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St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church
Lent 1 and Creation Series 7
February 26, 2012
Genesis 9:8-17; Ps. 104:1-24; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
We come now to the last in our series of creation stories, and to the beginning of Lent. Over the last 6 Sundays we’ve looked at what Scripture has to say about God as Creator, the character of creation, and the character of humanity. We’ve seen how diverse these accounts are, how they vary in emphasis, and how each one adds depth to our understanding. I hope at the very least we have all come to a place where we no longer look to Genesis 1 alone to inquire into the nature of God as creator and God’s relationship to creation. A closer look at scripture reminds us that none of these passages stands on its own; it is all part of the canon, rich and diverse and ultimately mysterious.
We’ve looked at these seven accounts both by examining their original context, what they would have said to their original audience in their time and place, and also by looking at contemporary scientific understandings. We’ve seen where science and our contemporary understanding can challenge scripture. Both science and Ecclesiastes recognize the cycles of nature, but science helps us to see those cycles, not as wearisome sameness and vanity, but as a gift, a recognition of nature’s fecund and glorious productivity. There is also the garden story in Genesis 2, which has been interpreted to blame suffering in the world on human sin. But science shows us that much of what constitutes suffering in nature cannot be attributed to humans; it just simply is. But Genesis 2 reminds us of how humanity grows up from its falling down, “about its ‘falling forward’ into moral consciousness through painful transitions.” (i)
We’ve also seen where scripture and science come together. The Book of Job and Psalm 104 remind us of the natural world’s marvelous diversity. Biology, genetics and ecology remind us of the importance of that diversity for the flourishing of Life. Second Isaiah talks about the God who is “about to do a new thing,” and creation as ongoing, and resonates powerfully with the scientific principle of emergence. A subtext to all of this is that our own inquiry is never fixed — one hopes! We’ve seen how both science and scripture share a degree of ambiguity, if not mystery. (ii) We continue to engage scripture, new understandings and insights from the sciences, and our experience in the world to seek to grow in understanding of God, our fellow creatures, and our own place and purpose on this earth. That work is never finished.
There is enough diversity and complexity in all of this that we can get tangled up in the weeds and miss the big picture. There are some overarching connections and insights. Taken together, and to some degree even separately, we see that these scriptural pillars of creation, and today’s texts, shed some light on the nature of God as creator, and the nature of humans.
Genesis 9 has long been an important scripture passage for understanding earth relationship. This is the passage after the flood, when only Noah, his family and his ark full of animals remains. I would note, because it’s important, that scripture is clear that the sin that caused God to cover the earth in a flood was violence. Violence is a clear indicator of broken relationship. And, note what is said in this covenant. God says I make this covenant with you [Noah] and with every living creature … the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth….” “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood…” “I make this [Covenant with] you and every living creature of all flesh;” “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” In this short text, creatures other than humans are mentioned seven times. This is a covenant with all creation.
If Genesis 9 is seen as God’s covenant with creation, Psalm 104 stands as a testament to God’s joy in creation. In some ways it parallels the Book of Job and God’s whirlwind tour of the universe. And so we have joy and covenant. Both reveal God’s desire for a mutuality and harmony in the totality of a blessed creation.
The scriptural pillars of creation and today’s gospel tell us something important about the nature of humanity and humanity’s place in the world. Through them we see a picture of being human that is two-fold, even paradoxical. Two natures in tension. We are creatures of the earth, adama, earthling, a creature among many. We made of the dust. And, we are also set apart for particular service and responsibility. This has been described as “stewardship and servanthood,” or “kingship and kinship.” We acknowledge one and not the other to our peril. We focus on our separateness, our unique place and creation and we think it’s all about us, which has led to dominion and exploitation without humility or recognizing the necessity of limits. If we see ourselves as creatures only, we fail to use our ingenuity and creativity, to see our ability to change and learn and grow, and to work in community to reverse the destruction wrought by human hands. We are servants, creatures, subject to nature’s laws. We are stewards with responsibility to apply ourselves and all we’ve got to the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. By this we understand God’s covenant in Genesis 9 as not only God’s promise to creation, but also as a model for human conduct. It is a covenant that calls on the human community to work in consort on behalf of all creation. (iii)
A creative reading of the Gospel’s wilderness stories can also provide some insights into human’s place in the world. While the Mark version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness that we heard is a bit short on detail, the parallel passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke describe three temptations of Jesus. 1. Command these stones to become loaves of bread. 2. Throw yourself down from this pinnacle, for God will surely save you. 3. Worship Satan and all the power in the world will be yours. What if we understood these as not only the temptations of Jesus, but our temptations too? And what if we looked at them not just in a human-centric way, but in an eco-centric way? What if we saw them as guides for us in how to live and not to live in the world?
“Turn these stones into bread.” We might understand this as the temptation to ignore the natural laws and cycles of the earth. To set ourselves apart. (Didn’t some famous Nobel Prize winning scientist once suggest that we don’t have to worry about the earth, that pretty soon we’ll be able to transport ourselves to another planet?) Contemporary scientists and ethicists are reminding us that we need to live within nature’s laws if we are to survive. We have to stop taking more out of the earth’s crust – oil, heavy metals — than the earth can assimilate. We have to be precautionary before we create and unleash new toxins or substances (like GMOs) into the world we have no ability to unmake. We need to recognize that earth’s systems – oceans, forests, wetlands, sand dunes, rain forests, the atmosphere – have important functions for the well-being of all life and those functions need to be maintained and not disrupted. Recognize yourselves as creatures of the earth, see the earth as habitat. Don’t turn stones into bread.
“Throw yourself off a parapet because God will save you.” There’s the arrogance and the hubris. Acting irresponsibly. We have some special place and God will save us from ourselves. Is throwing ourselves off a parapet in God’s plan? Why are we putting God to the test? God’s joy is in all creation, and God desires the flourishing of all life.
“Worship Satan [or some other false idol] and all earthly power will be yours.” This is a no-brainer. We’ve gotten off track in our relationships with each other and with the rest of the natural world. We’ve sought our own material and short-term gain, we over-consume. We put our happiness in material things. We fail to put our trust in God and trust that God is bringing all things to God’s good purposes.
To turn these three temptations on their head and into positive guides for how to live on this earth, we might say that they remind us that we are creatures and need to live within nature’s limits, that we need to discern and apply ourselves to God’s plan for the flourishing of all life, and to use our power and creativity appropriately and with love and care.
Jesus resisted these temptations. Jesus chose to live in solidarity with human beings, into the precariousness and vulnerability of daily existence, to put his trust in God. He refused the way of power, and chose instead to be a servant. (iv) As ever, he points the way to living in right relationship with God, creation, and each other. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…”
And so as we begin Lent, we might skip giving up desserts, and instead focus on understanding ourselves as ecological beings, to seek to love the world as God does, to honestly examine the habits and practices that are damaging relationships with each other and the earth. Looking at science and scripture together, we note again that while science can tell us a lot about the what and the how of creation, it can’t tell us why. It can explain the root causes of the ecological crisis and project trends. But it is faith that calls us to repent, to see into the larger mind, to recognize our deep connection to all life, and to live in solidarity with each other and with all life. We should apply ourselves to this task as though our lives depended on it. Because, in fact, they well might.
i William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 225.
ii Brown, 224.
iii Brown, 234.
iv Martin L. Smith, A Season for the Spirit: Readings for the Days of Lent (New York: Seabury Classics, 2004), 11-14.