Religion and Ecology

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Rev. Nancy Petty, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church
Raleigh, North Carolina
June 7, 2009
Available online at: http://www.pullen.org/page/religion-and-ecology

Text: Isaiah 6:1-8

While in Oxford I attended a worship service in which the bishop began his sermon with the words, “Most of you know that I usually don’t stick to the scripture when I preach. However, today will be different.” Immediately, he had my attention. I thought, “Is that an option, to not stick to the scripture?” At least in my mind-and I am aware that you might have a different opinion-I always try to stick to the scripture. I do so, mainly, because I love exploring the stories of our faith, but also because I think that is what I am supposed to do. But now this bishop had given me something new to think about.

I thought of the bishop’s words again as I began thinking about this meditation. I have chosen a text for our reading today: Isaiah 6:1-8. It is a beautiful text and I have every intention to make a connection to it at the end of this meditation. But for all practical purposes, I will not be sticking to the Isaiah text this morning as I focus my thoughts on religion and ecology. What I want to do this morning is simply offer how I think religion, specifically Christianity, has both enabled and impeded (blessed and cursed) our thinking and acting in caring for God’s creation.

I begin with how I think religion has gotten in our way or harmed our thinking and acting when it comes to how we have cared for creation. Our sacred scriptures begin: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good…”And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together God called Seas. And God saw that it was good. This process continued, as God created vegetation; plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit; then seasons setting forth days and years; and the waters and sky and earth bringing forth living creatures. And God declared it all good. With the living creatures now in place, our sacred story continues, “THEN 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.”

“And let them have dominion over…” With these words, thus began the struggle for people of faith to understand what it means for humankind to “have dominion over” all that God created. I start here because in so many ways this story, the creation story, and specifically this phrase, is foundational to what we believe about ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. God knows and we know that the church throughout its history has taught this story in ways that have been destructive to both creation and humanity. While we may now know that it is not true, most of us were taught that in the creative order humans were placed above, were better than, and more important than all other aspects of creation. Our theological orientation has been to believe that our needs as humans are more important than anything else; and that everything else God created was simply there for our using. Maybe you think I am overstating that, but I wonder. Especially, if we are willing to take an honest look at how we humans have treated the natural world: raping our rainforests for development, stripping our mountains for coal, trading our clean air and flowing streams so big energy corporations can make more money. What is interesting to me is that every definition for the word dominion that I looked up has in it the words control and power. And this is exactly how the church has interpreted and taught the 26th verse of the very first chapter of the Bible. Yes, it only took twenty-six verses for us to zero in on the issue that humanity is still obsessed with control and power. I wonder why the church didn’t teach us that when God gave us dominion over all that God had created, that what that meant was that God believed in our goodness so much that God was willing to entrust us with the care for everything else that God had made. I wonder, why the church didn’t teach us that dominion over really means responsibility and care, trust and partnership-not power over and control of. Surely, God weeps at how humans have interpreted what it means to “have dominion over.” And surely, it is time for the church, for all people of faith, to rethink what the sacred words of scripture really mean when they say that God gave humankind “dominion over all creation.” It is time for the church to teach that it means responsibility and care, trust and partnership.

I will simply mention two other teachings from the church, and notice I didn’t say from the Bible, that has harmed our thinking as people of faith in terms of what it means to care for creation. First, the fact that the church’s theology has placed God elsewhere-somewhere up there and out there in the sky-instead of right here with us, has separated us from the truth that God’s presence is visible in everything we can see. God is not elsewhere, invisible to our eyes. No, God is right here: changing with the seasons, growing with the maple, dancing with the willows, raging with the sea, and brushing against our skin as the wind. God is here, grounded in all that is. Think about that-God is as close to you as the wind and the trees and the ground on which you stand.

The last teaching I want to challenge is the notion that God only exists in some spiritual dimension. The harm we have done to ourselves and creation by perpetuating this lie may be one of the most harmful teachings of the church; for it has separated us not only from creation-the natural world-but from our very selves. Even though we may have matured into a place of believing that God cares about both the spiritual and the physical, many of us were taught (and those old tapes are hard to turn off) the belief that God only cares about spiritual matters. Furthermore, we were taught that the physical and material things of this world are, at the least, a distraction to what is spiritually important and significant. In such thinking there is the message, not just that God is only concerned with the spiritual aspect of a person, but that the world is dangerous and temporal and away from, not toward, God. This teaching has been abusive to our spiritual nature for it has left us feeling alienated from the physical aspects of this world and the very bodies in which our spirit resides. The truth that the church did not and is not telling is this: God is not just experienced in the spiritual; God is also experienced in the physical nature of our existing, our being, and our relating to each other and our world. Maybe, just maybe, there is no separation between what is physical and what is spiritual. And maybe, for creation’s sake, it is time for the church to rethink how we talk about what is spiritual.

So, if these are some of the teachings that get in our way of how we think about creation and caring for creation, what from our faith do we have to stand on that blesses or enables us to care for the natural world? I return to Genesis and the creation story. After speaking each element of creation into being and declaring it all good, we are told that God believed in us so much that God entrusted us with the care for all that God had created. From the very beginning, God invited us to care for that which God had birthed. And God is still inviting us to do so. If we choose to accept God’s invitation, we then become co-creators with God; thus honoring that we are indeed created in the image of God. Another truth from our faith that affirms the work of caring for creation is that God continually chose creation through which to reveal God’s self: a burning bush, the parting of waters, manna from heaven. Today, God is still choosing creation through which to reveal God’s self. And maybe the most important thing that is required of us is that we open our eyes and hearts and make ourselves present to all the ways that God is constantly being revealed in our natural world. How do we do that? Richard Rohr answers that question when he writes: “God is already present. God’s spirit is dwelling within you. You cannot search for what you already have. You cannot talk God into “coming” into you…all you can do is become quieter, smaller, and less filled with your own self and its flurry of ideas and feelings. Then God will be obvious in the very now of things.”

The week before my friend Bonnie Stone died I said to her, “Wherever you go next, you better find a way to let me know that you are still with me. I don’t care how you do it but I need to know that somehow, in some way you are still present in this world.” After a good laugh at my request, she gave me her promise that if she could, she would. Each morning, following Bonnie’s death, as I would sit outside missing my friend, I began to notice a cardinal that would show up and sit with me. I didn’t think much about it until weeks later when Clare, Bonnie’s daughter, brought over a present that she said her mom had already bought as a Christmas present for Vickie and me. Later that day I unwrapped the present to find two linen hand towels with beautiful red cardinals embroidered on them. Now, each time I see a cardinal I am mindful that Bonnie’s spirit lives on through God’s creation. Even as I say it, it sounds a bit odd-to even presume that the birds of the air are letting me know that my friend is still with me. But I can’t help the fact that each time I see a cardinal flying about in this world, I feel connected to God and to my friend in a way that both comforts and grounds me. Like me, you may find this story a bit odd, but this I know: if we can raise our awareness of our connectedness to all of creation-from the birds of the air, to the fish in the sea, to the air we breathe, and the wind that blows-we will experience God’s presence in ways that we have yet to imagine. But in order to do so, we must be willing to rethink what our faith has taught us about what it means to have dominion over something. For these times in which we are living it may be the most important justice work to which we are called as people of faith-to figure out our relationship to and with creation. And to that work, God is still asking the question, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”


This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith.  We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality.  This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.

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Chris Liu-Beers, Former Program Associate Chris Liu-Beers, Former Program Associate

Chris worked on immigrant rights, farmworker justice, sustainability, worship resources, and the Council's website. He left the Council in 2014 to run Tomatillo Design, a company that builds affordable websites for nonprofits.

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