12 God said, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I am drawing up between me and you and every living thing with you, on behalf of every future generation. 13 I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. 16 The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I have set up between me and all creatures on earth.” (Genesis 9:12-17 Common English Bible)
Today is Earth Day, that day of the year that we remember our responsibility for the world in which we live. Earth Day was established after the 1969 oil spill that devastated the coastline of Santa Barbara, California (a community my family called home for ten years). First observed on April 22, 1970, the need for such an observance is no less important today than it was four decades ago. In fact, we may be in greater need now than we’ve been in decades for such a reminder. Even as many have become greener, there are forces that would have us walk back from the successes of these past decades.
I led with the reading from Genesis 9. This is a part of the story of Noah, after the flood recedes, and God makes a covenant, not just with Noah and his family, but with every living creature. The bow (rainbow) in the sky is a promise that God will not again destroy the creation. I lead with it because it includes all of creation, reminding us that God is concerned about every living thing.
In Genesis 1, the first creation story, God creates humanity – male and female – in God’s image, and charges humanity with the responsibility to take charge of the earth, to master it. The word dominion has often been used in this regard, but too often this usage has given license to use the creation in any way one sees fit. In fact, there have been many theological defenses offered in support of just this idea. The idea that we should become green is seen by some in the Christian community as dabbling in nature religion, and thus to be avoided.
I take a different view. I believe that a more responsible interpretation of the Genesis charge is to speak of stewardship. Yes, humanity is given the opportunity to make use of creation, but in a way that is responsive to God’s concern for the entirety of creation. What we need then is an ethic that holds all of creation to be sacred and worthy of our attention. If we do so, then we as human beings will be the beneficiaries. The habitat in which we share life with the rest of creation requires care, if we are to experience its blessings.
Evangelical ethicist David Gushee has written a book entitled The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World's Future, (Eerdmans 2013). In his treatise on God’s divinely conferred sacredness for human life, he invites us to consider how God has extended this to the rest of creation. He writes:
The evidence is clear all around us that as we care for God’s creation well, we care for each other well, and sadly, the reverse is also true. Human beings are permanently and inextricably connected to other creatures and the rest of the creation. We may be the planetary servant-leaders, but our story is the story of those we lead, our destiny intertwined with theirs, from creation to the end of time. (p. 409).
Those who join me in a confession of faith that commands us to love God and love our neighbor, should, I believe, desire to hear the message of Earth Day. We do not worship the Earth, but we are its stewards. By taking good care of it, we honor God the Creator and we honor our neighbor, both human and nonhuman, with whom we share this earth.
Teach us once again to be gardeners in peace;
All nature around us is ours but on lease;
Your name we would hallow in all that we do,
Fulfilling our calling, creating with you.
(“For Beauty of Meadows,” Walter Farquharson, 1969, Chalice Hymnal, 696, vs. 3)