First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
September 22, 2019
“Living Into the Sixth Day”
Part 1 of a series on “Be The Church: Protect the Environment”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Genesis 1:26-31 (NRSV)
26Then 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.” 27So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female he created them. 28God 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.”
29God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
31God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
It begins as the coming together of small creeks and springs in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota. By the time the Iowa River reaches the Mississippi, south of Muscatine, it has flowed through marshes, farm fields, rock cliffs, and cities. It has spilled over dams and been channeled under county roads, state highways and an interstate. When we dropped off my youngest daughter at her dorm room at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, it was comforting to see the Iowa River flowing through a park across the street. We would still have this physical connection through nature. The Iowa River also flowed through the town where I was currently serving, some 150 miles or so upstream. Several times while she was attending college, my imagination sent good wishes to her through that river.
Years later, my eldest daughter’s work took her to Iowa City as well as she began her career as an environmental scientist for the US Geological Survey. She would be literally studying the stuff that flowed with the waters of that river as it made it’s way across the state and into the Mississippi. Unfortunately, as people who study such things have known for a very long time, the waters of the earth, including the Iowa River, carry much more than well wishes.
We carry within us the poetic account of creation from Genesis one. It’s a beautiful, powerful account fashioned around a rhythm of movement from one state of being to another, each stage advancing in harmony with the previous. A beginning of darkness, then the addition of light, then the separation of light and dark into night and day and the lights to rule over each, capped in a declaration of goodness at the end of the day. Water… water, water everywhere … until a dome was created to hold the waters of the sky and land brought forth to hold the waters of the earth. Plants and trees and all kinds of things with seeds and fruit. Now we’re at day three and it’s still good, very good.
You know how the rest goes: living creatures in the sea and on the land and in the skies. More days. More goodness.
Then, well into the sixth day, human beings. And this is where the rhythm of the poetry shifts. Instead of God just coming up with some pretty creative stuff and making it happen and then moving on to the next great thing, God does something a bit different and puts a bit more of the divine likeness into what happens next. Now, there’s going to be a creature that will carry more than a divine will for just its existence. These creatures, these humans, will carry within them the divine will to resemble their creator – to be like God in some fashion. Not so much physically, but in purpose. As such, they become mortal extensions of God’s dominion.
Well into the sixth day, probably sometime after lunch and a bit of a rest, God decided it was time to wrap this whole creation stuff up. And creates humans with a divine likeness. God speaks to the human, which is unlike anything that had happened with any other part of creation. Those divine words put the humans into a relationship, not just with the God but with creation itself. And the relationship is one of responsibility. Unlike any of the rest of creation, this aspect had a purpose – the care of creation.
All that God had created through God’s dominion and creative will is entrusted to the humans. The Earth Creatures that bear divine likeness and therefore, carry the divine responsibility to care for all that had been created before them.
The word that we end up with after years of oral translation and then years of scholarship to move the story from ancient Hebrew to modern English is the word “dominion.” And that’s a tough one when it comes to thinking about protecting the environment because it can so easily become dominate instead of dominion. I know they sound very close together and it might feel like splitting hairs but sometimes a hair makes a big difference.
We have to remember that before humans were told to have dominion over creation, they/we were created in God’s likeness. We were created to be like God as caretakers of creation. We were created to care for the goodness of all that had been created before us: the water, the air, the land, the plants, the animals…. Even the sun and the moon and the stars. As the image of God, humans are to relate to the non-human aspects of all of creation as God relates to them: an expression of goodness. Dominion in the story of creation isn’t about taking the creation and doing with it what we want. Dominion is about preserving what has been created as an extension of God’s dominion. We are not the ultimate owners of all that is around us. It belongs to God. The Psalmist puts it, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness therein.”
The other word that often trips us up a is “subdue.” Coming from a time when people literally got their life from the earth, the word that ends up “subdue” has to do with cultivation, not conquering or overcoming. Back in the day when the creation story was first being told, cultivating the earth was very hard and it was only done enough to sustain. Subduing the earth or cultivating it was about broadening the goodness of creation, never exploiting it. So much of human expansion around the globe has been in the spirit of taming the wild and overcoming the savage. We are learning more deeply how devastating an attitude of domineering and subduing has on all of creation: the land, water, air and animals. Even cultures, peoples, ethnicities and races are impacted by how we live into this call to subdue the earth. When we shift into a sense of cultivating, there’s a broader sense of care.
And it goes even deeper than that. How we understand what it means to have dominion and subdue also impacts our relationship with God. If we treat that which has come from God with carelessness and exploitation, what does that say about how we feel about the one who created it? What does that say about how we feel about the one who created us? On the flip side, how do we feel when we recognize that our very creation in the likeness of God, connects us to all of creation as extensions or representatives of the one who brought it all into being? What does it mean that our very purpose is not just for our own good and the well-being of those who come after us, but is about the care of creation? How do we live into these ancients commands handed out with everything else that took place on the sixth day?
It’s a hard thing to go back to those early days of innocence and pristine beauty and try to “fix” everything that’s impacted it. It seems like each decade has a new awareness of how our own creativity has and can reek havoc on the original creation. The burning of wood took away the trees, the burning of coal polluted the air, plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces and end up in the weirdest places, the processes to create the metals that make life so much better and even help us live longer have repercussions. The river of life indeed carries all kinds of things with it from one person and place to another. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be.
We can use the very rhythm of creation and go a step at a time, pause, look and see goodness. We can claim more deeply the divine charge of seeing ourselves as individuals, a church, a community as caretakers of creation. It’s part of what we were created to do. It’s part of who we were created to be.
In your bulletins is an insert with lots of things we can go about doing to be the church and protect creation. Some of them are actual “things to do.” Others are ways we can educate ourselves about our impact in the world. I’m asking that you take these home with you and use them. Recycle your bulletins here if you don’t want to take them home but don’t leave these behind, even to be recycled. Take them with you and put them where you can sit down with them and consider taking just one or two into your daily practice or reflection or study. And once you have one down, pick up another and another. Share them with others. And be the church. Protect the environment. Live into the sixth day of creation and be the human being that God has created you to be.