Creation: care or dominion?

Sermon 16th February 2020, Worcester College Oxford
2nd Sunday before Lent: Genesis 1.1 – 2.3 & Matthew 6.25-34

Our readings tonight invite us to think about the relationship between Creator and creation, the place of the human person within this relationship, and therefore also our attitude towards creation. Particularly in a weekend in which the UK is battered by another storm, of course climate change comes to mind, so this may be a good moment to reflect on the way in which we live in this world. Although I believe that we urgently need to change our behaviour and that Christians should be at the forefront of this change, I also believe that it is not too late, and so our message can be a message of hope, rather than one of desperation.

creation

Within Christianity, there has been a wide range of different approaches to the way in which we treat the world in which we live. Each of them is the result of a particular theological and cultural understanding of the relationship between God and His creation. Through progress in the sciences, our understanding of the world has deepened and widened, as well as our understanding of the place of the human person within the world. These scientific insights have impacted also on the question how we should treat our surroundings.

I’d like to highlight just a couple of the approaches to show how our understanding has changed. However, what I would like to point out is that any faithful Christian understanding must acknowledge that all creation is God-given, and therefore somehow ‘good’, as we hear God saying  in our first reading this evening, from the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. We hear how God creates the world in six days, resting on the seventh and after each day concludes that what He sees is ‘good’.

Most Christians nowadays would agree that the story in Genesis is a mythical account of creation, emphasising the truth that God is the creator of the ‘heavens and the earth’, of ‘all that is, seen and unseen’, rather than a historical account of how the earth and its inhabitants came into being. In this passage, we also encounter the phrase in which God has given us, human beings, ‘dominion’ over the earth, or the power to subdue it, in other translations. Some scholars claim this to have led to an attitude of human superiority, which is at the root of our current ecological crisis.

However, more modern interpretations of this passage in Genesis emphasises the responsibility that proper dominion entails. For example, in the most recent statement of Pope Francis on the matter, he writes:

Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.

Note the difference between ‘dominion’ and ‘domination’. Another way of putting it may be to say that it is our purpose to look after creation, rather than our prerogative to use and abuse it.

The reading from Matthew’s Gospel, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, addresses its original hearers with familiar language. The belief that it was not worth worrying about the body was prevalent in the Hellenistic culture at the time. Following the dualism that the philosopher Plato had introduced, many people believed that anything material was to be despised. The body was, Plato said, to be seen at the prison of the soul. Anything that was good and pure belonged to the worlds of the immaterial, the world of the Ideas. For him, there was nothing good about the created world, and so not much point to care for it either.

Jesus seems to start very much along the lines of the dualism I have just sketched: don’t worry about your body. However, he then doesn’t continue by saying that it is only the soul that matters, as his listeners may have expected, but rather he says that God will provide: God will give us all that we need.

On a superficial reading, these words may invite a complacent attitude to life: don’t worry, God will provide. Yet, that would be misunderstanding the message entirely. Because it is important to note that Jesus here does not say ‘do not care’ or ‘do not try’, but he says ‘do not worry’. He says ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ and then all the other things will come, they will be given. However, we do need to ‘strive’.

Jesus tells his disciples, tells us, that we need to get our priorities right and indeed ‘strive’ for the kingdom of God, and then we don’t have to worry. What ‘the kingdom of God’ precisely is, would be a whole sermon in itself, or even more than that, and so there is no short answer. However, most scholars agree that Jesus himself showed us what the kingdom of God may look like; it is not only a vision about a future state of the world, but something that we should strive for in this world.

In the context of creation, maybe one could say that the kingdom of God is the restored circle of life, redeemed creation: something that indeed we cannot have fully until the future, but which we can see already in Christ.

Martin Luther expressed it as follows:

Christ […] fills all things […]. Christ is around us and in us in all places […] he is present in all creatures, and I might find him in stone, in fire, in water, or even in a rope, for he certainly is there […].

In this approach, we can see Christ, not just in other human beings, made in God’s image, but in all of creation, made out of God’s love. This view of creation comes with an inherent appreciation of its beauty and a sense of thankfulness to its creator.

That approach to creation, that it is an outpouring of God’s love, inspires in us a sense of both gratitude and responsibility. It is when understand that we and all creation are a sign of God’s love, that we begin to realise that indeed we have enough, and that we can and should appreciate what we have.

This is a message that the world needs to hear: we don’t need more and more, but we have what we need – if we care to share our resources. It is possibly too late to say that we can say that we don’t need to worry, but I am certain that we can be hopeful, because we do believe in a God who has the power to forgive and to redeem, not just us, but all creation. So let us as individuals, as Christians and as a community and a Church strive to sustain and renew the life of the earth by committing to a sustainable lifestyle and a thankful attitude. Then indeed, we can trust and hope not to worry.

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