writes: "Dear God, my Grandpa says you were around when he was a little boy. How far back do you go?" A little girl named Joyce wrote to God for some clarification: "Dear God, thank you for my baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy. What went wrong?"
In their naive and innocent way, children can make cute comments by virtue of their misunderstandings. However, sometimes their naive remarks help to clarify the key issues when adults have missed the mark.
A few years ago the Secretary of the Interior for the United States was focused on endangered species. He listened to ranchers, farmers, conservationists, politicians, scientists, medical doctors and average citizens. He hired biologists and ecologists to conduct research on the subject. He said the reasons these people gave for saving endangered species had to do with why various species are useful to humans. Some provide potential cures for diseases, others yield new strains of drought-resistant crops, while some offer a biological method of cleaning up oil spills. He said there were a thousand other justifications as to why species of animals are useful to humans. But he said that none of those reasons were as persuasive to him as the reasons given by some children in California who were asked to respond to this basic question, "Why save endangered species?"
One child responded, "Because we will be lonely without them." A child named Gabriel answered simply, "Because God gave us the animals." And one child wrote, "Because they're a part of our lives. If we didn't have them, it would not be a complete world. God put them on earth to be enjoyed, not destroyed."6
The earth belongs to God, but God has put us in charge of managing its precious resources. There are countless things each of us can do. We can recycle, we can be mindful not to waste water, we can keep a close eye on our thermostats, we can drive fewer miles, we can abandon the use of plastic bags, we can quit buying bottled water which is more expensive than gasoline and many of the brands are not as pure as tap water. We can encourage our public policy makers to form laws that protect the environment and move us toward clean energy. Today, commit yourself to one new effort that you can do to care for God's creation.
God has given us a hefty task that has become a formidable challenge in the 21st Century.
May our intelligence, our creativity and most importantly, our love for God guide us in our awesome assignment.
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